"Hello there, Nanoha."
Once again, Fate T. Harlaown stood alone before the final resting place of the Ace of Aces. The autumn sun was out again, but for some reason, she no longer found it inappropriate. A warm breeze scuttled through the grass and ruffled her waist-length blonde hair.
"It's been a long time, hasn't it? I am very sorry… So many things have happened since then."
The tiny plot of land around the grave wasn't maintained as well as she would have liked, so she had Bardiche trim the grass and incinerate small weeds as she watched in silence. While he worked, she noticed a bouquet of bellflowers lying unassumingly under the gravestone.
"I see Subaru has been here already," she smiled. "Your greatest fan is doing really well nowadays, Nanoha…"
As Subaru made her way through the Bureau HQ towards the shuttle station, someone called out to her.
"Lieutenant, a word please!"
A tall man in a silver-blue uniform caught up with her. The ugly burn scars on his face were a dead giveaway of who he was.
"Yes, S-Sir!" Subaru bolted upright, nailed to the spot.
"At ease, Lieutenant," Captain Voltz Stan of the Gulf Special Rescue Unit patted her on the back. "You were going somewhere. Mind if I tag along?"
"N-No, Sir! I am supposed to take a shuttle to the Mid."
He nodded and started off down the hall again, closely followed by her.
"Going back to your unit, Lieutenant?"
"Yes, Sir. Ground Forces Battalion 386, Southern Mid-Childa."
"Yeah, well, I've got a better idea…"
Without a warning, he tossed a small object over his shoulder directly in her face. Catching it in mid-air, Subaru stared in bewilderment at an ordinary metal key attached to a silver-blue fob.
"It's a key to a locker. Yours, if you want it."
"A locker, Sir?" Deep inside, she already knew what he meant, but refused to believe it.
"There is one vacant at our HQ right now," Captain Stan turned his head to grin at her. "Sorry, kid, I suck at making proper job offers… So what do you say, you in?"
"Y-Yes, Sir! I mean, no, Sir… I mean… isn't there an exam or something? People don't just transfer to the GSRU…"
"Sure, there is an exam," the Captain's grin grew even wider. "And you passed it."
Subaru gave him a confused look.
"Look, kid," the GSRU commander sighed, "six Bureau officers took part in the most spectacular rescue operation of the century, and I happen to have a vacancy in my unit, so here I am, making you a job offer. You started off in disaster relief after the Academy, didn't you?"
"Well, then you'll have no trouble getting back in. I've had my eye on you for a while now, you know. You are that girl Captain Takamachi pulled out of the airport fire in '71, aren't you?"
"That was my last field job. Now I'm mostly on administrative duty, and scouting out recruits like you… If you feel like it, drop by our HQ this week, and I'll deal with the paperwork. For now, have a good day, kid."
As soon as Bardiche was finished with the grass, Fate summoned a small bench and sat down with a satisfied smile.
"Vivio is doing great, too, really energetic… The doctors feared that she may have hormonal problems after three years in an adult body, but it seems to have had no lasting effects. She looks a couple of years older than she should, but her body grows normally now… I will have to find a private tutor for her before she goes to school, though. Good thing she seems to have no trouble making friends already, even while she's in the hospital…"
"There is a visitor for you, Vivio-chan," a smiling nurse appeared in the doorway.
"Yes, Mrs. Triton! Please ask them in," Vivio sat up on her bed, propping herself with a pillow for comfort.
The nurse let the visitor inside the ward. It was a girl, maybe twelve years old. She wore a white-green dress with a red bowtie that might have been a school uniform. Her silvery-green hair was tied up in two side tails, but her most striking feature were her eyes, one purple and one blue. The nurse gave the girl a reassuring smile and left.
"Hello," Vivio welcomed her. "Please come in."
"Um," the girl muttered in a low voice and suddenly gave her an awkward bow. "G-Good evening, Your M-Majesty…"
"Oh, stop it!" Vivio felt a pang of anger but the strange visitor's awkwardness made it hard to be mad at her. "That title is no longer mine. Since you already know my name, just call me Vivio. And what is yours?"
"Einhart," the girl muttered. "Einhart Stratos."
"Nice to meet you, Einhart," Vivio beamed a smile at her, making her cheeks flush with red. "Don't you want to come in?"
"Ah, no," the girl fidgeted a little. "I was actually, um, just looking to meet Vivio-san's mother…"
"Commander Harlaown, yes!" Einhart latched onto that name like a drowning person grasped at straws.
"Do you know her?"
"I owe her my life."
"Yes," as Einhart seemed to calm down a little, her mismatched eyes turned serious. "I was in the Vaizen Historical Museum when the city was attacked… When the roof collapsed, Commander Harlaown held it up until the rescue arrived."
"My mama is awesome like that!" Vivio nodded excitedly.
"Ah, yes," Einhart was blushing again. "I just wanted to thank her in person…"
"Well, she is not here now," Vivio shook her head. "But she will probably be back in the morning."
For a couple of seconds, Einhart fidgeted about, uncertain if she should leave now. Then, she took a deep breath and shot out:
"Vivio-san, would you kindly consider sparring with me?"
By the time she finished that sentence, her entire face was redder than beet.
"Sparring?" Even Vivio was taken aback. "You mean, like, martial arts?"
Einhart nodded silently, looking down.
"I would love to, actually!" Vivio nodded enthusiastically. "The doctors won't let me do any strenuous exercise right now, but… What martial arts are you practicing?"
"Ah," Einhart raised her eyes again. "It's called Kaiser Arts. It was passed down to me by my ancestors…"
"I'd love to learn it, Einhart-san! I've never really trained in any martial arts before…"
Sweeping aside her blanket, Vivio jumped out of bed and ran up to Einhart, grabbing her hand.
"Please teach me, Einhart-san! And let's be friends, too!"
Einhart, red from tip to toe, nodded twice.
"As for me, it seems I'm back with the Bureau," Fate gave the gravestone a sheepish grin. "They wouldn't let me back into the Enforcers, of course, but the Navy was very eager to put me in charge of an investigative vessel. Apparently, high command thinks all Harlaowns make great captains."
"And even though I'm still on my 'maternity leave', Shari is already taking the extra courses to serve as the first mate on my supposed ship… That girl, seriously."
A gust of wind caught her hair, so she had to tuck it back behind her ear.
"You know, when I think about it, me not being an Enforcer anymore is not such a big loss. There will be others to take my place…"
When she entered the dimly lit room, Teana saw two dark figures, a man and a woman, standing in front of large window across from the entrance, looking at the stars outside.
"Captain Lanster, welcome," the elderly woman turned around. She snapped her finders, and the lights in the room turned on, letting Teana recognize her.
"Director Crowbell, Ma'am."
The man standing next to the Director turned around, too, and gave Teana a reassuring nod. Admiral Harlaown was the one who invited her here.
"Last time we met was under much less pleasant circumstances, Captain," the Director gestured towards the desk in the middle of the room, and the three of them sat down. "But you sure managed to turn the situation around, didn't you?"
"I wasn't alone, Ma'am."
"Indeed. But out of the entire task force, only you received a special commendation from the Admiral here."
"Ma'am, I…" Teana shot a nervous look at Chrono, whose face bore an impenetrable expression. "Admiral, did you…"
"With that in mind, and despite your short service record," the Director continued, as if not hearing, "the high command has decided to promote you to the rank of Major and put you in command of a Battalion on the world of your own choosing. The papers are currently on my desk, waiting to be signed."
Teana threw another helpless look at the Admiral.
"With all due respect, Director…" She fidgeted about for a bit, before mustering the strength to finish: "I have to decline."
"Really, Captain? And why is that?"
Taking a few deep breaths, Teana cleared her mind and reported in an even and clear voice:
"As I have already reported to my direct superior, Ma'am, between September 22 and October 1, I have unwittingly assisted in the escape of Dr. Jail Scaglietti from the Bureau's custody. Said escape was made possible by my own imprudent and unprofessional conduct, and I therefore do not see myself qualify for this promotion. I am also fully prepared to face any punishment the Bureau deems fit."
The Director exchanged glances with the Admiral, who smiled for the first time.
"Bravo, Captain," Midget Crowbell was smiling, too. "The Admiral was right about you."
"Honesty, Captain, and the courage to stand up to your own mistakes. You have them aplenty, and that makes you special. Plus, your readiness to push yourself almost to the breaking point for the sake of the mission is admirable, even if dangerous in a long run. But you will yet learn."
"Uh… thank you, Ma'am."
"As you may recall, Admiral Harlaown is not a regular captain of the Navy, but also an active member of the Enforcer branch. As such, though I am not sure whether you are aware of it, his special commendation carries a unique meaning…"
Teana's heart started beating wildly. She looked at Chrono, who winked back at her.
"As the Admiral will be retiring from active duty in a few years, it now falls to him to train a successor for his position. In other words, Captain, you are hereby enrolled in the Enforcer training program under Admiral Harlaown's supervision."
"Ma'am… Sir, I… I don't know what to say."
"A simple 'thank you' would be enough, Lanster-kun," Chrono smiled at her. "You and I have a lot in common, you know, and I knew right away you were Enforcer material. Did you know that my sister wanted to train you herself, three years ago?"
"No, Sir… Thank you, Sir. But why…"
"Why we would promote you instead of punishment?" The Director finished the question for her. "It's simple, really. Since it is your fault the most dangerous criminal alive escaped, it is only fitting that catching him again becomes your full-time job now. It took your predecessor over seven years to bring him in. I hope you will be more expedient about it."
"Yes, Ma'am." Scaglietti's final words to her echoed in Teana's head as she clenched her fist. "I will get him."
Reaching into her coat's inner pocket, Fate produced a picture in a simple wooden frame.
"I got a message from Hayate this week. First time I've heard from her since that day…"
She stole a glance at the grave to the right.
"It's so weird talking about her like this, here… Apparently, the Cradle stumbled upon a dimensional freighter that had an engine malfunction, so Hayate had them towed to the nearest administrated world. I can only imagine how freaked out they were," Fate chuckled. "In return, Hayate asked their captain to deliver these to Chrono, Carim, and me…"
She put the picture down, right next to Subaru's flowers. It was a still photograph of a dining room in a modern Japanese style. Hayate sat at the head of the table with a smile on her lips and a steaming cup in her hand. Vita cuddled up under her other arm, seemingly asleep. Signum and Zafira, seated across from each other, were arguing over something, while Shamal poured them tea with a conciliatory smile.
A small inscription on the back read "Take care of yourself, Fate!"
It was just as Subaru had expected. When Tea saw the new posters on her walls, she first fell speechless—and then started hitting her on the head.
"Just what the hell is that, you pervert!"
"Owowow, Tea!" Subaru covered her head with her hands. "Stop it, please!"
"Not until you remove that… those, you idiot!"
Subaru lunged forward, tackling her. Tea tried to push her back but in vain, and they both landed on the bed. Subaru's head rested comfortably on Tea's breasts.
"It wasn't actually my idea, Tea! Gin-nee came up with it!" She looked up to meet Tea's eyes.
"The stupid seems to run in this family, then," Tea grumbled but made no attempt to get up or push her away again.
For a minute, they did not move or speak. Then Tea lifted her hand and stroked Subaru's hair tenderly.
"How your Linker Core doing?" Subaru asked, enjoying the touch of her hand.
"It's getting there," Tea's chest heaved deeply. "The doctor says I won't be able to cast spells for at least another month."
"That's so long…"
"Yeah, well, not everyone is a walking mana generator like Fate-san… I am stuck with the paperwork for now, and your leave is not making it any easier on me."
Subaru looked away.
"What is it?"
As Subaru did not answer, Tea cupped Subaru's cheeks with her palms, making her look at her.
"I… I'm filing for a transfer," Subaru said, at last.
"A transfer?" Tea's gaze grew sharp. "To where?"
"The Special Rescue Unit!" She started to gibber. "Captain Stan… their commander… he gave me the key. To the locker… I mean, he made me a job offer… I visited their HQ the day before yesterday… They are all such amazing people there! Almost like in Riot Force 6…"
"Wait, slow down a little," Tea let go of her face and propped herself up on her elbows. "So the GSRU scouted you out, you mean? Wasn't that the unit you kept fantasizing about?"
"Yes!" Subaru nodded enthusiastically.
"Well, I'm so happy for you, then!"
"You're not mad at me?"
"Mad? Why should I be?"
"But… we'll not be in the same unit anymore…"
"You are a big girl, Subaru," Tea patted her head again. "You'll do fine without me now… besides, you're staying on the Mid, so it's not like we won't see enough of each other."
"Just go for it, stupid," Tea gave her an exasperated sigh, then fell silent for a moment. "Actually, I had something to tell you, too…"
"Admiral Harlaown recommended me to the Enforcers. I am to start training under him as soon as I'm back in shape."
"The Admiral did… Oh, you sure are amazing as usual, Tea!" Subaru beamed at her excitedly.
"Well, I'm not an Enforcer yet," Tea's face flushed with red as she looked away. "Besides, it was me who let Scaglietti escape, so it's only fitting that I'll clean up the mess…"
"Aww, you're so cute when you're acting cool and modest!"
"Shut up, you idiot!" Tea tried to push her off, but Subaru pinned her down with ease.
"You're so cute, I want to do you right now…" Subaru gave her an impish grin. "Actually, let's try out something new!"
"What?! Let me go, you… Is that Revolver Knuckle? …ooooooooh… Stop it and let me go, you perv!"
At long last, Fate stood up. Looking down at the simple grey gravestone, she tried to find the right words.
"Nanoha, I… Thank you. Thank you so very much. You have done so much good in your life… for me, for Hayate, for the Knights, for Subaru, for Teana, for the kids, for Earth, for the Bureau, for the Mid… for Vivio. You may no longer be… here, but I swear to you: I will carry on for both of our sakes. I won't allow your life to be forgotten. And I won't let what you have left behind to go to waste. This will be our promise from now on, okay? Thank you, Nanoha… and good bye."
She spun around and walked away quickly, before the moisture in the corners of her eyes turned into tears. After a few paces, she slowed down and raised her head.
High above, the sky was calling out to her.