"This is my ultimate strength. It's everything I've got!" Nanoha's eyes narrowed, and she brought Raising Heart down with a yell. "STARLIGHT BREAKER!"
She saw Fate's eyes widen in shock.
A torrent of pink magic thundered towards the blonde, bombarding her over and over with the rippling rush of energy. Nanoha panted with the strain, but she couldn't help smiling a bit, exhilarated by the power flowing through her.
It was working!
When her attack finally ended, she barely heard the hiss of escaping gas from Raising Heart's cylinders. Instead, her attention was transfixed on the horrible sight below.
Fate was falling.
She was bloody and falling, her skin shining palely through her the rends in her Barrier Jacket.
Nanoha dove after her, struggling to fly faster. Her hands were outstretched, but Fate was always just out of reach. They were approaching the ocean too quickly!
"FATE-CHAN!" Nanoha screamed. She had killed Fate!
With a cry, Nanoha opened her eyes, smashing her knuckles against the headboard of her bed as she thrashed outwards, still trying to catch Fate before she fell. No, she wasn't…she was in her bed, in her apartment on Mid-Childa, in Cranagan City. Nanoha wasn't nine, she was eighteen, and Fate wasn't dying, she was—
"Fate," Nanoha gasped, rolling over to fumble for Raising Heart, clasping the jewel in her left hand.
Nanoha shook her head, pressing her forehead to her covered knees. What was she doing? "Cancel that, Raising Heart."
"Stop the call—I'm being silly. It's the middle of the night."
"Thank you," muttered Nanoha, sighing.
She was being ridiculous. Calling so rudely in the early hours just because she had a nightmare? Nanoha was supposed to be the steady one, not the needy one. Besides, she had just spoken with Fate the evening before. Heck, she had even spent most of the day with Fate yesterday! So it was just because of the chill in her bedroom that kept Nanoha's hands shaking so badly.
"Master, you have an incoming call."
"Huh?" Nanoha blinked, uncurling slightly to look down at her flashing Device. "Who would be calling at this hour?"
"Incoming call from: Fate Testarossa Harlaown."
"Fate-chan?" Nanoha swallowed. "Raising Heart, open audio feed only." A holoscreen popped up, the screen black but for the active transmission icon showing Raising Heart's link to Bardiche.
"Nanoha?" Fate's voice was soft, her tone inquiring. "You called me earlier?"
"Oh," Nanoha laughed lightly, keeping the lilt in her laughter to mask her shakiness. "I'm sorry about that. I forgot what time it was, and called you by mistake."
"I see." After a pause, Fate cleared her throat. "So, what did you need to call me for?"
"It's nothing that can't wait until later," Nanoha lied. "How about I let you get back to sleep, and we can talk about it over lunch?"
"Nanoha." She winced, hearing the firmness in Fate's tone that clearly meant the blonde wasn't fooling around anymore. "What happened?"
"I'm fine, Fate-chan. Just…go back to sleep okay? You need your rest."
"Hm." Nanoha heard Fate grunt a little, and her heart jumped into her throat. Did Fate hurt herself worse? "Okay, I promise to rest, if you do something for me first, okay?"
"What?" Nanoha asked.
"Could you open the door?"
Nanoha gaped, then sprang out of bed, running down the hall to her front door. She hadn't misheard Fate—she could see the tall figure standing in front of the door camera. Scrambling, Nanoha threw back the bolt and yanked her door open. "Fate-chan!"
Her friend smiled at her, leaning slightly on her cane. Fate disconnected their call and slipped Bardiche into her jacket pocket, then said, "Hey, Nanoha."
"What are you doing here?" Nanoha asked, aghast. She took Fate gently by the arm and led her in, guiding Fate over to the couch. Fate limped contently beside her and sank onto the couch cushions with a sigh.
Anticipating Nanoha's next words with well-trained Enforcer's intuition, Fate smiled. "Don't worry, Lindy drove me."
"Lindy-san drove you…"
"Uh huh." Fate nodded. "Right after I got your first call. She dropped me off right at the front of your building, so I didn't have to walk very far."
"…That's not the point!" Nanoha exclaimed, quickly giving Fate a lookover. It didn't look like the blonde was in any major discomfort, although she did still seem to be favouring her right leg and was breathing carefully, her chest movements slight and controlled. "You should be resting! Not…not running around at two AM making house calls!" She gritted her teeth, turning away slightly and pacing. "Fate-chan, you nearly died a few days ago!"
"Nanoha." That voice compelled Nanoha to look up and meet Fate's kind red eyes. Fate extended a hand out, and Nanoha breathed in, and took it. Fate's skin was warm. "Nanoha, I'm right here. I'm okay."
"You're not," Nanoha said quietly. "You're not, and it's my fault."
Oh no. She wasn't supposed to say that…but the words had slipped out, because Nanoha had kept thinking that over and over in her head for the past few days. And something about the mix of exhaustion, fear, and guilt of seeing Fate's bruised face in front of her at such a quiet hour made her mouth uncooperative.
Fate's expression was unsurprised, but very sad. She tugged on Nanoha's hand, wordlessly coaxing her over to sit down next to Fate on the couch. "Nanoha, you're a great instructor. You've taught so many people, and look! So many of them have gone on to do great, great things. Nanoha, people who do things like me, we're the products of our teachers. All the things I've done, all the good I can do, that's all because of the people who taught me what I know. You're one of those teachers, Nanoha." Cupping Nanoha's hand in bandage-wrapped ones, Fate leaned down so that she could look Nanoha's downcast face in the eyes. "Instructors give us knowledge and wisdom, but what we choose to do with them is our choice, and no one else's. So just because one of your students chose to use his talents for evil things, that doesn't make it your fault Nanoha."
"I taught him Starlight Breaker!" Nanoha cried, slamming her fist onto the seat. She stared at Fate, desperate to make her understand. "I knew how powerful a spell Starlight was! We're not just supposed to teach them how to use their magic, Fate-chan—we have to teach them how to use them well! I'm supposed to know when my students are ready, and when they're not and I have to make sure they understand the power they have before moving on with their lessons. That's my responsibility! And yet for someone, I don't even know who…one of them used it to nearly kill you!"
Once again, memories of the horrifying time at the hospital surfaced again. Nanoha had spent far too much time in military hospitals, but she would rather be the one in the hospital bed rather than pulling the dreadful vigils by a friend's bedside. The moment she had heard of which spell had put Fate in that hospital bed, fractured and deeply unconscious, Nanoha hadn't been able to sleep properly without seeing Starlight Breaker in her dreams.
She kept seeing all the faces of her students, flashing through her memory. Some she remembered well, others she only had a faint recollection, and some she wasn't sure if they were actually real or just faces her mind made up because she couldn't remember anymore.
If only she had paid more attention! Even before Fate had woken up, Nanoha had been sequestered with Verossa Acous, both of them scouring through her training records to try and identify who Fate's assailant had been. So far it hadn't been much help; Nanoha had taught a fair number of students over the years how to use Starlight Breaker, but any of her students' classmates could also have picked up on the technique during the open classes. Even after Fate had come out of her unconscious state and helped them narrow down the age, sex, and magic style of her attacker, they still had over 20 likely suspects, and nearly three times as many possible ones.
"It's not your fault," insisted Fate, lifting one of her hands to touch Nanoha's cheek. "Whoever he was, he was the one who made the decision to betray his oath. He could have attacked me with any spell or any weapon, and it wouldn't have been the spell's fault or the responsibility of the person who made the device."
"No, Fate-chan. It's not that simple." Nanoha raised a hand, halting Fate's immediate protest. "I'm not just blindly blaming myself, really." She closed her eyes, feeling tears welling and she tried to blink them away. "As a combat instructor, I'm not just supposed to teach people how to fight. Everyone learns about ethics and principles in training, but people like me are supposed to teach them what it really means. It's not in our job description, but it's what we're meant to do. We can't turn out hundreds and hundreds of mages who can blow up buildings or shoot down enemies without making sure that they understand how to use that power. Who do you think teaches them that, Fate-chan?" Nanoha tapped her own chest, sighing.
"You do, Nanoha." Fate laid a hand on Nanoha's knee, rubbing gently in comforting circles. Nanoha didn't deserve to feel comforted, but she did; there was no way she couldn't, when Fate was being so kind and tender. "I've seen you train classes before, you know. I see how much you care about them, and how you guide them into acting like you do—fight with words and compassion first before using magic. You teach your students to care because you care. But Nanoha, a really wise person once told me that I can only be responsible for my own actions and not for the motivations of other people. I can only be guilty for what troubles I cause, and I can only atone for my own faults and no one else's."
Nanoha opened her mouth to argue—she had failed in her teaching, and Nanoha knew it—but then she stopped. "…Oh."
Fate's lips curved into a melancholic smile, and she nodded.
"It's not the same thing, Nanoha, but I do understand."
"Yeah," Nanoha muttered, gazing at Fate sadly. She hated how Fate could smile and strive so hard to help people and make sure that no other child would ever have to go through the horrors that Fate had, and yet no one could fix Fate's past for her. And right now, Nanoha felt even more guilty for making Fate remember it. "I…I'm sorry."
"Stop being sorry," Fate ordered, cupping Nanoha's chin so that they were eye to eye. "I know you're feeling guilty again—stop it. I'll always be sad about Mother and Alicia, but I'm not sad right now. I'm more worried about you."
"Me? You don't have to be…" Nanoha groaned, realizing how stupid that statement was. "Sorry. I know you worry about me, Fate-chan." She managed a small, ironic laugh. "Even when you were the one lying in a hospital bed, you were worried about how I felt being back there."
"I'm worried that you're going to keep blaming yourself," Fate said softly, her dark red eyes more sorrowful than Nanoha had seen her look for a long time. "You do the best you can, and that's all anyone can do, Nanoha. One student's bad actions doesn't invalidate what you do for the hundreds of other students you've had."
"I know," admitted Nanoha, leaning into Fate's touch. She felt a tear slide down her cheek and soak into the gauze on Fate's palm. "It just hurts me that someone is using what I taught them to hurt people, Fate. To hurt you."
Starlight Breaker was a special spell to Nanoha. She had used it to help so many of her friends, and it had saved the day so many times. Nanoha didn't ever want something so special to her to be the thing to end someone's life one day.
"That's what I love so much about you," Fate smiled, brushing away the rest of Nanoha's tears with her gentle fingers. "How much you care. Don't let one bad thing make you stop doing that, Nanoha. The good that you teach your students, and the good that so many of them do with that knowledge, surely outweighs the possible bads."
Nanoha didn't answer that. She just kept looking into Fate's eyes, needing the reassurance that her friend was indeed okay. Reading Nanoha's mind again, Fate lifted one of Nanoha's hands and put it against her chest. She was warm and real, and Nanoha could feel Fate's heart beating against her fingertips under the scratch of dry gauze.
"See? I'm really okay."
"Good," whispered Nanoha, resting her head against Fate's shoulder.
Fate wrapped an arm around Nanoha's shoulders, and they held each other close.
"We'll find him. You'll help us find him."
Nanoha shook her head, turning to peer at Fate with one eye. "No…I mean, yes, I'll help you guys find him. But that's not it. All I really want is for no one else to get hurt from this."
All Nanoha ever wanted was to have a purpose in life, and to help people. If she had to be harsh to get things done, Nanoha was willing to do it. But she had never wanted to hurt anyone. She had to make sure that people would be safe from the mage she had set loose into the world unprepared for the choices they all had to make.
Fate's eyes were softly affectionate as she nodded, touching her forehead to Nanoha's.
"That's all you can do, Nanoha. That's all any of us can do."
Author's Note: I was in a bit of a writing slump after finishing "Prerogative of the Brave" Chapter 6, and so I decided to give myself a challenge. And I thought that I could try writing a Nanoha fanfic that was actually about Nanoha, for once =D.
I actually had initial plans to make this a long mystery story, but considering that I still have to finish two mysteries ("Crime Never Sleeps" and "Seirei's Gate," for those who care) I thought that a one-shot was in order XD;;.
Subtext was unintentional. I swear, it writes itself…