The hearings took months. Winter had come and gone - and Nanoha had been put through several extremely awkward explanations to her friends and loved ones - before any kind of resolution was reached.

But now, at last, they were over. Now she was nervously sitting at home, swinging her legs and fretting. Her parents had insisted she dress up nicely for this, but her smart clothes weren't a Jacket and felt stiff and uncomfortable. She was too nervous even to practice. Staring out the back window, she watched a black cat walk across the garden, sniffing. She hoped the poor thing left before Vesta decided to scare it off from 'her' territory.

Then came the knock she'd been waiting for. Nanoha rushed to answer it, nearly tripping over Vesta as the kitten twined around her ankles and meowed. Shushing her, Nanoha took a moment to compose herself for the TSAB official that she'd been told would be calling.

The door swung open, and she gave a happy cry of delight at who was behind it.

"Miss Quint!"

"Nanoha," Quint grinned in return. She wore a neat, dark blue uniform that looked vaguely military but not too out of place for Earth. Her arm, Nanoha was glad to see, bore no signs of the terrible injury she'd taken in the fight against the Breaker. "I got to come give you the good news. And don't worry, it is good news, mostly. Can I come in?"

"Of course! Here, let me get you a drink..."

Once Quint was settled on the sofa with an orange juice in hand, Nanoha perched opposite her and bit her lip. Vesta jumped into her lap, and she petted her familiar absently to occupy her hands. The older woman chuckled.

"Relax. Both of you are strung as tight as wire. I promise I won't bite. Like I said, it's good news, mostly."

"O-okay." Despite the reassurance, Nanoha's nerves jangled. "So, um. What happened? Were you involved a lot?"

Quint stretched languidly. "Yes. I testified last week - in your favour, in case you were wondering. And then spent a few days tied up in paperwork and a few more getting here in a very cramped shuttle. There's a fair bit of bickering to still be decided, and a lot more paperwork, but the basics are more or less settled. Are your parents around?"

Nanoha shook her head. "They wanted to be, but there was a cake disaster at the bakery, and Saturday is the busiest day of the week. Mama went in to handle it and Papa tagged along to help."

"Hmm. Well, I'll take them through it later, but I'll give it to you two first." She drained the rest of her cup and set it down, then cleared her throat and assumed a more formal bearing. "Nanoha Takamachi, do you recognise the authority of the Time-Space Administration Bureau to hold you accountable under its laws?"

Nanoha traded a dubious glance with Vesta. "Uh... do I say yes to that?"

"It would help," Quint nodded. "It makes it tricky for us to make legal decisions about you if you refuse to acknowledge our laws. Which technically you can, but that would mean we'd respond to you as an outlaw and it'd also mean you'd be giving up the laws that protect you. Of which there are quite a few. So I'd go with a yes."

"... then yes," said Nanoha after a moment's thought. "I knew what I was getting into when I started this, and I caused you a lot of trouble, even if it all worked out in the end." She squared her shoulders and lifted her chin determinedly. "I'm ready to take responsibility for my actions," she said clearly and carefully.

Quint shook her head, smiling. "Kid, someday you are going to make an amazing officer, if you decide to go that way. Alright then. Given your status as a minor, as well as a native of a magicless and dimension-blind world, the Bureau has ruled that many of your crimes were committed out of well-meaning ignorance, and that you can't be blamed for them.

"Additionally, despite the incident at the Garden of Time," she paused to let Nanoha wince, then continued "... several Bureau officers and multiple Device logs show that you took great care to avoid harm during the Jewel Seed Incident. Along with the fact that you helped seal the Book of Darkness, and the peaceful intentions you showed on Schzenais – we went and checked up on your time there – the Bureau has determined that there was no malice behind your actions and that you pose no risk of future criminal activity. You will be placed under a light Limiter that reduces you to A-rank until the age of fourteen, at which time you can take a psychological evaluation to have it lifted.

"And," she added, the formal demeanour falling away as Nanoha processed that, "you can take lessons in magic and Dimensional Space until that time. I argued pretty hard for you to be allowed to keep flying, so don't let me down, okay?"

"Oh, thank you!" Nanoha lunged forward and hugged her. "Thank you thank you thank you! I was worried... so I can still fly? I mean, as long as I keep it quite and don't get spotted?"

Quint hugged her back. "You can."

"Thank you so much!" Nanoha breathed out slowly, then sat back on her couch. "What about Fate?"

"Fate will get something very similar – her position as a minor raised solely by Precia means she can't be held responsible for many of her actions, and she's shown good faith and noble intentions. Precia will be given a much stronger Limiter, and the whole family will be living in a carefully monitored exile away from access to magical infrastructure." She smiled ruefully. "Precia managed to convince the Bureau that all she wants to do is spend the rest of her days with her children, and the information she volunteered to help clean up some of our internal corruption helped her case, but she was asleep for long enough that while she couldn't plead her case, certain people made sure she wouldn't be living anywhere she could get in touch with any of her contacts."

"Where will they go?" Nanoha asked quietly, her shoulders drooping. Quint smirked.

"You might have heard of it. It's this magic-blind, dimension-blind little world that we're already going to be keeping a very sharp eye on, well away from any magic centres that might stress Precia's system, and I'm told," she winked, "that it has at least one young lady there who'll keep them on the straight and narrow."

Nanoha's eyes widened. "You... you mean it? They'll be... here?"

"We've found a house for them nearby. We'll be checking in every so often, of course, but the nice thing about a world as isolated as this one is that it's easy to monitor all the outgoing or incoming traffic from wider D-space. There's no mass of people sending information to and fro for her to hide anything in. It's like living in the only house for kilometres around. And I don't mind telling you there are a lot of people who feel more comfortable with her a fair distance from TSAB core space."

Nanoha was barely listening, busy fighting the urge to jump up and start dancing around the room. Her familiar, however, had more pressing priorities.

'Hey hey hey hey hey! What about me, what about me? Did the Bureau make a special decision for me as well?'

"Oh, right!" Quint said, snapping her fingers. "I forgot about that. Vesta Takamachi, do you recognise the right of the Bureau to hold you accountable under its laws?"

A long silence followed as Vesta wrestled with the question. Rolling her eyes, Nanoha gently knocked her on the head with a couple of fingers.

"Do it, you goof."

'Oh, fine. I suppose. But only because Mistress wants me to! Humans still shouldn't be judging a cat!' She paused. 'Wait, are there cat Bureau judges? Oh, but I'd still be a better cat than them... oh, never mind, just tell me what they decided! Tell me tell me tell me!'

Quint dipped her head and drew her arms up to her chest with mock formality. "Of course. It didn't take long for the TSAB to realise that such a powerful, beautiful, clever, ferocious familiar..."

Nanoha felt Vesta's ego swell with each compliment, and guessed where this was going. She hurriedly grabbed her own orange juice to hide her smile as Quint finished.

"... was obviously too dangerous to allow free. So it's life imprisonment for you, I'm afraid. You have five minutes to choose one squeaky toy and one shiny thing to take with you."

'What? Ah! No! I take it back, I take it back, you're not allowed to sentence me! Mistress! Help! Don't let them take me away!'

Quint held her grave expression for a few more seconds, then burst into laughter. Nanoha joined her a moment later, yelping as Vesta dug her claws in sulkily.

'So mean to me!' she complained. 'Tricking a poor innocent kitten like that! It was a trick, right? You're not going to lock me up?'

"Don't worry, little kitten," Quint soothed, leaning forward to tickle her under the chin. "You've got nothing to fear. Just stay with Nanoha keep her safe, okay?"

'Will do!'

Nanoha bit her lip. "And... Alicia and Hayate?"

The laughter left Quint's face with a sigh. "I won't lie to you," she admitted. "They make people nervous. Very nervous. But... Precia made a very strong case. And the TSAB aren't willing to kill two innocent children, not when the Lost Logia in them are sealed and dormant. If the seals ever break... well, we'll tackle that if they ever do. But for the foreseeable future, they'll be watched carefully here on Earth, and no more." She ran a hand through her hair, and Nanoha blinked.

"That's good to hear," she said, biting her lip. "Um... Miss Quint? I know... I know we didn't say anything about what we did between Schzenais and surrendering. About where we were. But, um..." She took a deep breath, and decided to go for broke. "The girls are fine. I mean, they're not totally fine, because that place they were in was horrible and I think N- the older one is still a bit scared of everything because of what happened there, but she's with her little sister and both of them are being taken care of and they seem happy and I swear they're safe."

She sucked in air and risked a glance upward. Quint's face was neutral, composed, and a steel wall that let absolutely nothing show. Nanoha licked her lips. "And, um. I don't want to give away where they are because they've never really been able to trust anybody and I don't want to ruin that, but I did tell her about you, and I could tell them some more once I figure out a way to get it to them without showing the Bureau where they are, and I think, um... I think they'd want to see you. Eventually."

For a moment she thought she'd gone too far. But then, slowly, the mask dropped away and Quint smiled tearfully at her.

"I'd... I'd like that," she said, her voice cracking slightly. "Thank you, Nanoha." Carefully, moving with exaggerated caution, she shifted over to Nanoha's couch and folded her into a gentle hug of her own. "Thank you," she whispered again.

They stayed like that for a quiet, contented minute or two before Quint pulled back. "I hope you do consider joining the Bureau," she said quietly. "We need more people like you. Seriously; for all that you caused a lot of trouble, you've handled these Incidents incredibly well. You're quick-thinking, compassionate, pretty mature for your age and a genius magical prodigy. But it's not going to be easy. You know that, right?" She looked Nanoha in the eye, dead serious. "You're going to have to be the very best you can be – better than everyone else. You'll have to fight to win people's trust at first, and put in a lot of effort to prove yourself."

"I know," Nanoha assured her. "But it'll be worth it. Because I'll be helping people. And that's what really matters."

Quint ruffled Nanoha's hair with a playfulness that might have been a little forced; papered over the vulnerability of a few minutes earlier. "And that's why you'll be such a good fit," she smiled, as she headed out the front door. "Thank you from the TSAB, Miss Takamachi. For all your help. If and when you want to talk about careers, just give us a call. After all," she winked, bending down to pet the cat Nanoha had seen earlier, "I need to poach you for the Ground Forces before the Air Force get their hands on you."


...


The late summer sun streamed down through the line of trees. Star-like points of light shone down through the foliage. The cicadas chirruped outside, and the scent of fresh grass hung in the air. Outside, a grey cat stalked the small buzzing things that kept on cheating and flying away from her, telepathically bemoaning the fact that she wasn't allowed to cast lethal magic spells on them.

Nanoha sighed and tuned out Vesta's whining. It had been six months since Quint had told her the results of the TSAB's judgement, and life went on. Though not quite as normal.

She would give a lot to be flying like the insects right now. She'd even settle to be outside on such a warm sunny evening, even as the sun crept down towards the horizon and the shadows grew. Didn't people know autumn was coming? Autumn, full of cold and wet and damp and days which were nowhere near as nice as this one. But, unfortunately, she was still ten years old, and so 'locked in a dull school classroom doing maths' it was.

Well, okay, not locked. And it was the advanced maths course she'd been placed on. And really, she was lucky to be here at all, because it had taken a lot of work from the TSAB and her Papa's friends to sort out everything about her having been declared missing.

But still. Boring. She'd finished the worksheet ten minutes ago, finished double-checking her answers five minutes ago, and was now surreptitiously reviewing the rest of her workload with Raising Heart while she waited for the other students on the course to catch up.

Most of them were much much older than her. It was sort of awkward when she was the best student in the class despite having to sit on a cushion because the chairs were too tall.

'So I've still got my spellcrafting theory homework to do for Precia next Friday,' she mused, 'Plus whatever gets given here today.' A twitch of her fingers brought up a subtle projection of her timetable, beamed straight to her eyes so as not to attract the attention of anyone else in the room. She scanned it, and perked up. 'But I worked really hard and got a 98 on my last D-Space history test, so I can free up my yellow study blocks after sparring practice with Fate! And... hmm. I'm doing much better on Mid-language. Maybe I can trim my green blocks down to half an hour each. What do you think?'

[Go for it, my master,] Raising Heart chirped. [Your spellwork needs improving!]

Nanoha pouted. 'Aww, don't tell me it's more efficiency drills today.'

[I'm sorry, my master.]

She blew out a morose sigh. She was way better than she had been last year, but Precia still insisted she wasted far too much power on 'unnecessarily flashy displays'. Precia was utterly merciless when she saw things that displeased her.

It was working, though. Nanoha's win-loss record against Fate was up to one in four. Soon she'd be able to match her friend evenly! Fingering one of the black ribbons holding her hair up, Nanoha smiled fondly and wondered what Fate would throw at her next in their practice bouts. They'd been working on a more formal introduction to combat than the sneaky, quiet practice they'd had on Schzenais or the more or less non-existent training she'd had before that. Raising Heart's simulations and Yuuno's advice only went so far, compared to someone trained like Fate.

But finally the day was over and she could get out of cram school. Nanoha was acutely aware that she cut an amusing figure to onlookers as she left the building. All the older students went to different schools and it meant that her white-and-navy uniform stood out like a sore thumb among the blacks and dark blues of the high school uniforms. The fact that she existed below the eye level of most of her fellow students didn't help matters.

"That never stops being funny," Arisa said, grinning broadly as she leant against the gates, a stray cat twining around her ankles and leaving black fluff behind on her socks. "You always look so nervous that someone's going to trip over you."

"Arisa," hissed Suzuka, elbowing her in the ribs.

"What? She does!"

"Yes, but it's not nice to say it out loud!"

Nanoha pouted, which turned into a grin. "Well, at least we can go do something more fun," she said.

'Like pet me!' Vesta chimed in, twining around Nanoha's ankles. Claws pricked into her back as the kitten used her as a ladder to climb up to shoulder height.

"Like enjoy the sun," Nanoha said firmly. "You know how nice it is to actually have a summer? On Schzenais, their summers are colder than our winters. And the days are all weird and you have to use sun lamps so you go to sleep and wake up properly. I never want to go back there." She glared at Vesta. "And you, you little monster, you've been running around chasing bugs all day when I was stuck in lessons so I don't think-"

"I think it sounded fun," Suzaka said softly. "Like, that dance-fighting ballet thing you talked about? That sounded like something I'd love to try."

"Of course you would," Arisa said, shaking her head. "But," she jabbed Nanoha in the chest with a finger, "you're right that you're never going back there! Because I'll never forgive you if you did. Now, come on! Let's go to the park! Fate and Hayate are waiting for us!" She glared at Nanoha. "We had to come pick you up because you were late!"

"I'm sorry," Nanoha said, bowing her head with mock remorse. "But we're not allowed to leave early."

"Arisa misread her watch," Suzuka said with a quiet smile.

"Hmph! Did not!"

Shifting Vesta into her arms, Nanoha clambered into Suzuka's big black car. It was a short drive to the park. She had to stop herself from dozing off in the warm back of the car. Even after getting out of the stuffy classes, she still felt tired.

"Honestly! What is going on there?" Arisa almost exploded. Nanoha's eyes flickered open, and she sat up to look at what her friend was looking at. "Someone has dumped lots of old newspapers all over the place!"

"Maybe a delivery van broke and dropped them?" Suzuka suggested. The car drew to a stop by the entrance to the park, and the girls got out. The scattered papers were already being picked up by the wind, which playfully tossed them all over the side of the road. A street cat chased a stray magazine, savaging the paper and batting at it with a stray paw.

Nanoha, on the other hand, could care less. But that would take active effort at not-caring, which she personally felt rather defied the point of apathy. And anyway, she was eagerly scanning the late-afternoon park for a sign of blonde hair. It always made Fate much easier to pick out from the crowd, which Nanoha felt was very convenient of her friend.

"Ah! There they are!"

Two girls sat on a bench, tossing a stick for a puppy who was madly chasing after it. Frowning a little, Nanoha silently wished that Fate would sometimes wear something other than black. She seemed to have infected Hayate too. According to Chikaze, Hayate used to dress in bright colours a lot more before the Book… did its thing. Now she tended to wear a lot more dark blues and greys and purples.

"Nanoha!" Fate called out, spotting her and standing.

"Fate!"

'Nanoha, Nanoha, Nanoha, look! I got the stick!' Arf crowed happily, bounding over to Nanoha to dance around her feet. 'Stick! Stick!'

Ignoring several smug comments about feline superiority from Vesta, Nanoha bent down and accepted the stick. A good toss – and maybe a bit of magic –sent it flying over the pond, and Arf gave chase with a despairing cry of 'Stick!'

"That was a little cruel," Fate told her, smiling as they drew close.

"No it wasn't," Nanoha grinned. "She wanted to chase it."

The wind picked up. The hair on the back of Nanoha's hair neck rose, until Vesta shifted to sprawl around her shoulders.

"Brr," Hayate said, hugging herself.

"You should put on your coat," Fate told her, turning to help her with it.

"Sorry," Hayate said. "It's just that it's so sunny, but it's getting cold already."

Fate huffed a laugh. "Go to Schzenais, then talk to me about cold," she teased gently.

The two of them had become fast friends. Nanoha was so glad about that! Fate hadn't made many close friends at school off world or here in Japan, even though she hadn't had the language problems that Nanoha herself had experienced. She often wasn't comfortable around other people and retreated behind a cool mask, like Precia. But she and Hayate had started by sharing book recommendations when the three of them had been hospitalised and they'd just clicked. Hayate helped bring Fate out of the shell she sometimes hid in, showing the softer, gentle girl who hid inside.

Nanoha pulled them into a hug with a sudden surge of joy, huddling close. "Hi, Hayate! How are you doing? Good day?"

Hayate smiled back at her. "A bit sore," she said, "but it's so nice to be walking around. We managed to walk all the way here and Fate only had to help me a bit." She paused in her attempts to get her dark grey coat on, and rummaged through her pockets. "Oh yes! I got a letter from the Wolkenritter today! The TSAB person who checks up on me dropped it off!"

"You didn't say!" Fate accused her.

"Well, I was waiting for Nanoha, wasn't I?"

"What does it say, what does it say?" Arisa said, pushing herself up on the back of the bench to crane over Nanoha's shoulder. Suzuka sighed and tugged her down as Hayate cleared her throat.

"Dear Hayate," she read out loud.

"How are you? We got your last letter. It's so good that you're walking around now. From what you say, you're getting on well with your new carer. We wish we could be there, but we accept that we need to be punished for what we did when we tried to complete the Book.

"Prison isn't so bad. It's quiet and peaceful, and the guards aren't bad people. We can't wait for the next time you'll visit us. We're all behaving very well, apart from Vita who has been given a time-out for damaging the wall by hitting the ball too hard when she was playing racquetball. Zafira has decided he wants a degree in Belkan literature, although that's mostly because he found it hilarious that poems he wrote hundreds of years ago are now studied in schools. Signum has adopted a pet cat that lives in the exercise yard, and has named her 'Rußig'. The two of them are very cute together, although she gets embarrassed when we catch her fussing over that little thing.

"Oh dear, this wasn't a very well-planned letter, was it? I had all these things I was going to say, but then I forgot that the mail drop was today rather than a week from now and I have to rattle it off as fast as possible so I don't miss the delivery. I promise promise promise I won't forget next time and I'll have more to say! Please write back!

"With love from Shamal.

"Zafira, Signum and Vita send their love too."

"That's nice," Suzuka said.

"Yes," Arisa said stiffly. Nanoha suspected she hadn't quite forgiven the Wolkenritter for what they did to her.

"She's so clumsy and forgetful," Hayate said, smiling as she shook her head. "So how about you, Nanoha? Have you had any letters?"

Nanoha blushed pinkly, and wasn't quite sure why. "I had one from Yuuno," she said, biting her lip. "He says he's coming over soon! There's apparently lots and lots of Alhazredian ruins in the area, and that world? The one which was all Victorian-y? That's another Alhazredian colony, only they've got more intact ruins at the poles. He's going to be doing the first dig there – and he promised he was going to take me along!"

"That's amazing!" Hayate gasped, eyes wide.

"I've been reading up on archaeology," Nanoha said. "He's been sending me books and we've been talking by messages and I think it's really interesting. If I like the dig, he says he'll take me on more."

Arisa nudged her. "Do you think you're going to be an archaeologist?" she said slyly.

"Well, I don't know," Nanoha said, scuffing her feet. "I mean, that might be fun. But I'm also learning lots of science and maths and maybe I might become a scientist or a researcher – but I've also been talking with Quint and she mentioned a Bureau young mages program that's willing to let me in. That might even let me spend some time helping her go from world to world checking up on things in her TSAB corruption case." She lifted her chin haughtily and crossed her arms with mock arrogance. "Maybe I'll become an archaeologist-scientist-investigator-mage!"

Fate laughed. "You can't have it all!" she accused.

"Well, why not!" Nanoha demanded.

'Now that's the proper attitude, mistress!' Vesta chimed in, and preened at the general laughter.


...


"I'm home!" Nanoha called as the door slammed behind her. She slipped her shoes off, teetered for a moment as Vesta twined around her ankles and threw her schoolbag in the rough direction of the stairs. A thought brought pink wings into being on the strap; catching it in midair and flying it up to her room. A yelp from the stairs told her that its path hadn't been entirely clear.

"That's still weird," Miyuki said, wrinkling her nose as she entered the living room. She was barefoot, wearing shorts and a t-shirt with her hair down loose, and was halfway through a yoghurt. "Flying bags and booby-trapped laundry, I swear, it's like I'm living in a video game. A weird video game."

"I wouldn't need to booby-trap the laundry if someone would stop romping around in it and getting fur everywhere," grumbled Nanoha, directing a glower at Vesta. "It clogs up the washing machine, you know."

'Nyah!' Vesta shot back, hopping up onto the back of the sofa and pacing around until she found her comfortable spot. 'I need to check it for mouseys. To make sure you're not being...' her voice took on a dramatic hush, 'spied on!'

Nanoha rolled her eyes. "You're ridiculous," she told her familiar fondly. "Come here."

Vesta obediently clawed her way up Nanoha's arm and onto her shoulder, where she began briskly tucking escaping strands of hair back behind her ears. 'Food now,' she prompted, batting lightly at an ear. 'And then you need to go do your hitting-things practice while I eat.'

Momoko turned a tolerant frown on the pair as they entered the kitchen. "Girls," she said, ignoring the field of reddish-pink light that was busily cutting vegetables and stirring the pot behind her. "Remember the rules. Vesta rides on Nanoha or stays on the floor, but no jumping onto the counters. And no flying."

'I wouldn't have to fly if you gave me food faster! I'm starving here! Remember I have four bodies to feed!'

"Believe me, sometimes it's hard to," Momoko muttered. "Nanoha, your father and brother are in the dojo, if you want to join them. Supper will be in half an hour."

"Got it!" Nanoha leaned forward to let her mother drop a kiss on the top of her head, then let Vesta down to her bowl and headed further into the house. The last of the sun streamed in through the windows, casting long shadows. Shiro and Kyouya were in the middle of a bout as she walked into the dojo, their swords glowing as they moved, struck and parried. It was always good to hear them sparring. Nobody had come out of the final battle unscathed, not even Nanoha herself, but time – and some help from the Healer and the TSAB – had brought everyone through their injuries.

"I'm ready!" she called as they came to a stop. Holding her arms out, she let her father sweep her into a brief hug, dropping a kiss on the top of her head as he did so. It was a habit he'd started after the fight with the Book.

"Good to see you, sweetheart," he said. "How was your day?"

"It was good!" she beamed. "Mum says supper's in half an hour, and then I've got sparring and efficiency practice with the Testarossas after that."

"We've got you for thirty minutes, then," Kyouya said. "Better make the most of it." He brought his sword up into a guard position. "I think I have the spell-cutting move down, and you're meant to be working on efficiency. So how about you set you make a couple of shots to hit me with, and every time I slice one in half you have to reform it from the ambient magic in the room." He grinned. "I bet you can't land three hits on me."

Nanoha's eyes glittered. "Raising Heart, please?"

[Time to practice, my master!]

The familiar weight of Raising Heart's staff form settled into her hand, and two training shots appeared above it. She faced her brother from across the room as a faint aura appeared around his sword, her spells revolving above her head.

"You're on," she agreed. "Let's go!"

It was a very smug Nanoha who walked back into the brightly lit kitchen. She'd lost one of her shots to cruel entropy after having it cut in half once too often, but succeeded in hitting Kyouya a triumphant third time with the other just as Momoko called them in. Vesta was looking equally smug, having apparently been eavesdropping with a sound-boosting spell, and leapt into her lap as she sat down.

'Your big mistake was betting against Mistress,' she told Kyouya helpfully. 'She always wins when she tries her hardest. Always.'

"Mmm," said Momoko, arranging the bowls around the table. "Yes, we've certainly noticed that. Now, eat up!"

They turned their attentions to the food, Nanoha stuffing it down as fast as possible. But as she cleaned the last of her rice up, Momoko motioned for her to stay. Finishing the last few bites of her own meal she sat, hands folded, and gave Nanoha a carefully evaluative look. Beside her, Shiro straightened slightly, and Kyouya and Miyuki leaned slightly out of the way as they recognised the signs of a formal Takamachi parent-child conversation.

"... yes?" Nanoha asked. She wasn't nervous, she assured herself. She hadn't been doing anything wrong... well, nothing they knew about. Or had explicitly told her she wasn't allowed to do. Yet.

It was possible Vesta was a bad influence on her, she reflected.

'Hey!'

"We've come to a decision," said Shiro, unaware of the short diversion in Nanoha's thoughts, "about your winter break."

Nanoha sat up straighter, and Kyouya and Miyuki leaned forwards with interest.

"You'll have few weeks free, and we've decided," Momoko continued, trading a glance with him, "that we are, provisionally, willing to let you spend them off-world. That's including the time it takes you to get there and back, so if you decide to go a week's travel away, remember you'll only have a short time there."

'But," Shiro added quickly, before Nanoha could start celebrating, "we have conditions. We want full knowledge of what you'll be doing and where – that means you decide on who you're going with and what you want to do, whether you want to spend time with your friend Yuuno or go to that Bureau training course for young talent."

"You'll contact us at least every other day," Momoko picked up, "by video message if it's too far for a direct link, but we'll want updates on how you're doing. And," she added, smiling, "one of us will come with you to see the place before heading back home."

"... wait, what?" All the other conditions, Nanoha had sort of expected, but this... "You... you want to come with me? And see... see Dimensional Space? Explore other worlds?"

Momoko tilted her head and smiled fondly. "Well, we do have the bakery to run, so I don't think we'll be moving permanently. But yes, I think I'd quite like a holiday or two." She grinned conspiratorially. "It would be rather exciting, actually. And you could show me where my flower came from!"

"I... I..." Nanoha stuttered. "I'd love to! I mean... I'd love to show you! And for you to come with me! Would... would you be staying with me the whole time, or..."

Shiro shook his head. "We do have jobs, and our holidays aren't quite as long as yours," he reminded her. "We'd probably come out to see the place you'd be staying and make sure it was safe, maybe spend your first day there with you, and then come back. Maybe whoever didn't go out with you could come and pick you up at the end?" He glanced at his wife, who nodded.

"So," she told Nanoha, "if you can decide on one or two things you'd like to do, we'll hear you out and then help you arrange them. We'll want to be involved in planning it out if there are other people involved, just to be sure we know what's going on. No more running off and hiding what you're doing from us, alright? We want to be involved in things from now on."

"Magic and space are going to be part of your life from now on," Momoko said, leaning forward to card a hand through Nanoha's hair and down one cheek. "But we'll always be your family, and this will always be your home. And you can keep both, Nanoha. Just let us be part of your life, and we'll support you no matter what."

Sniffing, Nanoha leaned into the touch. In her lap, Vesta purred reassuringly and pressed her head into Nanoha's stomach.

Then, abruptly, she sat bolt upright. '... ah! Mistress!' There was a flash of light, and then Vesta was sitting on her lap in child-form, all knees and hair and bony elbows. "We need to be at Precia's house in ten minutes!"

"Ah! Right! Hold on a minute..." Nanoha quickly darted away from the table, shoved her shoes back on and grabbed the bag she'd prepared that morning. "Okay, I'm off! Bye Mama! Bye Papa! Bye Kyouya and Miyuki!" One of the neighbour's black cats was basking on their porch like a black rug, and almost got stepped on as she passed. "I'll be back later, love you!"

"Love you too!" came the chorus as she sprinted out of the door.


...


The Testarossa residence was only two streets over from Nanoha's house. It was a pretty little two-storey place, and a shed took up most of the small back garden. Nanoha knocked politely and waited, bouncing on her heels and cocking her head. She and Vesta had been trying out a new type of telepathy spell, and the young mage rode piggyback on her familiar's senses as a faint hum approached them from inside the house. Vesta, in turn, rode piggyback on her. Nanoha wasn't sure if she was clumsier in her child-form, or if it was just that there was less of her to move and so it moved a lot quicker, but either way she'd found that it was a bad idea to leave her unsupervised around roads when she was on two short legs.

Fortunately, Vesta hadn't been set off by the presence of their neighbour's cat, which Nanoha was silently thankful for. The little troublemaker tended to consider other cats in her space to be a personal offence, but right now she seemed happy clinging to Nanoha's back.

They didn't have to wait at the door for long – honestly, they'd probably been noticed as soon as they turned onto the street. The door swung open, and Precia's wheelchair moved back smoothly to make way for her. Slipping out of her shoes, Nanoha offered her mentor a grin and a box of Midori-ya cupcakes from her bag.

"Blueberry this week!" she announced proudly. "I helped with the icing. Mama says hi, and also that she wanted to look at Dr Saroukh's def... defin... his really well-known article on gradient mathematics in shooting spells."

Precia raised an eyebrow at her as she took the box, her wheels moving smoothly and without only the faintest hum as they headed in to the kitchen. She was showing her age, with streaks of grey in her hair and lines that had not been there before – but despite that, she seemed far more alive than when Nanoha had met her for the first time. "Your mother is perfectly capable of requesting scientific papers from the Bureau by herself, dear," she pointed out, not without humour.

"I know," Nanoha nodded. "But she prefers getting them from you, because the ones the Bureau lets us download don't have pencilled-in comments and criticism."

Precia chuckled, though her smile faded to a wistful one as they passed the portrait in the hall. It was a wide one, taken on Schzenais under the sun lamps. Alicia was in front, with Fate, Arf, Vesta and Nanoha herself. Behind them, Precia sat, along with...

... with Linith. A lump formed in Nanoha's throat, as it still did every time she saw the picture, and Precia softly traced her familiar's face through the glass with a bittersweet smile. For a moment, time seemed to hang there as they paid their respects.

Then the moment passed, and they moved on. "I suppose you'll want to start by sparring," Precia said. "Fate and Alicia are already waiting. Shall we?"

From the inside, the garden shed didn't look anything like the wooden construction it was on the outside. Metal-panelled walls surrounded a ritual circle on the floor, and it took only the slightest hint of effort for Nanoha to push them through to the next world over; a Type-1b where they'd set up their sparring grounds. They were in an alternate-Japan, so the sun was just starting to set. Nanoha sighed. The red sky was pretty here, but she was sort of wishing it was still midday.

Fate and Arf were already up in the air, and Nanoha and Vesta took off to hover beside them. Alicia sat primly on the floating Bureau drone that was monitoring the group, her doll hovering beside her and a bag of sweets in hand.

"Okay!" she announced. "Today we're playing Hoop-Barrierball! Both of you have to make a hoop this big!" She held her hands out, about fifty centimetres apart. "And float it over your heads! Then! You get three barriers the same shape and size! None of them can get closer than a metre to your hoop! Whoever shoots a shot through the other person's hoop first wins!" She gave them both a glare. "And Nanoha, no bombardment spells and Fate, no going faster than Nanoha's spells can keep up with! And you can't block with your Devices, either! Okay?"

[Understood, ma'am!]

[Yes, meister]

Nanoha rolled her eyes. Alicia seemed to come up with the rules of their sparring matches more or less off the top of her head, and tended to pile them on until they started overflowing. It was easier just to let the Devices handle what was and wasn't allowed. And focus on winning!

"Ready, Raising Heart?" she whispered.

[Let's win this, my master!]

And they were off, soaring through the red sky and darting around one another, trying to make sure the setting sun was behind them. Fate was faster – Fate was always faster – but Nanoha had her beaten on firepower and shot control. Her Axel Shooters ("new rule, Nanoha, never more than six shots at a time!") kinked and swerved, tracking Fate unerringly as she leaned on Raising Heart to keep her barriers moving. She batted away Plasma Lancers, ducked under binds – even sucked in her tummy to avoid an Arc Saber in the name of lining up a perfect shot.

Which bounced off Arf's side with a sad little 'phut'.

"Hey! Foul!" Nanoha cried out, stamping her foot in mid-air and looking at their judge imploringly. Alicia gravely looked up from her chocolate lolly and considered the dispute.

"I said only three barriers," she decided, "and Arf isn't a barrier, she's a familiar, and she was more than a metre away from Fate's hoop. So it's allowed! Besides, Vesta is being sneaky and invisible for you. I saw some of your shots disappearing." She nodded firmly. "So it's allowed! But Nanoha, your shots have to be visible, and Vesta and Arf..."

The lolly returned to her mouth for some contemplative sucking. "... they can shoot too," she decided. "But still no invisible shots. It's boring if I can't see what's happening."

Pouting, Nanoha conceded and had a quick whispered conversation with Vesta, still invisible and prowling. She could see Fate eyeing her, holding a similar tactical planning session with Arf. Which was why it was important that she move first. She sprang into action, six Axel Shooters heading straight for Fate – and as she'd expected, Arf sprang forward to bite and block them. Fate had ceded two of her barriers to her familiar, who used them far better than she could, leaving her free to concentrate on offense.

It was a tactic she was a teeny bit too reliant on. Nanoha grinned. She was better at thinking outside the box than her friend.

One Axel Shooter made it past Arf, just barely – only to glance off Fate's remaining barrier, whizzing off with enough speed that she'd be gone before Nanoha could turn it around. By then it would be too late. The Plasma Lancers were already closing.

"Vesta... POUNCE!"

Vesta sprang from nothing, frock billowing, scarf flying, directly behind Fate, in the path of the shot. Her boot lashed out, wreathed in red light, and kicked Nanoha's shooting spell, deflecting it again...

... straight through Fate's hoop from behind.

"Hah!" Nanoha cheered as Vesta whooped with glee. The shocked look on her friend's face was priceless. "I win this time!" She threw a questioning look at Alicia, who gave her a double-thumbs-up around her lolly, then beamed at Fate. "Really, Fate," she sang. "You shouldn't depend on Arf so much. You need to be able to keep up your own defences!"

Fate sighed, disgruntled. "Fine, fine," she grumbled. "And well done. That was clever, that move."

"Indeed," Precia said as they dropped back down to the ground. "Congratulations, Nanoha and Vesta. Though your shot spread was a little too tight for a highly mobile opponent like Fate – you want to tailor it to whatever you're shooting at." She narrowed her eyes. "And you're still wasting power. I have some new efficiency programs for you to study, once you've finished your spellcrafting homework."

Nanoha brightened, and was almost immediately shaded again as Alicia swung down on the drone and leapt onto her shoulders. Since Nanoha was not an unfairly super-fit athletic cheater like Fate, this served no purpose other than to send her face-first into the stiltgrass.

"... ow," she said, muffled.

"But first Nanoha has to- I mean gets to sit with me!" Alicia demanded. "As a reward!"


...


It was late evening and the last traces of the sun were just creeping down below the horizon. Despite that, it was somehow brighter here on UA-99 than it was on Earth, despite them being in the same place geographically. Maybe it was the lack of the city, Nanoha reflected. There was no smog here, no high-rise buildings, no chemicals in the clouds to block the fading light. The field they sat in was part of a Japan that had never been touched by humans – or if it had, they'd never settled. The vast forests that stretched for hundreds of miles had never been cut down, the rolling fields had never been planted with rice. The evening sky above them was speckled with countless stars.

She never saw the Milky Way back home. It was even worse on Schzenais, where the wispy high altitude clouds tended to trap light from the sprawling city and blot out the stars. This was about as far from that icy planet as she could be; a warm, pleasant summer's evening.

It was beautiful. But at the same time, it was... missing something. She couldn't quite put her finger on what.

Alicia sat beside her, just outside the shade offered by a broad-beamed tree, making crowns out of flowers and wire and twisted paper. She hummed happily to herself as she worked, and had decorated herself and her doll lavishly with her handiwork. The toy had almost disappeared under the masses of improvised jewellery. She'd also changed her Jacket to console Fate on her loss, shifting it to a black sundress with pale highlights. It was showing the mud less than her normal sunny attire, which Nanoha supposed was something.

Nanoha herself was on Vesta's lap; her familiar having taken adult form to fuss over her hair and clothing again. She bore it with good grace, content to be groomed. It was sort of relaxing, honestly.

"Nanoha, Nanoha! You won, so here you go!" Alicia offered her an elaborate flower-crown that Nanoha suspected was held together more by magic than structural integrity, copper wire and one of Fate's hair ties twisted around some kind of dark blue flower she didn't recognise. She accepted her prize and handed it up to Vesta to be arranged for the best effect.

Alicia beamed at her and slumped backwards over her legs, her twintails sprawling out on the soft grass. "It's really nice here, isn't it? I saw some hares last time we were here, running all over the place!" she said, plucking idly at random stalks here and there. "Oh, and look! It's a kitty! It's chasing fluff!"

"Mmm," Nanoha hummed, her eyes half-closed. The warmth of the late evening, Vesta's grooming and the satisfaction of a long day were all combining to lull her to sleep.

"I mean... it was hard getting here," Alicia went on, "but it all worked out for the best, right? 'Cause Hayate got rescued and the Knights are all good now and we don't need to fight."

Nanoha cracked an eye open. Alicia was biting her lip in the way she did when she wanted reassurance. "And... and there was lots of un-fun bits, and maybe... maybe some people made mistakes along the way, like... like doing things they shouldn't have without knowing better. But that's okay because in the end we're all here and happy, right?" she asked. "I mean... nearly all."

They lapsed into silence for a moment, sharing sad memories.

"I think..." Vesta put in, "I think... Linith chose what she did. And that let the rest of us get here. I think she'd be happy with that. She'd be proud of us, and proud that her... her sacrifice gave us these happy times. We shouldn't waste them." She shifted, and Nanoha could tell she was eyeing Alicia over her head. "And you should stop beating yourself up over the teleporting thing," she added. "It was stupid, yeah, but the bad stuff that happened wasn't your fault."

"... you mean it?" Alicia looked up, and Nanoha felt her heart melt a little at the vulnerability in her face. She'd have to tell Precia and Fate about this later, if Alicia was still insecure about it. Right now, though, she needed reassuring.

"We both mean it," she said firmly, and watched Alicia light up a little.

"And you're happy too, right? You're not sad because of..." Alicia trailed off, biting her lip. "I mean, Hayate would probably be upset. If you were upset, because of the whole Book thing. I think she still feels guilty," she added, nodding quickly and trying to sound self-assured.

"I'm..." Nanoha started, "... I'm okay, yeah. I miss Linith, but I'm not upset."

Vesta shifted again. This time to look down at her. Nanoha couldn't see her expression, but she imagined that it was a frown like Alicia's, as the younger girl leaned forward.

"But everything's good!" Alicia pressed. "You have to be more than just 'okay', right?"

"No, I mean... I'm..."

Nanoha hesitated, confused. She wanted to agree. To say she was happy. But somehow the words just wouldn't come out. She frowned, prodding at her feelings. She couldn't put a name to it, but there was a hesitation there. A sense of... what? Dissatisfaction? Grief? She wasn't sure.

"... I'm getting Fate," Vesta muttered, lifting Nanoha enough to scoot out from under her and standing. "She knows about silly guilt-tripping that makes you not happy where you are."

She trotted off towards the picnic blanket where Fate, Arf and Precia were sharing a small meal, leaving Nanoha and Alicia alone.

"I'm not unhappy," Nanoha offered. "I just feel... like not everything is perfect. Like there's something missing. Things are good, but..."

She frowned, grasping instinctively for the reassuring shape of Raising Heart. The concept she wanted was dancing just at the edge of her mind – she could feel it, like an object a fraction out of reach that she could only brush with her fingertips.

"... but... it's... too good?" she tried. "No, not that, but..."

Alicia tilted her head, her doll forgotten, and looked up at her with wide-eyed curiosity. Nanoha concentrated for a moment longer and then blew out a sigh. Trying to force it wasn't working, she just... something in her didn't want to think about it. She tried a different tack instead, picking the first analogy that sprang to mind.

"Vesta once told me that the hardest thing to get right about illusions was all the little details," she said. "Did you know that? It's why they're so hard. Making them is easy..." with a flex of her hand, a pink ball appeared, "... because it's just light. It's making them look right that's hard." She wiggled her fingers, and the ball flowed into the shape of a rather malformed car.

"So Vesta could make an illusion of a little kitten, but maybe she'd forget to make its fur ruffle in the wind. Or not have it jump when a loud noise happened. Or its eyes wouldn't narrow when it looked at something bright." The pieces fell into place, and she flinched as she finally put words to what she was trying to express. "It's impossible to get all the details right. Some of them just seem wrong, even if... even if you like them all."

"... why are you telling me this?"

Nanoha swallowed, but her throat was dry. "Because... because apart from Linith, everything in my life is perfect, but deep down I still feel like I should be doing something," she said. "Because even though I know we fought the Book months ago and the Wolkenritter are good now, it still feels like it was yesterday and I still feel scared when I think of it. Because..." Her voice cracked a little, and she gulped. "Because I don't think Precia and Quint would really get along if they just talked to each other, and I... I don't think Precia would be happy living down the street from my parents and not doing magic, either. Because I keep on seeing cats all over the place that all look the same, like they're all copies of each other. But Vesta isn't reacting to them or even making catty comments about how she's so much better than them. Things aren't right."

She looked down at the tiny car; shorter than it should be and slightly lopsided.

"And because even though I know all the good things that happened in the last half a year or so, I couldn't tell you what I had for breakfast this morning," she admitted quietly. "Or what colour the front door of your house is. I don't remember walking from my house to yours – it's like I just dashed out of my house and then I was straight there. I remember travelling but... it's like Fate says her earliest memories are. Like someone told me it happened, instead of the memory of it happening, you know?"

"No?" Alicia said, frowning. "Nanoha, you're not making sense. I don't remember walking to school because it's super-mega boring. But it still happened."

"No, no, it's like… my life is made of scenes someone has stitched together and then I'm just… I'm just filling in everything around them. It's like someone just told me 'you talked to Quint and then six months later you're living happily on Earth' and I remember what happened in between but I don't feel what happened." She sniffed, vaguely aware she was rambling to avoid having to say it out loud. "I don't think I'm meant to be thinking about things like that. I should just be happy with how good things turned out."

"N-Nanoha," Alicia whimpered. "You're scaring me. Stop talking in a scary way." Her big red eyes brimmed with tears, and her lips wobbled.

Looking up, Nanoha met Alicia's worried gaze full on. "But I'm not. Because... I think maybe they didn't. I think that this... this perfect world, this victory we had... didn't."

She sniffed again, and had to force herself to finish the thought. But finish it she did.

"I don't..." she choked out, "I don't think this is real. I don't think the Book got Chrono. I... I think it got me."


...