Author's Notes: So, I'm back! And since I start of with 'I'm back' that means that the final chapter and far from done... After going through my Chapter 12 Part 1 I had felt that there were too many faults and dissatisfaction, and have since working on revamping it. The major changes took place around the lower half of the story, and the final part was totally changed to something else.
Currently I'm at my final year in university, and by the gods it was so busy. The new changes to our timetable added a new semester into our studies (So three in total for a year instead of two), and that basically shrank our holidays to almost nothing. I write a hundred words or so now and then but progress is so bloody slow I couldn't stand it myself. As I type this I am four days away from the final subject of my final exam, so once that's over I may finally get a chance to write... for a week. Two months of long holiday translated into a week. Can't say I'm not tempted to bash the management in the face. -_-"
Anyway, please enjoy the beginning of the end of The Two Goddess, Chapter 12 Part 1!... Dammit, this still sounds lame...
It was dark. To fend against light, Hayate had the windows and curtains shut tighter than a sewn lip, and clothes plugged securely underneath the room's door. Even the only mirror in her room was covered up; the brunette did not want the slightest visual disturbances to distract her from sleep. As she sighed unconsciously and sank deeper still into the warming comforts between a bed and a blanket, birds began to chirp an innocent chorus of life just outside the window. Noise does not disturb her as much, and nature's voice could hardly be categorized underneath. Amidst the black that shields and drowning heat, Hayate Yagami slept blissfully like a babe in momma's womb.
Time though, had something else to say. Time was the one thing humans could never transcend be it through faith, science, or magic. No one can. As long as she clings to the illusions of hope, as long as she desires the boundaries of reality, she could never escape from the hunt that is time. Nor did she want to. Throughout her life Hayate had never once wanted an eternal today.
A grain of light descended lightly and tickled at her eyelids. The brunette groaned in dissatisfaction and tried to flip sideways, but the blankets just seemed too heavy. The insignificant trickle grew steadily into an unyielding pour, and finally, unwillingly, Hayate opened her eyes to see the magnificent circle. The harsh light of reality was waiting.
White colored into black, little by little. The brunette stretched outwards with a satisfying yawn, and felt more rested than she had ever been since a very long time. Hayate raised a hand towards the brightening window, and imagined it a sky that she was trying to reach.
Thus, she welcomed tomorrow.
Hayate took her time humming and weaving her way inside the kitchen despite the fact that it was almost ten, and that her family was waiting quite anxiously in the living room for breakfast. Usually she would have completed everything as early as seven or eight in the morning, but today was a holiday. Actually, the brunette gave her entire unit the whole week off so it was only natural to sleep in late, no? The leisurely time she could take to polish her culinary skills; the simple enjoyment of just being there without worrying about her next schedule, ah… It really has been a long, long while since she last enjoyed a break.
"… What are the results, Rein? Is she our Mistress?"
"I think so; I've scanned her with every possible illusion detection spell ever existed…"
"Then you must've missed something, ice ball, because that imposter over there is definitely not Hayate! Our crazy workaholic would never laze around – for an entire hour! – like some drunken airhead! Never!"
"Well er, I can't actually refute that – wait who are you calling an ice ball?"
"This is a dangerous situation, although the truth might be simpler than we thought. Perhaps she really is just –drunk."
Hushed whispers drifted ominously through the doorway to sadden Hayate's mood. So maybe she worked eighteen hours a day seven days a week and three hundred and sixty five days a year ever since she became a Private in the Bureau. So maybe she skipped a dozen so outings, gatherings, and vacations just to clean up some important documents. But that doesn't mean she's a workaholic oralcoholic – okay, maybe she is one; but that really doesn't mean that she nevertook a breather in her entire working life! In fact, she always take a five minutes nap before meetings, one minute after that for future tasks, relieved stress by groping her female colleagues during patrols and lunches, and play some silly pranks whenever she was bored…
Twitch said her naughty left eye, and for some unknown reason her right hand was also rebelling to reach the Bhut Jolokia chili peppers she had bought yesterday. But that won't do. Calm down, Hayate pleaded urgently to the aching beast rolling underneath her skin, my knights are just joking. She had been behaving her absolute best of behavior for the past seven days, surely a couple of insults under the belt would not break the cycle. Forget about it –
"Actually… don't you guys think this is a good chance to take our Mistress to a psychiatrist?"
Snap.Hayate reached out and toyed with the fruit playfully in her hands. She giggled.
Public toilets are dirty. Ask the statement's validity to any ten people who're old enough to understand, and every single one of them will answer it true. The TSAB – or wherever people exists, really – too had its fair share of dirty toilets, but from the moment Hayate reigned the SSD6 she made sure that her own headquarter at least would never suffer such a fault. Sometimes where hired, professional cleaners failed Commander Hayate Yagami would put off an hour or two to do their responsibilities, scrubbing while teaching the ever amazed workers a few tricks she picked up after twenty plus years of housekeeping. Never mind that she was always ridiculed behind the back by newcomers; she was just responding honestly to her own dislikes, and that was more than most people could say about themselves. As time goes by the scoffers turned from amazed to impressed, to ashamed then regretful, and every time they used the restrooms they will remember a certain dignified but friendly commander, mopping or washing at some stubborn blemishes while grinning understanding to a line of meek, but increasingly determined white coat workers.
The SSD6 has won the 'Best Cleanliness Award' for two straight years ever since it was formed. It had meant so much more than that.
Today was different, however. The said brunette wagged a finger lightly to hint busyness as she leaned closer towards to the mirror while applying carefully a clear shade of soft pink on her lips, "Yeah?"
"You aren't cooking up some sinister, world scale, death defying prank again, are you?"
The unjust accusation very nearly drew an ugly line down her chin, which she fortunately did not. That one sudden, involuntary tremble of fingers however did cause a tiny overshoot at the edge of her lips, and being the perfectionist she was the brunette had to struggle strenuously against the urge of wiping them clean and start all over again from the beginning. Not when she only had ten minutes left before her final speech. Annoyed, Hayate pouted childishly before giving her full attention to Nanoha trying to decide whether she should resist this morning's madness or just dump her friend into today's list of 'unfortunate' victims, "This is the part I get mad at you, isn't it Nanoha? I literally can feel it in my bones."
"Nyahaha," As if cornered by the devil the said brunette laughed nervously as she inched slowly away from Hayate, scratching at the right of her cheek with increasing frequency, "I mean, of course I'm happy that you're not playing pranks anymore, and that you're eating and sleeping properly… But are you really alright?"
"I'm fine," She replied casually, pretending not to notice the almost invisible worry coating Nanoha's words while changing the subject, "If anything, you should worry more about Vivio than me. Is she taking the news well?"
"Well… No," the brunette shrugged her shoulders helplessly before fixing her own hair with steady, careful combing, "She didn't like it at all. But I think… I think she understands."
Hayate dropped the lipstick back into her case and glanced towards the door. It doesn't look like anyone was near, but getting careless was the last thing she could do. Preferably she would use the Heart Seeker, but after their final training Reunion has specifically forbid her from using it before Grey Christmas, and even went as far as threatening to cut off their contract. The boy really was very concerned of her wellbeing.
The commander grinned a little and said, "She better. But Vivio's strong, Nanoha, and she has Einhalt too. They won't do anything foolish. How is Destiny?"
The sudden question nearly leaped the brunette three feet high, but then she recovered quickly and looked at Hayate with an almost glare, "Reluctant. But she'll guard the kids from the shadows."
"She cannot return until this is over."
"I know," Nanoha replied in a hollow tone as she stared downwards at her fingers, seemingly mesmerized by the pale white glow reflecting dully on her diamond ring, "I told her that Vivio – she still remembers – might, just might try to sneak back here to help me. I told her to keep an eye on our child," her friend shuddered down a breath before muttering in self-ridicule, "Though truth be told I can't shake off the feeling that if they ever meet, Vivio will convince her somehow and they will both come back together. And if that happens…"
If that happens, would you be angry? Worried? Or perhaps… happy?
Whatever Nanoha's answer was, she did not word them out and kept it locked deep inside her heart. Hayate was content to leave it at that, for she too suspected that the brunette's reply most probably would not appeal to her judgment or obligation.
But if the three Aces of the Bureau gathered as one, surely we could triumph over anything. And if we summoned everyone's strength as well then –
Hayate shook her head, feeling a helpless laughter gathering under her breath. Two days away from perhaps the end of the world, and here am I dreaming, she thought. As if to dispel her frustration, Hayate flicked her hair backwards and said quickly, "There's no need to worry; I've prepared countermeasures beforehand. At the very least, they will not return before the 26th."
"Countermeasures?" Nanoha asked worriedly.
… She must've misheard her, "I'll repeat. Stop –"
"– Fate Testarossa and Vivio Takamichi if they attempt to sneak off Carnaaji."
"The plan –"
"– is to cause harm or indicate the possibility of danger to anyone of Vivio's close friends, preferably Einhalt Stratos, to keep Vivio from going away and in turn Fate Testarossa as well. If it fails, use whatever means necessary I deem appropriate to complete the task."
Hayate didn't know what to say. Fully expecting Lutecia to object, she had spent the entire yesterday imagining this very moment trying to come up with excuses that would justify her command. Instead she got herself an affirmative so quick and calm of decision that the best response she could muster was a blank stare towards the screen. It took a long minute before words finally slid back into her mind,
"Are you okay with this, Lutecia?"
The girl shrugged a shoulder before replying, "The plan is crude, but it'll work well enough for just a few days."
"No, I mean –"
Hayate stopped short. How foolish was that question she almost blurted out. Of course Lutecia loved her friends. Of course the girl would never dreaming of hurting them. Of course the orders hurt. And yet here she was about to ask how her student felt about the cruel command she threw unfairly upon her lap. Sinful. Shameless. It was bad enough that she had forced such a terrible sin on a girl, and now she was actually pricking at her misery?
"– Never mind," her fingers reaching to turn off her communicator; the brunette cannot bear to think for a second longer, "I'll see you later."
"Big sis!" Lutecia suddenly shouted as Hayate froze like a Medusa-petrified statue. No. She knew what she was going to say, did not want to hear her words, unbelievably terrified that for all she had done, the sins and wrongs committed under the name of greater good, right here and now, a victim of her direct mechanizations was about to do the unthinkable, was about to –
"I'm alright, okay? If it means protecting the people I love, I don't mind at all if everyone misunderstands me. It's not your fault. Don't be sad, big sis –"
"… Eh. Countermeasures."
She must've lost her train of thought somewhere, again, for the ticking time on her watch showed two minutes before her speech. The daydreams – increasingly frequent – wouldn't have mattered if she was alone, but in the presence of others could cause various problems. Such as, the deep worry too mismatched to lurk within her friend's beautiful eyes, that slight but nervous twitch of a little finger pondering if she had asked right, the unnatural shuffling of feet and shiver as Hayate brushed her sight up once, then down the brunette's lines as if caressing. Four months ago Nanoha was totally unreadable, but the her now was like an open book –
The chime-like voice woke Hayate to her senses, and the commander dragged in a deep breath while staring outdoors, "Time is almost up. We should go."
Hayate slung her handbag on her shoulders, and after careful composing her face she put up a calm smile for Nanoha. There was no hiding of her brief flashback or crumbling emotions, they knew each other only too well for such barriers to exist. But at the very least… she wanted Nanoha to know that she could handle this. That she was okay.
"Whenever you need me," Nanoha grabbed her shoulders suddenly, holding her firm while she stared stubbornly into her eyes. Somehow Hayate felt like she has seen this before, at somewhere she couldn't quite remember, a resolution forged atop a great, lonely cliff –
"… Of course."
They marched out.
The day was good. Wind blew not too strong that it would squint one's eyes as trees swayed to flourish earthen beauty. Green, yellow, and the rarely red surfed air currents to dance playfully atop of people's head, a stoic reminder to few of the imp that was a fantastic creature told by certain lore on Earth. The seemingly scarce but lively attendees chatted and laughed animatedly with each other as if long lost friends; and if put to consideration their respective occupations, pasts and beliefs, that they were. These were people once strangers now close, once enemy now allies, once alone and now… together. That was especially true for one red head and pink who just can't get their hands of each other even though mobbed by a torrent of questions and pokey teasing. Lazy clouds seemed to heed the crowd's joy and shielded them from the searing sunlight, by which a few believers claimed an act of God, although for a certain ever cheerful cyborg her praise was obviously in jest. The 'babysitter' – since it was long established that she cannot be left free for even a second – did not overlook the slight and smacked the cyborg squarely in the head. And of course, the ensuing massive quarrel justified correctly Hayate's decision not to have chairs for the attendees.
Hayate Yagami stood dignified in front of a crowd of fifteen, staring into their faces with a grim line hanging on her own. She could sense acutely the emotions rumbling in each and every one of her friends: To her left was the nervous but determined Caro, the tall and matured Erio, the calm and resolute Teana, the serious but cheerful Subaru, focused and obedient Cinque, devoted but doubting Schach.
To her right was Ginga Nakajima conversing among Dieci, Nove and Otto, Yuuno consulting Sein on something, Deed and Wendi simply standing by and watching their surroundings with a reserved smile. Chrono could not attend to handle certain matters. Counting in the absent Wolkenritters, these were the members Hayate handpicked personally for her team, and they were nothing but the best among the best. Together they are invincible, capable of solving even the worst of situations and defeat anything that stood in their way. She believed them so and would not think otherwise.
Failure was not an option.
The brunette forced another deep breath into her lungs, refreshing her mind with a full mouth of oxygen before breaking into a smile. Ignoring the fog cloaking various parts of her mind, Hayate focused greatly onto her current task and began,
"So… Good afternoon everyone. Did you enjoy your vacation? It has been a long time since I took one, so I must say that sleeping eight hours a day feels good. Really good. In fact, how did I ever manage to work all night? It was pretty unimaginable…"
Everyone laughed at the self-jab, the pure joy without malice tugging painfully at her own corner of the lips, but alas she did not smile. Could not. As the harbinger of bad news, at the very least she should act like one,
"… Until I remembered, that is. That day was a holiday too. People woke inevitably to the dawn, in solitude or with companions, in excitement or peacefulness, in urgency or a languid pace; ready for the birth of a special day. After all, the Eve had been wonderful. Why not Christmas?"
Soft words, really. Gentle whispers that seemed to promise yet another unforgettable, marvelous day. It seeped a chill so dreadful that none of them could suppress a shudder, and the gentle-hearted Caro turned pale enough to scare a ghost. But Hayate Yagami would not give respite; the dead could not even feel such things,
"In a sense, it was an exceptional day. It was a day where my friends were hurt, and I could not do anything to save them. It was a day where my comrades failed and needed my power, and still I stood by and did nothing to help them. It was a day the people I swore to protect died like pigs to slaughter, and yet the one thing I can boast of, from the beginning to the end, is to let them."
Hayate gave no chance for rebuttal, pressing on words before the other could use them, "In the end, Nanoha managed to break through from inside, and the barrier began to recede. The first thing on my mind at that moment was relief: Finally it was over, I had thought, now we can rescue the people inside. I had Shari zoomed in closer to the city, feeling hopeful, and I saw –"
She saw a grey white sky, falling countless drops of pure white snow as a blessing, only to dye them red and black. She saw mountains of bloody corpses, limbs and heads and torsos stacked messily like a pile of garbage, choking at each road like a stretching wall of flesh; she remembered a once beautiful lake choked with the corpses of animals, a dog or cat or bird's head whirling and whirling and whirling above clogs of blood. As she stood seized and strangled by the grotesque pictures of ultimate terror, she even saw a weird-looking tree, curiously pink and white and soft, until finally she realized with overwhelming vomit that it was a tree meshed and bound together by countless number of twisted, newborn babies –
She felt a hand grabbing her shoulders, and as if pulled by an unknown force the black world rushed forwards and disappeared. Once again she stood under a bright sunny day, except that for some reason her body now leaned heavily against someone. Must be Nanoha. Did she slip? But she had no recollection of moving around whatsoever, much less falling. Hayate touched a hand against her neck and collar, and they were utterly drenched in sweat.
"Can you hear me? Hayate!" Nanoha asked urgently. The commander turned to look at the bodyguard but could not make sense of the pale complexion she wore. It was just a slip, a blackout, it's not as if she had never been like this before. Certainly never on a speech, but…
"How long… how long was I out?"
"No more than ten seconds," That's good, "but… what on earth was that just now? What was that… memory?"
At first she didn't understand. Memory? What memory? But then the images came rushing back like a gushing waterfall, and all the blood drained instantly from her face. Oh, no. I didn't. But then Hayate heard a whimper at the background, and when she turned to look it was none other than the dragon mistress Caro, pushing and trembling her face as deeply as she could into Erio's chest, sobbing. The others didn't look any better either, and while Scaglietti's former cyborgs coped well enough everyone else was either throwing up or looked like they're about to. Shit. Without even bothering to get up she immediately grabbed onto Nanoha's shoulders and apologized profusely, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to show your memories, it just – it just happened somehow, dammit –"
"But Hayate!" The brunette's fingers dug deeper into her waist, looking even more distraught and frightened than before, "What are you talking about? Those are not my memories."
"Those are not my memories," Purple eyes stared intensely into hers, and Hayate felt a terrible chill running up her spine; it has been quite some time since she felt fear, "Certainly I've seen my share of horror inside Grey Christmas, but there's absolutely nothing like the one you've shown us… Did it even happen? The lake was there, but I don't remember –"
"It didn't happen. I remember that a few dozen people drowned there, but no animals," Hayate replied tonelessly.
Nanoha looked like she had something to say, but closed her mouth after a moment's consideration, and that was the right choice to make. Hayate wasn't sure herself that she could answer any of the questions.
Was it a memory? If so, then was it the past that I saw? But there's no blood-choked lake, no trees of babies, there never was such a thing. Also, the south east area was never reopened and has remained empty ever since. No one goes in there except us, not even birds.
It can't be the future, even now the last batches of people are being evacuated. It could be, but the possibility is pretty slim. Whatever it was, it must have come from Heart Seeker. So what comes from Heart Seeker? Memories, thoughts, feelings, dreams, whatever the mind comes up with…
An imagination then? But someone had to imagine them at least, someone that's connected to Heart Seeker.
Someone I know.
Slowly she turned head to the crowd and without much hope, try to see if anyone of them, anyone at all could be the one.
None of them looked psychotic or insane. Not even close.
She turned her head towards Nanoha, her best friend, holding her with concern lurking beneath her eyes.
Even she could be the one. There's no way for her to know.
She can be.
Yuuno ran up the stairs and came quickly to her's side. He looked between Nanoha and Hayate uncertainly, but then she started slowly,
"I think that I'm too dizzy to continue. Please take me to my room, Yuuno. Nanoha, could you tell everyone later that I'm sorry?"
Slowly but gently Yuuno carried Hayate into his arms, and she breathed a little more comfortably under his warmth. She felt just a little safer.
But he, even he –
I need to see Reunion.
The Cranagan International Airport was more crowded than usual. Boasted as the best flight field in Mid-Childa, it was perfectly equipped with the latest of technology and ran by the stringiest of conduct. Square, fluorescent lamps lit different colors of code among different sections of the halls; blue for waiting and green for departure and white of course, just to keep the place bright. Red could only mean emergency or danger, but that happened only once in a blue moon and the last occurrence was a good five years ago. Clear, see-through glasses tiled ten stories high to cover the entire exterior of the airport as a show of grandeur and boundless freedom, and yet thick and strong enough to ward off nothing less than a double A grade bomb. But the most amazing thing was that it reflects up to ninety percent of heat and sunlight, and so the evening sun that felt hot enough to burn on the streets was now utterly negated and unnoticeable.
Hayate muttered a thanks to the cashier before grabbing gingerly at her lunch tray and walked away. She didn't really care to wait over thirty minutes in the line for her fast food – time didn't matter much for her now – but she do care about her money. With conscious effort she carefully summed up the value of one burger, one fry and one cup of plain water before concluding finally that she was given the correct amount of change. It was the first habit she taught herself up after her parents passed away in a car accident, and despite having inherited a large amount of wealth Hayate never once thought that her money was unlimited. And so through sweat and tears she slowly built up her management skills, and one year later numbers came to her as easily as breathing.
That was in the past. But still, even if she was counting a lot slower than before her skill was still accurate, and given enough time she would be dancing as one with the digits again.
A cheerful shout rang from behind her, and Hayate turned to look with a smile, "Ah… Hi, Vivio."
The teenager leap-frogged and charged right into her lap; it was a habit that the girl grew accustomed to ever since they gotten close, and Hayate could not help but feel the vast well of affection inside her heart. The little girl she had come to love though had definitely grown much bigger in more places than one, and even with her hips propped for impact Hayate was nearly knocked off her chair. Now that she thought about it, Vivio's adult form was around five feet ten, which meant the tall girl now still has room to grow. In a year or two it wouldn't even be a matter of whether she could hold her ground, but how far she was bumped off from impact. She suspected that she would not like the answer.
But such thoughts were irrelevant. Quickly Hayate dismissed them from her mind and rubbed Vivio's head affectionately, "Looks like you're having a good day. Have you packed everything yet?"
Vivio nodded enthusiastically, "Sure thing! I had Sacred Heart compiled a list of all the items so I shouldn't miss out anything. Besides, Nanoha-mama double-checked everything herself. She really worries too much."
"Really?" A wry voice echoed from behind Vivio's back, "Who was the girl who spilled her milk last week? Or forgot her wallet at the dessert store? Especially yesterday –"
"Ah, ah, ahhhh! Stop! Mama, you promised not to tell anyone else!" Vivio jumped two meters in the air and ran towards Nanoha in panic. The mentioned mother smiled impishly at her daughter, and Hayate noted that instead of sticking to the old, favorite uniform, her friend had changed for quite the refreshing outfit: A plain white dress that stretched down to her ankles coupled with a sleeveless blue jacket. The image suited perfectly well with the single black briefcase she's pulling, and the light-bathed angel drew admiring eyes from every direction.
Hayate didn't need to guess why the extravagant outfit. The two companions glanced briefly at each other and reached promptly mutual understanding. The brunette took a bite at her fish burger, savoring every bite before asking Vivio, "So where're Einhalt? I thought she would come with you."
The girl answered, "Someone called her, and she asked me to come here first."
"Aren't you worried? It could be a secret boyfriend," Hayate teased her playfully.
Once upon a time the suggestion would have turned the Takamachi daughter into a terribly red fluster, but after years of teasing she was so used to it that Vivio simply smiled and replied with conviction, "She does not have one, and even if Einhalt does she'll definitely tell me. It's Lutecia."
I see, so she has begun her move. I shan't waste time then. Hayate continued to munch at her burger as she pointed at the departure hall, "Why don't you go inside and wait? I have something to talk with your mama here. It'll be quick."
"Mu. Not work again. The two of you never take a break," Vivio puffed her cheek in annoyance. But the girl took her briefcase from an apologetic Nanoha and walked away while waving, "Come in later when you're done, okay? Don't take too long!"
"Sure thing. And er, tell Miura I'll be there soon!" Hayate called out loudly.
Finally Vivio disappeared into the black mass of people, and the two TSAB officers were alone once more. Personally she would've preferred transferring Vivio and the others by Wolfram, but since she was going to 'retire' in approximately eight hours it would be best to avoid the risk; not to mention that they were gathered here under the pretext of joining Megane Alpine's fighting tournament. None of them had suspected anything else, but some of them will if the transport they boarded was a military warship. Unnecessary questions were among the last of things she needed right now; she had more than enough of her own.
Although she still would've done just that if anything went wrong with Lutecia's planning. The girl had wanted the departure to coincide with the date the last batches of people were evacuated so as not to appear rushed and natural, but today was still too close a time for the commander's comfort. There was always a chance that Grey Christmas could start early, and while Hayate did prepare to a certain extent measures of a rescue operation, the possibly horrific consequences were just too terrible to contemplate about. Did Lutecia want her friends to stay then? To get an excuse so she could come down and help? Surely not…
Hayate he casted away the gloomy thoughts and motioned to Nanoha at her newly bought drink,
"Mm, okay. I am quite thirsty now."
Hayate sneaked a glance at the brunette as she gulped it down, "Thirsty, or nervous?"
"Mou, stop being such a bully…"
They went quiet. Outdoors the sky dyed slowly from blue to orange, but the lighting within the airport simply grew steadily whiter. Hayate couldn't remember when she'd finished her burger, but when Nanoha suddenly spoke she was biting absentmindedly at a fry,
"So… did you ever find anything about the memory?"
Hayate grimaced at the question. To her it was a clear reminder on how badly she had handled the situation; if Nanoha and Yuuno hadn't been there to pick things up the meeting would've been a total failure, "No, not really. He's not picking up the phone so I left him a message; but until he responds…"
Nanoha frowned at the half-hearted reply, "That's rather unfortunate. I wanted to know more about those visions… They could be key to our survival."
Hayate muttered half-consciously, "Well I don't."
She chose not to say anything at all. The commander glanced through the transparent glass panels and into the horizon. White, puffy clouds floated lazily across her sight without a care for the world.
"You know…" Nanoha took a sip from her drink as she mumbled worriedly, "you're not acting yourself lately."
"I don't think so."
"You know best yourself. Like the speech; it just isn't like you to leave it unfinished even after that. I thought you would… well, cheer everyone up."
"Nanoha, you really think of me too highly," Hayate looked back at her with a blank expression, "If I had continued speaking under that condition it could only end in disaster. I know it."
The brunette opened her mouth as if to appeal, but in the end she chose to let the matter slip and looked away. Hayate smiled a little at Nanoha's clear frustration; it wasn't as if she didn't understand what her friend was talking about. In the past, perhaps.
Suddenly, a look of apprehension lit up in Nanoha's eyes, and her expression turned somber, "I see. The Heart Seeker, the Protection Training… You paid a price."
So she figured it out in the end. It did not matter, "Perhaps. Much smaller than yours, I reckon."
For a moment the brunette looked startled at her confession. And then she said with a much, much more concerned look, "There's no such thing as a small price, Hayate."
"Didn't you come here to see Destiny?" Hayate wagged a finger impatiently, "I thought you would be more anxious to see her; ask how or where she is. Why did you think I send off Vivio for?"
"The fact that you're saying this now means that she's just fine," Nanoha rebutted calmly; not rising to the bait, "You however, are not. What is the price?"
"What can you do even if I've told you?" Hayate remarked sarcastically, "Talk?"
"That is exactly right," the brunette leaned closer and grabbed her hand, even as Hayate kicked herself in the head to give Nanoha the chance to do so, "Talk. That was what you taught me that day, and I'm not going anywhere until you tell me what's wrong with you."
Hayate closed her eyes. It felt like rubbing salt on wound to have her own actions biting back on her, especially when she could not remember what it was. True to her heart, Hayate did not have the slightest intention to tell anyone about her condition; and in fact did not know what was going to happen as time crawls by. Besides the side effects Reunion had elaborated painstakingly on the day they've made the contract, she made no efforts to know any other changes that would certainly happen as time crawls by. And why should her? Pain and suffering were all the fact she needed to know. No need to let fear pounce her as well.
Abruptly Hayate opened her eyes and spoke, "I am not myself."
"This is the last time I will say this. I am not myself," she dug a nail into her palm to force out the words, "Not entirely… Sometimes I daze out. Sometimes I could not remember things. Could be a memory, a skill... Something."
Nanoha stared at her. Hayate ignored that and ate her fries in a timely, systematic manner. Never mind her appetite, she wasn't sure what her expression would be if she looked up to Nanoha now. And yet the last bits of the fries vanished into her mouth and for once, out of clever quips and excuses in her mind, the commander was left with no choice but to look up to the brunette. The effort alone quelled all the courage she had mustered, and when she confronted that gaze something broke within her heart.
Nanoha opened her mouth to speak, closed it; repeated the gesture many times before finally looking away. Abruptly Hayate was reminded of that day, the day Nanoha had looked longingly outwards as if a child, wishing and hoping for something ever so transient, so far away. On that day, when she had meant to bid goodbye… forever.
"We'll definitely win," Hayate insisted again; feeling desperate for no reason, "Who knows? There might not even be a Grey Christmas."
They said nothing else until Vivio's flight was announced.
The Protection Training's main purpose was to establish a communication link between Reunion, Hayate, and members of the emergency response team. During the first Grey Christmas it was impossible to establish any form of wireless communication in out the enclosed area, and this critical problem had delayed the TSAB fatally to result in the genocide of a whole city of people. Hayate had known from the very beginning that unless they could somehow address to this problem, attempting any kind of operation within Grey Christmas would be equivalent to suicide. Since then the TSAB had focused their efforts on inventing new communication technologies that would work while being barrier jammed, but the results were not encouraging. After all Grey Christmas happened only once, and it was a completely foreign phenomenon unheard in any of the Known Worlds. Therefore countermeasure was defaulted to simply blast through the ominous barrier and deal with matters then. But Hayate had seen firsthand of the barrier's incredible resilience to hold the Wolkenritter's full power with ease; she didn't think that it was a feasible solution. The barrier is not magical, and they could only count an approximation of its strength based on Nanoha's successful shot. Plus there were still too many unknown factors. A warship's firepower is a terrifying thing to behold, no matter how controlled or minimized it could be, one misstep, and Cranagan might not be the only thing that's destroyed.
But back to communications. Hayate would never have agreed to Chrono's proposition if she hadn't already figure out how to solve that problem, and that is through Heart Seeker. The magic was special in a way that as long as a contract was established, no matter how far apart the magic wielder and the contractor were they would always be connected to each other. That meant that communication was possible even when the two were dimensions apart, and to put it lightly it was an advantage unheard of in the TSAB's history. Jamming meant nothing before Heart Seeker, and it was the ideal solution to Hayate's problem.
It was also the last thing Hayate wanted to use. As a victim of the magic's will once, she understood all too well the deadly grip it held over a person's mind. If Reunion had not acted to sever the connection she did not believe that she would've given up on it. To act without regrets, to be saddened without despairing, to believe and follow through one's ideals without being drowned by guilt; all for the one price of surrendering their soul to the magic. It was literally the salvation mankind has been seeking all along. At the very least, it was salvation she wanted so badly that she would murder to get it.
Hayate knew already the answer she would give. She didn't want anyone else to be met with such a choice.
On to the more practical reason for her reluctance to use Heart Seeker. Reunion almost never established a contract in his life because every time he became connected to a foreign mind he risked corrupting his own personality. Heart Seeker was dangerous in that it will try to meld the two connecting minds together regardless of their will. In fact, the magic's nature was that of a carnivore that would seek out and devour the hearts of people until nothing is left. Not even Reunion was an exception. Every time he made a contract he would risk losing himself, and there was simply no way to know that his will did not mix with the bonded. How could anyone be sure, when people can change any moment in their lives?
Once, Heart Seeker had almost killed the entire world. Once, there was someone who managed to stop it. Those were memories of the far past Reunion inherited as the master of Heart Seeker. Those were realities that he could bring forth if he chose to submit. But at least for now, life is interesting enough that he didn't feel like destroying it.
Oh, stop acting like you're god or something, you can't even wash the plates without breaking them! Useless brat.
He – hey! Stop – don't touch – my hair's all messed up! Argh!
On that very normal day, when a mother and a child talked briefly about the most dangerous magic in history.
They had meant to leave it that way until the end of their lives. They really do.
They arrived at the departure hall just in time to see the teenagers readying their luggage at the speaker's call and moving slowly into a line. Almost all the participants from the DSAA Inter-Middle Tournament three years ago have been gathered: They were Chantez Arpinion, Knight of the Saint Church, a mischievous and tricky weapon user who would not stop bugging an extremely annoyed Victoria Dahlgrun as they argued incessantly until Victoria's butler stepped in. Ever since her defeat Chantez latched onto the regal looking Thunder Empress like a leech, and although there had been some tense moments in the end they became really good friends. The twin tail girl sighing in relief beside them was called Sieglinde Jeremiah, and despite her bony and short appearance she was a past Champion one of the best fighters among her age. Once she had worn a black hood every day to hide her face, and now she has finally shed that habit and carried herself with a much brighter smile.
Others included Micaiah Shevelee, a katana user whose blade was as graceful as her manners; Fabia Crozelg, whose skills were although as wicked as her title was naïve enough to believe Lutecia's threats of a curse if she refused her invitation; Els Tasmin and Hary Tribeca, so different in their personalities and even magic, but while they deny with all their might the two shared a bond as close as sisters. At the end of the line stood a group of chatty trio namely Vivio, Corona and Rio; a quiet but beaming Einhalt, and finally the anxious looking Miura. Hayate knew that the kids went in quite early, so they must've stayed behind to see her and Nanoha.
Hayate smiled. To the unknowing eyes they looked a suspicious bunch of teenagers with their diverse personalities and weird outfits. To her though, they were none other than the children of the future, the seeds of her greatest hope. Someday, they would take over her generation's mantle and become the greatest protectors of the Dimensional Sea. And if there's anyone, anyone at all who could change the way the Bureau is now, it would be them.
She will not allow them to die in Grey Christmas.
"Miura," Hayate called out to the crowd before her.
Immediately a short-haired girl turned around at the call with her face lighting up like a candle, "Hayate!" The girl was about to run right for her while pulling her ridiculously huge luggage, but Einhalt stopped her with one firm hold to the shoulder and took the bag instead. With a light smile she said, "I'll hold these for you. Just go."
For a moment Miura looked locked with indecision, but then she quickly bowed and thanked Einhalt gratefully for the help. The commander shook her head wryly; it looked like Zafira's hard-headed student had finally learned some semblance of flexibility. Seeing that the duo could use some time alone, Nanoha tried to make a move towards Vivio but Hayate stopped her with a one firm grab on the shoulders and pulled her close. She whispered into the brunette's ear,
"Destiny has short black hair, sits near the window, and her eye color is purple. Your color. Now go."
Hayate gave her startled friend a good push towards her daughter and waved away carelessly the spluttered thanks. It was only natural. The brunette stretched upwards mightily to relieve some strain off her back as Miura reached her, and smiled,
"Good evening. You look like you're in top condition."
"Yes, Commander Hayate! I – I – I mean Hayate!" the panicking girl saluted her for no reason. Miura usually does not get this flustered, but apparently her uniformed appearance was putting on pressure on to the child. While she did not have the skill to instantly change her clothes… Hayate slipped a hand under her cloak to pull out a raccoon's mask, and put it on. Miura stared stupefied at the commander's bold display in public as Hayate began mimicking a weird guttural noise, "Grrr~ Have you been trained well lately? Did you slack off when Zafira's isn't around? Grr – Wait. Why am I doing a dog's growl?"
"Of course I do my training – wait Hayate! Put away the mask, please, it's embarrassing for you!" the girl replied hurriedly.
"First you'll have to relax. It's unbecoming for a Yagami disciple to get so flustered over small things," Already they were beginning to draw glances from the other passengers, and Chantez was literally giggling out loud, "So are you ready? One, two, three!"
Miura understood the meaning behind the counting immediately. It was the very first thing Zafira had taught Miura when she first enrolled to learn the Yagami Style, an extremely simple breathing exercise used to calm and focus one's mind. Seeing that she had no choice in the matter, Miura closed her eyes slowly and one, breathed in; two, breathed out; and three, open her eyes and take in the world.
.. Which, was, a vicious looking raccoon just an inch away from her nose. Hayate found it nearly impossible to contain her laughter as Miura jumped two feet high, but she finally put away the mask and grinned, "That wasn't so hard, was it?"
Miura slumped down her shoulders; that fright nearly gave her a heart attack, "Really Hayate, mou…"
"That's because you looked so tensed," Hayate replied with a shrug of shoulders, "so I had to do something. Anyway, have you see Zafira and the others? I thought they'll be here by now."
"Well, no," Miura answered with a hint of dejection, "He sent me a pretty weird message about needing to cool off his tongue or something…"
Oops. I didn't think the chili would be that hot. Feeling guilty as she was responsible for the knights' absence, she patted the girl's head and said soothingly, "Don't blame him, it's not his fault. Zafira and the others er, have to do something for me, which is why they can't come. Although he did ask me to carry a message for you."
"What is it?" Miura asked eagerly. Again Hayate feel a little guilty about lying, but the commander did know exactly what message the guardian beast would've wanted to tell Miura. And so she whispered a silent sorry to the old dog, and leaned forwards with a great smile on her face,
"Do your best, and don't give up."
"Yes!" Miura nodded strongly. Despite hearing the same words every day when she trained with Zafira, Hayate could not see anything like boredom but a genuine, wholehearted smile from the girl's face. The thought put a little warmth in her heart, and she urged the kid onwards.
"Time to go," Hayate said while pointing at a nearby wall clock. Miura stared longingly at her for a second, looking to etch her entire being into her her head before finally nodding and ran towards the line. On the way, the girl turned back and shouted, "I'll see you later, Hayate! Please send my regards to everyone!"
"Ah! I'll definitely do that!" And as she waved hesitatingly at the girl, Hayate finally added, "We'll see you later!"
Her lively figure vanished at the end of the entrance's black corner, and the brunette was finally alone. She looked around carefully, but did not see Nanoha or Vivio's group. They must've gone abroad the ship. Hayate wondered briefly if there's anything else that she needed to do. She had assembled her team, acquired Heart Seeker, found Fate, and evacuated everyone away from Cranagan. What else?
… Nothing came to mind.
All that's left was to complete the mission.
"I should go," The brunette muttered quietly. There was no need to wait for Nanoha; her friend was needed for some last minute equipment calibrations. All that's left… all that's left was to check up on the 'preparations'. She was not in a hurry though. If things had gone smoothly, the Wolkenritters should be done around dinner time.
She should cook something.
Hayate turned around and walked away, never looking back.
The cooking took much longer than Hayate thought, and by the time dinner was finally prepared the brunette abruptly remembered that she had forgotten to cook her own portion. Hayate checked the time, and shook her head. Ten fifteen; too late, too short, but perhaps she could still find something in the cafeteria to fill her belly. Obviously the only food left at this hour would be cold leftovers, but Hayate was no stranger to them. Heck, if she delayed any longer she might not even make it for leftovers, and Rein fretting around and bossing was not a sight Hayate would like to see. She quickly wrapped up the final box of dinner, carefully arranging them on top of the table and went out of the room. Then the silvery white hallway jumped rudely into her sight, disorientating her momentarily as Hayate staggered on her feet.
Ah, yes. She's abroad the Claudia now. She was so focused on cooking just now that she almost forgot. How nice of Chrono to arrange her in a VIP guest room that's rich enough to have its own kitchen.
You will get what you wish: No limiters, the press conference, me commanding your team, everything. In return, you will do just one thing for me.
As Hayate stepped into the white lit cafeteria and straight for the food serving counter – nothing grimly that the usually crowd-packed place was now almost void of men – a sigh of relief finally came through when she saw that there was fried noodles just enough to fill half a plate. For most people it would be far too little, but Hayate was a pretty light eater. With practiced ease she scooped the food quickly into a plate and took a seat at the nearest bench, muttered quietly a customary thanks, and reached for her fork.
A shadow fluttered before her eyes. Hayate lifted her head slowly, and against the white light her vision adjusted to reveal the sword master Signum, stiff and formal with a lack of fluidity usually present in her stature. The warrior looked so utterly exhausted that it pained Hayate to even look at her. Quickly she moved away to allow Signum a seat, and the knight accepted it gratefully with a thanks.
"So… how's the setup?"
Signum thought carefully before replying, "It is complete. All the devices are in place, and individually at least, they are functioning properly. We cannot conduct a proper test, though."
"That is good enough," Hayate nodded, eyes glancing around to make sure that no one was close enough to hear their conversation, "We would still need to activate them from outside the 'area', but unless the entire Mid-Childa is covered in an instant, the mechanism should work. Well done, Lieutenant. Where's everyone else?"
"They're eating dinner," Signum paused a little before adding an afterthought, "I thought that I'll report to you first since the matter is important."
"It is. But not more important than your health, as you so love to tell me every time," Hayate mused. She stared at her tiny meal for a moment, then pushed it towards Signum's side and said, "Take a bite."
Signum looked at her with incredulity, "But commander –"
"No buts. I've eaten a little just now, so it's fine," Hayate waved a hand nonchalantly; she could starve for one night at least.
Signum stared at her for quite some time, her hands unmoving. Her eyes seemed to grow murky with blackness as the reply came back solemnly, "I cannot. Mistress, you… you need your energy."
Hayate froze. The knight had tried to be subtle, but there was no mistake to the pained tone underneath: Signum knew that she was lying.
By now the only living presences in the canteen were the two of them; the tired cleaners were not so dulled by long hours of work that they could not sense an increasingly tensed atmosphere.
"I keep forgetting that it doesn't work on family," Hayate half-laughed, feeling an almost hysterical urge to sob, "Sorry, Signum. I'm really sorry."
"Hayate!" The world jerked suddenly sideways, and before she knew it a strong pair of arms held her firmly against flesh. Sweat and dirt brushed roughly against her face, but all Hayate felt was mind numbing comfort. All of her troubles, her worries, her confusions' they all evaporated as if never existed.
"You have nothing to apologize for."
There was a tremble. For a moment Hayate thought that it was just her, but they came surely from those strong arms that she thought never would waver.
"Lately, I find that I don't understand you at all, Hayate," Signum whispered faintly, "Things, there are so many things that you're not telling us, so many days you just hide inside your room and not coming out... and I, we, couldn't do anything."
Hayate could see clearly the clenched knuckle before her face turned white as paper, shaking. It did not match at all the protective embrace that enveloped gently around her shoulders.
"That is not true, Signum. You were there… My family is always there for me, and that is enough."
"It is not," Signum whispered harshly, "Don't tell me that. Just what is it that's haunting you? Just why can't we help you?"
Her sight swam against her will, and suddenly she was back again at the peak of a mountain, the edge of the world. Seeing.
The back of an angel.
"There are things… things you cannot help but do alone. Thing that you wouldn't want others to worry about. Things like, erm, masturbating."
"Huh?" That momentarily blank of thought was all Hayate needed to slip out of Signum's hold, and she arched backwards with a satisfying stretch of the bone. Admittedly, the hug had been comfortable. It was something that she hadn't done a very long time.
But she has to go on.
Hayate curled her hair to the back of her ears and spoke, "You can… worry about me. I cannot stop until this is over, and you will not either, so I won't ask you to stop caring. But I'll ask you just one thing, Signum," she turned around and matched the warrior's eyes – her warrior – and asked fiercely,
"Do you believe in me?"
"Has there been any crisis that I failed to solve?"
"Do you think me so weak that I couldn't stand a little trouble as this?"
"No, of course not…" Finally, Signum bowed her head and answered solemnly, "You are the final Mistress of the Night Sky. There is nothing you cannot overcome. I… Forgive my insolence, Mistress."
"Don't be silly, dummy," Hayate spoke softly, and held Signum's hands. Those coarse, dirty, but warm hands of family member that she would die to protect, "There is nothing to forgive. Nothing at all."
She broke suddenly into a wicked smile, and whispered something obscene.
She leaped to her feet, face red, spouting incoherent words while pulling herself free.
Then, with no warning at all, disregarding totally the happiness that looked as if it might go on forever, all alarms abroad Claudia began to blare.
And the countdown to hell, begins.