Author's Notes: I didn't quit the story. It took quite some time, but finally Part 2 is complete (but totally unedited, so I'm probably going to kick myself in the head later), and tomorrow will truly be the end of The Two Goddesses.
Do enjoy, and happy Christmas Eve everyone.
[Eeeeeeeeeee – Eeeeeeeeeee – Eeeeeeeeeeee –]
The alarm went on and on like the screech of a dying person. What? This is impossible. It is still a day before Christmas, one hour before Eve. Why? Hayate's mind went blank for a second, but the long years of discipline thankfully kept her calm and thinking about the right course of action to take. Signum herself looked quite the collected bodyguard as she moved immediately to beside Hayate with Laevantein at hand, exhaustion thoroughly forgotten. She had to keep herself together.
"I'll meet you at the hanger in five minutes. You go first."
Signum looked at her hesitantly, no doubt contemplating whether she should insist to stay or leave, but the knight responded quickly after a moment's thought, "Yes, ma'am. I'll see you later."
As Signum turned away and disappeared around the corner, Hayate has already brought out her communicator from her pocket and picked out Chrono from her call list. Within seconds of the call, the young man's face winked into existence with his jaws set with a grim, hard line.
"I know. What's the status on that thing?"
"It's smaller than last time but spreading outwards at a relatively constant speed. Can't tell if it's going to stop at the same range as last time or at all."
"Assuming that it's going to spread infinitely until it covers the whole Mid-Childa, how much time do we have?"
"Wait a sec – A day and a half? No – I'm guessing twenty five hours at most. You need to move."
"A little more than a day," she whispered to herself, unconsciously tightening her grip on the flat panel of her communicator, "There's not much time then."
"That's true, but we don't have a choice. You should get to the hanger as soon as possible and wait for orders."
"Wait? What are you going to do?"
"Well," Chrono hesitated a little before answering, "We're going to deploy five Excel Raptors to the ground as scouts in five minutes."
"You better tell me that it's not one of your decisions, Chrono," Hayate answered sarcastically, "because I'm sure as hell not going to pick up your toys if anything happens."
"Of course not. Though, given your somewhat unlucky constitution something might still happen, so if you would reconsider –"
"I know. Later then, Captain Yagami. Good luck."
The transmission winked out, and Hayate sighed. Even Chrono was trying to talk her down from the fight. But after all she did, all her sacrifices, all the misery, to back down from a chance to bring down Gray Christmas was simply unthinkable. If not for her friends, her family, or even her beliefs, then at the very least…
She wants revenge for everything.
Hayate took a quick look at the clock. The five hours would only tick downwards, and there was no time to waste. She turned towards the doorway and began running.
"The cannon's firing in two minutes! All units, round up and standby at your positions!"
Hayate took a random swing at the air as she tried to stave off anxiety from her mind. It was futile. The general atmosphere within the hanger was choked full with the emotion, and not a single person felt up to be the mood maker. Almost every one of them has faced death in the face at some point, and yet the premonition of failure and despair has never been as strong and foreboding until now. To put it mildly, it was sickening to watch Cranagan disappear little by little as that red thing engulfed it with surprising speed. Hayate – they – want to stop it. Now.
And yet it still wasn't their turn to move. The five Excel Raptor units: Song, Selphie, Yuki, Mother and Daemon have already assembled themselves at the teleportation pad and were now just moments away from deployment. Back in the past when the Huckebeins were still loose, the research team has managed to create an almost-sentient Artificial Intelligence core that could control multiple mass-produced humanoid battle machines called Raptors for combative purposes. Now 'her' name is Gaia, and she was assigned to control exactly five special combat units called Excel Raptors whose specs and capabilities far exceeded those of normal Raptors. They were to act as guards for Hayate's team and acquire as much information as possible about Grey Christmas.
Hayate had disliked the idea. Despite the fact that the battle machines boasted an ultra-long range communications device – which meant that Gaia would be able to control them from at least a couple of worlds away – it was still possible that the Excel Raptors could be jammed and be completely useless once they got inside of Grey Christmas . Worse, Gaia herself might become corrupted, and as much as she would like to, Hayate simply did not have the strength to extend to anyone else Reunion's protection. She's not even sure how connecting to an AI's heart would be.
But it was also the only insurance Hayate has if her team was to enter Grey Christmas safely. What's the point if they made it in successfully only to be bombarded to death a second later? If they sent in the Raptors first, and if there's any kind of ambush, then at least the Raptors would be the one taking the brunt of fire. Hayate had intended – intends – that every single one of her friends make it out alive from the disaster. No one will die today. No one.
"Ma'am, they're moving in."
A solemn voice whispered just to her right, and Hayate turned to see that it was Teana.
"Finally. Can we have them on – ah, there we go."
The forty inch wide monitor right above her head buzzed into life, and Hayate stared at the row of ferocious looking battle machines hanging a few thousands of meters above ground and right underneath the Claudia's hull. Entry through teleportation was impossible, or at least unsafe until they knew exactly what's underneath that disgusting red membrane. So instead, the Claudia's going to blast a hole right through the liquid red and drop the battle machines from there. The plan had sounded simple.
"Do you think they'll be functional?"
"Since we're supposing that the red exterior is what's jamming the signals, theoretically speaking blasting a hole through it should open up room for the communication channels to work. And I'm sure hope they're right, since that'll mean a lot less trouble for us when we get in," Hayate answered.
"That thing heals though. I'm worried whether this ship's battery would hold up," Teana muttered.
"Well, the Claudia will have to suffer gravity just this once. The plan was to get in, do whatever we have to do, and get out quick. A drop in from the air is the quickest – not to mention safer – way."
"I know. It's just –" Teana pulled at her own hair irately, "I have a stupid question. Why can't we just destroy it the moment it showed up?"
Hayate was surprised. Teana was one of the few very close friends she has despite the rather little amount of contact in between missions and holidays, and she had both enjoyed and appreciated their friendship very much. It wasn't like Teana was very good under pressure, or that she never exploded like blooming fireworks when they're drinking in the bar, but it was rare to hear condemn someone… or something to death so easily.
Not that Grey Christmas doesn't deserve such an end.
"I have a somewhat long-winded example, if you don't mind listening to."
"Sure. We still have a minute after all," Teana looked at her with a dubious look. Hayate smiled and waved her palm slightly to reassure her friend.
"A single world in invaded by aliens. Their numbers far exceed the people themselves, and each one of the monster are capable of immeasurable destruction singlehandedly. They also reproduce at an impossibly fast rate. Almost all the countries were destroyed except the strongest and luckiest. The humans should've been doomed to a quick death, but instead the aliens acted stupidly and attacked in predictable patterns again and again, allowing the remaining humans to survive and fight back. Now, the question,"
She raised a finger, "What would you do to defeat them permanently, Enforcer Teana, should you be in charge of the final defense against the aliens?"
Teana frowned against the unrealistic sci-fi question, but she gave it a thought and answered seriously, "Research powerful weapons, study their weakness, attack their main command if they have one, or lure them into a trap for repeated sweeping? I'm not sure, Hayate, you need to be more specific."
"It's okay; I've already made my point. Your answers are all correct, but you left out the most important one: to communicate with them."
Teana caught on her meaning quickly, and Hayate gave the Enforcer an encouraging nod, "That's right. If we don't understand them, we won't know their purpose. We won't know what they are, whether negotiation is possible, or even what we knew as 'killing' actually worked against them. Sometimes, ignorance is about as bad as intentional evil, or worse."
Hayate looked at the web of red lurking across the streets of Cranagan and narrowed her eyes, "And we can't afford to be ignorant. Not this time."
The two of them went silent for a while, both mood and dialogues exhausted for the time being as they stared intensely at the screen. There was nothing more to be said, there was a million things they needed to do. For now, their job is to wait. A job Hayate secretly wished that it could be stalled forever.
But their time was up.
"System all green and batteries fully charged! Claudia FX-11 Phoenix Cannon firing in 10, 9, 8, 7…"
The commander held both her fists together, and clenched. If the Excel Raptors worked, then her team might not need to move in and thus ensuring the safety of all their lives, but all of her sacrifices would amount to nothing. And yet Hayate had this nagging presentiment that the Excel Raptors would not work, or at least would not function in a way that they expect. Perhaps it was the disheartening figures in the past, perhaps it was Nanoha, or it might even be that horrible vision of gore that haunted her dreams to this day. But somehow, as if guided by a branch of malignant fate, Hayate simply knew that they would have to go no matter what.
It was inevitable.
"… 3, 2, 1. Fire!"
The cannon roared, and the floor shook mightily from beneath everyone's feet. The groans and screeches of pressurized metal yawned into Hayate's ears, as she held herself steady with a handrail, her eyes never leaving the monitor at the slightest. The blue beam of death punched through air and smashed right against the growing membrane, was actually held back for a frightening second before it went through with the ease of hot knife against butter. Even as her own heart leaped against the small success, Hayate could hear the cheers roaring from all around her.
"Yeaaaahhh! We did it! Way to go Claudia!"
"This isn't over, you know?"
"Oh c'mon Tea, don't be such a spoilsport! Smile with me – smiiiiiiile!"
"Stap! Donya puu at ma cheeeeek! Stap it!"
"Hit confirmed, Phoenix Cannon has punched a hole right through the Red Shroud. We are ready for the next phase, over."
"Permission granted. Countdown at one minute, Amy; we have no time to lose."
"Yes sir! Counting down. 60, 59, 58…"
For the first time Hayate allowed her glance to leave the screen with a sigh of relief, and she turned to look at the surroundings. The only occupants in the hanger right now would be she and her team, and so far everyone were looking decidedly happy. Certainly Signum still held a grim line over a jaw, Caro wearing an unexpectedly serious look, the Numbers looking like nothing could faze them short of a dimensional rupture, but all in all it was a good sign. They needed the good news. They needed something to go their way, and for far too long things have not been going the way Hayate had wished. This at least, this –
" – I don't like this."
Hayate spun around at the voice resounding unexpectedly from behind her back. It took her a full second to register the fact that it was Nanoha who had spoken towards her, except that her voice was so low and grim that it couldn't possibly have been.
The brunette raised her head, and those haunted eyes shot holes into Hayate's heart, "You've felt it too, right Hayate? That thing's playing with us. Inviting us in. We should get ready."
Nanoha began to brush past her, and Hayate had to raise an arm and block the woman, "W – wait. What do you mean? "
"I have been suspecting it for a long time, Hayate. And now that it has showed up, I am certain."
"What are you talking about? How did you – "
"On that day," Hayate froze. Her hands felt cold, her brain couldn't process what she was hearing. There was so much hate in those simple words that it was hard to believe, "Vita and the others failed to get through the shroud despite their best efforts. The Legendary Admirals killed by a unexplainable fit of madness. The help that wouldn't mobilize to save the dying city. You couldn't get in because it wouldn't let you. And all of it – all of it… was to trap me and Fate. And now it has come back for us."
Nanoha brushed a tip of her finger at Raising Heart, and the intelligent device transformed for battle with a quick but silent affirmative, "Thankfully, Fate isn't here, and this time I am not alone. We will destroy it. There is no time to waste."
"Nanoha. Nanoha, calm down. It's bad enough that you have an obvious attachment towards the case, and if you're overreacting now the TSAB might just –"
"They can try. They will not get in my way."
The venomous near-growl blew away every noise within the compound, leaving only disbelieving silence. It was only then Nanoha finally woke up from the horrendous thoughts, and tried to laugh off the matter.
"Ah, ahaha, sorry guys, I'm just a little… stressed right now. I'll… go and check the equipment."
She put her head down, ignoring Hayate's hand as she brushed it down lightly and walked away. The former commander could only stare at Nanoha's back, as if she could see the black mass of despair entangling her soul. Was it just her trauma, Hayate wondered numbly, or was it the strings of manipulation, slowly but surely luring them into terrible, inescapable fate?
The Raptors dropped in, thirty seconds later.
The Raptors failed.
" – Dieci and Sein's got in safely. You and Rein are the only ones left, Captain."
"… Yeah. We're coming."
Hayate broke away from her numerous thoughts, and found her fingers stroking the bone of her staff for the eighteenth time already. One for each member. One for each entry towards hell.
"Mistress… we could still… stay. You know?"
Her little guardian angel whispered from within her breast pocket, her voice too soft to be noticed. And yet she could hear them as clear as a ringing bell. They are very close after all.
"… We could. I guess."
It was a wise choice. A sane one. One that everyone would have approved, after seeing how the Raptors just... Thank god Gaia was fine.
She looked downwards a smiled at her aide, "But then I would look super uncool to run away, won't I? No way in hell I'm going to let Carim tease me for the rest of my life."
"I think… it's okay… if she did. At least…"
At least you'll be able to see her laugh then.
Hayate stood up from the bench, and stretched mightily. The wind roared against every fiber in her body, and she could hear another transmission urging her to make the leap.
"A tempting offer. But not this time unfortunately. There is someone I'm worried about," Hayate said as she gave her Fortress unit a powerful left right shake.
"Some-one?" Rein questioned.
"The other members more or less have made their resolve, and their intentions are no less noble… but Nanoha is different," Hayate answered monotonously as she walked down the runway, "Nanoha is… angry."
Rein shook her head slightly, "I understand what you mean, but if that's your reason to go down there and fight… then you shouldn't. You really shouldn't."
"– – –"
Her feet finally reached the end of the runway, and as the wind blasted full force against her body Hayate looked downwards emotionlessly to watch a sea of red, lava-like slime, writhing as if it was alive. At the current rate of its growth, she would have to activate the hidden devices surrounding the perimeter of Cranagan very soon. In fact, she should probably trigger them right now, except that doing it abroad the Claudia was an absolute no, considering that she didn't exactly acquire them through 'proper' methods. Ideally she would like to activate the devices at the exact moment she passed through the blast hole on top of the red shroud, but there's no telling how far the jamming interference could reach.
"Rein, do you think you can test our comm link five seconds before we pass through the Shroud? I'd like to have my eyes wide open in case something happens."
"… This is the fifth time you've asked that already, you know?"
"… Nothing, Captain. Will do."
"…?" Hayate looked doubtfully at her aide, but Rein kept her head down and had seemingly sunk into deep concentration. What happened? No matter how much the captain tried to wrack her brain, she could not for her life phantom what dampened Rein's mood so suddenly. Hayate could somewhat remember that they were having a conversation, but the minute details seemed to have fled her mind. Just what did they talk about again…?
"– – –"
Hmm? Hayate took a look at the time, and realized that she and Rein were the only ones left at the hanger. She must have dozed on and off the entire time, although luckily no one seemed to have noticed anything strange. Or if they did, there's no way Hayate could tell since she had no memory of it. Still, she really should be moving out. If 'something' happened again Chrono might really call her off, and that was the only thing that she would never allow.
"Dream 1 Hayate Yagami, moving out."
"Affirmative, Dream 1. Just get your ass out there already, what's taking you so long?"
"Yes, yes. Man, you're always so grumpy. I better see those champagne on the table when I get back."
Hayate took a deep breath, and looked. Above was the galaxy with its glory of light and darkness, every symbolizing an infinite possibility of hope and despair. Below was the peak of otherworldly among phenomenon, terror and doubt and death awaiting. And yet she felt no fear. No more. All her worries and pain and memories were all but forgotten. No, thrown away for the sake of belief. She did it because it was worth the price. She did it to protect everything. She did it because she was just… selfish. Very selfish.
And ultimately, now faced with the greatest threat Hayate Yagami would ever face, she still did not believe that she was wrong.
"I'm coming for you, Grey Christmas," Hayate whispered.
Unreal. That was the first word she thought of when Hayate Yagami took in the tainted scenery dyed completely by Grey Christmas. She meant it literally too, because absolutely everything, as far as she could see, was completely dyed in red color. The cars, the buildings, the plants, even the tiniest pebble or soil was blood red as sin. Hayate dimly recalled a game from Earth titled, 'The Unfinished Swan' where the child protagonist, in search for his missing painted swan, had started out his bizarre adventure in a completely white painted world. Too bad she doesn't have a magic brush that could squirt colors and lighten up her group's sight.
"Ugh… What in the world is this? Sankt Kaiser protect us…" Schach clamped a hand over her mouth tightly, trying to hold in revulsion.
"I'll be honest upfront, 'kay? I don't think I can stand this. If we don't find whatever it is we're trying to find quick, I won't be able to fight. Uguehhh!" Wendi gave up her dignity right after she finished the sentence and vomited on the ground. The weak-bellied woman's antics immediately produced a chain reaction among her people, and as bad as it was to waste such pointless energy before the mission had even started, Hayate herself was close to giving in to the reflexive impulse.
There were already quite a number of people in her team looking as pale as a ghost, and while surprisingly enough Caro was the one who held a pretty strong front against this oppressing view – she wondered briefly if Caro was accustomed to feeding her dragon raw meat – Hayate understood all too keenly that the assignment had to end as soon as possible. No living person could function properly too long under this crazy, mind distorting sight.
Hayate sneaked a glance at Nanoha. The brunette looked completely unconcerned – or even noticed – about the others wellbeing, and was staring towards a distance at particularly nowhere. There was a gleam in those blue purple eyes so cold and calculated and… and so her that it sent icy shivers down her spine. Even though it had been so long after the first Grey Christmas, Nanoha never managed to bring herself up to talk about the incident, and it was ironically Fate who had given a full account on exactly what happened when they were trapped before ultimately succumbing to the unexplainable sickness. But even then it was only one side of the story, the truth. Hayate wondered if there was a connection. Hayate had no time for phantom worries.
She clapped her hands once to gather everyone's attention, "Okay guys, keep it down, we're at enemy territory here!"
"Good. Now, before we get moving, there are a few things I'd like to tell you guys. So first, we will not be splitting into groups as discussed before: instead, we will all move towards the center together, then spread out later. The reason is simple: We don't have a clue what's out there, and it would be safer if we split only after we've reached the designated location.
The second thing is more trivial, but I'd like to avoid using codenames when we call out to each other during the mission. We are not fighting against humans, or at least something that could be called as one. It is of the utmost importance that we remain rational throughout the mission, and in this… environment, I believe that would at least help out if something happened. Do you all agree?"
For a moment, murmurs broke out among the elites as they discussed briefly what Hayate pretty sure was about the most basic of tactical negligence; she herself didn't think it was too good of an idea. But to her surprise, everyone began to nod one by one, and even her dazing friend turned to look in her eyes with silent agreement. They trusted her tactical sense and intuition.
She had better not screw this up. Hayate turned away, and casually hid her shivering hands into the pockets, though she doubted anyone but her family would notice or care – not with the right reasons in mind, anyway. The brunette took one step forwards and paused, looking up towards the huge black hole carved above the blood red sky.
"Good. We're a kilometer away from our destination; it should be a fifteen minutes' walk at most. Let's go," Hayate said.
"It is possible that the Excel Raptors are observing from nearby, and although I doubt whatever's behind Grey Christmas would need to do that, the chances are there."
"Common sense dictates that we spend a little time to eliminate them so to secure our backs. What do you think?"
"Move on. Even with Reunion's ability we are unable to detect the rogue machines, and god knows if the 'little' delay will kill us. Deal with the threat if they show up, but otherwise just proceed with the mission."
"Easy for you to say, but I concur. Keep me notified if there's anything strange, ye Reunion? And Chrono, do keep a close monitor on our foot progress as we trek towards the center; I've a feeling that things won't be as straightforward as it seems."
"It's either that or 'da Lele'. Like the new nick?"
"Ye is fine."
"Good. Dream 1 out."
Reunion slumped back into his seat with a sigh, slightly annoyed but kind of relieved that the brief talk was over. While acting as a living communicator didn't tax him nearly enough to tire, talking to Hayate was always stressful. Chrono smiled understandingly from behind his back and said, "Good job holding back. From what I've heard, the little chats usually escalate into painfully long-winded arguments, which wasn't something we could really afford right now."
"At the moment I have twenty lives tied to the center of my heart, mind and soul literally. That usually makes you a little more moody and antisocial," Reunion replied snappily, before realizing that it could be a bad idea to vent his frustrations at a TSAB Admiral. Hayate's lack of proper dignity had done awful things to his self-control.
But Chrono remained patient and amiable, "You could've easily turned her down. You know she would not force you. Didn't you do it because you love her?"
Reunion shook his head almost immediately, "No. I do love her as a mother, but it's not nearly enough to make me risk my soul. It's just that… I grew curious about Grey Christmas."
Chrono looked at him with a disbelieving and cautious look, "That is interesting. What is it?"
Reunion fell silent. To be honest, the boy wasn't quite sure himself what he was expecting from the disaster. A year ago he would never have considered putting his life at risk, much less getting involved in a suicide mission trying to defuse an unknown and crazy deadly phenomenon. But when the first Grey Christmas struck and he, an innocent victim caught in the middle of everything, Reunion still vividly remembered how that mysterious, powerful sensation welled up inside him like a tsunami, and it –
… He couldn't remember. Everything after that was pure darkness.
"… I'm not sure. I'm simply hoping that Hayate might find the answers along the way, if possible. It is however, not important right now," Reunion finally answered.
"Maybe. Right now though the priority is to discover the source of Grey Christmas… I'm going to check on Amy for a while; tell me if anything happens okay?" Chrono put a hand briefly on the kid's shoulders before walking away. Apparently the young man read the mood and decided that he could use some time alone, and while Reunion wouldn't have mind it either way, he was once again treated to the lesson on how perceptive Hayate's friends can be when they choose to. Almost a little too perceptive for his liking. Or maybe for all of his magic and wisdom, in the end he's just a nine years old kid and pretty bad with people. Man, he really should stop poking his nose into somebody else's business.
[– – – ]
For the slightest of second, Reunion felt a jolt of… something slipping right through his network. It could be danger, or it could be something as simple as nerves after sitting for a prolonged amount of time. Whatever it was, he immediately dived into the system and began scanning for any signs of discrepancy.
But there was nothing.
"… I guess it's just nerves."
He almost believed his own words. Amidst the utter quietness that permeated throughout the web of hearts, his instincts screeched so loudly that he swore there something was hidden right around the corner just waiting for him to let his guard down. And yet he could find nothing. He waited on for ten more minutes before Chrono finally came and shook him out of the trance.
Maybe it really was just nerves.
She walked past a red lamp post while keeping her eyes looking straight ahead. There were members of her unit scouting at the furthermost front as there were members of her unit cautiously guarding their back, and her in the middle of it all, walking.
Zaa. Zaa. Zaa.
"Okay, that's it, everybody halt!"
Hayate raised both her hands and stopped everyone dead at their tracks. She looked at their faces and got mixed reactions from mildly concerned to strong frustration, but it was obvious that at the moment, they all shared one unspeakable emotion that threatened to choke whatever life out of them.
Hayate mentally brought up the heart's network and asked curtly, "Reunion. How far have we travelled?"
"As far as I can tell, you're halfway there, and that's only because I can see the Statue of Sankt Kaiser to your left. The computers are going completely nuts here."
"Are you sure our senses are completely fine? That whatever's at work is of external factor?"
"Yes. I don't know what it is; maybe the ground is being extended, maybe everything just goes slower inside the shroud, it could be anything. I really can't tell."
"Fifteen minutes' walk," Hayate muttered to herself darkly. The estimation had been rather optimistic, but Hayate didn't realize just how off the calculation was. They have been walking for an hour straight, and by all means they should've arrived at their destination since a long time ago. The brunette glared at the direction they're headed, her view not reaching far enough for her to decide properly with buildings standing in the way. They had tried scouting from above a tall flat and everything had seemed fine then, but things were obviously wrong the moment they started towards the center again: The distance just wasn't right. She has to decide now whether or not to continue the journey on foot – thus risking the loss of an hour – or fly, though the risk of being sniped was all too real. Urgency versus caution, and both so direly needed that it felt like a knife at the back for not able to take both.
But she was not unfamiliar with these kinds of situations. Especially these kinds of situations.
"… Okay. Subaru, Ginga; use Wing Road to create a path and follow behind the flyers. Sein, Otto; pair up with either one of them and guard their backs. The four of you will form the core defense against snipe from grounds. Dieci with Wendi; Nove and Cinque with Caro; and everyone else keep the same formation on the skies. Get it?"
"Roger!" Everyone began moving towards their respective positions, and Hayate sighed as she took the brief moment to ponder her next move. The brunette hasn't forgotten about the Excel Raptors, and even though they were told before the exact capabilities of those machines, anything could happen in a battlefield. This decision of hers might be the exact moment they were waiting for to make an attack. However, she'll be damned if she'd let the enemy take them down with such a simple ambush. She glanced meaningfully at her knights as they easily understood the message, and nodded. Now there was just one last thing she needed to deal with.
"Nanoha. Lead the front –"
"Ah – yes, sorry. What is it?" The brunette looked at her with mist in her eyes. Hayate understood that to even be here could be a traumatic experience for Nanoha, but losing focus was simply not acceptable in this mission.
"Just what is it that's bugging you? You've been in and out like this ever since we're here!" Hayate said with mild irritation.
"I… I don't know. I… think there's something out there that I can't ignore… Maybe even someone. It's just a feeling, but I… I'm not sure," Nanoha answered with cloudy doubt scribbled all over her face. Hayate realized with a start that the brunette might very well have a lead onto something, and cursed herself silently for not questioning her behavior earlier.
"That sounds pretty important. Do we have a direction? Where should we go?"
"I… don't know. For now, I think we should just continue towards the center," Nanoha said.
"Okay," Hayate turned away and waved her hand upwards. At once Subaru and everyone else began to take flight, with the exception of the Wolkenritters keeping a watchful eye at the surroundings, and surprisingly Yuuno with a stern look on his face. He walked towards Nanoha as she looked at him quizzically.
"Nanoha… You can rely on us, and we'll do everything we can to help you, especially when you're in trouble... just like you did it for us. So," he gave her a huge smile and continued, "Don't force yourself, okay?"
Her friend was still looking slightly dark and uncertain, but in the end she returned the smile and raised both her arms while yelling, "Okay! Sorry for the trouble guys! All drinks are on me when we're done with the mission, eh?!"
"Ohh! I want a Martini!"
"If you'd please buy the food too – Ow!"
"Now now, we don't want to get too greedy do we, Subaru?"
"Ehehe…" Nanoha scratched her head and laughed a bit, and Hayate couldn't help but smile herself. Before Yuuno had intervened she had wanted to ask for Nanoha's permission and let Reunion probe around her mind, but… I guess I don't need to. Not wanting to waste any more time, the brunette lifted her right arm once more and ordered, "Okay. Everyone rea –"
And then it happened.
"To your left!"
There was a bang, a groan, and Cinque falling sideways while clutching a bloody shoulder before Nove caught her reflexively with a stunned look on her face. Before Hayate's brain could even compute the situation Vita already leaped towards the sky while roaring on the top of her lungs, "Snipers from above! Scatter already!"
Then they began to move, then they began to spread out, and all the sudden shots were being fired all over the place. A bullet storm, she thought. Hayate barely raised her own shields before a few bullets pinged off the hasty defense, and suddenly the brunette realized just how badly she had misjudged the situation. Mistake number one, because they were trapped within the red shroud she had completely forgotten that the sky was still an excellent place for camouflage and hiding. Mistake number two, even with the bloody Book of the Silver Cross incident in her list of military experience, she had never expected her enemies to actually use Physical Weapons in combat, technology for her own home world, and it was so humiliating it was all she could do not to scream in frustration.
"Mistress, jump!" Rein yelled into her ears, and Hayate did not hesitate to bounce into mid-air as jet black wings exploded into existence and lifted her further, narrowly dodging another storm of deadly lead that would've punched through her head and killed her instantly. The Fortress could take a bomb to the face and not have a scratch. The Fortress however most certainly could not move fast enough to defend her adequately when shots were firing from every possible angle, and these bullets hit powerful enough to buckle her arms. Heavy enough to shake her knees and chatter her teeth. What's wrong with these shots? It's like someone's shooting tank rounds at us!
"I have your back, just get us out of range!"
"What range? I can't even see who's attacking us! We'll use that building as cover!"
A surge of incredible energy channeled deep into her wings, and with a blast of ferocious wind Hayate dove backwards towards the nearest window. With the entire city vacated most of not all of the houses where either shut tight or even barricaded, but she wouldn't need to worry about crashing herself into a pool of squish with Rein around. She just needed a few seconds to cool down, a few seconds to analyze the situation –
She saw it. Five seconds before impact. She saw through Rein's eyes a huge mass of round steel screeching death from behind. She saw through her own a huge mass of round steel screeching death from the front. The Fortress had split into parts automatically to protect against both attacks, but if a round half the size of a finger could rattle her defenses, what about one at least fifty times its size could do? Her shield is useless, and she's going to die. She's going to die. Rein is going to die. Rein –
"– Parallel Processing" "– Double Speed Casting" "– Blaster Three"
Her head stung almost instantly with excruciating pain, but she did not let down her concentration. Immediately her sworn partner swung around to face her, not even caring for the danger anymore as her mouth distorted into a scream, but Hayate did not stop. She could never stop.
"– Double Holding Net" "– Circle Protection" "– Heimdall Phalanx Shift"
In an instant three different spells of different qualities, one to slow and one to defend and one to attack flashed into existence to shut down with all their strength the immediate threat. Already the Holding Net was stretched to its limits and the magical barrier – combined with the Fortress' shields – showing signs inevitable collapse, but her final spell was still channeling; the two shards of deadly ice circling around her body wasn't yet big and strong enough to completely shatter the threat. She has to be faster, faster, faster goddammit –
"Hayate, don't do it!"
"Quadruple Speed Casting! Mauls of silver, destroy my enemies!"
Detonation. The pieces of ice swelled five times its size with impossible speed and exploded towards the incoming projectiles, and the world detonated in a multitude of blue and red and black. Amidst all the confusion, Hayate had never forgotten to grab on to Rein, never forgotten to keep the remaining Fortress bits raised as she mentally conjured another shield to deflect stray projectiles as she boosted her wings and flew straight towards the cover. Almost now, almost! Five seconds, four seconds, we're almost safe, alm –
Reunion crumbled from his chair and began shivering uncontrollably, his face a pale sheen of ghost white as he struggled very hard not to throw up. All at once nearby TSAB personnel swarmed at his location with concern, but thankfully Chrono quickly jumped in and pushed open sufficient breathing space. It took him three long minutes – each felt as long as an hour – before he could stand, and another three before he finally managed enough strength to mutter just three, heartfelt words:
"Fuck you, Hayate."
"… nev… up!? This... your respo…!"
"Sto… Mistre… nobody cou…"
Voices. Familiar voices speaking and arguing and pulling at her against the deep, dark hole Hayate was in. The moment she reached for the voices intense pain struck at the very core of her heart, and she fell back stunned and in pain. She was scared. She understood that pain like never before crouched just behind the protective veil of darkness, waiting to pounce at her and eat her whole. She could not fight it, there was nothing in the world Hayate Yagami could do to stop it, and therefore she chose to shy away. To hide. To cower at the furthest edge on consciousness praying that it would go away. That was the best thing she could do, that was the only thing she wanted to do. Away. Away.
"Dammit… know that! It's… I… Uu… Hayate…"
Don't cry. She felt her eyebrow knitting into an unpleasant frown. Hayate. Who is Hayate? I am. She is Hayate Yagami, Last Mistress of the Book of the Night Sky, former commander of Special Duty Section 6, friend of Nanoha, girlfriend of Yuuno, family to Rein, to Signum, to Vita, to Shamal, to Zafira… and mother of Reunion. She was so many things. She was so tired of it. She was so, so tired of everything.
"She… alive… must treat… abandon the mission…"
No. No you musn't. Before Hayate knew it, she was rising against the dark blanket of comfort, and even as she clawed towards the surface pain was attacking with an intensity she had never known possible. Why is it? What is this mission? Why was she willing to suffer so much pain all for the sake of a mission she could not remember? She didn't know. She swam up anyway. She had a feeling that she didn't come this far just to cower in sleep. She most definitely did not suffer all these for nothing in return. Hayate Yagami was a selfish woman after all, and right now she needed them as much as they needed her. The light is near, and this time, she will make it!
"Hayate… Hayate, wake up, please… wake up!"
"– – – Aaaah! Haah! Haah! Haah!"
Hayate broke through the fog and woke up screaming, panting, covered in cold sweat and generally felt like a ninety years old granny in need of some serious sleep. The eternal type, considering how every fiber in her body – especially her head, god damn bloody Kaiser – felt like they're on fire. But they needed her. They needed her, and so she would not die. Not yet. Her sleep can come later.
At once several shadows bulldozed right into her view, and Hayate very nearly flinched because of the sudden movement, but she did not. She was too weak to do anything anyway.
"Wait stay that range, give her some air to breathe. Hayate, can you hear me? Give me a response, any response at all."
This time a blurry face bobbed carefully into view, and it took her a good moment before her sight finally cleared. Yellow-colored hair, a pair of smart looking spectacles and gem green eyes that had caught her heart since immemorial time.
"Yuuno Scrya," Hayate croaked, "The love of my life."
The said lover immediately turned red at the sudden exclamation before coughing sheepishly with a hand over his head, "Er, okay, ahem, you're fine. Now let's have a different response instead. How many fingers I'm holding up?"
But before she could answer, the pony-tailed young man suddenly flew out of the way as a fiery red figure shoved him aside rudely, "Ei, enough with the love stories! Hayate, are you okay!? You looked like you're in so much pain, I – I was so worried –"
Panic mode Vita; a sight Hayate wasn't so unfamiliar with considering how many times she managed to get herself injured. In fact now that she watched closely, everyone looked so haggard with fear that they looked five years their age. The guilt that she seemed to have forgotten ages ago resurfaced like a tidal wave of tsunami, and she had to exert a great deal of physical energy to suppress that feeling. I'm sorry Vita, but this is not the time. Hayate coughed once while climbing upwards, and immediately she was surrounded by concerned figures lending a helping hand. The brunette took the time to count their numbers: Signum and Agito, looking a little worn out by the battle but otherwise unhurt; Shamal and Yuuno were completely fine; Vita battle garb looked cut at several places but her wounds were already healed; and finally there was Rein.
"Rein…" Hayate could only stare restlessly at her aide's unmoving back; the Unison Device did not seem to have moved a muscle ever since she woke up. Even now Hayate could still remember the voice that had screamed for her to stop, to not use the forbidden spells… And how she had ignored it completely and went against her wishes.
"I was so angry."
Rein continued speaking as if she couldn't hear her, "I could not change your mind. You are my Mistress, my creator, my Mother, and certainly I have no rights to even try. So I thought that at least I would protect you against all dangers… but it turned out to be the opposite. You got hurt to protect me, again, and I couldn't do anything to protect you."
Fifteen seconds into the conversation and things were already heading towards a downwards spiral. Hayate wavered on her feet as she made to move towards the girl, "Rein, you would've done the same for me. It's just – I'm sorry, I shouldn't have done it, but…"
"Perhaps," Rein finally turned around, and Hayate found herself unable to speak, "I am weak, Mistress. I'm useless. Forgive me. Forgive me. Forgive me…"
She has seen her tiny partner cried many times before, had cried along with her many times, but not once has Hayate ever seen such a look on her face. Rein looked so frightened, so transient, so sad that at once Hayate knew that she had made an, irreversible mistake. There was no way she could've cut corners when they were caught off guard before, when it had meant either to live or die, but it was regardless a mistake that she never should have done. What should she do? Comfort her? Hug her? Chide her? What could she do? The brunette wondered if this was what it meant to be utterly paralyzed by indecision. Indecision and fear. So when Zafira finally stepped in she had never felt more filled with relief,
"As much as I believe that you should talk this out slowly, we really don't have much time left. It is three hours away from the 25th, and the Seven Walls isn't going to hold out much longer."
"Three hours – what? What did you just say?"
Zafira looked at Hayate uncomfortably as if unsure whether he should answer, "Mistress… you were out for at least twenty hours. We've tried to wake you."
I was out for twenty hours? Twenty?Her temple throbbed painfully at the terrible news, but Hayate forced herself to ignore the pain and focus on the issue, "Get me up to speed as quickly as possible. What happened?"
Zafira began explaining. Shortly after her blackout, The Wolkenritters and Yuuno had managed to break through the ambush and immediately rushed towards her side, in response to Rein's desperate call for help. Somehow, in the midst of the confusion, they had become separated with the rest of the squad, but luckily Reunion's Heart Link still worked, and after a short discussion they quickly worked up a plan towards regrouping with the others.
"… And then it happened," Zafira said vaguely with a frown.
"Be clear," Hayate urged him carefully, but Zafira couldn't seem to find the words to describe it. Finally Signum stepped into the conversation and summed up the direness of the situation simply, "We cannot find anyone no matter what we do. It's like they've just disappeared."
"That is impossible," Hayate responded immediately, "We have Reunion. We can find them no matter where they are, even in Grey Christmas –"
"Hayate. Do you still remember how we've walked for a whole hour, but still not reaching the center?" Yuuno asked gently.
"It is as Yuuno said," Zafira answered quietly, "Although with a little difference: Every time we seem to reach someone, they – or we, I'm not sure – were… moved to a different location. That's what the Heart's network told us, even though we felt no such phenomenon occurring. Everyone tried again and again to meet up with someone, anyone at all, but… we just couldn't."
"And the original objective? No one thought of continuing towards the center?" Hayate asked.
"We were met with same results."
"Then we should've just retreated. Even if the hole before is closed, why didn't you just ask for Claudia – no, wait, you don't mean…?"
"Yes," Zafira answered in a sober tone, "As you have predicted, four hours after the mission has started, Claudiaonce again fired its cannon in attempt to forcibly open a path. It did not work. We are… completely trapped inside Grey Christmas."
Hayate fought down a hysterical urge to cry. So they were ambushed, then separated, were kept separated by some unexplainable magic – if it's even magic at all – and finally trapped in this horrible world of red unable to move forward or retreat. The situation seemed hopeless, is hopeless, but as the captain of the squad she cannot stop thinking, for if she did then they would truly die. There must be a way. She needed more information.
"You mentioned about the Seven Walls," Hayate closed her eyes in attempt to get a break from the depressing red, "That means that Grey Christmas must've tried to expand beyond the boundary of Relic we've set around Cranagan. How long have it lasted? How much longer can it last?"
"The Wall's held up for ten hours, but it wouldn't be for much longer. The TSAB ships are currently reinforcing it with their own power supply, but that is not the problem."
"It's going to break under extreme stress soon. Okay. What else?"
Zafira hesitated, "Reunion has requested that you contact him as soon as you wake up. He is… tired after spending the last few hours trying to heal you."
"Reunion," Hayate suddenly felt her blood ran cold, "Was he hurt? The spells, they require incredible mental processing to execute, and if the stress passed on to him then – I'm sorry, please give me a second."
Within seconds Hayate had opened herself to the Heart's network and immediately she called out,
[Reunion? You there?]
[… Oh. It's you.]
[You were asking for me, and I was going to find you anyway, so – are you alright?]
[I can't believe you dared to ask me that question after that stunt you pulled.]
She had no excuse. Even though death usually counts as a legitimate reason, at the moment Hayate didn't feel like arguing. She apologized sincerely,
[I didn't think to close off the connection; there wasn't time… I'm sorry.]
[I know, it's just that… Haah, forget about it. Anyway, as you should already know we don't have much time. Head towards the center and group up with the others.]
[Huh? But I thought we couldn't move?]
[You woke up, so it should be fine. Remember what Nanoha said about Grey Christmas; as if it has its own consciousness? It's just a hunch, but I believe that she's right, and this time it's targeting you.]
"Holy mother of –"" "What? Why didn't you tell us sooner!?" "It can't be…" "Calm down; all of you. We have faced worse dangers than this." "…"
If she pretended that she did not notice the chilling silence that hovered menacingly over a certain moody bunch in her group, then the usual noisy responses did give some semblances of relief to the brunette, even if it did not change the fact that Hayate too was unnerved by the declaration.
[That is new. I'm guessing there're only a few people who knew about this?]
[You would've been dead otherwise, since most of the TSAB officials are cowards. Anyway, back to the point. So, conveniently enough, the last trace of our missing Ace, Nanoha Takamachi's signal seemed to be around the Cranagan Battle Stadium, which is also one of the sites at the center point of Cranagan. So you are to –]
[Wait,] Hayate interrupted suddenly; she must've heard wrong there, [What do you mean, Nanoha's missing?]
[… They didn't tell you?]
Her hands turned numb with cold, [That's impossible. She's on the Heart's network; you said that no matter where a person is, as long as they're –]
[Listen to me, Hayate. I've tried everything I can, but right now I just can't find her… Usually when someone goes missing on my radar, I label them as dead, but –]
No. No. Not again. Hayate choked and stumbled backwards upon hearing those words, and if Vita wasn't supporting her back she would've collapsed there and then. Reunion started yelling,
[I said USUALLY. And BUT. Nanoha is alive, okay?! I could still feel her faintly, but just couldn't pinpoint a location. For now. Get a hold of yourself!]
[I… know. Next time, phrase your words… better.]
[Fine, sorry… Anyway, as I've said before, you need to make towards the center at these coordinates. The plan is simple: Get there, wait for my signal, and fire your most powerful spell towards the sky. We'll do the same from here and pierce this annoying Shroud from both sides at once. But until then, do something like er, find Nanoha and investigate the source. Got it?]
[Good. Also, do not access the Heart's network until I allow you too, okay? We absolutely cannot risk you fainting for an entire day again.]
Reunion promptly cut off the communication, and at once Hayate felt a tremendous wave of exhaustion sweeping from under her feet. Vita and Shamal immediately placed a firm grip onto her waist and steadied her feet, but the brunette shook her head slowly and gently pulled away. She didn't want to slow anyone down.
"So? Are we going now?" Agito asked as she hovered and sat onto Signum's shoulders.
"Schwertkreuz," Hayate whispered. The golden staff descended slowly with wisps of white, and with a quick swipe she grabbed it firmly in her palm and stabbed it to the ground. Her Fortress armor was gone, but that didn't matter. The captain stared grimly into everyone's eyes, one by one, not as a show of power but one that embodied determination. Even though they would be walking into an obvious trap, not a single one of them showed any signs of fear, and so she had to be strong as well. For them.
Finally the brunette shifted her eyes towards Rein, and the latter shied away for an instant before meeting her gaze. Hayate understood that it would take time to heal the wrongs and wounds between them, and unfortunately time was the one thing they couldn't have now. So instead, she raised her hand calmly and spoke,
"Rein. Unison with me."
"There are a million words I need to say to you," Hayate said with all her heart, "And there are a million feelings that I want to share with you too. But I'm an idiot, so this is the only way I could tell you my feelings. Unison with me, Rein."
Rein looked moved, but lines of hesitation still scarred the most of her expression, "But Mistress, I don't deserve –"
Hayate interrupted without waiting for her to finish, "I did not regret my earlier actions, Rein. I will do it again if I have to, because I love you… but at the same time, I don't ever want to see you sad again, and this is one way to do that. So please… be with me."
Rein looked downwards and hid her face underneath the shadows of her hair. For a while neither of them spoke a word, and as Hayate waited patiently for her Device, so did the others. Finally the silver-haired fairy looked up towards her, and broke into a small smile, "I am afraid that I might fail you again... Hayate, but… this time, I will protect you. I will protect you no matter what."
Hayate smiled. A heart's wounds never heal easily, and even when they were bonded there would be secrets and darkness that they could not share. But still, it was a step forwards. It was a step that she could look forward to.
They raised both their hands, and felt each other's warmth. Hayate began chanting.
"… Are you sure it is the right decision not to tell her, Chrono?"
"Let's say we tell her: and then what? She would've been shattered by the news, while still in great danger. I… Even I am…"
"I'm… sorry. I should've done… something."
"Don't. Apologize. I'm not sure if I could rein in my feelings if you do that… just don't tell Hayate. Please."
Hayate felt like she was missing something important, but decided that whatever it was could wait until later. As she flew over yet another wreckage of stones and steel, seemingly remnants of a battle with an unfortunate building caught in between, she found herself wobbling unsteadily due to an almost carnivorous need for sleep. While her head no longer hurts, even the tiniest amount of thinking jolted a fresh surge of exhaustion that could topple her as easily as a drunkard. It was pure torture to stay awake.
"That's enough for now, Hayate. I'll take over so you just take a nap, okay?"
"Ah… thanks, I appreciate it. Call me after ten minutes, okay?"
So in the end she gave into the temptation – it would be terrible if her exhaustion carried over to the next battle anyway – and began exploiting one of the benefits Unison Mode had to offer. It was a very simple routine. Every ten minutes Hayate would relinquish control over to Rein and rest within the Internal Space, vice versa, though she doubted that her partner would need the nap. However, the brunette was very aware that not only they were making steady progress towards the designated coordinates - which ironically was the Mid-Childan Main Office, a base that she was a little too familiar with – they had encountered absolutely no resistance at all. In fact, there wasn't even a bird, a rat, or even a cockroach to be seen for the entire length of time they've been here.
"Actually…" Signum started hesitatingly at some point of time.
"What is it?" Hayate asked.
"When we were ambushed before, I couldn't actually find anyone… or anything that's attacking us. We need to be more careful."
And that was Signum's greatest understatement of the year. She was so going to rub it on her face when they get back home later. Rein had snickered at the stray thought, and the brunette was glad to hear the silver fairy laughing again.
Hayate continued to dream of of demons and monsters when a gentle but persistent nudge pulled her away from the sweet depths of sleep. The brunette opened her eyes to see her aide, and Rein spoke seriously, "Hayate. We're there."
"… Ahh. Give me a second, will you? I need to arrange my thoughts."
Hayate slapped both sides of her cheeks to fight off the drowsiness, and when she was finally ready, the brunette resurfaced into normal consciousness and found herself staring down at the full majestic view of the TSAB Mid-Childan Main Office from a thousand feet above. An incredible number of crimson red skyscrapers stood proudly against the skies as if eager and ready to defy the will of heavens. Multiple layers of physical dome-like structures were built strategically at many corners of the entire site, and while they were virtually unnoticeable and hidden among many other similar-sized buildings, it was said that they could produce a defense powerful enough to withstand at least ten years of siege without so much a dent. And given that the TSAB was founded by the end of a terrible war, Hayate was inclined to believe it even though it contradicted the common sense back on Earth.
Normally there would be a high number of magical shields and ground defenses that covered this level of altitude, instantly showering anyone who came too close with thousands of volts of electricity. And if there was ever such a need, the shields could even be made to disintegrate their enemies on touch, not to mention the barrage of magical bombs that could rain literally fiery hell from ground below. While it may not look like it, the Mid-Childan Main Office was a monstrosity of what you would call an impenetrable super fortress, and with leaders such as the deceased Lieutenant General Regius Gaiz and now the vicious General Rektor Magia, Hayate half expected the Office to fly off the ground and challenge the Headquarters to an all-out duel someday. And by the gods, it might even win.
"Hayate? Do you have something in mind?" Shamal asked.
"No, I was just thinking how convenient it would be if Rektor Magia is the mastermind behind everything. Too bad," Hayate replied with a bitter smile, and with that she threw away all random thoughts and turned her focus towards her next. She tapped into the channel,
[Reunion? We're there already. Do you have a specific place in mind that we should head?]
[Fifteen minutes? That's fast. Well no, but do find the highest, unobstructed point possible when you ready the spell, and that would be an hour and fifteen minutes later, 2330. For now, find Nanoha.]
[How about the others? We have to set a gathering point somewhere.]
[You were the closest group to the center, and it'll take the fastest ones at least forty minutes to arrive. Find Nanoha or investigate the source, your choice.]
[Speaking of which, let me check on them a little –]
The sudden outburst took Hayate completely by surprise, [What? What are you so angry about?]
[No, it's just… you do know that you're the connector to everyone right? And that your condition is less than green?]
[Was it that bad? I'm not really feeling it –]
[That's because I'm holding it in check! Do you know even know how much it took for me to stay awake just because I have to handle like 80% of your sleepiness? Without mentioning the other more debilitating symptoms, something like the pain –]
[Okay, okay. Sheesh, why am I the only one who has a lousy kid. Dream 1 out.]
Hayate swept a hand over her hair, and once again she felt a weird sense of feeling passing over her. It's felt as if she's forgetting something very important, and yet no matter how the brunette tried she just couldn't get a hand on the matter. This has never happened before in her life. What is it, Hayate thought to herself, that's bugging me? What... should I realize? That I should know?
But before she could finish her thoughts, Signum came up to her and said calmly, "Mistress, I would suggest that we start moving and search for our missing princess. This place is huge, and if Nanoha's magical signal was hidden then…"
"Signum's right, so stop brooding like judgment's day and come on already!"
Even Agito was chiding her, and so the brunette finally discarded her thoughts and replied doubtfully, "Y – yeah. You're right. Let's see now…"
Surely it couldn't be too important.
"It won't be long before she realizes it."
"… I'm thinking."
"I'm thinking too, and we better think fast because as soon as she realizes that I've been meddling with her thought process, there's no stopping her from doing whatever the hell she wants."
In the end, after some heated arguments and a unanimous vote of agreement from all sides, Hayate found herself relegated to guard duty and spell preparation at a lonely corner on top of the skies, with Shamal and Yuuno providing support and aiding the search right beside her. Firing Ragnarok at her maximum strength wouldn't even take more than a minute, or forty three point seven seconds to be precise. This is abuse!
"If you can say forcing an overworked, uncooperative patient to rest is abuse, that is."
That being said, it was a good chance to rest her body and mind, and while she and Rein were made for each other to be in Unison Mode for extended periods of time was tiring. It would also give her time to think through that little weird feeling she had before –
"H – Hayate!"
"What? What is it?"
The brunette quickly did a three-sixty at Shamal's exclamation and looked over their immediate surroundings, but she couldn't see anything resembling an attack. The healer quickly cleared up the misunderstanding, "No, it's not an attack. I'm just… er, want to talk to you about something."
"Okay…?" Hayate asked suspiciously. Shamal was acting very odd and her cramped smile only made things worse. And so the brunette tried to smooth things over with a smile and said, "Take it easy, we've had a long day. What is it do you want to say?"
The healer visibly relaxed, and as she took a deep breath and touched the nape of her neck, she said, "Ah, hmm, where to start off…? How are you feeling now?"
"Bullied. Shamed. You do know that all of you are going to miss out my special dinner for an entire week, don't you?"
It was a crude joke, but the shock on Shamal's face coupled with a pair of welling tears immediately caused Hayate to panic, "It was just a joke! Of course I'm going to cook, don't worry!"
Almost immediatel Shamal wiped clean her tears and began smiling mischievously, "I can play the game too if I want, Hayate."
"Hahaha… I must be getting old," Hayate scratched her head in embarrassment, "Anyway, surely you didn't want to ask me just that?"
"No, well, it's just that… there is something I want to know, if possible," Shamal said hesitatingly, before continuing when Hayate nodded, "Do you, erm… have a relationship with Nanoha or something?"
Hayate stared wide-eyed at Shamal for a second before realizing the gravity of the situation, "No. No," she exclaimed her denial twice when she felt an intense stare knew it to be Yuuno's, "We are not like that. I mean, she has Fate already! Of course I wouldn't get between them!"
"Does that mean that if she doesn't have Fate, you would?" Yuuno asked brightly, and contrary to his smile Hayate only felt as cold as blizzard.
"Of course not, I already told you that you're the love of my life! Yuuno!"
"Oops. Sorry," Yuuno laughed good-naturedly, and Hayate could only sigh at the little joke. Guess that there's no help to it when she herself was the biggest prankster in TSAB.
"But... Nanoha and me, huh…" Hayate thought aloud. Shamal looked at her expectantly, and Yuuno's face was once again a mask of warm indifference; he would not interfere with her decision. The brunette thought back to the days when it all started, how Nanoha had come to her crying, how her friend had struck her down to keep her away from danger, how they had finally redeemed their friendship on that –
… Well that's weird, there were some parts of the memories that she could not recall, but no matter, they would come to her later. And even without them, Hayate had always understood why she had driven herself so hard to help Nanoha.
"Do you remember when Liselotte and Aria absorbed you to the Book, a long time ago?"
"It was kinda hard not to remember, to be honest," Shamal laughed a little; with time and forgiveness the wounds have ceased to hurt for a very long time.
Hayate smiled as she looked at her past, "Well, I'm not sure if you remember what happened after you were absorbed, but there were this two little kids not more than nine years old, battling with all their strength against a half Goddess. One was defeated, and another still stood. She was absolutely brilliant, but everything she threw against Reinforce had amounted to nothing. But she never stopped trying. She never gave up.
"I remembered those eyes as if just yesterday, Shamal. Nanoha had gone all out to save me, to save a friend she barely knew more than just her name and favorite food with complete disregard of her own life. It was wrong of course, and at first I couldn't understand; I mean, why would you sacrifice your life for someone you barely knew? But over time I came to know her better, and I realize that Nanoha was just… trying so hard to realize her own wish. And just like how I wished that no one would ever get hurt, she just… didn't want to see anyone sad and crying again. She would try again and again, no matter how many times it would take to make everyone happy. Her methods may be wrong, but even then she was so… beautiful."
Hayate took a moment's break to catch her breath before continuing, "Of course, she had since learned moderation, and she no longer drives herself beyond her own capabilities… most of the time. But lately, after Grey Christmas… she's starting to look like before again. She would go as far as to lie to us with a smile, lie to Fate with a smile, soaking up all the responsibilities, all the pains and burdens by herself without relying on anyone… just so that she could protect us from danger and end it once and for all. That idiot, I… I never wanted anything like this. Damn that idiot, I…"
"I just want to help her… that's all."
That was all Hayate could say. The brunette couldn't think of anything else, and now that she thought about it some of the stuff she just said was very embarrassing. The brunette hid her burning face underneath her sleeves, and thought. She just wanted to help a friend. She just didn't want to see her friend suffer. She just wants to see her smile genuinely again, without all the worries and sadness and pain that plagued the mind. It really wasn't a thought that a normal adult would have. Hayate didn't care, because she had come this far for an equally childish ideal herself.
"Mistress? Are you asleep?" Shamal leaned a little closer and tried to peek.
"She's not. Her face is as red as pie, and she just doesn't want you guys to see it."
"Oh, that explains everything," Yuuno deadpanned with a straight face.
Hayate tried to catch the naughty little fairy that's flying about the corners Internal Space, and after a few unsuccessful attempts decided that she could deal with Rein later. She popped her face out of cover and tried to cover up, "I was feeling a little tired, hence my face was red, hence –"
Shamal leaned forwards and grabbed hold of her hand. Hayate did not expect that. The healer looked into her eyes and said firmly, "There is no need to be embarrassed, Mistress. You are absolutely right. I am the one who should be ashamed to even think that one should have a better reason to help a friend… Forgive me."
Hayate stared at Shamal carefully. It has been a long time since she had seen the healer with such a refreshed, happy look on her face. Hayate turned to look at Yuuno, and the young man apparently felt her gaze and turned away sheepishly. She would tease him for three days and nights for this little matter later. The brunette placed a hand at her heart, and felt Rein's warmth pulsing against it.
"Thank you," Hayate said sincerely.
"Can I, erm, kick Nanoha's ass with you when we see her later?" Shamal blushed a little at the use of explicit words, and Hayate couldn't resist a grin, "Definitely. And give me a good signal so I can grab a photo."
They both stood up from the ground, and Hayate gave her back a wonderful stretch. She looked up into the sky, no longer fearing the pure red color that dyed all of her vision. She would make it out. She would destroy Grey Christmas permanently. And she would definitely save Nanoha and Fate from their suffering so that they could once again smile truly.
Feeling a lot more refreshed despite the rather long talk, Hayate called out to her knights for the next set of instructions, "Thirty minutes passed, guys. Any results?"
Vita was the first to respond to her question, and the silence that follow suit were apparently of the same idea, "I'm sorry, Hayate. I can't find her yet, and there's nothing at all that looked out of place. We'll keep searching though."
"Okay," Hayate consented, "Try and expand your search underground, remember that this is the TSAB Ground Force's base, and –"
She heard a thud from behind. Suddenly her view suddenly shook, blurring in and out of focus for no reason. My staff, she thought, can't fall now. For some reason it had fell out of her grasp, and no matter how hard she tried to reach it she just couldn't move. Then she noticed a thin line of gold cutting across slightly left of her view, and it took her several seconds to comprehend that it was an energy blade; a most familiar golden blade that protruded out of her chest. Lightning. She touched where it came out, and her fingers felt wet. Very wet. Somehow it looked more crimson than everything she had seen in Grey Christmas. I must be imagining things. She turned her head backwards with difficulty, and she saw a familiar golden hair clad in black uniform and white cap. This is impossible.
"F… ate?" Hayate croaked.
Hayate swung her head around, disbelieving her ears as she looked towards the sky. There stood a most familiar figure that she had known as long as Fate, a best friend she had sworn to protect and save no matter what the cost. She loved her. She loved them both. That was why she could not comprehend the pain that flared across her chest like fire. That was why she could not understand why the distinct, pink colored magic from her staff was growing stronger by the second, or why the weapon seemed to be targeting at the point right between her eyes.
"Na, no… ha?"
She felt the blade twisting within her heart, crushing it.
Her view suddenly erupted into a kaleidoscope of pink and red.
" " " " " " "Hayate! " " " " " " "