Edited 16/04/12: Editing complete. Additional thanks to Sumiregawa Nenene for pointing out a number of errors and issues.
Edited 25/09/11: Formatting, grammar fixes.

Disclaimer: Do not own, spoilers for all seasons, and diverts from the end of A's (excluding epilogue).

Several things to be noted, the foremost being: yuri goggles should probably be put aside. This is also a very, very long story; so you may want to allocate some time and settle down comfortably before reading. And if hearing songs is your kind of thing to do while reading, by all means, I do encourage you to pick up the song to hear.

Okay. If you're ready, carry on. I hope you enjoy reading this. :)

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Circuit Clout
"..beyond this outstretched finger, the light of the first star shines.."
- 'Ichiban Boshi,' Sachi Tanaka.

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click.

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(penult)

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Year 78.

"Haa.."

White mist escapes from her lips.

It's really cold.

"Fate-chan!"

She blinks, then glances backwards and up, to the direction of that voice from where she had one knee pressed to the soft snow on the ground.

Bright, shining blue eyes, with a hint of violet - and hair like hazel, long and ruffling.

The blonde feels a smile curling on her lips, almost immediately. She stops fiddling with the lenses of the camera sitting on the tripod, and stands.

Under the midnight sky, that halo of soft silver light...

"Nanoha."

There is something so completely ethereal about that sight where soft light soaked into white and blue, and it makes her feel as if there's something caught in her throat.

Her friend is beautiful.

And she's suddenly tackled to the ground. It doesn't hurt as much as it surprises her, because the floor is blanketed with snow.

"Na - Nanoha!"

She can feel the cold melting snow on her face, and on her clothes.

On top of the snow that scattered when she was tackled - it has started snowing, again.

"I missed you."

That muffled statement from Nanoha is as sudden as it is quiet. The brunette's pressed against her, face hidden in her shoulder as the grip tightens.

It makes something clench in her chest.

Her hand lifts to brush away snow that's gathering on top of hazel hair.

"I missed you too," she murmurs back.

.. .. ..

"Here. Some coffee to warm you up."

Nanoha nods absently, reaching for the paper cup from where she's sitting on the cold bench. She's still engrossed in toggling the photos.

"Thank you, Fate-ch - oh hey...this picture..." her friend trails off.

"Hmm?" She sips at her own coffee.

"I..." the brunette pauses. "I really don't know how to describe it, but...I love this picture, Fate-chan."

"Which?"

"This one, this one."

She peers over Nanoha's shoulder from where she sits beside her on the bench, the brunette pointing at the blue screen in front of her.

An oasis. With white sand.

A little puppy - white fur stained with dirt and rubble - by the edge of the pool, lapping at the water; children, all with varying degrees of dirt stuck on their faces and skin, with expressions of utter joy as if it was the first signs of water they had seen in a long time - and the cool, transparent water that splashed up into the air and sparkled -

There is nothing extraordinary with the picture.

But it's so simple in its joy.

She remembers that place well.

It's a place with a harsh environment where many would perish, and few would survive. It's not just because there's limited food and water. Nor is it just because it's a desert of a planet. It's because this is a planet whose civilization is still struggling to recover from a devastating war that still haunts them.

She smiles, a little.

"I'm glad you liked it. There are a couple more pictures of that planet, if you want to see."

"Oh? I dooo!"

"Alright." Her hand reaches over to tap at the screen, and faintly, she could smell the scent that she recognizes as her friend's.

It comforts her, for reasons she can't name.

She toggles until she finds the one picture she wants to show.

It's a picture she took for her. A picture that she took because it reminded her of Nanoha.

Red canyons that cleaves a clear path in the middle to the sky that looks as if it's on fire, and birds that are too far to discern that they seem black in color from the photo - flying into the reddening sun -

A dry, dry, hot land...

She remembers parched throat, dry, brittle rations that threatens to choke her, and the hot sun that burns her skin as much as it blinds her; a planet that's more white and red and orange than it is green.

And she has seen so many heartbreaking things on that planet that it makes her want to cry.

So why - for a place that's so harsh and cruel to live in - is it so beautiful?

It's so devastating a planet that it's breathtaking in its destruction.

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zéro.
(embark)

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.

Thinking back, it was pure coincidence.

Her elbow had knocked over a photography book - which slid open as it dropped to the ground.

And a photo in it caught her attention.

It wasn't anything spectacular.

But it caught her attention.

For a ten year old Fate T. Harlaown, that was the beginning of when her life would change, little by little.

The photographer that took the photo left no caption for it, as if the picture would speak for itself.

And perhaps, in a strange way, it did.

There were wooden planks stretching past the shore and into the sea in the photo, the soft, dusky sky, and the hidden sun you'll never realize was there without its bright, glittering reflection on the dark sea.

It reminded her of the skies in her childhood home, with Linith...and Precia.

"Fate?"

She startled, glancing up to meet Lindy's curious gaze.

"Lin - k - Kaa-san."

Lindy smiled, and there was something - something that she could not identify - that was shining in her adoptive mother's gaze.

Later, Fate would ask Nanoha about it, and learn that it was actually joy shining in that gaze despite the brunette's fumbling as she attempted to explain it.

(And it would take a while more for her to actually understand why.)

Fate felt herself flush awkwardly.

She bent down to pick up the book and inspected it, more to avoid having to look at her than anything else.

It was a book with a dark blue gloss, with a title in bold that simply said, 'Life.'

The blonde turned a page.

Stared.

Then turned again.

Stared.

Quite that suddenly...she was enraptured.

There were all sorts of sceneries, all sorts of captions; of animals, insects, river, people, the sky...

And they were breathtaking.

They made something stir in her.

Lindy's phone rang, startling her again, and she glanced up.

"Ah, Chrono." A pause. "Alright, we will be back soon."

The phone flipped shut.

"We've to go now," the older woman picked up the book from Fate's hands gently.

She blinked.

"Are there any other books you would like to buy?"

She blinked again, and then stammered when she realized what Lindy meant; her adoptive mother was going to purchase the book for her. "Uh - um...it's okay. I don't need that - "

"Haiii, let's go ring this then!" Lindy pivoted, and walked straight to the counter.

"L - Ka -Kaa-san, it's okay - !"

"I don't hear anything~"

.. .. ..

Later, Lindy would ask:

"Are you interested in photography?"

She answered honestly; she had never thought about it. There had been no time to think about anything but the jewel seeds.

And for a moment, she had wondered if she imagined the sadness flickering on Lindy's face, but it was gone before she could be sure.

The older woman then rephrased her question with a smile. "Do you think you'll be interested in photography?"

She didn't know.

She just knew that the photos she saw in that book enraptured her.

Every now and then, she would find herself flipping through the book, just to stare at them.

On Christmas later that year, Lindy would be the one to give her the first camera she would ever own.

Fate would find herself using the camera frequently, snapping all sorts of photos, and storing precious memories in still pictures that would come to mean so much to her.

Not much later, Amy would install various photography softwares onto Bardiche, and set up a dark room for her to process photographs.

(And Chrono would be the one to fill her bookshelf with photography books.)

.. .. ..

Soon after, even her friends would comment:

"You've been taking a lot of photos recently." Arisa lifted a brow.

"Do you want to be a photographer?" Suzuka asked, tilting her head curiously.

Did she?

"I don't know," she would admit, looking down at the camera. "I don't really.."

What did she want to be? Quite frankly, she didn't know. She didn't like to think about it, because it never failed to make her feel lost. She liked taking photographs, but she just...she didn't know.

She said she'd move forward, didn't she? To start. But then - just how...? Nanoha already had a dream that she was trying to achieve, and she had already startedwalking towards it, but what about her?

Fate wasn't like Nanoha, who wanted to convey her own magic to people. And even if she was, TSAB didn't allow ex-convicts into its organization.

What could she be?

Her friends glanced at each other, troubled by her response.

"Oi." Two hands slammed down on the table, startling her, and she jerked backwards when Arisa leaned close enough that they were face to face -

"A-Arisa!"

"You're worrying too much." Arisa frowned.

"Ahaha," Hayate was eyeing them both with hands propped on the table, "it wouldn't be Fate-chan if she didn't, did she?"

"Hmph. If it's not brooding, it's moping cause Nanoha's away on a mission."

"Isn't it the same when it was the other way round?"

"Nanoha-chan and Fate-chan are like peas of a pod," Hayate teased.

The blonde sunk into her chair, cheeks warming.

Oh, what she would give to escape her friends now.

Hayate chuckled. "Maa...it's fine, isn't it, Fate-chan?" Her voice was still humored and warm, but no longer teasing. "That you don't know what you want to be, I mean. You have plenty of time to figure it out, no?"

Now, why didn't that occur to her before?

Before, all she wanted was to fulfill her mother's wish (and the reminder still caused something to tighten in her). She didn't have the luxury or time to think of anything else, or to do anything else. But now...now... she had no wish to work for. Her mother - the adoptive mother of hers - had not asked her for anything, or demanded, or wished...

Would she have done anything to fulfill Lindy's wishes if her adoptive mother had asked that of her?

She probably would have. Perhaps not to the degree of desperation she had felt for Precia, because Lindy wasn't Precia, but she would have tried. Yet, the fact was, Lindy didn't ask; and deep down in her gut, she knew Lindy would never ask that of her even if doubt still lingered in her, so...she had time.

She had time.

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un.
(discontinue)

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When she was eleven, she had felt the ground beneath her shake for the second time.

Her first instinct had been to destroy whatever it was that hurt Nanoha.

Her second was to crumble.

Sometime during this period, she would throw her camera into a wall with a trembling hand and break it.

.. .. ..

Her second camera was bought by Hayate.

This was a month after Nanoha was brought back injured and comatose and near dead, and a couple days after a fight with Signum that the knight instigated.

It was also a fight that injured them so badly that Shamal actually lashed out at them, and one that made Lindy angry at her for the first time.

It made her feel guilty, but she can't bring herself to regret the fight, for it was this fight that shook her out of her stupor, and she had Signum to thank for it.

"You should keep taking photos, Fate-chan."

She tilted her head at Hayate (who was staring out the window), not really understanding what the brunette was getting at - and almost immediately, she winced. The side of her neck still hurt badly.

Not to mention she was still wrapped with bandages all over.

Hayate had turned to quirk an eyebrow at her; apparently the girl had heard her wince. "Are you okay?" Her words were wry. The brunette, too, had not been happy to know about the fight, even if she had understood why it happened.

"Let me see." Her voice was quietly authorative, and Hayate moved to wheel her chair around the bed where Nanoha slept to where Fate sat, probing at the bandage on her neck gently. "It would be bad if you broke the stitches, Fate-chan."

"I'm - I'm okay," she had said, but allowed Hayate to check, anyway - for she knew her fellow friend wouldn't accept that answer regardless of how she tried to convince her. "So, um...why that sudden statement..?"

She fingered the camera that was given to her.

Hayate ignored her question, scrutinizing at the injury until she was satisfied it was still in good condition.

Eventually, though, the brunette spoke; and there was something both sad and gentle in her voice when she did. It reminded her of that one time when the three of them had talked about Reinforce, and Hayate had cried.

"Keep taking photos so that Nanoha-chan won't miss out on any memories we may make, Fate-chan."

Oh.

And that was how it went.

.. .. ..

Five months later, Momoko would request that Nanoha (who had yet to wake up) be relocated back to Uminari General Hospital from Mid-Childa.

It was passed immediately.

This was because, one, there was nothing else Mid-Childa could offer the comatose girl. With their technology and magic, they had completely healed all the injuries (except for one that would linger for a long, long time) that the brunette had, and now, she was just...sleeping.

Second, Shamal would be around, anyway (and her expertise would beat most other doctors); because Hayate would be in Uminari - her knights would be in Uminari. They had been pardoned for their crimes, but it would still be a while more before they have free reign of their movements.

Third, when (not if, not if) Nanoha woke up, there would be nothing Mid-Childa can do, because not even their technology and magic could cure paralysis - for if they could, they would've rid Hayate of her crippled state already.

Fourth, the process of rehabilitation would be similar in either worlds anyway (and Momoko and Shiro had asked about this in detail), so what did it matter?

Fate had seen firsthand how difficult it was for Hayate - and her friend was still undergoing rehabilitation. She could walk, now, but was told to stay off her feet after an hour or three a day.

So what would it mean for Nanoha?

.. .. ..

Snap.

The camera clicked.

A pair of startled green eyes swerved to her immediately upon recognizing the sound.

Arisa Banning reddened further, and the blonde pointed a shaking, accusing finger at Fate.

"You - you - " Arisa growled.

"Oh, my." Suzuka lifted a hand to her lips. "Arisa-chan, don't - "

Arisa lunged.

"GIVE ME THAT!"

Fate did the one thing she wouldn't normally do in the face of a looming adversary.

She ran.

And in her hand, she held a camera that just snapped a photo of a blushing, stammering Arisa and a boy who had his hands out, holding a love letter with Arisa Bannings clearly labeled onto it.

"Fate Testarossa Harlaown!"

.. .. ..

On the tenth month since that incident, Nanoha woke up.

Shortly after, Fate would find herself flying into the sky more and more often, to feel its cold air, to feel the wind, and more importantly...

To take pictures of the sky.

Because, despite her naivety and for all the lack of understanding she had for Nanoha's suffering - there was one thing she knew for certain.

Nanoha loved the sky, and when Fate brought her pictures of the sky, the brunette would inevitably end up either smiling or trembling or crying or hugging her or any combination of them, but there would be a glimmer, a spark - of determination.

But that didn't mean it was always enough.

There was a time when Nanoha broke under the strain, and it just wasn't enough.

This was when she went against everything that was right, startling her mother, making the Takamachi family worried; and went missing for a few days. With Nanoha. She had literally kidnapped the brunette against her wishes.

Nanoha had been difficult to handle.

Fate had brought the girl to her childhood home, Artseim. A place where she once lived in. A place that was bright and green and filled with a sky so blue and white, unlike the Garden of Time that was bleak and black.

A place that was full of memories for her, with Linith and Precia and Arf.

So when Nanoha finally cracked a smile (while in her arms as they soared), she knew it was worth it.

It was worth it.

That didn't mean she wasn't in trouble though, when they finally returned.

Signum had looked fairly amused, proud, even. Arf just grinned and gave her a thumbs up. Chrono had rubbed at the bridge of his nose; he hadn't known how to describe his exasperation and relief. All Yuuno did was smile, squeeze her shoulder gently, and lift his fist towards Nanoha, to which the brunette had grinned widely at before knocking against it with her own fist.

And the Takamachi family hadn't... been happy, no, but they were just as relieved to see an energetic Nanoha.

Lindy was the one to actually ground her.

Hayate just sort of smirked and said nothing else, but it made her flush anyway.

.. .. ..

Snap, the camera went - and the sight of a grinning Hayate and a startled Nanoha riding on Zafira after an exhausting rehabilitation would forever be immortalized in the form of a photo.

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deux.
(osmosis)

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13 October, Year 71.

Nanoha,

How are you? Are your students still giving you trouble? Hang in there! But please remember not to overdo it, too. "Eat properly, sleep properly, and train properly." Those there, Nanoha, were your own words.

And, in response to your mail, I'm fine here. Please don't worry. Arf says hi, too, and that she's going to bring back a bunch of souvenirs for everyone to enjoy. The mission is coming to an end. Two more days, and we will be heading back.

I'll be free, after this mission. No longer obligated to repent for my past crimes. Hayate and the knights have another year to go, don't they? It won't be long, now. Chrono said I'd get paid if I accept any mission asked of me from this point on, if I continue to be a civilian mage contractor. He told me to think about it, but... ah.

It's snowing again. There will be interference in the communication signal if the snowfall gets heavier, so...I'm going to have to cut the mail short. I'm sorry.

But, mm... you know, Nanoha... it's really cold here. It's colder than Uminari. It still amazes me how a civilization survives on a planet like this, but I suppose people are always quick to adapt. And I think you would really like this place. Everywhere I go, it's white. Even the trees look white, with all the snow. And the trees are tall - really, really tall. I wonder if it's because the ground is made of a really incredibly thick layer of snow? Arf tried digging a while ago to see how thick, but she hadn't reached the bottom even after an hour.

It's as if this entire planet is made of white snow, and it's beautiful.

I wish you could see it.

Okay. I think I should go. It's really getting heavier, now. Please send my regards to Arisa, Suzuka and Hayate. And tell Signum that I haven't forgotten our promise to spar when I return.

And I'll see all of you soon. Definitely.

Fate T. Harlaown.

[End Message.]

.. .. ..

"Fate, watch out - !"

Her head snapped up at Arf's sudden cry of warning, and had only bare seconds to raise a barrier.

The explosive, burning heat from the impact on her hastily lifted protection felt like it was going to scorch her black; and she was pushed backwards, slamming back into the snow. It was a sharp contrast to the heat moments ago, and it jerked her.

An inhuman roar reverberated in her ears.

"Stop! Stop it!" Another voice - of a young girl - screamed. "Just run! Please!"

Her hand shook from the impact. Her wrist felt like it was rattled enough that it would break at the slightest touch. Her back was pin and needles, she knew that something had cracked, and she could taste the blood in her mouth.

Fate darted a glance at the frantic, pleading, crying voice - a small girl decked in a long white coat with a hood hiding soft pink bangs, who looked horrified and afraid - before turning her attention back to the large, large white beast in front of her.

A dragon as white as the snow.

Her grip on Bardiche tightened. "Cartridge load," she ordered, coughing, her voice hoarse and raw.

"Cartridge load."

"Don't - you will die!" That girl again. "Don't - please - he won't stop!"

She wanted to console the girl, tell her it's okay, but frankly, there wasn't any time.

It was coming at her again.

She flew, and sped up into the sky, ignoring the throbbing pain all over her.

Arf, try to - she zipped to the side, barely evading a fireball that shot through the clouds, but the heat scorched her all the same.

Fate!

She gasped for breath, grimacing, turning swiftly as its jaw snapped at her - and if she had it in her to curse, she would have, because the jarring pain that stabbed her side as she pivoted almost made her black out. The blonde flew back down to the lower ground. In the sky, the beast had the advantage. At least on ground, in the forest..

Arf, she called again. Try to get that girl to gain control over her beast. Quickly.

On it. Be careful!

The dragon roared again. This roar was longer than any of its previous roars, and fiercer, and harsher.

Her instincts told her she was in danger, but it was the thunderous roar that sent a shiver down her spine and made the hair on her skin stand.

A fireball was heading her way, and by the gods, it was huge enough to envelop the entire path she was on.

There was no way she could escape in time. Not even with Sonic Move.

Fate gritted her teeth.

A pair of slate blue eyes, and a smile as bright as the sun, flashed through her mind. And then her mother - not Precia, but Lindy - came to mind, then her brother; and Fate suddenly wanted to apologize for what she had said about returning soon, because the logical part of her knew that just wasn't going to happen even if she survived this.

But Nanoha wasn't here, and her family wasn't here, so all she could do was offer an apology in her heart, and, looks like I will miss the wedding after all, nii-chan, I'm sorry -

Bardiche was already loading its cartridges, using up the remaining bullets left in it. "Loading all cartridges, Sir."

Fate didn't even have the time to thank her device for its fast thinking. She jerked to an abrupt halt, pivoted, and raised her left hand at the incoming ball of molten fire as a bright gold magic circle flared.

Damn it all, she wasn't about to allow herself to die here and now.

"FATE!" It was a sharp, desperate scream from Arf.

"Friedrich, don't - !"

A flash of light.

Then an explosion, one that shook the forest so hard that the ground was rattled.

And she knew no more.

.. .. ..

She was in a world of pain when she woke up.

Every part of her hurt.

"Don't move, don't move!" A voice - belonging to that of a young girl - begged. "Stay still - I need to - "

Those words barely got through her, in the haze of pain that she was in.

But oh god, it hurt.

Her eyes squeezed shut, and she was gasping for breath like she never had before.

Her body spasmed. It was an involuntary action, even if she tried to remain still. She felt as if every part of her was being pressed against a large, red-hot sizzling metal and -

"No - not again! Stop moving, otherwise it's going to - !"

Fate let out a shuddering breath, and then -

"Stay with me, Fate-san! Stay, please!"

She could taste the blood in her mouth.

She couldn't really tell what she did. She didn't know if she had responded (she wanted to, because the girl had sounded so, so desperate), or if her body had continued to spasm, because all she felt was another wave of excruciating pain that overwhelmed her.

So when she blacked out, it was a cold, comforting bliss.

.. .. ..

It would be another three weeks before she woke up again.

Her head throbbed dully, and she was sore, all over. The entirety of her left arm hurt, but not enough to overwhelm her. Yet, in contrast, warmth had enveloped the palm of her right hand.

Fate was face to face with a white and silver ceiling.

She recognized the pattern and color of it immediately, having stared at it so many times in the past, at a certain point in time.

It was the same ceiling in Nanoha's room when she was hospitalized in Mid-Childa.

Everything - from her mind to her whole body - felt so heavy and sluggish. Even when she hadn't bothered to look, she could tell; something was immobilizing her left hand - there was a hard cast locking her limb in straight position.

So she tried moving her right hand, instead - only to pause. There was a weight on it.

Dark red eyes moved down to look and...

Nanoha..?

It was her friend who had grasped her hand, filling it with warmth. The brunette - with a long, side ponytail - was seated on the chair, head resting on the bed, pillowed by her arms.

Fate hadn't heard it earlier, but she could now - the deep inhale and exhale of her friend.

Nanoha was asleep.

She debated on whether she wanted to risk waking her up. Her friend was a fairly light sleeper, so it really wouldn't be difficult, at all, but...should she? In all honesty, she probably should wake her. Sleeping like this would cause a nasty crick in the neck.

( - what she didn't admit was she wanted to see those blue eyes -)

"Na..." she stopped. Her voice was painfully hoarse, raw, and dry.

Fate swallowed, once, in an attempt to wet her dry mouth, but tasted something thick and sour and stale.

Still, she tried again. "Nanoha." This time, it wasn't as raw, but it was still a hoarse whisper.

She squeezed her friend's hand weakly, but it was enough to cause Nanoha to jerk, head snapping up immediately.

The grogginess in those blue eyes was wiped out the instant Nanoha caught her gaze.

"Fate..." Nanoha whispered, and there was a strange sort of fear and hope in it, and then pure relief - "Fate-chan!"

The blonde tried to form a smile, and couldn't tell if she was successful or not. But it must be, because her friend brightened, and she felt a moment of relief despite the haze clouding her mind.

"Hey," she murmured, by way of greeting and an attempt to soothe her friend both - which was really all she could manage; because at the moment, her eyes felt as if they were going to droop close again, and every movement she made seemed to drain the energy out of her.

Nanoha had given her a surprised look at the greeting.

Then it was replaced with tears, and slate blue eyes that shone with so much joy -

The brunette tightened the grip she had on her hand, and Fate could feel her fingers brushing against a slightly damp and warm cheek; Nanoha had pressed both their hands to her own cheek with shaking fingers -

"Hey," was the echoed response, and it was the softest of a whisper that she had ever heard from Nanoha; the strong, warm voice that she remembered - knew like the back of her hand - was trembling with so many things that Fate could not even begin to identify.

Fate wanted to ask a lot of things.

Such as how long had she been asleep. Such as when she was brought here. Such as where Arf was. Such as what happened to the girl and her dragon. She wanted to apologize too, because even in her hazy state, it was clear that she had worried a lot of people; and then there was another part of her that wanted to say, don't cry, please, because she would never want to see her dear friend cry -

"I'm going to call Shamal-san, okay, Fate-chan?" Nanoha asked - though it was more of a statement than a question; because the brunette was already rubbing away remnants of tears from her own face before reaching for the red button on the wall, above the bed.

"Mhrm," was the only reply she could bring herself to say, eyes flickering shut and open.

She was getting sleepy. That hadn't meant she missed the flicker of amusement crossing those slate blue eyes, though. And Fate, despite the growing grogginess, had a feeling that Nanoha was amused at something she did, however much it confused her. Whatever could she have done in this state that would amuse her friend?

She would've asked - but she was distracted when Nanoha moved to sweep long bangs of blonde hair away from her face, before brushing over her cheek lightly with warm fingers.

"Welcome home...Fate-chan."

And then the brunette was smiling down at her softly.

There was something in Nanoha's tender expression that made her heart skip a beat.

It warmed her as much as it confused her.

.. .. ..

"Ow."

She grimaced.

"Fate-chan!"

Again, she grimaced - not at the dull throb attacking her side, or the sudden pounding in her head, or the sudden sharp pain that shot down her left arm (though the hard cast was gone, replaced by bandages); but at that reprimanding cry from Shamal.

"I told you not to sit up yet, didn't I? Mou!"

She couldn't help but give a rueful grin. Shamal had quite the timing there, coming into the room just as she attempted to sit up..

"I'm fine, Shamal. It's okay."

The older blonde scowled, though it looked more like a worried frown than anything else as she eyed her critically. Then the doctor sighed - more in defeat than anything else - and moved to help Fate sit up. "So stubborn, Fate-chan. What would Lindy-san say about this?"

"I'm sorry," she offered apologetically, even as she forced the wince down when another sharp pain jarred her. "And thank you...Shamal."

Fate glanced at the foot of the bed...where Arf was sleeping, in her puppy form, with a small blanket draped over her small body, red fur and the end of a tail peeking out of from the edges of the cotton.

"How's Arf...?"

Shamal sighed, again. "She's fine. Sleeping a lot, but perfectly fine. We've talked about this earlier, didn't we?"

She remembered that.

Because she was so severely injured, Arf had tried to minimize the flow of magic and energy flowing from Fate to her. That move had saved her life, but nearly killed her familiar in the process.

If Nanoha hadn't...if Nanoha hadn't given her magic to sustain Arf, her partner probably would've died.

Sustaining a familiar wasn't easy.

Fate knew, because when she first created Arf; to sustain Arf had drained her for days until she learned to control it. It wasn't something that just any mage could do, as it required a massive amount of magic and control.

What's more, even harder when said mage wasn't the one bonded to Arf.

Yet, Nanoha had done it.

Hayate had more magic than Nanoha and her combined, but little control. Yuuno had control, but limited magic. Chrono had skill and experience, but still a limited amount of magic. And it was the same for her mother, Lindy. For obvious reasons, the Wolkenritter weren't suitable, either.

As it turned out, Nanoha seemed to be the only one who could do it - for she had a massive amount of mana and more control over her magic than any of them save for maybe Shamal or Yuuno.

And Fate wasn't sure what surprised her more; the part where Yuuno managed to dig out information on how to do it, or the part where Nanoha had given her magic to sustain Arf, or the part where Arf managed to take in the foreign magic with no apparent side effects miraculously, minor discomfort aside.

But what she did know was she would be forever grateful to her friend, and that, once more...once more, she would be indebted to Nanoha.

Yet, at the same time...

The lack of a steady flow of magic and energy had caused Arf to sleep for a long time, and be awake for only short ones. In the three weeks she had been comatose, she had been told, Arf had only been awake every two to four days.

Nanoha tried her best, yes, but she just wasn't experienced enough to understand how to go about it fully, and her magic was foreign to Arf.

Fate had wanted to re-adjust the flow of magic and energy the moment she found out, only to be told she should restrain from using magic, at least for the time being, because right now, she was still weak, and doing so would only backfire on her.

But that didn't mean she hadn't begun her efforts to readjust it, much to Shamal's consternation.

She wanted to do it more quickly, but...

Nanoha had noticed when she first attempted to readjust it; because, after all, the brunette was supplying magic to Arf, so how in the world would Nanoha not notice when a sudden large amount of mana was pouring into her familiar?

Thinking of how her friend had frowned, then scowled, then scolded her, made her want to wince again.

The door sliding open snapped her out of her reverie.

She glanced up, only to see her best friend, dressed in her white and blue uniform; who was eyeing her carefully, concern crossing her features.

Fate smiled, despite herself. "Nanoha."

"Fate-chan...are you supposed to be sitting up?"

"She's not." Shamal quipped cheerfully.

Nanoha frowned.

Fate just grimaced.

Then her friend sighed, and stepped closer until she was by the bed.

"Mou, Fate-chan..."

Fate would've offered an apologetic grin, but she had noticed a small shadow by the door.

Someone was standing by the door, behind the wall.

Her head tilted slightly, before turning to her friend questioningly. "Nanoha?"

Nanoha's returning smile was tender and sad both. "She wanted to see you no matter what, so..." She turned towards the door. "Come in, please."

The shadow by the door hesitated.

Fate just gave the brunette a confused look.

Nanoha sighed then, a little wryly, and moved to the door.

"Hey...it's okay. Come on."

And that was how the hesitating shadow was pulled into the room.

She had recognized the person stepping in the moment she saw that pink hair and the tiny white creature held protectively in those small hands. Nanoha pushed the girl closer with a firm but gentle hand on the back.

Fate glanced up, watching Nanoha's face soften, and then she turned back to see the lost, lost look belonging to that of the small girl; whose dragon had inflicted such serious injuries upon her.

The girl looked like she was about to cry, her hands trembling as she clutched the tiny dragon in her arms. And she had recognized the bangle on that small wrist - a magic-restraining device.

Was it a sacrifice the girl had willingly made in exchange of keeping the dragon with her...?

Fate didn't know, but she knew that it was very likely, given what had occurred.

So she reached out.

She reached out, ignoring the way her muscles protested sorely, and patted the small girl on the head gently.

"It's okay."

Those blue eyes had widened at her in surprise.

And then...

And then the girl was suddenly crying, launching herself at her; small fingers grasped at her hospital gown as the tiny, startled dragon was dropped on the bed -

The suddenness of it made her wince because of the sharp pain that attacked her from the jarring movement.

But she had motioned, silently and immediately, for Nanoha and Shamal not to do anything; and instead wound her only working arm around Caro, ignoring the pain and holding the girl close.

Shamal and Nanoha had hesitated, but ultimately stilled and remained silent.

Throughout it all, a pair of slate blue eyes remained on her.

"I'm okay," she murmured again - and quite possibly, only one other person in the room would have guessed that she wasn't telling that to just the girl.

Because she wasn't.

.. .. ..

It would be another two weeks from the point she woke up from her unconscious state before Shamal deemed it fine for her to (finally) check out from the hospital, with promises of check-up every two days.

Her left arm remained in a sling, though, and she had to resist scratching at small patches of dried blood (and skin) all over her that itched frustratingly. She was on the way to recovery, Shamal had said, but no pressure should be put on her arm, for at least another week or two. And that was because her arm wasn't just broken from the impact of that giant fireball against the shield she struggled to hold up, back then.

And Fate didn't really understand the significance of it, but she had looked more like herself compared to four weeks ago, when they had finally found her. (She didn't ask how she had looked like, because the relief on their faces was so telling, and she didn't want to remind them of the bad memories.)

It had taken Asura nearly two weeks to find her and Arf because her device was too damaged to function - it was Bardiche that protected her from the worst of the impact.

Chrono, on the day of her release, returned Bardiche to her when Lindy had left the room temporarily, leaving just the siblings. He had stared at her impassively for one long moment, enough to make her hedge, before saying her device would need to be booted up again. Bardiche had required replacement of most of its parts, including aspects of its core.

And then in a move that startled her, he had pulled her into a tight but careful hug that lasted just an instant before picking up her bag on the bed, and leaving the hospital room quickly.

Fate couldn't help but let her lips twitch at the reminder, because she didn't think she'd ever forget how red the tips of his ears were. Her brother had always been adorably awkward when it came to being affectionate.

The door slid open, and she turned towards it, pushing the memories to the back of her mind.

"F...Fate-san...?" There was surprise, and bewilderment, in that tone.

Caro Ru Lushe.

A little girl who was barely six years old. Fate, during the mission she was on, had first met her on TSAB-Administrated World No. 6, roaming around aimlessly, alone. That first meeting was punctuated by explosions and fireballs that nearly killed her.

Now, the pink haired girl was in the protective custody of TSAB in a remote facility on Mid-Childa; and would possibly stay there for a long time to come, with how Friedrich got provoked easily, and how she had difficulty in controlling her dragon.

She would be alone for a very, very long time.

And Fate T. Harlaown would be damned if she allowed herself to be the cause of the little girl's loneliness; which was why she was standing here now, a week after her release from the hospital.

She walked to the girl, who had remained frozen, and bent down, taking the small hand in her right hand that wasn't in a sling.

"Hello, Caro."

"H-hello..."

She squeezed the hand gently. "I came here to ask you something."

The little girl tilted her head in confusion. "Something?"

"It will take a little more time, but...would you like to come with me?"

More confusion.

"Come with you..?"

Fate smiled then, despite herself.

Times like this, it was gratifying to have family members that held more than enough weight to sway the TSAB. She hadn't liked the idea of selfishly asking her adoptive family to do this, because she had owed them too much already, and she was asking for more.

The thought filled her with a combination of rue and guilt, and it probably showed, because Caro was giving her a worried look marred by even more remorse. "Fate-san? Are you okay...?"

She hadn't liked the idea of imposing upon the people she had cared for dearly.

But she liked the idea of leaving Caro alone even less.

"I'm okay," she smiled, more fully this time. "But as I was saying..."

The pink-haired girl tilted her head again.

"I want you to come with me...to the Harlaown family. Do you want to, Caro?"

Caro just sort of stared at her, and the stupefied expression on that face made her lips twitch.

.

.

trois.
(unearth)

.

.

Another two weeks passed.

She could feel a shadow blocking the sun.

"...There you are. I had a feeling you would be here again."

Fate cracked her eyes open from where she was lying down, only to see Nanoha looming over her with sun-kissed hair of the reddish-orange evening sky from behind; the wilted trees creating chiaroscuro patterns all over her.

She smiled. "Nanoha. You're done with work."

"I am. But, Fate-chan...why are you lying on the snow?" A pause, and concern found its way into her voice. "Isn't it cold?"

"Mm, not really. I'm comfortable." And she was. Despite the cold weather, the sun was warming.

Nanoha bent, hands resting on her knees. She eyed her carefully, upside down, before brushing away some of the snow that had fallen on Fate's thick jacket, followed by a gentle tug on the woolen scarf to press her fingers against the neck testingly.

"Comfortable, hm?" the brunette asked dryly, and this time, palms pressed against her cheeks.

Her friend's hands were warm.

"You are cold, Fate-chan. How long were you here?" Disapproval found its way into Nanoha's voice. "And you know, people don't normally lie down on snow."

"Eh.."

Nanoha was already moving to sit down, tugging Fate to her, and the blonde felt herself flush even if she wasn't resisting it. She could feel the brown hair tickling her face as she was pulled up to her friend's lap, a hand winding itself around her, pressing onto her scarf gently.

"I - I came out around three, so..." Fate really should have been used to the physical affections of her friend by now. They had known each other for six years.

Nanoha hummed. "So you were out here for three hours."

Fate couldn't tell how her friend was reacting; her voice and expression was completely unreadable to her.

"...Yes?"

And her response probably came out more meekly than it should.

That was when Nanoha sighed.

"You've taken to doing this a lot, recently," the brunette noted, seemingly amused and bemused both. "Why is that?"

That this was after the near-death incident was unsaid.

"...I'm not sure," she admitted, and her eyes wondered back to the sky - the sun that was half-hidden by clouds lit with reddish orange fire. "I guess I just..."

"Just?"

She didn't respond, for a good while.

Fate honestly didn't know why, only that she liked to stare up at the sky.

Not that she hadn't liked to, before, but recently, she had felt compelled to do it more often.

Her left hand stretched, palm up, as if trying to reach for the sky and to cover the red sun - and she watched how the back of her hand darkened as she moved it, slowly, orange light slipping in from between her fingers -

She felt like she was being drawn into the sight of this, and Fate found that she couldn't comprehend why, only that it was.

She could stay like this, forever, and not mind one bit.

Then her hand was grasped, suddenly, by another warm hand.

The grip was tightened gently.

"Fate-chan?" It was a voice filled with concern, and something else that she couldn't identify, again. "Is your hand still hurting?"

No, it wasn't. She didn't even need the arm sling, anymore. Her arm still felt sore, and she could feel her muscles stretching every time she made some movement of sort - but it had stopped hurting.

Her gaze moved again, to look back into a pair of slate blue eyes.

And she was momentarily confused by what she was seeing.

There was a turmoil of emotions in the depths of those eyes; and it was odd, because Nanoha wasn't the easiest person to read despite how open she may appear to be.

It was also strange because Fate hadn't expected herself to actually be able to identify them.

Those blue eyes had darkened; filled with things from worry to uncertainty to fear to everything else that Fate had felt, once upon a time -

She reached up, brushing against Nanoha's cheek, gently, and she didn't really know why she felt compelled to say this, but she did.

"Hey," she murmured quietly, "I'm not going anywhere."

The blonde watched surprise flit past those blue eyes again.

It made her smile, despite herself.

Was this the second time since the near-death experience that she caught her friend off guard? But then, even before the incident, it wasn't very often when she could catch Nanoha by surprise.

It was strangely amusing, and it probably showed on her face, because her friend reddened a little.

Nanoha sighed then, seemingly in defeat, leaning into the touch, pulling her closer - and then the brunette was moving to grasp her hand, pressing it more firmly to the cheek, blue eyes closing shut.

"You better not." It was said quietly, but Fate knew a warning when she heard one. And yet, it was tempered by how soft that voice was. "...I won't forgive you, ever, if you do."

There was a hint of something trembling in that tone. And Fate knew that, while Nanoha may be mischievous on many occasions, she'd never say something she didn't mean.

Nanoha had meant every word she said.

"...I know." Fate responded in return, and meaning it. Her eyes closed, too, and she savored the warmth of the sun and the biting cold, in the arms of her dearest friend. It was comforting, and it made the tension she hadn't realized she was feeling fade from her shoulders.

She really wouldn't mind staying like this, for a long time to come.

"Master."

"Raising Heart?"

She cracked an eye open to see Nanoha pulling her device out from underneath her jacket.

"Message from Yagami Hayate. Play message?"

"Go ahead."

"Nanoha-chan! Have you found our elusive Fate-chan yet? Wait, what am I saying? I'm pretty sure you found her already. There's another half an hour before we leave, and we can't have the future-sister-in-law of the bride late for the bachelorette night, not to mention when she's the photographer! So stop flirting, and come back already, okay? We are waiting!"

"End message. Reply?"

Silence.

Oddly enough, Fate felt the slightest inclination to snicker, and did just that. She wasn't really sure why. Normally, she would have flushed when Hayate implied they were flirting, but...today, she was just amused.

Nanoha gave her a rueful grin, and rubbed at the bridge of her nose. "...Tell her we are on the way, Raising Heart."

"Alright, my master."

The brunette sighed. "Up," she nudged Fate's shoulder gently, pushing her to a sitting position.

A (large) part of her wanted to protest at the sudden lack of warmth, but she refrained.

Nanoha stood, first, dusting the snow off herself, before offering her hand to Fate. "Time to go, Fate-chan."

Chiaroscuro patterns danced across that face, again, and she could see the vibrant hue of red and orange soaking into the brunette's gentle features. She could see the irises, too, in those blue-violet eyes made a shade lighter by the sun...

There was a very, very warm smile on that face that made the blonde's heart skip a beat.

She glanced down, at the hand offered to her.

And just that suddenly - a distant memory flashed through her mind, making her sad, nostalgic and happy all at once.

Why was she remembering the time when the Garden of Time was collapsing, and she had been torn between going after her mother, or to take Nanoha's hand that was extended towards her...?

"Fate-chan?"

She blinked, and then shook her head, before smiling up at her friend. "Time to go," she echoed, moving to grasp Nanoha's hand, and squeezing it gently.

That hand was as warm as she remembered.

.. .. ..

Snap, the camera went, and -

"H - Hayate-chan! We are still underage!"

"Whaaaaat? It's fine, it's fine! By Mid-Childa laws, aren't we already legal?"

"But we are fifteen!"

"And your point? We're in Mid-Childa! Even Momoko-san said it was okay given the occasion!"

"But - "

"Drink!"

And that was how Fate came to own her first photo of a certain TSAB Ace downing shots and getting drunk - because, really, who but Suzuka could argue and actually keep up with Hayate?

When Suzuka and Hayate conspire together, well...

Fate supposed that not even Nanoha could defend against that.

She stiffened when a glass, with a most pungent scent that made her want to cough, was shoved under her nose.

"Drink."

The blonde leaned back reflexively, flinching away from the sharp alcoholic smell of the blue-colored liquid that almost made her choke. "A - Arisa.."

Her friend smirked, and there was an evil - despite it being not so sober - glint in her eyes. "Can't havh just Nanoha drunk, you knoow?" She sounded a little...off, too.

But no. The fact was, Fate didn't want to get drunk. Especially after seeing how Amy had passed out with some of her close friends by the sofa, or how Lindy and Momoko were giggling like girls squealing over boys on another couch or...or how Vita was sleeping on Signum's lap.

Signum, possibly, was the only one who seemed sober when compared to the rest,although when she didn't do anything when Vita slept on her lap like a baby while sucking her thumb...

It was an adorable sight, but Signum would probably commit suicide in the name of honor if she realized that this particular scene had been immortalized in the form of a photo, even as Vita would go on a rampage.

(And in her defense, a gleeful Arf was the one who snapped that picture; she had hesitated.)

So, no. Fate did not want to get drunk.

"Um, it's okay, I can - "

Another hand, not Arisa's or hers, reached out from behind her friend to remove the cup.

"No alcohol for Fate-chan," Nanoha said, leaning heavily against a startled Arisa as she dangled the sloshing liquid mid-air, and her voice was impressively clear despite the lack of balance - "she's still recovering, Arisa-chan."

And it was true. While, outwardly, she was no longer wrapped with bandages like a mummy, there were still a few plasters (of varying sizes) on her that were hidden under her clothes. She had yet to fully recover, and the fact that she had stubbornly begun to readjust the magic and energy flow to her familiar probably didn't help either (with increasing amount by the day), much to Shamal's exasperation.

Nanoha hadn't liked it, either, but strangely enough, she hadn't protested - only making her promise for it to be a slow, slow process. And the reminder of it dampened her mood. She had caused trouble for so many people, not to mention she had been the reason of why the wedding was delayed -

" - jush a little bit. She can handle thaaat much, and ish her brother's wedrring!" Arisa argued, trying to grab the cup.

Fate blinked. She had missed the first part of the conversation when she got lost in her thoughts.

"No." Nanoha said plainly, pulling the cup away even when she was still leaning heavily on Arisa's back.

The cheeks of her two friends were tinged red from the liquor - and Fate wondered briefly how much they drank, before she remembered that Hayate had brought over two boxes full of all sorts of exotic liquor -

"Nanohaaa!"

"No."

"I think Fate-chan can handle one glass, naa~" Suzuka sing-songed. By far, Suzuka looked and sounded the most coherent among all three of her friends. In actuality, though, Fate knew she was the drunkest - because the Suzuka she knew wouldn't have attempted to grope Arisa's chest in public.

..Or maybe it was Hayate's influence. But, frankly, both prospects were equally horrifying, and Fate really didn't want to know which the deciding factor was.

"No."

"Just one!" Arisa argued again.

"No."

"Jush one!"

They were really beginning to sound like a broken recorder stuck on repeat, much to Fate's amusement and bemusement both.

"No."

"Just one!"

She sighed. Well...if it was just one glass, why not...? If it will end the argument...

"Um...I'll drink it?" she asked hesitantly, placing her camera on the table. "I think I can handle one glass..."

"Seeh? Taths the spirif! Gib it to her!"

Nanoha glanced back at her, and frowned.

The blonde found herself swallowing, involuntarily; there was something...intense...in those blue eyes that were sending a shiver down her spine.

"N-Nanoha, give me the glass..?"

Silence.

Slate blue eyes darkened, and for a moment, they looked more sober than inebriated - she could feel a lump forming in her throat when she saw the sudden turmoil of emotions that flickered past so quickly she barely caught them -

"I'll drink it for her," Nanoha said, with a note of finality.

And before anyone could say anything, the brunette knocked the whole glass down in one go.

Arf chose this moment to do a cat-whistle. Her familiar had been watching quietly, armed with a camera of her own (as it turned out, Arf liked to take pictures as much as she did), and glee was written all over her face.

"Wha? Thas nots fair - !"

"Awww, that's so sweet!"

"Hyaaaa~! So protective, Nanoha-chan!" Someone - Hayate - squealed.

By the gods. Squealed.

Fate wasn't drunk, but she may as well be, because her ears felt so hot they could burn something.

She really, really wanted the couch to swallow her whole.

.. .. ..

The next day, just about everyone was having headaches of varying degrees - save for Shamal, Lindy and Momoko (was there something about mothers that she should know...?) - and were generally just moaning and groaning as they scrambled to get ready for the wedding.

It was chaos.

...Let it be said that Fate was really grateful that she hadn't had to drink, for it had allowed her to escape the horror known as hangover.

She fiddled with her camera settings, again.

It was almost time.

She eyed the hall, once more, and smiled despite herself, watching the light of the bright sun flow in from the open windows; coloring the brown chairs a brighter shade of hazel, creating light hues on the vibrant flowers hung by the edges of the long benches and the white wall...

It was going to be a beautiful wedding.

Snap.

"Fate-san..."

She turned to the timid voice behind her, and smiled.

"Caro."

The girl smiled hesitantly. It was going to be a while more before the little girl that the Harlaowns adopted would truly relax,

Fate knew.

After all, hadn't she been the same?

"Um..."

"Hmm?"

"Is everyone okay?" the pink-haired girl sounded really, really worried.

She tilted her head, not understanding. "What do you mean?"

"I passed by the changing room, just now, and Chrono-san was shouting..um.. a lot of things I didn't understand. Yuuno-san's glasses were bent, too, and Zafira-san has pink streaks in his fur, and they look like they are really panicking...um...are they going to be okay?"

Fate couldn't help it.

She burst out laughing, and Caro just stared up at her in adorable confusion.

.. .. ..

"Ughhh."

A head dropped to rest on her back.

Fate paused mid-toggling of photos on the holographic blue screen hovering in front of her where she sat on the bed, and glanced back to see the top of a brown head. There was a fresh scent of soap; her friend had just gotten out of the shower.

She couldn't resist a smile, feeling amusement settle in her, even if she was a little concerned. "Are you okay, Nanoha?"

"Head hurts," a mumble.

"Still? It's been a whole day..."

"Mrph," was the muffled groan. "And we had to drink again to toast the wedding, remember?"

A semi-recovered hangover plus more alcohol.

Not a good combination, she supposed.

Her lips twitched, eyes turning back to focus on the screen as she startled toggling again. "You should sleep early, tonight...you'll feel better tomorrow? Not to mention we have an early start, too...we promised to take Arisa and Suzuka around Mid Childa, didn't we?"

Both of which were resting in the guest rooms of the Harlaown house, now, alongside the rest of the Takamachi and Yagami's family. But it wasn't as if this house was as big as Suzuka's or Arisa's (though it was big), so, sharing beds it was.

Another groan. "Not drinking anymore. Never again. Neveer. Hayate-chan is so evil, Fate-chan!"

Nanoha was whining. It made her want to chuckle, but she refrained.

"At least she didn't make you drunk again, this time?"

Nanoha was tipsy, but had sobered up over the night.

The brunette sighed loudly then, and suddenly, Fate could feel Nanoha's chin propping on her right shoulder, and hands that slid over her neck to dangle limply at her front.

"What are you doing, Fate-chan?" Blue eyes peered at the screen.

Her heart skipped a beat at the closeness and the weight that rested on her.

But she felt herself relaxing, just as quickly, at the warmth of it.

"Arranging the photos...Amy was hoping to be able to create a slideshow of sort to match the song that Chrono picked."

"Song...? Oh, that song." Nanoha snickered. "Your brother is quite the surprising romantic, isn't he...? I was really surprised when I heard that he picked the song for the dance."

She smiled, amused. "You and me both. Kaa-san was the only one who didn't seem surprised."

"Sir," Bardiche, from where it was lying on the desk situated by the bed, intoned, "Scheduled time for medicine has been reached."

Fate glanced over at the table, peering at the clock.

11.30 pm.

She had forgotten to take her medicine again, she thought ruefully. It was a good thing that her device was as attentive as ever, or she'd have to face Shamal's reprimanding, once more.

"Thanks for the reminder, Bardiche."

"Yes sir."

The blonde didn't have the heart to tell Nanoha (who was silent, all of a sudden) to move. So she reached out, from where she was, to grasp at the five different packets filled with tablets on the table - while the other hand held onto Nanoha's elbow to ensure neither of them lost balance while she moved.

She would've reached for the water, too, but Nanoha wordlessly picked the bottle up and uncapped it, and simply let it hang from the tips of her fingers from their positions.

So, instead, she picked out the colorful pills from their packets according to prescribed dosages written, and threw them all into her mouth in one go without hesitating; followed by a big gulp of water from the bottle she grasped next.

Nanoha was silent throughout it all - it was both odd and unnerving.

And when she had placed the items back on the table, Nanoha had curled her hands around Fate, burying her face in the blonde's shoulder. Brown hair tickled at her neck.

"N - Nanoha?"

"Can I see it?" was the muffled question.

She paused, momentarily confused. "See it?"

A long silence.

"I had a glimpse of it when I walked in by accident while Shamal was changing your bandages."

Fate stiffened, and felt her cheeks go hot at the reminder. "Nanoha, that's - "

"No one told me till I asked, later, and I hadn't realized since I couldn't tell from...from..." the brunette faltered at the memory.

Nevermind the slight flush on that face that told her Nanoha was just as embarrassed about the incident; it was so overpowered by the haunting shadow on that face, and Fate felt something in her clench, knowing that she was the cause of her friend's ache.

Nanoha breathed in, deeply, before she continued, more strongly this time. "...From your injuries. I didn't know that you had more than just...burns."

And then it dawned on Fate what her friend meant.

Her hand moved, instinctively, to grasp at her left shoulder. "You meant this..?"

Even when she was pressing her palm against the skin through the cloth, she could feel the... roughness, of it.

"...Yes."

"But why?"

"I...I just want to know."

Silence.

She wanted to ask why, but something was telling her not to ask.

Fate exhaled. Her heart was beating a mile a minute, all of a sudden, and Fate didn't know if it due to this being unnerving for reasons she couldn't figure, or if it was caused by Nanoha being strange, or if it was because the thought of it made her want to flush a deeper shade of red but...

She was really going to do this, wasn't she, cause, when could she ever deny her friend's request?

"Alright." Her response came out much softer than she expected. "Let go of me?"

The weight from her back faded as Nanoha moved backwards, sitting on the bed.

She unbuttoned her pajamas shirt, all the while fighting down the flush that was threatening to rise and failing. The blonde shrugged off her left sleeve, and left the shirt to hang half open.

Silence reigned in the room.

On her exposed side, as well as the side that was hidden under the half-open shirt, there were stray plasters and mildly pink skin that were well on their way to being completely healed.

Nanoha wasn't concerned with those, however. Her gaze was fixed on just one area.

Her shoulder.

And despite herself, she flinched when fingers brushed over her shoulder; not because it hurt, but because it...tingled.

Nanoha had paused at that sudden movement. "Does it hurt?"

"I - no. It's just...it's sensitive."

Fate rubbed at the front of her left shoulder self-consciously; feeling the roughness of it and trying to get used to it all over again. She had done this every night ever since the bandage was removed, and even before that.

But she still wasn't entirely used to it.

The brunette moved sideways, then, and tugged her hand away gently to peer at it.

She watched the way blue eyes darkened - there was a turmoil of emotions in them, again, and Fate was growing familiar with that sight.

Nanoha had lifted a hand to trace at the scar, and those eyes were scrutinizing it with a degree of concentration that made her nervous.

"Nanoha, it's fine now - "

"If we found you any later than we did," Nanoha cut her off, just that suddenly and that quietly, tone completely unreadable, "you could've died."

A pause.

"You could've lost your hand, as well."

Fate knew. Shamal had told her all these, much earlier.

The reason her arm was in a cast wasn't just because of the massive burns, or that she had been holding up the shield with it.

It was also because the explosion that threw her backwards had slammed her into trees, and... a branch had pierced right through her shoulder sometime and somehow during that impact.

And a little girl that was barely six years old had made a desperate gamble to save her life and hand both.

That move, however, had its consequences.

Caro had lacked experience and skill both, and she was only six, so the end result was what looked like a round scar, with sharp, jagged, uneven ends that spread to her collarbone, and to the beginnings of her arm.

It was a sight that would make people tear their eyes away, or stare at it in horrified astonishment.

And Fate promised herself that the crying girl would never come to know of it.

Nanoha pressed her warm palm to the scar, barely managing to cover the entirety of it, and the feel of it distracted her from her reverie, making her shiver involuntarily. It felt almost like the burn of electricity, only so much more raw.

"I'm..." the brunette trailed off, then sighed, shoulders slumping.

There was something incredibly sad in Nanoha's gaze then, when they moved to look into her eyes.

"I think I know how you felt now," she said, softly.

Fate tilted her head slightly, not really comprehending. "In regards to?"

Nanoha smiled, a little, but there was nothing happy about that curl of lips; and they looked more sad and distraught than she had ever seen on that strong girl before -

"When I was the one on that bed...comatose and fighting for my life."

She felt something stop.

The smile that her friend graced her with then was altogether sad and tender and anguished. "I'm so sorry, Fate-chan...I'm so sorry." Blue eyes closed shut, and long bangs of brown hair covered her face.

And suddenly, some things made sense. Even if some others didn't.

Why - why was she apologizing for something that wasn't her fault?

Why was it bothering Nanoha so much?

But then - the turmoil of emotions she'd see in Nanoha's gaze nowadays, occurring more and more frequently that she knew she hadn't imagined it; or the sudden bout of protectiveness over the most trivial things that anyone knew she could handle, or how Nanoha had come by so frequently -

Hadn't she herself reacted the same, once upon a time, when Nanoha had been the one to almost die?

She felt something in her clench at the memory.

"Hey," she reached out, whispering, tugging her friend to her, and her half-undressed state was suddenly forgotten. "I'm fine, Nanoha. I'm fine."

The brunette just shook her head, face buried in her collarbone.

Nanoha was trembling.

And for Fate, it was so strange, and yet understandable all at once.

Strange, because Nanoha was the strongest and warmest person she had ever known; it was this girl that saved her, saved Arf, it was her feelings that saved Hayate, and yet, right now, she seemed so fragile and frightened that Fate was afraid she'd break from the slightest touch.

It was like steel marred with fragility all at once, and - some part of her understood why, even if she couldn't even begin to describe how.

And maybe she didn't understand everything that Nanoha was feeling, because her friend had always been an enigma of sorts despite how open she may appear to be, and she was so strong a person - but right now, to Fate, that didn't matter.

That really didn't matter at all, not when Nanoha was hurting, and not when all Fate wanted to do right now was for her to stop hurting.

So she tightened the hold, and said nothing else.

And that was how they came to stay that way for a long time.

.. .. ..

Fate...could not sleep.

Again, she lifted her left arm; stretching it up into the darkness of the room, and feeling the muscles pull and contract strangely.

Was she ever going to get used to this...?

For that matter, she still wasn't entirely sure how to react to...whatever it was that Nanoha was feeling. She understood why, yes. But at the same time...it confused her for reasons she couldn't describe.

She sighed, glanced at the clock - that blinked 2:53 AM - and sat up. She just wasn't going to be able to sleep.

"Mrh..."

The soft sound made her pause, and she looked back down; only to see Nanoha trying to burrow her face deeper into the pillow, a hand curling loosely around it - her friend was clearly still deep in her sleep despite being a light sleeper. That alone had been enough to indicate just how exhausted the girl was to Fate.

It made her smile, a little, despite herself; and she pulled the blanket up a little higher, before brushing against brown hair lightly.

"Sleep well, Nanoha," she whispered softly.

She observed for a minute longer, and then slipped out of the room silently, to the hall.

In the dim darkness of the hall, where only the kitchen was lit was a soft light, the sight that greeted her then made her tilt her head in curiosity and surprise both.

"Hayate?"

Said girl blinked at her from where she sat on the chair joined to the white wooden island adjoined to the kitchen, dressed loosely in pajamas. "Fate-chan, why are you still awake?"

She gave the brunette a half-smile. "Couldn't sleep. You?"

"Mm, same. Taking a cup of coffee with dessert was probably a bad idea. I thought I was used to it, but..."

Hayate was notoriously known for taking her coffee black in their small little circle of friends. While Fate knew that drinking coffee was a habit they gradually grew into as they were drafted into missions to fulfill their term, well...the thought of drinking coffee black still made her want to make a face, because, yes, even she herself needed at least a little bit of sugar and milk to tone down the bitterness of the brew.

How her friend could take it, enjoy it even, she didn't think she'd ever get why.

"I'm guessing you forgot Mid-Childa's coffee is much stronger than Earth's?" she teased.

The brunette quirked a dry grin. "Correct," she said, before gesturing to the stool next to her; and she was reaching for the teapot where wisps of white smoke continued to lift, to pour tea into a new clay cup. "That, and I think your brother requested for some really high quality, and very, very strong Erakis beans to be used to brew coffee for the duration of the wedding."

...Yes. Her brother, Chrono Harlaown, was another one among them who drank his coffee black. He was also secretly a coffee lover and, dare she say, obsessed addict? Amy had confided to her, some years ago, that Chrono would always have a secret stash of coffee beans (the high quality, expensive type) in his room at Asura. Alongside a coffee machine with all sorts of buttons and mechanisms that she still couldn't make head or tails of.

What she did know, though, was that if she named one type of coffee to him, he could whip it up for her in under two minutes. Which includes all the pretty looking decorations on the froth. A flower, a tree, some sort of pattern, a smiley face, a chocobo, wings, feathers, symbols, a moogle, a kyuubei, some scenery...you name it, and he can do it.

Chrono was literally a trained, experienced barrista that any cafe would love to get their hands on.

Fate slipped into the chair, curled her fingers around the warm glass with the soft scent of green tea, and murmured a small thanks.

"So, Fate-chan," her friend said casually, sipping at her tea. "Considering that you didn't drink coffee like I did, I'm pretty sure you're not high on caffeine. Is there a reason why you couldn't sleep?"

"Eh..." she paused, hesitating. Nanoha. "...not really."

Hayate smirked. "Isn't that the surest answer we have heard from our dearest Fate-chan yet?"

She twitched.

Her friend propped her face up with an elbow on the table, and observed her with amused blue eyes.

"It's a little late to play guessing games, Fate-chan." Hayate teased. "Do you want to just tell me what is it, or do we have to do this the hard way, where I try - and will eventually - wheedle it out of you?"

Fate rubbed at the bridge of her nose, feeling herself groan at the implications of that statement. "Hayate..."

Hayate lifted an expectant brow. "Yes?"

She sighed. "It's really nothing much..."

"Buuuut?"

Her lips twitched. The word she was going to say, Hayate had said it first.

"Um...it's Nanoha," she said finally, a little reluctantly.

Hayate hummed, seemingly unsurprised. "Go on."

Was she that predictable?

She scratched at her cheek awkwardly. "I guess I'm just confused on why my injury is still bothering her. I mean, I've more or less healed already..."

The sapphire blue eyes belonging to that of her friend were dancing.

And she had the inkling suspicion that Hayate knew why she couldn't sleep, already. That really made her want to stomp her foot down in frustration, because, damn it, even Fate didn't know what the issue was.

Yet, all the brunette said was, "And?"

She shook her head. "That's really it. I don't know why it's still bothering her."

Hayate was quiet, for a short while; eyes searching hers as if trying to determine if it was really just that, or if there was something more that she wasn't saying.

But there really wasn't anything else. She really just didn't understand why Nanoha was bothered.

Then her friend sighed, rubbing her temples with two fingers almost as if in exasperation, and looked as if she couldn't decide if she was amused or exasperated. "And here I thought it was something else..."

Something else?

"Um...?"

"So," Hayate said instead, ignoring her confusion, "how did you know it was still bothering her, Fate-chan?"

The raw, raw sadness in those slate blue eyes flashed through her mind.

Hayate shook her head. "Actually, nevermind. That she didn't let you drink any liquor at all was..." she trailed off for a moment, slanting a look at her before continuing again, tone teasing. "...quite telling, I should say."

She tried to fight the warmth that was beginning to flood into her cheeks. Really, she tried.

"But, anyway..." Hayate was apparently choosing to be merciful in her teasing, seeing as she moved on to what Fate supposed was the main topic. "Just why do you think it shouldn't bother her, Fate-chan?"

Fate blanked out. Why she think it shouldn't bother her?

The smile her friend offered her this time was filled with a little more rue, and much less humored. "The way I see it, I should be the one confused that you don't seem concerned over the fact that you are not okay."

She wasn't? But she...she was fine. Her magic was at normal levels, she could support Arf just fine now, her injuries have more or less healed - and despite the fact that she would need to ease back into training slowly so that she wouldn't strain her left hand and that she was still under medication, Shamal had given her a clean bill of health. She was fine.

"But I'm fine," she protested.

"You are not." Hayate said simply, sipping at her tea again.

"But - "

"Fate-chan." The final traces of humor disappeared from her friend's look, and with it came something unreadable and somber and dark. "You almost died."

Her throat was suddenly dry, because the turmoil of emotions in those eyes reminded her of Nanoha's, just so much more muted. "I - I know that, but - "

Hayate shook her head, cutting her words off. "From the time I met you till now, and even before then, you had never come that close to death before, have you? Aside from that incident?"

She had to pause and think.

It was true.

During her childhood, she had Linith to protect her. When Linith was gone, she was already strong enough to handle her foes. And when Arf and her worked together, it was rare that any of her enemies ever had the upper hand. Quite possibly, Nanoha had been the only one who could've had seriously hurt her back then - but it wasn't as if Nanoha had intended to really harm Fate.

In other words, the only real threats had been her mother, and the jewel seeds when they went on a rampage in the sea.

Did the battles she had with Signum during the Book of Darkness's events count?

Fate didn't think so. Despite the knight's warning that she may kill her, an instinctive part of Fate had known that the older warrior never intended to do so despite everything that happened then. And then the was the Book of Darkness itself...or Reinforce.

But even then. She had never come that close to death in any of those situations.

The incident with Caro was the only time she nearly died.

"I...no, I hadn't."

"Exactly."

Exactly what?

Her friend sighed, again. "And you don't see why it bothers me that you don't seem bothered over the fact you almost died."

Again, she just sort of stared, more than just a little confused.

Things had turned out fine, didn't it?

"I can't speak for Nanoha-chan," Hayate said quietly, looking down into her cup of green tea as she made the liquid swirl a little in the dim light, "since we hadn't really talked about your near-death experience. But, I can tell you that she's definitely more worried over you compared to me."

A pause, before she added. "Which I'm sure you've noticed, as well. She has been a little protective of you recently, hasn't she? Of course, the part where she totally banned you from liquor was the most telling, na..."

There was a hint of humor that returned with the latter sentence.

But Fate knew her friend wasn't done talking, so she remained silent.

Hayate placed her cup back on the table with a small, definite click, before fingering the edges of it.

"That being said," the brunette said softly, turning to look directly at Fate with unreadable blue eyes, "I think you're forgetting how important you are to her."

She blanked out. What?

And her friend wasn't done.

"You are the one closest to her, Fate-chan. And I'm not saying we aren't close, or that Suzuka-chan, Arisa-chan and Yuuno-kun isn't; but to her, you are the closest. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

Her mouth opened only to close shut the next moment.

That wasn't to say she didn't understand that she wasn't important to Nanoha - she did; they were friends, and she knew Nanoha cared and worried over her, and it was vice versa. But the way Hayate said it... it felt as if there was something else that she should know; and she felt the beginnings of guilt starting to pull in her chest.

And more than anything else, she was really just confused, she didn't know what her friend was getting at, and from the expression Hayate was giving her, it showed.

Her grip on her own cup tightened, just a little.

"Haya - "

The other lifted a hand, stalling her words.

"You are the one who is the closest to her, Fate-chan. How do you think she would have reacted if you died?"

Silence.

It went on long enough that Fate knew Hayate did not intend to speak further until she answered the question.

"I..." she halted. She didn't know. She really didn't know. "I-I don't know."

Another long lapse of silence.

Sapphire blue eyes darkened - and for a moment, Fate wondered if she imagined seeing the sadness and anger flash past that gaze. It was almost enough to make her flinch, because, when was Hayate ever angry?

But all Hayate did was sigh, as if in defeat.

"I'm saying you need to value your own life a little more, Fate-chan."

She felt something in her stop.

Now, there was wry humor in Hayate's gaze. "I'm not saying that what you did then, despite it almost killing you, was wrong - I get why you did it. But the way you don't seem to care, or that you don't think it's worth worrying over, Fate-chan, is what bothers me."

Silence.

But this silence was different than the previous ones, because understanding was finally dawning on her.

Hayate continued then, more quietly this time. "Your life isn't such an insignificant thing that it wouldn't affect Nanoha. Or me, for that matter. Do I even need to remind you of your family? And don't forget Caro. She's depending on you now, you know. I'm sure you have realized that. You are not that naive a person."

There had been no bite in those words.

But they stung, nonetheless, and she felt something in her clench.

Hayate sighed, eyes closing briefly, and that voice was so much softer this time. "You're just lucky you didn't die, you know? And you were lucky you didn't lose your arm."

Lucky?

Fate forced herself the swallow the strange, invisible lump that formed in her throat. That thought didn't even occur to her before. Was she lucky?

She rubbed at her shoulder again to feel the roughness of it, a movement more instinctive than not.

"I..." She never thought of it that way before.

"You don't think so?" Hayate asked then, calm voice betraying nothing.

Yet, at the same time, Fate knew - really, really knew, this time - that the brunette had been just as concerned and afraid when she nearly died.

Hayate just hid it better.

What did it mean then, when it came to her family?

"I'm..." she halted, feeling the guilt tighten in her. "I'm sorry."

Hayate just sighed, again, before reaching for her hand, and holding it tightly. "Don't apologize to me. Just promise me you will think on it, okay?"

She nodded, almost imperceptibly, and squeezed back gently.

"I promise," she said quietly.

"Good." There was satisfaction in her friend's voice, and Hayate slipped out of the chair.

Humor returned to those previously unreadable, intense pools of sapphire eyes.

"It's four in the morning." Her friend announced, tone light, a quirked grin on her lips. "Time to sleep. We still have to wake up early."

She glanced at the clock, surprised despite herself.

They had talked for an hour. It felt more like five minutes where her teasing friend was nowhere to be seen, replaced by the few rare sights where Hayate would be strangely serious.

And then she was being pulled out of the chair - "H - Hayate?" - before the brunette pushed her lightly towards the corridor.

"Go now. I'll see you in the morning."

"Wait - "

Hayate lifted both brows. "Wait? Do you really want to stay with me that much, Fate-chan? Nanoha-chan will be jealous, you know."

She flushed a deep red. "That's not - "

"Hmm, I suppose I could oblige. But I won't be held responsible for my actions..."

Fate could feel a hand attempting to snake around her to her chest -

"Hayate!"

.

.

quatre.
(stagger)

.

.

Year 73.

It was rattling, the thought of it.

Who would have..?

It was as if the old ghosts she thought she'd buried had come back to haunt her, and wounds that she'd have thought had healed spread open like a hot knife slicing through butter.

And now she was standing here, her hands curling into tight, tight fists as she stared through the glass.

What kind of ridiculous thing was this?

Why...?

A hand grasped her shoulder.

"Fate-chan," Hayate said quietly. "Unclench your fists."

And however soft her friend's tone was, the blonde knew a warning when she heard one - it was not a tone the brunette used often, but there were times, especially when they had been put together to work on cases (it happened often enough when they had been under Asura's obligation) - cases that left them somber and sad -

She closed shut her eyes and inhaled, trying and failing to do away with the sudden turmoil of emotions that threatened to suffocate her.

Her hands trembled, but she uncurled them, slowly.

Hayate grasped her right hand - making her stare down at it - and then her friend was lifting a palm over her uncurled one; a soft white circle encircling the brunette's wrist as a warm glow emanated from the palm.

The warmth of that light spread over her own hand, and the sharp throbbing she didn't realize she was feeling faded.

She watched the blood staining her palm fade away into nothing.

She'd have clenched her fists too hard.

Again, she inhaled, and just a little, the tight feeling she felt in her chest lessened.

Just a little.

Hayate reached for her other hand, then, still silent; pouring warm light over it.

"I'm sorry," she said - though it was more of a hoarse, wavering whisper than anything else - "I didn't..."

Didn't what? Didn't expect this?

Hayate shook her head, and sighed. "Why are you apologizing? I should be the one apologizing to you, Fate-chan."

"No. It's..." Fate inhaled, again, for the third time, before she turned to look through the glass, again, and feeling her chest tighten once more.

"Fate."

Hayate had pressed her palm against Fate's, flattening it.

And the fact that her name was said without the honorific made her turn to meet a pair of unreadable, somber dark blue eyes filled with things she couldn't read.

"Stop clenching your fists. You're going to crack the skin again."

She blinked, then realized she had been unconsciously clenching them again. The blonde let out an involuntary shuddering breath, closing her eyes shut. "Sorry, I - I just - "

That was when Hayate reached for her, grasping her face with warm hands and making her look at the brunette in the eye again.

"Calm down." It was that quiet, authorative voice, again. The girl who usually teased her was nowhere to be seen. "Breathe, Fate-chan. I didn't bring you here because I wanted you to suffer."

It was a very, very long minute where Hayate wouldn't let her look elsewhere, locking her down with hands and sapphire blue eyes that glimmered with strength; and before she finally felt more like herself than she did throughout the trip from Earth to this facility.

But that hadn't meant she wasn't still rattled, and the choking hold in her chest that made it so hard to breathe hadn't faded.

It was enough to satisfy Hayate, however, and her friend let her go.

She breathed in, again, before turning to look through the glass.

"So, you.." she trailed off. Her voice wasn't trembling, but that didn't stop her from wondering if Hayate detected the turmoil she was still feeling.

And if Hayate had noticed, the brunette had chosen not to say anything about it. "Signum and I found him when we cracked down on the...illegal research center."

From the corner of her eyes, she could see Hayate grasping her own sleeved elbow, rubbing a thumb against it; the expression on her face clouded as if she was remembering -

"When I came into his room to get him out, he was just curled up into a ball. And then when I got closer...he threw a shot of electricity at me."

Something in her stopped, and she turned to look at her friend, this time eyeing Hayate for any signs of injury. "Are you okay?"

Hayate nodded, just a little, looking through the glass as she did before. "Yeah. He just caught me by surprise. The blast snagged my elbow, a little, but I'm fine. Besides, I had a few days to recover." A small, rueful smile appeared on her lips, then. "Signum knocked him out, after that, when he had looked like he was going to cause more damage..."

A pause.

"The boy isn't trained in magic, Fate-chan." Hayate's words was soft. "In fact, he was imprisoned in that room for four years. And for him to be able to focus a concentrated shot just like that? Either he's really just that talented, or...it's something he had to learn how to do over the years he was there."

Had to learn.

Silence reigned.

She felt her hands tremble at the implications.

"Putting aside the latent potential the boy has," Hayate said at last, after a long moment of weighted silence. "This brings me to why I brought you here, with Chrono-kun's permission."

Now, hesitation was visible in her friend's tone.

"He has reacted violently to anyone coming into the room. On top of the medical results that confirmed he's an artificial mage, we have...reasons, to believe he hadn't been treated well in the research center."

Reasons.

- the sound of a cracking whip -

She felt her muscles twitch involuntarily.

It was like a phantom, tingling pain caressing her skin, reminding her of a time that should have remained buried.

"Fate-chan?" A hint of hidden concern.

Despite herself, her left hand did curl into a tight fist, again.

Hayate said nothing this time, however, and desperately, Fate felt herself trying to do away with the memories.

She succeeded to a small degree.

Again, she breathed in.

"You're hoping that I'll be able to get through to him," she said, and immediately wanted to take it back - because it sounded so curt and harsh she was afraid she'd have hurt her friend and she hadn't meant to project it to Hayate -

But if her friend felt anything, it didn't show.

"Yes," the brunette said simply. "He...quite possibly, you may be the only one he will open up to."

Because they were the same.

She stared through the glass again.

A small boy, with messy red hair, was seated on the carpeted floor next to the bed; tiny hands hugging his knees, and blue eyes that...that looked so hollow and dead and alone...

Just like her.

Only, she had been saved by a girl with slate blue eyes and a smile that reminded her of the sun.

Would she have been like him if she hadn't been saved?

She inhaled again, shutting her eyes, fighting the tremble that was threatening to rise.

"I'll do it," she said quietly, and it was strangely filled with strength and determination that she didn't feel.

Hayate reached around her to grasp her shoulder, pulling her close and squeezing gently.

It eased her, just a little.

"Thank you," the brunette said, quietly. "And I'm sorry for bringing up bad memories for you, Fate-chan."

"..No," she had murmured back, voice hoarse. "Thank you."

The slight pause in Hayate's movement indicated that the brunette was confused.

Fate sighed and opened her eyes, looking through the glass again.

The expression on that boy's face made the already tight feeling in her chest tighten.

"Thank you...for saving him."

.. .. ..

She awoke to a room filled with darkness, with only soft white light peeking in from the slightly ajar door.

It was a strange feeling.

The moment she woke up, she had recognized the flat white ceiling of her room; with a desk by her bed, a bookshelf filled with photography books, a cupboard on the other end, photography equipments packed by the corner...

So why was it that she felt as if she was in a stranger's room?

Why was she expecting to see a dome-like room, with midnight blue half-oval shaped ceiling; and stars painted over it?

It was ridiculous.

So, completely, ridiculous.

She pressed a bandaged palm on her face, as if trying to rub the feeling away; but instead felt the roughness of the cloth brushing against her skin, and the slight, dull pain of burnt skin - and it made her freeze.

"Don't touch me," a snarl, and electricity crackled around the red-haired boy -

Erio.

A boy that was just a little older than Caro.

A clone, just like her.

A product -

Her teeth clenched.

'Project F' still exists.

" - want some tea?"

Fate halted in her thoughts, and it took her a moment to register that familiar voice.

It was Amy.

Outside the room, the blonde could hear soft words being spoken.

"I would like that. Thank you, Amy-san." A different person spoke, trailing off before starting again. "And I'm sorry for

intruding at this late hour.."

This voice, she had recognized immediately.

Nanoha.

"You know you're always welcome here, Nanoha-chan. Don't worry about it."

"...Mm. How are the twins?"

"Docile."

"Docile...?" There was skeptism in Nanoha's voice.

"...Nanoha-chan, you sound like you're in disbelief."

"Uh, errr, I don't mean any insult by that, Amy - "

"It's fine, it's fine. Even though they are not even two years old yet, we both know they are the twin terrors of this house." Amy chuckled. "Arf is watching over them now, though."

"Ahaha..."

"It's surprising that they are so quiet today, though, isn't it? I wonder if they sensed that their aunt is resting.."

"Hmm." There was amusement in Nanoha's response, muted by the distance. "They had always been perceptive, haven't they? I wouldn't be surprised."

Amy hummed in agreement, before continuing in a dry tone. "I'm going to enjoy the peace while it lasts."

Nanoha just chuckled, and then -

"Amy-san...how's Fate-chan?"

She felt something in her chest clench.

"Suffered some minor electricity burns, but otherwise fine." A pause. "...But as you can guess, it took a toll on her. She was exhausted, physically...and emotionally. Hayate-chan said that she was completely composed when facing that child but...it's Fate-chan, you know?"

It's Fate-chan what?

Suddenly, she wanted the door to close so she wouldn't have to hear the rest of the conversation.

"I see..." was Nanoha's quiet, unreadable response. "Erio...was it?"

"Mm, Erio Mondial. I assume you've gotten most of it...?"

"Ah, yes...Hayate-chan told Chrono-kun to send me the details that are not classified."

Silence.

"What will happen to the boy, Amy-san?"

She could hear Amy sigh. "It's a good thing Fate-chan managed to get through to him, even if it took a couple days and she got a little hurt in the process, but...it's likely that he will be transferred to the Special Care Center."

A pause.

"Special Care Center?"

"It's a place for children with special magic skills or rare skills who suffered from harsh backgrounds, in order to provide counseling and take care of them..." her sister-in-law trailed off for a moment, before continuing again. "So until the bureau is certain he won't be a danger to anyone including himself, well."

"I see..."

It was another long moment before Amy spoke again.

"Okay, I should go check on the kids. You're staying tonight, right, Nanoha-chan?"

"Ah, if that's alright..."

"It's fine, it's fine. You know where everything is already, so, make yourself at home, Nanoha-chan."

"Thank you, Amy-san."

Silence.

The blonde rolled over on the bed immediately, and tried to bury her face deep into the pillow.

She could feel her hands curling into fists again, from where they were under the blanket and hidden under the soft pillow.

Damn it, what was she doing?

crea-ak

And though she couldn't see it, she could feel the amount of light pouring into the room grow, before it faded into darkness.

She felt the bed sink; a weight was settling beside her.

"...Fate-chan?"

She nearly couldn't stop herself from flinching at the sound of her name. Or maybe she wasn't so successful at all, because Nanoha sighed, softly; and she knew that Nanoha knew she was awake.

"I know you're awake," her friend said gently.

Still, Fate stubbornly refused to acknowledge it.

She felt fingers brushing against her hair, tugging lightly, before resting on her head.

It was just a soft, gentle pressure, and yet it was threatening to make something uncoil -

And why was she remembering a distant memory where Precia had gently patted her - Alicia - on the head?

Why, why was she remembering all those times when Lindy would quietly come into her room, and she'd feign being asleep while preparing herself for pain, and then she'd feel her adoptive mother's warm, comforting touch on her head that would startle her so much it had made her want to cry -

Her fists tightened involuntarily.

She tried to bury her face deeper into the pillow, away from that touch.

Damn it.

Damn it.

What was she doing?

And suddenly, she felt a rush of cold air before it was warm again - Nanoha had lifted the blanket for a moment and - a warm weight was resting on her?

This time, she did speak. Or stammer, technically, as her head jerked up and craned backwards to look; she had to resist jumping out of their position - that would've caused her friend to topple down to the floor.

"N - Nanoha, w - what - whmph - "

She felt herself pushed back down to the bed gently and firmly despite her resistance; the small weight of the pillow now resting on her head as her face was pressed into the bed -

"Stop moving," Nanoha said authoratively.

She froze; the cushion still on her head, hiding her face from view.

Her friend sighed, again, before - really, this time - resting completely on her back, and hands somehow snaked around her waist, pulling her close to warmth -

She felt the pillow move a little; a weight now on it.

"The door is closed," Nanoha informed her without preamble. "And the light isn't on."

Huh? Uh... What?

To say that Fate was confused was really putting it mildly.

"What are - "

"And no one is here, but you." Nanoha interrupted again.

A pause.

"And right now, you don't need to be strong for anyone. Not Caro, and not even Erio."

What...?

"There is no one here, Fate-chan. Not Lindy, not Arf, not even me."

And already, at those words, she could feel something uncoil -

Her hands trembled, and she curled them into fists, again; feeling the rough bandage wrapped around her palms brush against her skin - and there was a strange, hard lump in her throat that made it difficult to breathe.

"There's no one here but you."

Her vision blurred in the darkness.

"So it's okay," Nanoha murmured softly, and she could feel the comforting weight resting on her, and by the gods, her friend was so warm -

She could feel her eyes burn.

"It's okay, Fate-chan."

And this was how she completely broke down, because everything was unfurling, breaking open - and she was raw and hurting and touched all at once; the reminder of cracking whip and Alicia and Precia - then Lindy, who had been nothing but kind and tender, and her brother who had been so gruff yet always so gentle, and then there was Caro - Caro, the little girl who had grown to depend on her, live because she was there - and now Erio - and then -

The hold on her waist tightened, just a little.

- and then there was this girl who looked straight at her with so much frank honesty and wouldn't leave no matter what -

So this one time - just this once - and because she just couldn't help but trust in those words, that it was okay, it was okay to not be strong - she let go.

She let go, and she cried.

.. .. ..

When she woke up this time, a long, long couple hours later, it was due to the soft wailing of two babies.

And the light that penetrated into the room through the curtains made her squint.

It was a really bright morning.

Groggily, she lifted a bandaged hand to cover her eyes - and several thoughts came to mind all at once despite the haze of sleep.

The babies? Where was Amy - oh, wait, the kids have stopped crying...she must have gotten to them already. Or maybe Arf did. Arf had taken to idling around the babies often. And there were soft voices in the distance, but too indistinctive to really tell who was talking or what the dialogues were, and then she could smell some food cooking; it was a really appetizing scent - and then there was the sound of water running, and pots and pans clinking -

And there was something about these - all of these - that tugged at the strings of her heart.

It also told her that she should be waking up.

She couldn't help but sigh, just a little. She still wanted to sleep.

And something was moving on the bed - she could feel it from how the bed seemed to sink slightly - and then there were...four small paws pressing on her over the blanket?

She knew at once what it was.

Something warm and moist licked at her cheek, followed by a wet nose nudging her.

It tickled, and she couldn't stop her lips from twitching; but she still wanted to sleep.

More nudging.

"I know you are awake. It's time to wake up!"

It was Arf's cheery voice.

She groaned. "Arf..."

"It's afternoon, Fate~"

Afternoon...huh?

...Wait, what?

Afternoon?

How long was she asleep?

Arf yelped when Fate suddenly sat up, and the puppy with red fur tumbled down the blanket just a little before righting herself again.

"It's afternoon?" She asked her familiar even as she sent a mental apology in her head for startling Arf, before glancing at the window (that was still covered by the curtains), then to the clock by her desk.

1:13 pm.

She overslept!

"Yup." Arf's tail waggled, and she was climbing up the blonde again like nothing happened, snuggling up to her master. "Wakey wakey, Fate!"

Fate had adjusted her position automatically to accommodate the new warmth, hands now brushing against soft red fur as the haze of sleep slowly disappeared.

"Why didn't Bardiche wake me up..?"

Her device had never failed to wake her up on time (if she hadn't woken up herself). Normally, she'd rise early to perform katas on the roof, before heading back down for breakfast, then school, or something else if it was a weekend; these were aside from the times when she was sent on a mission, as a contracted civilian-mage.

"Ah, that's because Nanoha said to let you sleep in."

Fate blinked.

And it was like a rush of memories flooding back in.

She had cried like she never did before, last night. Erio. And Project F..

Her grip on Arf tightened, just a little.

The puppy licked at her cheek again, this time saying nothing, as if understanding the sudden turmoil she was feeling. They never needed to talk to understand each other. Fate was connected to Arf as much as Arf was connected to Fate; her familiar had always understood what was it she needed, and Fate could always tell what Arf wanted to give her.

And knowing that comforted her.

What more, despite the turmoil of emotions she was feeling that still left her feeling strangely open and defenseless and raw, she was...she was at ease.

Refreshed.

"Fate?" Her puppy pawed at her gently, nose nudging her cheek.

She smiled, and brushed a hand through that soft, warm fur.

"I'm okay," she said softly, her eyes closing as she hugged her familiar again. "And thank you, Arf..."

And she was okay.

She really was.

Things weren't completely fine, and Fate doubted that they would ever be; wounds could heal and harsh memories could fade, but the scars would never really go away. Not for her, not for Erio, and...well, wasn't it the same for anyone?

And wasn't life made up of both sad and happy things, anyway?

She should know - she had seen too many things during the missions she had taken to count. The things that she had seen had not always been the best; sometimes they disturbed her too much and she had to fight to keep an even expression, and other times, they just made her angry or sad or frustrated or a combination of any of them.

And then there were those moments when she would see some of the most dazzling things that would always stay in her mind and take her breath away. It was these that she would often find herself attempting to immortalize in the form of photos, and sometimes she succeeded, and sometimes she didn't.

It was a world made in shades of grey.

Her brother had coined that term when they had talked in the aftermath of a certain Lost Logia case involving the Book of Darkness and one of her best friends. And now, she found herself truly understanding what he meant, the ghost of sadness that colored his tone, and the weight underlying it.

So when she had confronted the small, red-haired boy, and looked straight into those hollow, lonely blue eyes - Fate knew at once that Erio would come to depend on her if she managed to get through to him. That realization was like a slap in the face, she had been suddenly reminded of Caro, and the sudden weight of that bittersweet responsibility that dropped on her shoulders was astounding and terrifying all at once.

It was a long, long few days when she had to fight through his emotions and get burnt in the process, and yet she had somehow squared her shoulders, did it, and had no idea how she had done it.

How did she do it?

When the little boy had hesitantly reached for her sleeve, fisted it in, cried, and then held on to her for dear life, she knew - she knew - that failure was not an option. She could not afford to fail, for if that boy lived or died now, it would be on her.

Was she even ready for that kind of terrifying responsibility? It was something she had thrown herself into willingly and without a second thought, and she'd sooner hurt herself before she even think of abandoning him, but can she do this?

Already, she could feel the weight of everything threatening to make it so hard to breathe again -

"Fate-chan?"

She glanced up at the door, jerked out of her reverie where her thoughts had taken a darker turn.

Slate blue eyes were fixed on her; Nanoha was leaning against the door, with hands crossed.

There was a warm smile on her face.

And all of a sudden, she could feel the weight lessening; and it wasn't suffocating any longer.

Nanoha, in the meanwhile, stepped closer, head tilted curiously at her before directing a look at the familiar in her arms.

"Is she still asleep?" Her friend sounded amused. "Or is her head in the clouds again?"

The familiarity and the softness of that voice was making something uncoil -

"Hmmm, I wonder..." Arf sounded equally amused - more, actually - peering up at her with prickling ears, and nudged at her cheek again. "Faaaate, are you still asleep?"

There was something teasing in her familiar's tone. And Fate had an inkling suspicion that it was more of because Arf was acutely aware about what she was feeling, and even more clearly than Nanoha ever would.

Fate flushed.

"I'm awake," she informed both of them, feeling somewhat indignant.

"Aha, she speaks." Nanoha clapped her hands, grinning.

"Yup!"

She felt her cheeks warm up despite herself.

"Okay," her friend said, unceremoniously tugging the blanket away as she pulled Fate up, "go wash up now. Lunch's almost ready."

"Uh - N-Nanoha - "

Arf, in the mean time, had jumped off the bed and padded out of the room. "I'll go help Lindy-kaasan set the table~"

It took a moment for those words to register in her head.

It also made her freeze for the barest of a second, to which Nanoha seemed to notice and ignore, continuing to push her towards the bathroom, firmly but gently.

"Kaa-san's back?" She somehow managed to ask, and oddly enough, how easily those words had tumbled out - or more specifically, how easily she had said kaa-san, like it had been an instinctive part of her - surprised her completely for reasons she couldn't even begin to name.

"Lindy-san got back this morning," the brunette said simply, reaching out from behind her to open the door to the bathroom, before pushing her in.

"Oh.."

"Fate-chan." And suddenly, that humored warmth was replaced by the instructor tone Fate had once heard when she visited the training field where Nanoha was instructing her students, "go wash your face, brush your teeth, and change your clothes. Now, now."

The command was so literal that she couldn't help but let her lips twitch into a smile.

"Yes, instructor."

At that, her friend made an inaudible noise in her throat that sounded like a half-snort and half-laughter. "You have ten minutes!" was the warning, but it was more amused than anything else, and Nanoha moved to leave the room.

And for a short moment, Fate just watched the girl who was half a head shorter, with hair like hazel; dressed simply in a turtleneck and skirt.

What, she wondered, would she be like if she had never met this girl with warm blue-violet eyes and an even warmer smile and touch?

Fate found herself drawing a blank; it was unimaginable.

And before she realized what she was doing - she had reached out, grasping that wrist, and stopping her friend in her tracks.

Nanoha turned, giving her a curious look. "Fate-chan?"

She tugged.

"F - Fate - ?" her friend stammered, face suddenly flushed, and surprise was so very evident in that tone.

She wasn't sure what she was doing.

Because, really, she had no idea why she had pulled Nanoha to her, and enclosed her friend in a tight hug, fingers brushing against soft brown locks and feeling the warmth that had never failed to comfort her, one way or another.

It had been an instinctive motion.

A sudden need to do it.

What would life have been like without this girl who saved her?

She really, really didn't know, and she didn't think she want to know.

Arisa, in one of her more annoyed moments back when they were much younger, had once said she tended to follow Nanoha around like a lost little puppy. Not so literally, perhaps, but it was true. The world had been something foreign to her, and in this world where she knew nothing and understood nothing, Nanoha had been the only other familiar thing in her life next to Arf, and not even the family she had been slowly, slowly growing used to could compare to that in those days.

And now, Fate knew, she was no longer lost.

She had found her place in this world, and even though she still didn't know what she wanted to do in the future as high school was coming to an end, or if she wanted to pursue photography as a career (the question had came up a lot more often recently), or if she would ever be so completely certain of herself one day - she wasn't that lost little puppy, anymore.

Maybe she wouldn't ever know what she really wanted to do for life - but she had things she wanted to do, could do, and things she was determined to do.

She might stumble. She might hesitate. She might wonder if she was the right person to do it.

But she was still going to do it.

And a certain girl who had been so straightforward in her feelings had played a central role in that.

She breathed in her friend's scent, just a little, tightening her hold for just an instant and -

"Thank you," she found herself whispering. "Thank you - for always being there for me."

.

.

cinq.
(shuffle)

.

.

Jail Scaglietti.

A scientist notoriously known for the things he had done, a person who was wanted - across dimensions - for all the crimes he did.

The one who established 'Project F'.

And more recently, the one confirmed to have a hand in creating the 'gadgets' that had hurt Nanoha.

"Have you heard of him before you knew about Erio-kun?" Hayate asked, fingering the paper cup filled with a dark brown liquid.

"Once," she admitted, forcing a smile. "Just the name, that is. Chrono was talking to Verossa when I entered the room, and he mentioned the name...though I didn't realize why, then. I was a little too pre-occupied with..." she paused. "...Nanoha's injury at that time."

"Hmmm. So both of them knew about him since a long time back."

Silence.

"So it seems," she said at last, quietly, watching the dark rippling of coffee in her own cup.

Another lapse of silence.

Her friend placed her cup back on the table, and blue eyes were fixed on her, assessing and searching.

"Fate-chan," the brunette said softly, "Are you angry with Chrono-kun for not telling you?"

Was she?

She didn't think she was, or that she should be, but the uncomfortable feeling that was tightening in her spoke volumes.

And she found that she couldn't quite deny that, yes, she was angry.

Her grip on the warm paper cup tightened.

Hayate sighed, then. "You know you weren't exactly in the right state of mind to hear about him back then, don't you?"

She grimaced at the memory.

"And more to the point," her friend continued quietly, "we're not part of TSAB. Merely civilian mage collaborators who are highly skilled, or have rare skills that is useful to them. Most of what they do would be classified to us. Chrono-kun would be in a difficult position if he revealed things to you just like that."

"...I know."

She did, and it was frustrating.

Her friend leaned back against the chair, looking at the ceiling ruefully. "We're just convenient tools, I guess." A pause, before Hayate's hand lifted; two blue screens now hovering in front of them. "How often did you encounter these things?"

Fate glanced at the screen.

Gadgets, half-destroyed and burning; and Hayate was floating a short distance above, in her barrier jacket, Rein by her side.

"Five times," she said after a moment of consideration. "We recovered the artifacts, though, despite that."

"AMF?"

She shook her head. "Only for the latter three missions."

"Between Signum, Zafira, Vita, Shamal, Rein and I...we've encountered them seventeen times in separate missions. Nanoha-chan encountered them a few times, too, I'm sure."

Silence.

She frowned. "That's a lot."

"It is. There's something big going on, don't you think? And whatever it is, it can't be good." Blue eyes darkened. "Nothing involving this many Lost Logia artifacts, and spanning so many years without getting any closer to solving it, could be any good."

"Mm.." She couldn't disagree, having known it from experience herself. "To want this much power...what is he planning?"

Hayate sighed. "Who knows. Also, for the last mission I had with Signum, Fate-chan..." her friend sipped her coffee, looking as if she was considering before speaking again. "There were some gadgets, too, heading for the research center just as we were going there." A pause. "The place where we found Erio-kun."

Her grip on the cup tightened, but she remained silent.

"We searched every nook and cranny of the center, and did not find any Lost Logia. Why would the gadgets be there if there wasn't any artifacts?"

Hayate turned to her, then, giving her an unreadable look.

"To be frank..." the brunette said quietly, "these gadgets was probably there for Erio Mondial. And given the suspicions we already have on Jail...it's probably because he's a clone."

And she found that she didn't have anything to say to that, except, "...You're probably right."

Her friend's gaze was searching. "You don't seem surprised."

That was because she wasn't.

She couldn't help the sigh from coming out this time. "I'm not. It's not hard to connect the dots."

And besides, for a large number of their missions, Chrono had been the one to assign them. It was obvious that her brother was leading some sort of investigation on Jail.

Hayate gave her a slight grin, elbowing her gently. "Such modesty, Fate-chaaan. I still remember that case where you were the only one who noticed the anomaly, and pointing it out had solved it immediately. And Nakajima-san mentioned that it was a pity you weren't part of TSAB, didn't he?"

She returned that tease with a slight rueful smile of her own, her words pointed. "As I remember it, he said the same about you. And, didn't you receive more requests to handle missions compared to me? "

Hayate's grin turned wry. "That's because I'm a rare ability user."

Fate inclined her head, slightly.

Coming from Hayate, that statement was just a little bit too cynical.

"You know it's not just that, Hayate."

"Yes, well...but you don't disagree, do you?" the brunette glanced down into her own paper cup, watching the coffee swirl gently. Her tone was unreadable. "Be it as a powerful solo mage, or rare ability users, in the end, we're all just convenient tools anyway."

Blue eyes darkened. "At where we are right now, Fate-chan, there's not much we can do that will make some actual difference."

Fate did frown, this time. There was something that plagued her friend.

"Hayate...what's bothering you?"

Hayate smiled, just a little; and sadness flickered in that gaze. "Reinforce gave me this...power."

She watched the brunette lift her hand as sapphire blue eyes stared at it, expression clouded over - "...And I'm not even putting it to good use."

She felt herself stop. Not putting it to good use?

That wasn't even close to being true.

"Hayate - "

"Ah, but," her friend glanced wryly at her before turning back to her hand, "it's not as if I don't think I'm doing good by helping with the missions I was given. The money is a really just a plus, but..." The hand curled into a fist. "...I can do more. I should be able to do more."

I have to do more, was the unsaid.

Something tightened in Fate.

Even now, guilt still plagued her friend. And she wondered, for a brief few seconds, if Hayate would ever finally be rid of it, and the sense of responsibility that burdened her shoulders.

It was a long moment before she could even begin to think of what to say. "So what do you intend to do?"

Again, Hayate smiled, but it was just as humorless; and her friend turned to meet her gaze. "That brings me to why I wanted to talk to you, Fate-chan."

Fate's only response was to incline her head, waiting. Her friend had asked to meet her in the bureau headquarters after she was done with her visit to the Special Protection Center, where Hayate had been cleaning up some of the data for the investigation on the research center.

"I...talked to Chrono-kun earlier, about this. As well as the Saint Church..." Hayate trailed off for a moment. "Nanoha-chan and you haven't met them before yet, have you?"

She shook her head. "I've heard Signum talking about Schach on occasions, and you talking about Carim sometimes, but...no."

Her friend's smile grew. "I'll bring you and Nanoha-chan sometime." A pause. "But, putting that aside...for what I want to do, there is a number of red tapes to cross, and a lot more legal issues to sort out - though Chrono-kun said he will provide support, and he will talk to Lindy-san about it - and my foster family at Saint Church had agreed to support as well..."

Fate gave her a curious look. "That's quite the political clout you're gathering there. You're planning something big."

Said girl smirked, and lifted her cup as if to toast - "As your brother once said, networking is important. But, yes, I am."

She nodded. "Go on."

"I want to create a private investigation company, situated right here in Mid-Childa."

She blinked.

"One that specializes in the handling of Lost Logia," Hayate said, sipping at her coffee. "Given the skills and experience we have, we have more than enough on our resume. Furthermore, aside from us, there aren't many out there who can actually battle under AMF conditions...I guess you can say that, in that regard, the only ones who are really equipped to handle Jail Scaglietti's case is really us, unless if the Ground forces steps up...which I doubt, given how rigid they are."

A pause.

"The Naval forces can't act freely without cooperation from the Ground forces on Mid-Childa, and... Chrono-kun once mentioned how difficult it was for the Naval forces to work with the Ground forces, didn't he?"

"He did," she said after a moment. It was during a case where one of the Lost Logia artifact they had been looking for was moved to Mid-Childa, and negotiating with the Ground Forces to enable a search for them had been...a harrowing process.

Hayate winked. "That's where we come in. Our first customer will probably be either the Saint Church or Chrono-kun; with the objective being getting Jail arrested. Since we are not attached to the bureau but only affiliated, the Ground forces have no direct ways of disabling our movements. And having a label above us will give us that much more freedom to investigate this particular case more easily, without having to go through the bureau red tapes."

A momentary pause, before another grin grew.

"If we don't break the rules, that is. But, between you and me and my knights, I'm sure we can find a way around it."

Fate's lips twitched. "You've thought about this a great deal."

The grin turned rueful. "I have. There are still a lot of complications to consider, though. Speaking is far easier than actually attempting it."

She nodded, slightly, in agreement.

"Maa. It will take a bit more time, but...we will get there." A pause. "So, Fate-chan..."

Her friend fingered the paper cup awkwardly, scratching at the cheek, and her blue eyes moved to look...elsewhere.

And she found herself feeling a little amused. It wasn't often when her friend would look like that, but there were times - few and far in between - when Hayate would adopt that nature. Usually, she remembered, for a specific reason in mind.

Opposite her, Hayate continued; and there was something sheepish about that tone. "Well...though I've been using 'we' and 'us' while I talked about this, I haven't asked you yet..."

"Yes?" She inclined her head questioningly.

"...It's going to be a bit of a troublesome few years," Hayate said hesitantly, "but will you join me in a co-partnership of this yet-to-be-named company, Fate-chan?"

A momentary pause, before her friend continued hastily. "Ah, er, but of course, I understand if you don't want to. I mean, I know you still have that photography book you're trying to complete before it can be published, and you may already have plans for after we graduate from high school - not to mention we'll likely encounter a lot of issues and stress in this company - I also wanted to ask Nanoha-chan to join too, but, um, she has a full time job already, although she'd be a honorary member of the company anyway, as you will be, but - "

"Hayate." She lifted a hand to cut the rambling short, amused.

And it probably showed, too, because Hayate grimaced, flushing slightly.

She chuckled, and wished that she could take a picture of that expression. It wasn't too often when Hayate would get flustered.

Unfortunately, though, her camera was at home.

So, instead, she reached across the table and flicked the brunette's forehead with the third finger, earning her a startled yelp as her friend backed a little; the coffee in Hayate's grip sloshing dangerously.

"F-Fate-chan?"

"If you hadn't invited me into something as interesting as this," she said, her stern look probably ruined by the amusement in her voice that she knew she wasn't hiding, "I would have been upset, you know."

"...Ahaha..."

And that was how her path was re-shaped, again.

In between school and final exams approaching, Nanoha growing busier with her job, and Fate's preoccupation with photography as she and Hayate (who mentioned she had decided to migrate to Mid-Childa after the end of high school) made initial plans about the private company, she did find time to watch a curious Caro meet a wary Erio for the first time.

Caro had grown comfortable in her own skin as she lingered among the Harlaowns', and smiled easily now. The magic-restraining device, too, had been replaced by an actual intelligent device; for ease of magic control, usage and to be able to control Friedrich better, should there ever be a need for it.

Fate doubted it, however...the girl, despite how well she seemed to be now, was still afraid of her dragon going out of control, and kept a tight, tight leash on Fried. She knew Caro had not forgotten her near-death incident, not even by the slightest.

But, that was okay. That was okay, because there was time, and time they had in spades to heal.

Erio - whom Lindy had assumed guardianship on, as well - had been a silent child, for the most part. She hoped that Caro would be able to help break him out of his shell. Fate had succeeded, to some degree - but the boy was still guarded and wary, and flinched at the slightest contact, even if he did smile more now.

It was going to be a difficult process, given the things he had experienced, but...

The blonde watched as Caro offered a hand which Erio hesitantly accepted; before the girl pulled him towards the roller coaster cheerfully.

She smiled, despite herself.

...Perhaps it wouldn't be that difficult, after all?

.. .. ..

From the corner of her eyes, she could see her luggage snapping shut.

Click.

"Kaaay, I think that's it."

She glanced up, momentarily pausing in placing a lens in a cotton-padded box, and smiled. "Thanks for the help, Nanoha."

"Mm, it's fine." Her friend pushed her bag down from the bed to floor, before rolling over to peer over at where she was sitting on the carpet, perpendicular to the bed; head resting on two arms by the side of it.

Fate closed the box, carefully, before reaching for the tape, stretching it.

"How long's the trip?" Nanoha asked, eyeing the photography equipments that she continued to pack.

"Hmm, I wonder..."

To be honest, she, herself, wasn't entirely sure how long it would be.

Nanoha sighed, carefully nudged several stray metallic equipments lying on the bed away to make space, and propped her chin up with an elbow. "You said that for the last trip you made, too." There was dry amusement in that tone.

Fate paused again, looking at her friend curiously as she tried to recall if she did.

"After the graduation ceremony, remember? When you suddenly announced you would be leaving for a trip, and Suzuka-chan asked you how long it would take."

She blinked. She did remember that.

"You're right. I forgot." She said, a little sheepishly.

"Mou..."

"Ahaha, sorry, sorry."

That particular trip had ended up taking two months.

It was worth it, though...because she had seen some of the most dazzling things that took her breath away. And the photography book was just that much closer to being completed.

Fate wanted to finish it within the year, and this was largely due to the private investigation company that was well on its way to being built. Hayate had estimated a year and a quarter (likely less) - from the point of their graduation - before it was completely established. It probably would've taken longer if it wasn't for the influential presence of Saint Church...as well as the funds that Graham left for Hayate.

So she had around a year and a little more to finish the book before she could focus completely on Jail's case. This was the one man that she wanted thrown into prison. To be frank - she had wanted to find him the moment she had found out he had been responsible for Project F, and still roamed free as a well-known criminal, but...

Bureau red tapes was frustrating.

Which was why, for the most part, she could only help with the missions. Many of the leads found in these cases had been pointing to Mid-Childa; and the Ground Forces had proved un-cooperative. For that reason, she had been immensely glad that Hayate came up with an actual, workable solution - a private investigation company.

She wouldn't be able to do anything now - which was why now was a good time as any to finish the book - but, soon enough...

Nanoha poked at her cheek, snapping her out of her darker thoughts.

"Remember to keep in contact, Fate-chan."

There was something out of place in that voice, despite the slightly humored tone.

Slate blue eyes were completely unreadable.

Despite that, however - and the thought of it made her smile a little - having known her best friend for eight years meant that she could read her friend better than most people, save for maybe Hayate and Yuuno.

Nanoha was, to say it plainly, concerned for her.

The worry that her friends and family had felt for her since the near-death experience a few years ago had long since tapered down - but that didn't mean it was entirely gone.

She supposed that some things wouldn't be forgotten, ever, no matter what she did.

And Fate no longer tried to get her friend to stop worrying. Hayate had drilled a lesson into her that she wouldn't ever forget.

So, instead, she reached out, and grasped Nanoha's hand, squeezing gently.

"I will," she promised. "As much as I can."

As much as she could translated to possibly once a week or two. Or even three.

After all, there was only so much communication that could be done in a distant planet not administrated by TSAB; and that meant having to teleport to a location where there would be means to send messages.

"Make sure you do," Nanoha said quietly, squeezing back. "Or we'll come looking for you," the brunette's voice was filled with a mock-warning tone that promised consequences.

Her lips twitched.

And though Nanoha appeared to be joking, she knew that her friend had meant every word she said.

She did smile, this time, and her response was sincere, and serious.

"I know."

.

.

six.
(reel)

.

.

25 May, Year 76.

In the aftermath of the 'JS' Terrorist Incident.

Chrono poked his head in from the entrance.

"Fate, are you taking your car?"

"I am," she nodded, picking up a set of keys from the bowl filled with them. "It would be a little crowded to take just one car."

"Mm," was her brother's only acknowledgement, before his head disappeared. "We will be leaving in a couple minutes."

That was when her mother walked out of the kitchen with Caro, in their hands a couple set of white flower bouquets.

"Is the boot open?" Lindy called out.

"It's open!" Chrono said from outside, "I just cleared some space!"

Soon after, Erio and Arf followed, in their arms large baskets filled with food; Fried perched on his shoulder.

"Fate~" Arf would've looked completely like a human child, slightly older than the boy beside her, if it wasn't because for the prickling wolf ears and waggling tail.

She smiled.

"Food in my car," she told both of them, stepping outside as well, as she unlocked her car, "we don't want the flowers to get crushed by accident."

That, and putting the food in the backseat of Chrono's car where the twins would be dwelling was a bad idea.

Erio Mondial nodded, rather seriously despite the smile on his face.

"Hai, Fate-san."

She watched him converse with Arf as they set about putting the baskets into the boot of her black car.

The boy smiled a lot more easily, now, for which she was really relieved about.

It was amazing that he could.

After all, last year...last year, he had been kidnapped, a couple months after the establishment of the private investigation company.

It had been a period during the investigation on Jail when things had gone seven ways to hell.

Jail attempted to kidnap Erio from the Harlaown house, and Caro - in a moment of desperation - summoned her dragon.

But that hadn't meant she was successful, as Fried - despite that it was in control - and Caro had not been trained on how to fight. Erio had tried to protect Caro, Amy, and her children with what little skills and experience he had with Strada, and what Fate had taught him.

It was a useless endeavor, however.

At the end of it, he was taken.

Fate had been livid.

To add salt to the wound, Subaru - the girl that Hayate employed by way of Genya's request - had been kidnapped from the office when she was working on some files. It would later be known that a girl, by the name of Teana Lanster, had chased after them when the Rescue Unit arrived at the office that was burning - and had ended up in a brief battle that left her injured and unconscious.

And the Ground Force headquarters - a place that they had been monitoring from outside - had been attacked.

It had been a low point for them. Erroneous judgments, the part where they had been taken by surprise with attacks directed at three completely different areas, Hayate finally revealing a prophecy that Carim had made and what brought about the private investigation company, the office burnt down, and everything else and in between...

And the nerve of that man to dare to contact her and tell her she would always be welcome among his family.

It hadn't been the first time she got angry.

But it was the first time she saw red.

And he dared to say that she was like her mother.

Precia.

In her anger, electricity had crackled around her - and she hadn't noticed until Nanoha clamped down hard on her shoulder despite the sting and burn that it would've caused and shook her to her senses.

Said bastard had just laughed as she struggled to reign in her emotions.

The thought of it still left a bitter taste in her mouth.

But, later on - while everyone searched high and low and investigated, with resources pouring in from the Saint Church and the naval forces, however limited they were - imagine her surprise when an exhausted Erio and Subaru stumbled into the Saint Church hospital, with a little bundle of surprise along for the ride.

Fate didn't know the fine-grain details of what Erio did or how he did it, only that he managed to snap Subaru out of the mind-control she was under to enable the escape.

But really, at that time - in between lack of sleep and exhaustion and everything - all that she could feel right then and there was so much relief that she almost dropped to the floor.

This was also when Nanoha would meet the clone of the Sankt Kaiser for the first time - otherwise known as Vivio - the little girl held protectively in Erio's arms as they made their way out from where they were imprisoned.

And somewhere along the way, the little girl started calling Nanoha, 'Nanoha-mama'. It had been oddly amusing and perplexing to see her best friend being so taken with the young blonde that cried so often, and likewise, Vivio with Nanoha.

"It's time," Chrono called out, pulling her out of her reverie; and she could hear the engine from her brother's car revving to life.

She nodded, briefly, slipping into the driver's seat - and from the mirrors she checked for their positioning, she could see the members of her family moving to either of the cars without hesitating. Lindy, Amy and the twins to Chrono's car; Erio, Caro and Arf to hers.

She found herself smiling slightly at how automatic the movements were, despite herself, and leaned back against the chair; a hand switching gears as she grasped the steering wheel loosely, and trailed after her brother's car as it moved.

"Um..."

She glanced at the overhead mirror, and caught sight of Erio's troubled expression.

"What is it, Erio?"

"Is Subaru-san going to be okay at the cemetery?"

Her grip on the wheel tightened momentarily.

Yes.

During the investigation - especially near the end of it - where battles that took a toll on everyone involved, emotionally and physically, people had died.

Genya had been one of them.

And Ginga, the oldest Nakajima daughter, had died in a fire breakout at Coastal Airport 8 five years ago, caused by a risky Lost Logia artifact smuggling that they later found out was related to Jail.

Subaru was, in other words, alone.

"...I believe so," she said after a moment.

In the aftermath of the case, Subaru had taken a personal interest in assisting the Numbers (with the exception of a few) with their rehabilitation into society. There was also an odd sort of friendship that had formed between her and Teana that Fate thought had helped, to some degree.

Above all, Subaru had remained positive, and upbeat.

"And even if she's not," she continued, glancing at the mirror to look back at the boy, "we will help her get there, won't we, Erio?"

The red-haired boy nodded, determination and seriousness in his features. "Hai."

She smiled, slightly. During the period where Erio and Subaru had been kidnapped, a camaraderie of sort had formed between them.

Though, she could probably say the same for Vivio.

Erio had become something like a protective big brother to Vivio, and it always made her lips twitch to see the girl scooting a little close to him when they were approached by someone unfamiliar as Erio took an instinctive half-step forward to put her behind him, just a little.

That had been a very big improvement from the time when Vivio would visibly hide behind him and grip his shirt. If not that, then clinging to Nanoha and refusing to let go, in which the brunette would plead for an amused Fate to save her.

All that changed after the 'Cradle' incident, however. Despite that Vivio may still flinch involuntarily, sometimes, she was much less shy now, and a lot more braver.

And Fate was suddenly reminded of what Hayate had told her - when they talked briefly in the aftermath of the case - that it would be naive to think that this would be the first and last time a terrible event such as this would occur, especially given that they would be dealing with Lost Logia was part of the job description. Chances were, something else would happen again, in the future.

The best they could do was prepare for it, and in the meanwhile...

Take life for what it was, deal with both the good and bad of it, and face forward.

There was a faint, lingering pain in Hayate's features that reminded her of the time when she had seen Hayate slam a hand at the wall for the first time in her life; sad and trembling and furious she couldn't save Genya -

Fate knew that Hayate had aimed that particular statement at her.

After all, how easy was it to deal with the fact that people died and she killed someone, irregardless of the fact he was a criminal?

Her grip on the wheel tightened at the memory.

Jail Scaglietti died by her hands.

She didn't like him. She was angry at him.

She wanted to hurt him.

But she hadn't wanted him dead.

Yet, the situation at that time was just that critical, and he needed to be stopped. It was an act of a moment's desperation, for if she hadn't...more people would've died.

But that didn't mean she had the best of time trying to deal with it.

Her brain had understood what Hayate was trying to tell her.

Her heart didn't.

And the thought of it made her left shoulder throb dully, again.

She fought down the grimace that threatened to form. Ever since the battles that left most of them injured and scarred to varying degrees in different ways, sometimes, there would be the ghosting feel of sharp stabs on her shoulder.

It hadn't taken long before Nanoha sensed something amiss, and marched her straight to Shamal after a rather one-sided argument that Fate eventually lost. And the doctor's final deduction was that nothing can be done, and the pain probably wouldn't go away for a long time, if even.

The damage was just too ingrained.

It probably didn't help that, despite the injury that she had from all those years ago had healed, she never did regain the full working ability of it. It wasn't obvious, but she knew Signum had sensed it when they sparred, though the older knight said nothing.

She was always careful, though, to never let Caro know about it; and only a select few knew about it - Shamal, Nanoha, Arf...as well as Signum, to some degree, despite not being told. Chances were Hayate knew too, even if she never asked.

And she knew Arf had sensed her pain from the way her familiar had glanced at her briefly; though all Arf did was engage the two kids in a cheerful conversation.

Thank you, she couldn't help but communicate telepathically.

Mm. Be careful.

I will.

.. .. ..

Her fingers traced over the chiseled words on the large black cylindric memorial stone that towered over her by a good meter, careful not to step on the white bouquets placed on the altar as she moved around it slowly.

Most names, she hadn't recognized.

A select few, she did.

Thousands of names were engraved onto it, and she found herself inhaling a deep breath, as if trying to do away with the sudden tightening in her chest.

But she knew she was failing before she even tried.

She stopped when she could feel her feet knocking onto the altar, and her thumb ran across a name - whose position she had recognized by memory and by instinct because she had done this so many times already -

Megane Alphine.

A former bureau officer who had gone missing during an investigation...

And the mother of that child who, even now, remained in a hospital, staring at the ceiling lifelessly despite the kids's best effort. Lutecia.

Fate couldn't save her.

In fact, one would even say that she had been the cause of Megane's death, depriving Lutecia of her mother.

Killing Jail Scaglietti had caused a self-destruction timer to start in his hideout, and while Fate may be a brilliant combat specialist, she wasn't a technology expert.

She couldn't stop the timer.

And so people died.

Fate didn't know if she deprived anyone else of their mothers. Most of the bodies of the women that was found could not be identified, or even named, and there was just too many dimensions and planets where they could've possibly come from for TSAB to go through with a fine toothcomb.

But chances were she did deprive some other kids of their mothers.

And it would be her fault.

Fate's eyes closed shut.

Her hand curled into a tight fist, pressing onto the cold stone.

I'm sorry.

I'm so, so sorry.

"Fate-mama." A hand tugged at her jeans gently.

Her eyes opened to meet a pair of heterochromatic eyes.

She shoved the turmoil of emotions that threatened to drown her to the back of her mind, and forced a slight smile.

"Vivio. What is it?"

Inwardly, she kicked herself. Lost in thought that she was, she hadn't sensed Vivio's presence approaching.

The little girl cocked her head, then sort of frowned, and sort of stared at her in bemusement.

If this was last year, Fate reflected, what would've showed on Vivio's expression would probably be something along to the lines of fear. But now, it was curiosity and a quietly observant gaze that searched Fate's features.

Fate tried to school her face into a neutral look, and probably succeeded.

"Nanoha-mama said to tell you it's almost time," Vivio said. "Everyone's getting ready to go to the office for the re-opening party, now."

"Ah." She must have lost track of time. "Thanks for telling me, Vivio."

Fate smiled slightly, and reached out for Vivio's hand; one that the little girl reached for immediately.

"Let's go." She took a step, but ended up pausing because Vivio remained rooted to where she was standing. "Vivio?"

The younger girl seemed to be contemplating something, big heterochromatic eyes remaining fixed on her - and then the small grip Vivio had on her tightened.

"Don't be sad, Fate-mama."

She blinked.

"Nanoha-mama said...she said that you experienced something really saddening when you met that - " her surrogate daughter's eyes clouded over briefly - "that man...J-Jail-san."

There was still a hint of fear in that small voice at the reminder of that name, but Vivio pushed on - bravely, Fate thought. "Was it really that bad, Fate-mama?"

Briefly, the older mage wondered what Vivio would think if she knew Jail died by her hands.

Likewise for the many, many women she couldn't save from that hideout.

But Vivio didn't need to know that...at least, not anytime soon, if even, so she left it at that.

Fate bent to keep them on eye-level, and ruffled Vivio's hair. "I won't say it wasn't bad, Vivio, but...I would think that what you went through was even harder than what I did." She smiled. "And besides which, Fate-mama is fine. You don't have to worry about me, Vivio."

Unexpectedly, the heterochromatic-eyed girl frowned.

"Lying is bad, Fate-mama," the girl said plainly, now reaching up to pinch at Fate's nose.

The sudden pressure on her nose made her blink, be it because she was startled by the words or surprised at the gesture -

"If Fate-mama's sad, we will be sad too. And Fate-mama has been sad for a while now. Nanoha-mama has been worried, you know? Aunt Hayate is, too. I heard them talking the other day while drinking - " Vivio paused, her face scrunching up - "...nasty, ewie coffee."

Fate found that she couldn't help but lift her eyebrows and let amusement color her soft tone. "Did they now?"

Vivio nodded seriously. "Aunt Hayate said you needed time to 'figure things out', and Nanoha-mama agreed. They said some other things I didn't really understand too, but...there are some things I did get."

Two small, warm hands moved to grasp at her cheeks.

"We are okay, Fate-mama. I know it was a really scary experience for me, but I'm okay already. Erio-niichan's okay too. Everyone's okay. We're all okay, so...so you don't have to worry about us, and you should take as much time as you need to figure things out."

Vivio was smiling.

"And then, you know...we'll be here when you're done. We are not going anywhere. So do what you've to do, Fate-mama. We will aaaalways be waiting, because, we love you, Fate-mama. I promise."

The little girl paused consideringly, then offered her pinky finger and added. "Pinky promise!"

Fate could feel her vision blur, something tightening in her chest, and another thing uncoiling -

And she was completely astounded.

Fate didn't think she deserved all these.

But she knew, like a punch to the gut, that she had them anyway.

And she didn't want to lose them.

She couldn't.

Vivio had tilted her head, and then seemed to hesitate and falter slightly when she made no move to do anything - to which she had moved instinctively, because she didn't want the girl to feel rejected, and locked her last finger against the other -

"It's a promise," she found herself saying despite herself, voice cracking.

The girl brightened.

She didn't know when she moved, only that she did, and she had enveloped the girl into a tight hug.

"Un." Small hands moved around her, hugging just as tightly. "It's a promise, Fate-mama."

She breathed in deeply, in a bid to do away with the strange lump clogging her throat and the wetness she could feel forming in her eyes.

Bur Fate knew she didn't succeed too well, anyway.

.

.

sept.
(again)

.

.

18 September, Year 76.

Nanoha.

I've been gone for nearly two months now, haven't I?

I'm sorry for being away for so long. I really am.

I hope everything's fine over there. How are the three kids at school? I think Vivio would be able to mix easily, but Erio and Caro are the quieter ones. They are very independent, I know, but...it still worries me. Are Hayate and the rest getting busier? Chrono told me that he had heard about more requests coming in to the company to investigate several cases.

Hayate said that they were doing fine despite that I'm not there, and insisted that I do whatever I need to before coming back, but...well. I guess I'm a worrywart, still?

And how are you, Nanoha? Not overdoing it, I hope.

Over here...on this planet where there's no magic civilization, it had been two months filled with some of the most memorable experiences. And since I can't go around flying like it's normal, I've gotten around by driving, instead.

It feels strange here.

That is not to say that the people here aren't people, or that they have some weird customs of sort - people around here are people, with all the good and bad surrounding them, much like how the people where we live are is like. But, Nanoha...over here, I feel like I'm finally...slowing down. Does that make sense? I guess it probably doesn't, since I can't really understand it either.

I've been driving around aimlessly, without any actual directions. I'm on the road so often that switching gears and pressing on the brake usually happens only when I need petrol, or when I grab a bite, or when I take a break. Seeing another car pass by is a once in a blue moon thing. But I suppose that's the thing about the more rural areas - less people, less excitement, more greens, and more solitude.

I'm rather enjoying it, though. It's nice to feel the fresh wind on my face and the soft humming of the engine, albeit it being very different compared to flying.

Around two weeks ago - I had stopped near a small house for a break, just a little past a rather flimsy bridge (made of wood) I had to cross, given that it was the only path available. The family who lived there was really friendly. I think you would really like them, Nanoha.

The old man - Einsh - in the house was a rather grumpy person who didn't really smile, but I think he's a really kind man, and it shows when he grumbled about me being too thin (I'm not), and demanded I eat more during dinner. His daughter, Servyn (who was pregnant), had just smiled knowingly, winked at me, then placed more food on her son's plate; while the husband snorted - to which Einsh had growled at him...haha. Despite that, though, I think he regarded his son-in-law rather fondly, even if he shows it in a different way.

And then Servyn entered labor.

She was in labor, and the nearest doctor was in a town miles away.

Einsh had went out immediately, dressed in a thick rain coat because the rain was really heavy then - only to return in ten minutes, face grim. The bridge had fallen apart by way of thunder; and the town in the direction that I would be heading to would take even longer to reach.

This more or less meant we were on our own. I hesitated here, Nanoha...if I used magic, I could've probably brought her to the doctor. It would take a while, but it'd still be faster than using the car. But given her condition, and the weather...it wasn't wise.

So I bore witness, and took part, in helping to deliver the baby. Despite the amusing part where both husband and son more or less looked terrified and scrambled to do Einsh's bidding when he barked at them to get hot water and towels...I've to say, this isn't...I can't describe this experience.

I don't know how to describe what is it that I felt when I saw a life being born right before my eyes, only that to hear the cries of a newborn baby had been incredible. I hadn't dared to hold the baby for longer than a minute, for fear of dropping her. I know I've carried the twins before, many times, even, but...but Nanoha. She was so small, and so, so fragile.

And she was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen all my life.

How is it that, to have such a small, small hand gripping my finger tightly, could almost bring me to tears?

I don't know. But it's incredible. It's incredible for reasons I can't even begin to describe.

It makes me want to make another photography book, too.

Hmm. Come to think of it, I never really said why I created the first book I did, didn't I? Only that I had a sudden urge to, after meeting Erio for the first time.

It's...a little embarrassing, to be honest. Haha. But, did you know, Nanoha? It was you and Hayate who taught me what it means to be strong. Strong in the face of adversaries, pain, sadness...and everything else and in between.

Linith had taught me how.

But she never said why, and what it meant.

I think I can understand why she didn't - it just wasn't something that could be explained so easily, only seen and experienced. Hayate went through a painful loss, was crippled, but fought on and persevered. And you had lost almost a year of your life, with more difficulty in store - only to overcome them completely. It took time, but you did, and it's amazing.

Both of you are incredible.

And I wanted to try and describe them.

I was truly, truly surprised to receive a mail later on by someone who liked the book...he said things like how it lifted his spirits, and how it made him want to work harder..

I wasn't confident that I was successful, but it made me happy that someone liked it, and was even encouraged by it. More mails came in later on, but...yes. I was really, really happy, and glad.

So how long will this book take me to make this time, I wonder..?

Honestly, I can't tell. I can say that I've no intention of being away as often and as long as I did before the investigation on Jail, started, though, so it could potentially take far longer. I can't leave the company be too long either, despite what Hayate said - I'd feel too guilty. There's also Erio and Caro to consider.

But, Nanoha...now and then, in the future - as you can probably guess - I'll be making trips. That's...a certainty, I'm sure of now. And...oh. I haven't said what's the theme for the new book, have I? If the previous book had been about the meaning of strength, this one would be about...hmm.

I wonder if I can say that this book will be about...the joys of life?

Okay. It's almost time for the scheduled transport to non-administrated planet 301, Iiria. I'll be there for a little while, and then I'll come back. And, as I once promised you, and as I'll promise again - I'll keep in contact as much as I can. Definitely.

Say hello to everyone for me.

Fate T. Harlaown.

[End Message.]

.. .. ..

"...I thought it was you."

She blinked, glanced back, and smiled in pleasant surprise.

"Yuuno."

The blond man smiled, too, stepping closer, and eyed the memorial stone with a solemn gaze.

"I saw you at the entrance of the teleportation central," he said, "and guessed that you would've come here."

"Hmm," she had to smile at that, eyes returning to trace the names engraved onto the stone, "I'm that predictable?"

"In instances like this." Yuuno said simply.

Her eyes closed, briefly. "I see."

"So how was the trip?" he asked. "Anything interesting?"

"Yes..." she said absently, then suddenly remembered. "Oh. I've souvenirs for everyone." Her smile grew. "As well as some spicy delicacies that I think you'll enjoy."

His eyebrows rose.

"Our kind of spicy?"

She did smirk, this time. "Our kind."

Yuuno looked amused and anticipating both. "Thanks. I can't wait." A pause, before he asked curiously. "Did you get some for Hayate and Nanoha?"

Fate's lips curled upwards. "I really don't think they would appreciate those too much..." Then she gestured. "It's in the car. Would you like to pick it up now?"

"Sure." He grinned, and they walked back to the entrance of the cemetery at a leisure pace. "And you're right. They probably won't."

She couldn't help but chuckle at the thought.

Both of them would've probably stared in horror and back away nervously, in all honesty.

Maybe she should've gotten some for them afterall. It would've been incredibly amusing, no doubt.

Among the people in their circle, Fate and Yuuno were the only people who really liked spicy food...and can handle spicy food that would've made the others race for the water tap.

But, in retrospect, maybe it was a Mid-Childa versus Earth thing...though Fate knew that even her family couldn't take food as spicy as them despite having a higher threshold compared to Nanoha or Hayate.

"...You look refreshed," Yuuno observed.

She blinked, pausing momentarily before resuming her walk. "Do I?"

"You do," he nodded, smilling. "Sounds like the trip have done you good."

"That's..." she trailed off.

Fate knew she hadn't forgotten that Jail died by her hands.

Or that Megane's - among many others - death had been caused by her indirectly.

Or that the pain on her shoulder had stopped coming; it came just as erratically as it went.

But...

Why was it that she never noticed that the...pain... wasn't as suffocating? At least, not as much as before.

She could still remember those days where all she did was stare at her hands and see blood, and was lost to the world until she was jerked out of her thoughts; and how everything threatened to drown her.

But now...now, it was easier to breathe.

Easier to think.

Easier to reign in the turmoil of emotions that would've threatened to bubble over in the past.

"Hasn't it?" Yuuno asked simply as they continued to walk, hands sliding into his pockets as he glanced up at the sky.

Fate doubted she'd ever forget them. Or ever really let those thoughts go. It was just one of those things that lingered at the back of your mind, and possibly things you would never ever forget regardless of the effort put in.

But it was easier.

It had grown far, far easier compared to those days.

"...Yes," she said at last, breathed in the scent of fresh grass and crisp air, and smiled. "Yes, it has been a good trip."

Though she didn't see it, Yuuno had smiled, too.

"That's good to hear."

And was it just her, or was the blue and white morning sky - with flecks of light grey - a lot brighter than she first thought it was?

Hmm.

Her smile grew.

Probably not.

.

.

(ad infinitum)
soar.

.

.

Year 79.

Present time.

"Uh...um, F-Fate-chan.."

"Shh."

"B - but, Fate - " Nanoha sounded as if she was startled and nervous and panicking all at once.

"Be quiet," she whispered, feeling the warmth of the cold metallic fuse board where she was resting her sleeved arms on - from elbow to fist. With the addition of the cold, winter night of Mid-Childa's central park; it was a welcome change.

And the twenty-three year old brunette was pressed in between the panel and her; it had been impossible to create more space, the board just wasn't wide enough to accommodate two adult-sized forms (plus the hastily packed photography equipments that was on the ground beside them).

Nanoha grew silent.

Fate could still feel the brunette thrumming with a slight nervous energy against her however - and fingers have fisted in on her dark jacket.

She craned her head slightly to peek outside at the moving shadows in the dim light.

"Sorry for pulling you here suddenly, but...Signum was investigating that man," she said quietly, a bare whisper that could only be heard if the other was close enough. "I read a bit on the case when I dropped by the office before coming here. Apparently, he was annoyingly elusive, and his case ran overtime since Signum and Agito had difficulty finding evidence. I can't say I was expecting to see him here and meeting his partner-in-crime that they have been investigating as well, no less, but..."

"But?" was the murmured question. Nanoha had relaxed, just a little.

A ghost of a teasing smile crossed her features, and she knocked her head gently against the girl cradled in between the metal panel and herself; and searched surprised slate blue eyes with her own gaze.

"Should I call you my lucky star for giving me the opportunity to find probable evidence, Nanoha?"

Her friend flushed.

"Don't tease me now," Nanoha growled low in her throat, pinching her arm. "Also, you need to stop being a work-alcoholic, Fate-chan. You just got done with transporting an artifact, and you have started working already?"

"Just for now?" she teased, having seen an opening and not being able to resist. "And I needed to catch up on the things I missed. Besides which," she said pointedly, "I know someone who works much, much harder than me."

Nanoha's response was to pinch harder, up to the point she winced. "You spent way, way too much time with Hayate-chan, you realize that?"

"I think so too." She admitted, though she couldn't help the smile that formed.

In contrast to a decade ago, Nanoha had matured a great deal - and Fate thought that Vivio had contributed to that a lot. On the other hand, she herself was...well, what could she say? She wouldn't go as far as to say she pranked people like a certain other brunette, but.

Fate certainly did have her moments when she enjoyed teasing her friends, and they had grown increasingly more as time passed.

"They have started talking," the brunette warned; now refusing to look at her as she tried to peek outside as well. "Are you recording?"

"Yes ma'am," was her murmured response. Bardiche had started the recording the moment the two men was speaking.

Nanoha made a soft sound that sounds like a disgruntled snort.

Fate chuckled.

"...the hell do you want? You know you could've just sent a message! And there are brats on our tail, remember? You said so."

Brats?

Fate didn't agree with that analogy, but, that was bad news, nonetheless. Had they spotted Agito and Signum?

And she had a feeling the first man was scowling though she couldn't see it, based on the agitated tone he was using. "I know that. But I don't trust sending this message through anything or anyone. It's too dangerous!"

Only problem was, as Fate shared an amused glance with Nanoha, she had been around this side of the park because she had seen something she wanted to take a picture of.

"I don't care. Now hurry up."

"The transport will leave Mid-Childa from Coastal Airport Eight, port five, tomorrow. Six pm sharp. Make sure you've your men situated there. We don't want anything to go wrong, and we need to make sure the artifacts are sealed correctly to escape detection - it's a damned public transport."

A minute pause, before a sigh came. "Don't tell me that's all?"

"Don't be careless!" A hiss. "You do realize who those brats are, don't you?"

"Yeah, yeah. The so called brilliant Yagami and co who are in cohorts with the bureau," was the dismissive response.

He scowled. "Their reputation has merit. They have already taken down some of our known acquaintances while assisting bureau investigation, and hindered some of the attempts to steal some Lost Logia we had been targeting."

The other scoffed. "Your acquaintances. Not mine. I'm not as idiotic as them to leave evidences behind. Is that all? I'm leaving."

Footsteps on the snow.

A growl. "...Overconfident bastard... last time I'm going to work with him..."

He continued to mutter curses that slowly faded into the background.

It was a very, very long few minutes before Bardiche spoke.

"Both targets have left the vicinity, Sir. Sensory check within a hundred meters radius has negative results."

That was the cue for them to relax, and they let out simultaneous sighs.

The blonde slipped out, first, from their cramped space; Nanoha followed shortly, but not before the equipments bag was picked up.

Silence.

"...Brats, huh?" There was a hint of amusement in Nanoha's slate blue eyes when she broke the silence.

Fate's lips curled into a slight grin. "Said 'brats' are about to catch them red-handed at the airport and probably put their hair on fire."

"You weren't kidding about the putting their hair on fire part, were you?"

The faintest of a grin grew on her lips. "Not when it's Agito we're talking about here, no."

Nanoha chortled.

Fate reached out then, over to take the bag from Nanoha, slinging it over her shoulder. "I'm really sorry about what happened earlier," she said apologetically. "But it was a chance I couldn't pass up..."

The brunette shook her head, amused. "It's fine. Let's just go to the office...we are going there now, aren't we?"

"Mm, if you don't mind?" A pause. "Vivio?"

"Having a sleepover with her friends. It's alright." Nanoha's grin grew, before she grabbed her by the elbow, and pulled her along to walk faster. "Signum-san can treat us for dinner, since we have the information she needs."

"Sneaky," Fate chuckled.

Nanoha's only response was to pull her tongue out at the blonde.

.. .. ..

Later, Agito commented that Fate should go on another trip, if coming back the next time would make her stumble across vital information that would be useful to them.

There was also a big, anticipatory, sadistic grin on the fire sprite's face that she thought made Signum want to rub the bridge of her nose, and refrained simply out of sheer stoicism.

Volunteering to help at the stakeout at the airport was also met with a pointed remark, by the pink-haired knight.

"I believe I know a few people who would insist that you rest instead, Testarossa, one of whom is talking to Vita in the hall at the moment."

"And didn't you get sick before you left to transport the lost logia?" A floating Agito added.

That made her scratch her cheek a little awkwardly. "I was, but I'm not sick anymore."

For a moment, Signum said nothing, only observing her impassively.

"If you're up for it, go ahead," the knight said at last. "Just remember; the ones who would have your hide if you get injured isn't me."

Fate knew who the people that Signum referred to was, and couldn't help but grin wryly. "Yes...I know." A pause. "How is Erio, by the way?"

"Improving by the spades," Signum said, picking up a stack of papers as she stood, "and also often worried about a certain guardian of his."

The knight had become something like a teacher of sorts to Erio. And he was soaking up what skills she would impart to him like a sponge, much like how he quickly absorbed Fate's.

Give it some more time, and his skills and abilities were likely to match her own.

And it wasn't that Fate wasn't happy that he was so driven to learn, but who would've thought that his desire to protect would grow to such heights because of the JS terrorist incident years ago?

Caro had been another, just slightly less driven. Slightly.

Yet just as determined.

But she supposed that it shouldn't have been surprising...though that didn't stop her from wishing he didn't went through that sort of experience, all the same.

Signum smiled, slightly. "He takes after you, in that regard."

"...I know."

A stack of papers tapped lightly on her head.

The slight weight of the documents that she felt made her blink.

"And in that regard too, with the overthinking," the knight said, slight amusement in her tone, "Stop being a worrywart, Testarossa, and get going."

Fate wondered if she would ever get used to the feeling of something tightening, and another thing uncoiling, in her chest; simultaneously.

And somehow, she didn't think it was going to happen.

"Ah, and another thing." The knight added after a pause.

"Hm?"

"Congratulations on the award, Testarossa."

Again, she blinked.

"Er...?"

.. .. ..

A picture is worth a thousand words.

That, is how I would describe Fate T. Harlaown's photos.

The pictures that Harlaown takes don't have a pretentious feel about it. If her previous works - notably, in her first book - may have felt a little rough around the edges, it is clearly no longer that case here. Now there is something very refined and consistent about her style, and the way she captures the pictures, I think, is very attractive. And most of all, she imbues emotions that are difficult to define in pictures, much less even in words.

We've seen many photos that tend to have too many things or too little - or often times it's so obvious that some photographers are trying so hard to be subtle you can tell it's just not working or that it falls flat. But here, Harlaown's work tends to be straightforward, and she doesn't bother with trying to include more than what is there. As the saying goes - what you see, is what you get. A really refreshing change, and I don't have to wonder why and how she obtained the award.

Definitely one well-deserved award, I would say!

[SkyVein, October Edition, Year 79.]

Fate hadn't seen that award coming.

The highlight was a picture that included kids playing in an oasis and a puppy lapping at the water - a picture that was taken last year. On her table, when she returned, was a stack of letters addressed to her; with offers and sponsors coming in to fund her trips, among other things.

And while it was a pleasant surprise, it hadn't been something that would've made her...deliriously happy, or anything like that. This was mainly because the reason she made the book wasn't for the award, or to obtain those benefits that came with it.

She hadn't wanted any of them, at all.

Which was why ten minutes was all it took for Fate to make a decision to decline those offers.

"They are here," Agito murmured from where she was floating with hands and legs crossed; eyes closed in concentration. Despite the softness of that tone, Fate could detect anticipation in that voice, and something dangerous that meant trouble for the people they wanted to capture.

Looks like Agito was really going to put their hair - or at least some part of them - on fire.

She felt her lips twitch at the thought.

Thinking back, Fate reflected, it was...a little strange, to be honest.

Who would've thought, from that naive little girl who needed to be liberated from her mother, she would be where she stood right now?

There wasn't anything perfect about the life she had right now, but life was fine that way.

She wasn't that nine-year-old girl who knows nothing anymore, and instead she was an adult - who was probably non-the-wiser but just more knowledgeable - with more confidence in her stride, and with a vague purpose in a life that alternated between photography and solving Lost Logia cases.

Not to mention that there were still many, many things to resolve, and to see through - such as Lutecia's anger towards her, the future of the kids, doing what she could to keep problematic Lost Logia issues in control..

And to continue forward with those she held dear.

Agito's eyes opened, and a large, predatory grin formed as she shot a fist up. "Bait is taken! Time to rock and roll!"

Signum's only response was to nod, grip Laevantein's handle, and fly.

Fate leveled a calm gaze at the men at work; mages sealing shut boxes filled with artifacts, and the remaining moving them into a large crate. Bind the mages first, the combat specialist side of her said; then move on to the rest, and secure the artifacts.

Electricity crackled around her, and her grip on her device tightened.

She took in a deep breath.

It was time.

"Let's go, Bardiche."

"Yes sir."

'Life is full of beauty. Notice it.'
- Ashley Smith.

Fin.

.. .. ..

A/N: Bloody hell, I thought I would never finish this. There's going to be a lot of fic rambling from this point on, because, well...it's 29k words!

On credits:
Komett, for pointing out errors, suffering my (irritating) questions, and being very patient. 808tenshi, for motivating me through a bribery...I probably wouldn't have finished the last...6k words or so if it wasn't for that; and for pointing out problematic areas that needed fixing as well as for suffering my (irritating) questions and repeated requests for assurances.

Additional thanks to Moczo (and AnimeSuki) for thoughts on how to get Fate and Yuuno talking, as well, and Shigan's fic, When I think about Flying. Notably, for a certain scene where Arf wakes Fate up, near the end of it. While my objective was to give a different message, there are some details that describes what was portrayed in her fic, to support what I was trying to portray; and there's just no way I could've described it differently.

On the fic itself:
This thing was as frustrating as it was entertaining to write. This wasn't meant to be so long either. Quality control also got a lot more difficult as this thing grew bigger, and the ending was...I don't think I did it too well. So...yes. If you felt that the quality waned as you read, sorry.

I had a lot of trouble with the altered StrikerS scenario. I really wanted to avoid depicting that part, but it turns out I had to. I would also generally say that the events in altered StrikerS would be more bleak compared to the original - and the reasons, I hope, I've shown them. That Hayate and Fate isn't part of TSAB may have made them happier as people, but it wouldn't affect others the same way. And personally, I thought the part where consequences were so few and mild in the original StrikerS was a bit unrealistic.

As you may probably notice, as well, this one-shot is just a portion of a completely new universe. Nanoha and Hayate would go through different things, and, well...they would have completely new stories for themselves. It's like having three completely different stories (pov) for one timeline.

...You won't see me doing those two sides, however. If this had been frustrating in the way that makes you go arghhhh and feeling like you want to strangle something, those two would be far, far worse.

On romance:
Don't say I didn't warn you to put yuri goggles down. I'm sorry if you felt trolled when I had Nanoha and Fate close but not doing anything more than affectionate hugs, but I warned! D: The fact is, Nanoha is a very affectionate person, and she's also very physical in showing it, romantically or no; and Fate is Fate.

Given the topic and what I was trying to do, there's really very little place for romance in this story. I did, however, left it pretty open to interpretation. Plus there are some few years/months gaps in between and all that. So...yeah. 7 Arcs style, go! :D

On Fate:
I've always thought that Fate's worst enemy is herself. And I tried to show that here, to some degree, but I wonder if I succeeded? Hmm. Fate also struck me as someone who would be a photographer, if she wasn't in TSAB. Hence, photography theme.

The Fate that I often portray tends to always have a lingering sense of doubt around her. She can be happy, but there is a small part of her that would always hesitate, always wonder, always doubt - and this is despite Nanoha's presence. Not that she's not that way in this fic, but it's a lot milder here compared to what I usually do. Here, she is surer of herself, happier, freer.

This is because she's not in TSAB. She's not an enforcer. She's not out there facing all sorts of dangers and things that would sadden her, color her for life, and et cetera. She's not exposed to various kids who were in trouble and therefore did not cultivate the desire/dream to save kids like herself. Here, she is "free," and note that I use that term loosely.

However, at the same time, this means she's also not as prepared to face certain things that Enforcer!Fate would've been used to seeing. Knowing Project F still ran, and knowing that there was a boy out there who's a clone just like her, is far more likely to send her into a state of shock. And wounds that run deep - in her case, Precia - never really disappears. Fade, yes, scar, yes; disappear, no, and could spring back up when the right button is pushed.

On Nanoha:
Compared to the other two Aces, her path probably would've been changed the least. By the end of the day, she'd probably still become an instructor since her dreams is not something directly influenced by the other two girls. So there's not much I can say about what was written, though there's some I can say about what I didn't. If this had been a multi-pov story, some of the things I would've written probably would include:

- Some realization on Nanoha's part in regards to how she viewed Fate and vice versa. One of which includes the part where she comes to a realization that Fate had been dependant on her, and that she had held a tremendous power over Fate. Half-links indirectly to why she had apologized to Fate in the scarred shoulder scene. Possibly the only way I would have included romance - at least from Nanoha's end, if I were to add romance. Detailing how she realized she had fallen in love - but at the same time, did not act on it. Largely due to the fact she almost died once, and that she's busy with her dreams and all that, and thinks she's better off not entering into relationships.

-Yuuno and Nanoha talking about things. Some stuff about Fate, some stuff about friendship, and more about how to sustain Arf; occuring during the time when Fate was comatose.

On Hayate:
Hayate is...well, Hayate. I can't see her sitting back and doing nothing when she has so much power at her disposal; she feels more like the type who would want to do something with it - and above all, she's a pragmatist. Regardless of what she may have done, it probably would've involved lost logia in some manner, or something along the lines of helping people. And private investigator probably takes the cake.

One thing that I think would be clear, though, is that she is likely to be far happier in this universe, compared to the original. She's not burdened with TSAB, isn't playing politics, etc... I would say that removes a big chunk of things that would've tied her down. Some things I probably would've done if this fic wasn't Fate-centric would include these:

-Lindy/Hayate interaction. In which Lindy thanks Hayate - in regards to what Hayate talked to Fate about, about close brush to death and all that; Lindy had actually overheard, but decided not to interrupt. It is here that Lindy would point out gently that Hayate is similar to Fate in a certain regard, which Hayate knows.

- Hayate figuring out what was it she wanted to do. Introducing Saint Church, Hayate's connection to them, the foster-family relationship she had with Verossa, Carim, etc, and eventually, how she came to decide on a private investigation company.

Additional items that was thought of but never completed:
- Yuuno-Fate-Nanoha friendship scene, sometime during 13-14 years old. A direct reference to the MGLN movie soundstage, where Nanoha and Fate picked out Yuuno's glasses for him. Half-written, but eventually scrapped.
- Summarized events (plot) of altered StrikerS. Written but scrapped.
- Hayate-Genya talking. Some fleshing on StrikerS background.
- Caro-Nanoha talking about Fate's near death scenario.
- Caro and Erio talking, etc, trying to get through to Lutecia and succeeds only marginally at times, if at all.
- Caro considering being a vet, and Erio an Enforcer.
- The actual wedding scene/Verossa-Hayate talking; where he passes a video recording of sort in regards to what happened in a certain bachelor's party..

Kay. End ramble.

So. Yes. Here it is. A depiction of what I think would happen if TSAB is taken out of the equation; one that took me nearly two months to finish. I hope you've enjoyed reading this, and thoughts, of course, will always be welcome.

Cheers.