Used to be


-Three days ago-

Nanoha couldn't remember how she got home. It had been simply one foot in front of the other down Fate's hall, out of the lobby, into the street. Numb, cold, confused, like she had been caught in a waking dream. How long had she spent, leaning against Fate's door, waiting for a sign that never came? The old Fate would have run after her. The old Fate wouldn't let her leave upset. The old Fate. She felt a flutter in her chest that tightened up, constricting and heavy.

The old Fate wouldn't have kissed her. But it had been her own fault, hadn't it? That night in the bridal shop, yanking Fate to her, kissing her first. She had been the one to open these floodgates, and now she had no idea what to do with everything that had come through. Friends. Just friends. Right?

She could sit around for days, pouring over this, and she would still figure out nothing.

Slipping in the front door of her home, not bothering with the lights, she hovered in the entryway, fingertips ghosting over her lips. Had…had all of that really happened?

A rush of blood and warmth flooded her cheeks, and she knew it had been far too real. Fate's whispered confessions, the arms around her, fingers in her hair…

Another rush of heat, followed by a sharp stab of guilt, but all she could see was Fate trembling underneath her touch, the curve of her throat, her hands on Fate's shoulders…

Unfaithful.

Her eyes stung, and she had to blink away the pain that settled there.

No. No. Not here. She had to at least make it to the bedroom. Lock the door.

Maybe jump out the window.

Sucking in a quiet breath, she kicked off her shoes, wincing when her keys slid from tired hands and clattered against cool linoleum. The sound may as well have been a gunshot, and she cringed inwardly.

So much for sneaking in.

What in the hell was she doing, sneaking around in the first place?

The noise brought investigative footsteps, and as she steeled herself for a conversation with her mother, she was taken aback to find Vivio's inquisitive gaze on her instead.

Silence hung in the air, thick and heavy, and Nanoha licked her lips, wracking her brain for a suitable excuse.

The corner of her daughter's mouth twitched up into a smirk, and already the ace was dreading what came next.

"Wow. Someone was up late."

How could such tiny words make Nanoha feel way too tired?

The brunette retrieved her keys, tossing them onto the kitchen countertop as she brushed past Vivio. "And you're up ungodly early, for you, anyway." An affectionate smile, a soft ruffling of her daughter's disheveled hair, despite the inner turmoil and panic. Nanoha received a half-hearted scowl for the action.

"But I couldn't sleep." Quiet feet followed Nanoha into the kitchen, bright eyes flickering over the instructor as she began to root around for much needed coffee. "See, my mom, she just disappeared. Out all night."

Nanoha's eyes darted up, fixing the teenager with what she hoped was a stern gaze, though her hands fumbled the coffee can. "Vivio…"

"It's not like you to miss curfew." Vivio teased lightly.

Three measured scoops, nice and even, unlike everything else in her life. Nanoha closed her eyes for a second, took a breath, but it did little to help. She could still hear Fate's voice, could still feel herpresence, even her scent lingered, and it was making it impossible to concentrate.

Maybe she was losing her mind, but that would have to wait until she could have a moment to do so.

"Adult. I don't have curfew."

The blonde was quiet for a long moment as Nanoha fished down a coffee mug, lips pursed. Despite the playful banter, she could tell mother was upset. But lately, when hadn't she been upset? Elbows propped on the countertop, she watched the ace struggle to find something to do while the coffee maker kicked to life. Her smile was tired, fractured, and her eyes said that she was distracted and angry.

Upset.

"Is Fate-mama alright?"

Nanoha dropped her coffee cup but rebounded quickly, catching it before it could hit the floor. She plunked it down on the counter with a frustrated sigh, and Vivio couldn't help but notice that the mug had been one of Fate's.

"She's fine."

Adult. Everyone tossed that word around so easily.

The day Fate had moved out, and Vivio had come home from school to find all of her things missing, she had cried like the world was ending. Her mother, however, had faced it with her usual steely resolve, holding her tight, smoothing back her hair, trying to soothe hot, angry tears. Why had been her first question. Why would she leave? Wasn't she happy? Weren't they a family?

One of her earliest memories of Fate had been Nanoha explaining that she would have two mothers who would love and protect her at all costs, and she hadn't understood what that had meant, not really. As she grew older, she began to notice how different her family was after all. Other children her age had mothers, and fathers, with normal jobs and normal lives. Her mothers were practically super heroes, as were all their friends. It was confusing, and a bit odd. Her mothers loved each other, right? Just as much, if not more than any other parents.

She had a very vivid memory of coming home from elementary school one day to find her Fate-mama occupying the entire couch, flipping through manila folders and sipping strong black coffee, mumbling to herself and jotting down quick, cramped notes in margins.

"Fate-mama?"

Fate hummed in response, dark eyes flickering up, the end of a ball point pen hanging out of her mouth. Vivio dropped her backpack where she stood.

"Why aren't you and Nanoha-mama married?"

Looking back now, the reaction was quite funny. Fate's eyebrows had almost crawled up to her hairline, jaw hanging open, pen falling to her lap. Her face had gone nearly purple in color, jaw working uselessly as she tried to stammer out a response.

Her Nanoha-mama had chosen that moment to walk out into the living room, wiping the palms of her hands across her apron, the scent of something sweet and warm following her from the kitchen. "Vivio, sweetie, I didn't hear you come in. How was school?"

Vivio's brows furrowed, her gaze still on her Fate-mama. Nanoha followed her line of sight, blinking at the enforcer who looked to be having some sort of aneurysm. "Fate-chan!"

"Why aren't you married?" Vivio tried again, serious expression now honed in on Nanoha.

Nanoha's cheeks tinted pink as she threw a panicked look at Fate. "What's this all of a sudden?"

Fate was too busy trying not to combust on the spot to provide any assistance.

Vivio frowned. "You love each other, right?"

"Ah." Nanoha laughed nervously, crossing the room and dropping to her knees in front of her daughter. "We do. It's just…a little different."

"Different?"

"Mm." her mother nodded. "We're…" she trailed off for a moment with a backwards glance over her shoulder. Wow. Now that was an interesting shade of red Fate was working on. "We're friends, your Fate-mama and I. It's love, just a different kind. Like, the love you have for Hayate, and her friends. It's the kind of love where you don't need to get married to show you care. We're a family, just like Hayate and her knights are a family."

Vivio cocked her head, trying to follow along. "So, I wouldn't marry Hayate?"

Fate made a strangled, choking noise.

Nanoha stroked her hair, a funny smile tightening the muscles in her face. "No, sweetie."

"She's not good enough for you." The disjointed enforcer added, not too helpfully.

Vivio had blinked at that, looking from Fate and back to Nanoha. "So, Fate-mama isn't good enough for you?"

Nanoha fought to hold back her laughter. "Ah, Vivio. I think this is one of those things you'll understand when you're older."

"But. We're family?"

Her Fate-mama sulked like a wounded puppy.

Nanoha smiled at that. "Always. Now go give your Fate-mama a hug before she has a fit."

"N-Nanoha!"

Nanoha had gotten the coffee maker to finish up at last, and with a tired sigh poured herself a mug. Vivio watched the action in silence, taking careful, quiet note of how weary her mother looked, ragged and worn around the edges. Smiles and laughter had become a rarity in a home that had once been so full of life, and it pained her to know that somewhere, Fate-mama was going through this as well, alone.

Adult. Family. Why did it seem like the older she got, the less she understood?

Fate's reasons for leaving, for packing up and darting off across the universe had seemed so silly, no matter how many times she had tried to explain it to Vivio over the video communicator, and no matter how many times she had begged, pleaded, and cried for Fate to come home, the answer was always no.

"Family," Vivio had said, during a particularly emotional call, when her eyes had been so blurred by tears that she could no longer pick out Fate's image, "does not mean you run off and leave. What happened to always?"

That had been cruel, she supposed, thinking back on it now. It would have been even crueler to force Fate to sit through the Nanoha and Yuuno show, she knew that now. But it didn't mean she understood. How can two people, who obviously needed each other very much, fight so hard against the current?

Her Fate-mama had a tough job, that she got, and she could certainly understand how her Nanoha-mama could get lonely. When she had been younger, it had been hard to watch the enforcer pack for every away mission. Vivio had tried more than once (and rather unsuccessfully), to block the door, clutching her stuffed rabbit tight and planting herself firmly on her butt, back flush against the door. Each and every time, Fate would give her a tired smile and pick her up, dropping her field bag, trying her best to soothe, holding Vivio close.

"It's only for a few days." and Vivio would only cry harder, tugging on Fate's black uniform jacket. "I'll come right back, safe and sound."

Vivio would sniffle, hiccup, shake her head no. Didn't Fate-mama understand?

"It'll be alright." A kiss to her temple. "I promise."

It hurt now to remember all the times Fate would quietly crack open her bedroom door when she would return, just to check on her, brushing the hair out of her eyes and kissing her forehead, tucking the blankets in a little farther, nestling her stuffed animal back down in her arms. Vivio would feign sleep without knowing why, a tiny rush of relief at the thought that Fate-mama was home. She was safe.

But the missions got longer, and the time Fate was home in between lessened.

Childish emotions got the best of Vivio sometimes too. Fate had asked about her friends once at the dinner table, home after an exceptionally long deployment, loosening her tie, still sharp in her enforcer's uniform.

Vivio was starting to hate the color black.

"Does it matter? It's not like you're home enough to care anyway."

Nanoha-mama had grounded her for that one, and she knew she deserved it. It was one of the only times she could ever remember really being in trouble, but Fate hadn't yelled, in fact, she hadn't even responded. She just…sat there, dark eyes pained, her hand still halfway through the knot, frozen.

It wasn't until the night a fierce storm had woken her up far too late into the night that Vivio finally began to realize how hard Fate's job was. The thunder had shaken the house all the way to its foundations, and Vivio had sat bolt upright in bed, heart racing. A dim light, barely visible under the crack of her door got her attention, and she had climbed out of bed. Nanoha-mama hated storms. Maybe it had woken her up too?

Padding down the hall, barefoot, bunny dangling from one hand, she made her way to the bathroom, the source of the light, and froze when the sounds of ragged breathing reached her ears. Something, something was wrong. Half tempted to call for her mother, she bit down the urge. No. Courage. Always have courage. Her Nanoha-mama had taught her that. So she had squared her shoulders, stiffened her posture, and was about to proceed when another violent outburst from the storm nearly knocked out the power. She let out the barest of squeaks, and the pained breathing halted for a second.

"V…Vivio?" A weary cough. A familiar voice.

"Fate-mama?" Vivio tried worriedly from the darkened hall, clutching her bunny a little tighter, tiny feet robotically moving her forward. It wasn't right. It wasn't normal. Normal was kisses goodnight, being tucked in, screwing her eyes shut, pretending to sleep so she wouldn't cry cry cry and beg Fate-mama not to go.

Her Fate-mama, her brave, strong Fate-mama, was slouched on the bathroom floor, back against the wall, still in her barrier jacket, one arm held tight against her body across her stomach, her hand gripping her side. The other hand held a bloodied towel to her face, a dark gash under her eye, black and blue marks lining a cheekbone.

"H…hey." Fate murmured quietly, hurriedly tossing the towel into the tub and out of sight, an action that pulled forth a pained, shaky exhale. "You should be in bed."

Vivio's eyes watered at the sight of blood smeared across the bathroom floor. "You're hurt."

"No, no." Fate tried, wincing as she struggled to push herself up to her feet, a fruitless endeavor, and she sagged back down, head thumping against the wall. An uneven smile. "It's just a bruise."

"You're hurt." Vivio repeated, tears falling free. "You're hurt."

"Hey, hey." Fate whispered, reaching out as Vivio scrambled over to her, wrapping an arm around her and hugging her tight. "I'm okay, see?" Warmth. A heartbeat. The smell of smoke, and blood. "I'm alright."

She hated thunder.

But Vivio couldn't stop crying, the thought and the memory of the awful things she had said lingering, even as she hung onto her Fate-mama and cried into stiff, scratchy fabric. She was squeezing too hard, some part of her brain told her, she was hurting her worse, but she couldn't let go.

Regardless of how strong she thought her mothers were, it was terrifying to learn that they weren't invincible after all.

That was how Nanoha had found them, huddled down on the bathroom floor. Vivio had half expected to be scolded for being out of bed, especially on a school-night, but Fate's hold loosened, and as Nanoha had sank to her knees, Fate gathered the both of them up in her arms. It had to hurt, hugging them both so tight, and it had been one of the first times she had seen Fate-mama cry, eyes damp as she promised the both of them that she would be more careful. It had been one of the last times Vivio had slept in the same bed with them, cuddled up warm and safe in-between. But the damage had been done. That sense of innocence, the notion that Fate's promise of coming home safe and sound couldn't be a promise she could keep every time, had really changed everything.

Her Nanoha-mama grew increasingly worried with every deployment, fretting about the house, waiting for Fate to phone, planning her entire day around a call that may or may not come. Vivio had overheard a conversation between Nanoha and Hayate once, late at night, hushed voices in the dark.

"I don't understand." Nanoha had murmured. "Does she always have to be gone?"

"It's the job." Hayate replied softly. "You know that." A sigh, the quiet clink of keys. "She calls though, doesn't she?"

"I don't even know what to say to her anymore, even when we do talk. And Vivio...Vivio worries so much. I try to explain it, and I hope she understands, but…"

Before Fate had moved out, on one of her last missions before everything had broken down for good, Vivio and Nanoha had been having one of their movie nights, staying up way too late and eating terrible junk food. It was nice to be normal, even for a little while, trying not to worry, trying not to think about all the things that could go so horribly wrong. Nanoha-mama loved bad action movies, (Vivio always suspected it had something to do with the excessive explosions) and they would giggle and laugh at ridiculous stunts and terrible acting. But even their quiet, safe haven was not immune to the effects of the real world, and when their movie was interrupted by breaking news reports of a dangerous explosion, one that had leveled twenty five miles of ground on the planet Fate had been stationed on, both Nanoha and Vivio had frozen in place.

"Hundreds confirmed dead," the reporter stated, in a clear, clipped monotone. "A suspected act of large scale terrorism…"

Almost immediately, Raising Heart cut through the stunned silence, announcing an incoming communication from Commander Yagami.

Her Nanoha-mama had gone pale, wavering eyes fixed on the device laying just within reach.

Vivio had forgotten how to breathe, her head swimming, her heart pounding so hard her vision blurred.

Impossible. Fate-mama was one of the best. Fast. Strong. But that tiny niggling sense of fear grew, and all Vivio could remember was cracked ribs and a bruised face, broken bones. She bled just like anyone else, but this time, there would be no warm hug, no soft reassurances. Just. Silence.

Raising Heart announced the transmission once more.

Vivio had never seen her mother act like she was afraid of anything. Her nickname was whispered up and down the halls in her school and during training, and people liked to joke that Vivio was probably the safest child in the universe, with a mother like that. But now. Watching her hands shake as she reached for her device, watching her swallow hard, feeling the world grind to a halt as Nanoha acknowledged the incoming communications request, she realized her mother was just as fearful as anyone else. She had always acted so strong for Vivio, to ease her worries about Fate, to assure her that everything was fine.

But now…

Now…

"Nanoha!" Hayate's image popped up, looking tired and slightly rumpled. "I'm sorry. I tried to get ahold of you before the news reports…"

"Fate?" her mother cut in, hands clenched tight.

"She's fine. She's fine." Hayate assured her calmly, a finely shaped eyebrow twitching. "In fact, the communications delay was her fault. I received word right before the damn satellites were knocked out from the EMP shock wave that she and the bulk of our forces were completely unharmed." The commander pushed a hand through disheveled hair and pinched the bridge of her nose. "I mean seriously though. Does she even realize how much those cost? I should take the repair bill out of her paycheck. Then we'll see how quick she is to…"

The transmission was cut off as Nanoha closed out the screen.

Vivio sucked in a breath, relief flooding though her, feeling rushing back to her limbs. She was about to ask her mother if she was alright when a strangled cry lodged the words in her throat.

Her mother. The Ace of Aces. Nanoha Takamachi. The White Devil. Slouched forward, head in her hands, sobbing.

Without a second thought, Vivio wrapped her up in a hug, silent as the world's strongest woman broke down, words weakened and muffled by Vivio's shoulder.

"I can't do this anymore. I just can't."

They hadn't watched an action movie since.

Adult.

Family.

She wasn't a little girl anymore, and the world just got a lot scarier.

Her mother wasn't the same after that. The fear, worries, and loneliness had finally started to take their toll. Each time Fate left, a dark mood would settle over the house, and Nanoha would pace like a caged animal, looping endlessly and scrubbing every bare surface she could get her hands on.

But Fate-mama, Fate-mama tried. Now that Vivio was older, now that she was no longer a wide eyed little girl, she began to notice things, like, the way Fate would look at her mother. A subtle softening around the edges, dopey smiles, lingering touches of affection. It wasn't just friendly love anymore, and she was certain neither one of them even knew it. She had friends, and she knew that friends didn't share a bed at night. There was a tiny spark of hope. Maybe, maybe things would be alright. Maybe they would realize what was there, right in front of them. Maybe Fate-mama would transfer, do something less dangerous.

But things seemingly remained the same, and even though on the surface it looked static, things were changing.

Nanoha-mama couldn't take it anymore, and Fate-mama was too late.

When Yuuno had moved in, Vivio had made his life rather difficult. Who was he, to walk into their home, like he belonged there? He wasn't family, not the way Fate-mama had been, and every interaction with the man had been pained and clipped. Yes. No. A nod. Never more than a brief sentence to any of his questions. He was soft. A scholar, of some sort. He couldn't protect them, not the way Fate could.

But, he never left.

He didn't take off in the middle of the night for weeks on end. He didn't miss holidays, or birthdays, and he was home, with Nanoha-mama, every evening.

Nanoha-mama began to smile again. It wasn't the same though, not as bright, her laughter muted. But it was progress, right? Half was better than none.

When her mother sat her down one evening, nervous and fidgeting, Vivio knew something was up. "Yuuno." A pause. A shift. "Yuuno asked me to marry him."

Vivio had nodded slowly. It was over then, wasn't it? Her hands clenched in lap. Fate-mama wasn't coming back.

Looking back now, she thinks that she should have argued. She should have voiced her opinion and discontent with the whole situation. Called Fate-mama. Make her see.

But Nanoha-mama, always gentle, always trying, was so alone.

Family.

She didn't like it, but she wanted her mom to be happy.

So here she was now, trying to be supportive.

Her Nanoha-mama was pacing, small, worried circles around the kitchen, coffee in one hand, straightening this and that with the other. A familiar sight. Maybe nothing had changed after all.

Vivio traced random patterns on the countertop, careful to keep her tone light. "We should invite her over for dinner again."

Her mother exhaled. "That's…not a good idea."

The teenager couldn't help but groan. "Why not? She's all alone, all the time."

"It's…it's not that easy." Nanoha replied tiredly. Tired. So very tired. "It would do more harm than good, I think."

Vivio turned that one over in her head, picking apart the words, dissecting the meaning. More harm than good? Maybe Fate-mama had told her how she felt.

A thump in her chest, a sickening drop in her stomach.

Maybe Nanoha-mama had rejected her.

"But." Vivio licked her lips. "She needs us." And we need her.

Nanoha shook her head. "It doesn't always work out that nicely."

Vivio clenched her jaw tight, and her mother leaned on the counter across from her. "I know it's hard, Vivio, but you'll understand, when you're older." A sad smile. "At least, I hope so."

Adult. Family.

Always.

The blonde pushed herself off the countertop. "I need to go wash up." Understand. What more did she need to understand?


When Vivio came back down from her shower, she found her grandmother in the kitchen, making breakfast. Puzzled, the teenager was about to ask what happened to her mother when Momoko smiled, pointing towards the dining room and held a finger up to her lips, asking for silence. Through the entryway, seated at the table, Nanoha had fallen asleep, using her folded arms as a pillow.

With a wordless shake of her head, Vivio retrieved a throw from the back of the couch and padded back to her mother, carefully draping the blanket over slumped shoulders.

Nanoha shifted slightly, brows furrowing up in her sleep. A murmur, barely audible over the sounds of Momoko working in the kitchen. "Fate-chan?"

Vivio paused for a moment, hands hovering in midair. Maybe she wasn't the one who had so much trouble understanding after all.


-Present-

Fate was pissed off. Although she never rose her voice above the commanding lit she used in the field and maintained the very image of calm, Hayate could tell she was most certainly not happy, but at this particular juncture of time, she could honestly care less.

Arms crossed, Fate watched Hayate throw herself down into an armchair like she owned the place, kicking off her heels and dangling her legs over the armrest.

There was a faint tick in the blonde's eyebrow. "Make yourselves at home."

"Oh come on." Hayate sighed with a dismissive wave of a hand. "Don't be that way. We just came to check up on you."

Wine red eyes flickered over Signum, who had opted to prop herself against the wall near the entry, barring the only exit.

"I doubt that."

"You hear that?" the brunette called out to her guardian, a mock pout gracing her features. "She doesn't trust us."

"Oh, I trust Signum." Fate shot back, earning a quiet snicker from the Wolkenritter. "It's you that's got me paranoid."

Hayate ignored that, crossing her legs at the ankles, an action that caused the short skirt she was wearing to slide up a few inches. The enforcer shifted in place. Someone was apparently dressed for a night out, and that fact alone was enough to put Fate on edge.

"What's up with your neighbor?"

Fate blinked, momentarily thrown off guard. "My neighbor?"

"Yes, Hagashi, was it?"

She frowned in suspicion. "She's a widow. Been living here ten years. I help her out when I'm around, take her for groceries, that sort of thing."

Hayate gave her a warm grin. "That's sweet."

Fate was back on high alert. Something was up, and it was starting to make her twitchy. "I know that's not the reason you came all the way down here."

Hayate groaned dramatically, tipping her head back. "Oh Fate, don't you get tired of being so irritable all the time?"

"Who's irritable?" Fate grumbled. "I was just busy. You interrupted me and nearly put that poor woman into cardiac arrest."

Bright eyes sparked with mischief, and the brunette pushed herself back up. "Doing?"

"What?"

"Exactly." Hayate countered. "What were you doing?"

Fate floundered for a moment, her mouth opening uselessly. "Ah…"

"Thought so." Hayate sighed, swinging her legs off the arm of the chair and sitting upright once more. "We are here to drag you out of your self-imposed exile."

Fate's features furrowed up in confusion. "My…what?"

"Exile." Hayate repeated. "Quite frankly, I'm tired of watching you mope around."

"Hayate, I'm not…"

"Shush." she cut in, holding up a slim hand to silence the enforcer. "Not here to argue."

"Look." Fate tried, the muscles in her jaw visibly clenching. "I know what you're doing, and it needs to stop."

Hayate opened her mouth to protest, but Fate plowed on, the tips of her fingers digging into her arms. "No. You need to listen to me. Really listen. Nothing is going to happen, it's not going to happen, no matter what you say, and you need todrop it."

Hayate arched a brow, sporting a bemused expression. "Fate-chan, that's why I'm here."

Fate paused warily. "What?"

"You still want to be friends with her, right? After this is all over?"

She was met with stony silence.

"All I'm asking for is a sign of good faith, for Nanoha's sake. Hell, you might even have fun doing it."

All Fate could think about at that moment was the warmth she had felt, and the brief, fleeting moments of peace when she had held Nanoha so close, trailing her hands over her back, through her hair, wishing the night would never end…

"What would you have me do?" Fate asked cautiously, her anger dissipating under the flood of conflicting emotions. Her self-control was in absolute shambles, as she could barely keep her feelings in check, and that wasn't even counting the things her body seemed to do without her permission. Friends. What she wanted and what she had were two separate things, and judging by every interaction they had had as of late, she didn't even know if she could count herself as a friend right now. Friends meant being happy for Nanoha, friends meant ignoring the painful wrench in her chest every time they were together, and friends meant being able to have a conversation without someone crying.

It was going to take every bit of energy Fate had in her to smile and nod come that day, and she wasn't sure it was something she could stir up on a whim just because Hayate barged in and fluttered her eyelashes.

"Come out with us tonight." Hayate answered gently. "We're taking her out, and I bet she would actually smile if you were there."

Thought so. "Isn't that Yuuno's job?" Fate replied icily, and the commander was momentarily taken aback by her tone. The enforcer's anger was rising once more. Didn't they all get tired of butting in? Always pushing and prodding, trying to 'fix' something that was so beyond screwed up that just getting back to what used to be was starting to look less and less likely. Nanoha's whisper, the catch in her voice, even as Fate had held her so close.

"Fate-chan, I don't think we can…"

The brunette fixed her with an even look. "He isn't here, but you are."

Fate's eyes darkened. "Switch that around, and we're back at the beginning of this whole mess."

"How long are you going to beat yourself up over that?"

"I'm not sure. How long do defective clones live?"

"Fate." Hayate replied calmly. "I love you, and you know that. But so help me, you talk like that again, and I will knock you into orbit myself. You're better than that, and you know that too."

Fate halted, her arms slowly uncrossing before falling limply to her sides. "I…I'm sorry." The words were quiet, and suddenly she felt so very, very tired. She was reaching her breaking point, and she had nothing to take her negative energy out on. Sometimes, it felt as though the only way to fix everything was if she could just deconstruct herself completely, and put herself all back together the right way. But living bodies weren't building blocks, and she had nothing to blow up. Her friends meant well, she knew that, but things were just not that simple. "I got carried away."

"It's alright." Hayate sighed, pushing herself up to her feet and approaching the enforcer. "You're stressed, and wrung out, and I get that." Fate found herself tugged into a loose hug, Hayate's arms sliding around her waist. "But don't ever say that again. You've got to be one of the most wonderful people I have ever met, and it would upset her too, to hear you talk like that."

Fate sighed in defeat, no longer having the energy to argue. She had been close to tapped out weeks ago, and now she was pretty sure she was running on empty. Nanoha didn't want to be shut out, that much she had made clear the other night. Make her smile, huh? If only Hayate knew. But the guilt, the knowledge that she couldn't find it in herself to cause Nanoha anymore pain, even if that meant she was about to rake herself over the coals, was enough to waver her stance.

"And sexy."

"What?"

"You're wonderful. And amazingly sexy." Hands were suddenly in dangerous places, and Fate was sure she felt a squeeze. "I mean these curves? Damn."

Fate immediately tensed, color flooding her cheeks as she pushed at the commander's shoulders. That's what she got for allowing her mind to drift off in Hayate's presence. "H-Hayate!"

"What?" the brunette whined. "Don't pull away yet. You haven't cuddled me in weeks."

"Signum!" Fate cried weakly, throwing a panicked glance over her shoulder while struggling against the death grip. "Get her off!"

Hayate laughed warmly. "What, here? Fate-chan, you pervert."

"Oh God."

"He can't save you now."


"And why won't you tell me where we are going?" Fate sighed from her place in the backseat of the taxi, nestled in between Signum and Hayate. She suspected the seating arrangement was to deter any escape efforts, and at Hayate's sheepish laugh, she went ahead and marked that suspicion as confirmed.

"Because I knew you wouldn't go."

Fate bit back a scowl at that. Really, her life would be so much simpler if she could just learn to put her foot down. It was bad enough she let Nanoha and Vivio walk all over her, but to let their friends do it too? She gave Signum a side eyed glance. In her defense, it wasn't like she had much of a choice. She had been told, in no uncertain terms, that if she didn't change into something that wasn't pajamas on the double, Hayate and Signum would do it for her. Not knowing where they would be headed, she had thrown on some jeans and a plain black shirt, to which the fearsome commander had rolled her eyes, but let the matter slide. "Is that why you wouldn't let me drive?" the enforcer muttered, sinking back into the seat with a huff.

"Something like that." Hayate replied dismissively, marking the topic as closed.

"How do you put up with her?" Fate grumbled to Signum, blank and impassive as always beside her.

The knight arched a brow, regarding the captain calmly. "Very, very carefully."

"You are a far stronger woman than I am."

"You have no idea."

"Hey!" Hayate cut in with a tiny puff of excitement. "We're here!"

Fate leaned forward, trying to get a glimpse of the building through the taxi window around Signum's profile. A sinking, queasy feeling promptly followed at the sight of a small chapel, and for the eleven hundredth time that day, she regretted getting out of bed. "A chapel?" she questioned blankly, though it took great strength to keep the nervous tremor out of her voice. "Don't tell me you two are running off and eloping."

"Funny and charming, like always." Hayate deadpanned, leaning towards the front of the cab and passing the driver a small wad of bills.

Signum slid out of the seat and held the door open for Fate, the corners of her mouth twitching up into a smirk.

"What's so funny?" Fate questioned warily from the confines of the taxi, eyeing both the knight and the chapel with deep foreboding.

"I'm under orders to carry you in if you protest." Signum replied bluntly.

Fate laughed nervously. "That's a joke, right?"

The smirk fell away, and blue eyes, sharp and piercing, locked onto her own. "Please don't make me do that."

The enforcer sighed, stifling the urge to roll her eyes at Hayate's frantic hand gestures to hurry. "I suppose that even if I asked why we are at a chapel, especially at this time of the night, you'd just hogtie me and drag me in anyway, right?"

"Hayate is trying to do the right thing." Signum said carefully as Fate slid out into the night air, her apprehension evident as they watched Hayate hurry on to the doors. "In her heart, she knows everything will be better when things are as close to normal as they can be."

"Normal?" Fate echoed quietly.

"You and Nanoha talking. That is normal." the knight stated simply, the resounding slam of the taxi door cutting off Fate's last hope of escape. "You two were the glue that pulled us all together. When a bond like that is broken, the ripples are far reaching."

"I wouldn't say it's broken." Fate tried. "Maybe strained?" A pause. "Severely strained."

"Repair is needed." Signum acknowledged. "The tiniest cracks have the habit of becoming massive fault lines."

Fault lines? Fate shoved her hands into her pockets, worrying at a tiny crack in the sidewalk with the toe of her shoe. "I'm not going to like what's in there, am I?"

"Probably not."

"Is she trying to kill me?"

Signum cocked her head. "Who, Nanoha?"

Fate snorted under her breath. "No. Hayate."

"Not that I'm aware of."

The blonde stared at the guardian, still straight laced and serious. "Signum. Would it kill you to smile?"

"As much as it would you."

"Ladies, ladies, we don't have all evening!" Hayate called from the doors. "Quicktime. Pick it up!"

The twitch was back in the corner of Fate's eye. "Would you miss her terribly if something unfortunate were to happen to Hayate this evening?"

A firm hand clamped down on the enforcer's shoulder. "Try it. See what happens."

Fantastic.


Upon entering the tiny chapel, Fate was immediately accosted by her overactive goddaughter. Before she could gather her bearings and hash out the situation, Vivio had already wrapped her up in an excited hug, talking a mile a minute and nearly bouncing in place. Fate weathered it all in good humor, because Vivio had always been one of the best parts of coming home. Even now, when everything else was in ruins, her bright smile gave the captain a sense of calm.

"Fate-mama! What are you doing here?"

Fate gave her a tired smile, gently patting Vivio on the back and fixing Hayate with an even look. "I would like to know that myself."

Bright eyes blinked up at her. "You don't know?"

Any answer to that was cut off as a tiny, frail looking man in a dark suit clapped his hands, signaling for the room's attention. For a brief moment, Fate finally had the chance to check out her surroundings, though it did little to lessen her confusion. It was a rather small chapel to be sure, almost the size of one she would expect to find at an outpost, but it was warm and inviting none the less. It was bright and well lit, and beautiful stained glass windows lined the walls. At the front of the room was an altar, two steps above the rest of the wood flooring. There were several rows of pews, and from her vantage point near the entry, she recognized a good handful of familiar faces. Momoko sat in the front row, turned back in her seat to talk with Vita and Shamal behind her. Subaru and Teana were seated nearby, and she noticed with rising alarm that Signum had slunk into the pew furthest towards the back, closest to the double doors.

"Ah!" Vivio started, releasing Fate and flashing a wide grin. "Gotta go!"

Fate watched her trot off towards her grandmother, and she longed for the days of boundless youthful energy.

"Come on." Hayate whispered, yanking on Fate's arm and snapping her back to her current predicament, half leading, half dragging her to Teana and Subaru's row, nudging the enforcer in first.

The blonde's irritation was starting to well exceed normal levels, and it must have showed. Teana leaned over, her surprise evident as she spoke in hushed tones. "What are you doing here?"

"As soon as I find out, I would be glad to fill you in."

Teana arched a brow. "Practice ceremony."

"What?"

"Practice. Show everyone where to stand, walking down the aisle and all that."

The glare Fate gave to Hayate on her right at that point would have melted steel. "And why would I need to go to that?"

"The fun part comes after." The brunette sighed. "Just sit nicely and try to behave, will you?"

"Fun part?" Fate growled out, earning a disapproving cough from the man in the center of the aisle.

"Bachelorette party." Teana clarified. "Well. Sort of. She didn't want one. But Hayate decided she should at least have a drink."

"Tea, thank you. It's good to know I can count on someone."

"Calm down." Hayate replied serenely. "This won't take long."

"I think you really are trying to kill me."

"Keep it up with the attitude, and I will."

Another clap from the elderly man, and the enforcer had him pegged as the chaplain. She had spent enough time in the field, and more time than she would ever care to admit as a witness to last rites to make the assumption. That explained the size of the chapel. Perhaps he was a military chaplain? "Alright, now that I see everyone is settled." He waved a hand, gesturing for Vivio as he made his way to the altar. "Here, here."

"That's Masato." Tea whispered helpfully. "His assistant, Rika, is with Nanoha now. They're the ones that…ah…"

Fate nodded despondently as Vivio was given directions about the side door entry, pointing out her mark on the left side of the raised floor. Maid of honor, huh? Vivio nodded obediently, counting out even steps from the door to her mark. Fate rubbed her eyes blearily and focused on keeping her breathing steady. It was one thing to hear about the wedding, and slightly worse to reread the invitation she hadn't had the guts to throw out. But this? This was an all new form of torture to watch it being rehearsed. She had yet to see Nanoha, and even when she did, what the hell was she supposed to say? 'Thanks, this was fun?' How about, 'Hey look what a good sport I am. Friends?' Maybe, 'Sorry I kicked you out of my apartment the other day, but I just couldn't handle having you so close and…'

"Where is the groom?"

Fate's eyes snapped forward as a round of laughter followed the chaplain's question.

"Working." Momoko supplied from the front row.

Vivio caught Fate's gaze and gave her a cheery wave from her spot on the altar.

"Ah. Can I get a temporary volunteer?"

"Anyone in here brave enough to marry Nanoha?" Vita replied dryly, earning another bout of laughter.

"Fate." Hayate whispered loudly, blue eyes widening in shock as she frantically poked at the enforcer's right shoulder. "Your arm. It's bleeding."

"What?" Fate twisted her arm around, trying to get a better view. "Where? I don't see anything."

"Near your elbow." Her friend replied with another quick poke, barely able to contain her smirk when Fate raised her arm halfway to look where Hayate pointed.

"What are you talking about? I don't see any…"

"Excellent!" Masato exclaimed cheerily. "Thank you, young lady!"

Fate felt her heart stop, and was dimly aware of many sets of eyes now fixed on her. "Wait. What?"

Vita's jaw dropped and beside Fate, Teana buried her face in her hands.

"Come on, come on. Don't be shy." The chaplain continued with a friendly smile. "It's just for a few minutes. All you have to do is just stand here so the bride can count her mark."

"No." Fate replied flatly, dropping her hand with a terse shake of her head. "Absolutely not."

"Ah…" Masato raised a brow, obviously confused by the response. "Alright. Anyone else?"

"Fate-chan." Hayate tried, "Stop being difficult. The sooner we do this, the sooner you can drink."

"No. Oh no. I am not going to walk into one of your ridiculous little schemes…"

"Fate-mama." Vivio called from the front of the room. "Come on. Just for a minute?"

The enforcer faltered at that, resolve wavering under the supreme power of full blown puppy eyes. Things were rapidly escalating from bad to worse, and it certainly didn't help that she remained the center of attention. The longer she sat here fighting the urge to flee, the more she looked like a pouting child.

Hayate threw Vivio a thumbs up, shrinking back as soon as she felt the glare boring a hole in the side of her head.

Fate rose to her feet, features set tight as the commander scrambled out of her way and out into the aisle. "You and I. We are not done with this."

Hayate ignored the threat and sat back down with a Cheshire cat grin, feeling rather pleased with herself indeed. Vivio was like a homing missile aimed straight at Fate's will power, and it was a weapon Hayate knew she should take full advantage of in the future.

"Hey." Teana slid over into the spot Fate had previously occupied and leaned towards Hayate. "Think I could get a raise?"

The brunette blinked back at her. "What, now?"

The gunner nodded. "I'd like to get one before she kills you. Who knows what the next commander will be like."

"Funny."

Masato swallowed hard as Fate stalked up to the front of the room, counting to ten under her breath and gritting her teeth. He ran a hand through thinning grey hair and chuckled nervously, guiding Fate to a spot on the floor, and shifting her around despite her achingly stiff posture until the position was just right. This group was certainly a strange group, he decided, and the way the blonde was burning holes in the wall with her eyes, he would feel rather relieved when all was said and done. A quick once over of the woman gave him the feeling that she was a soldier, and he made a quiet mental note to pull her aside later.

Vita chuckled quietly, earning a questioning look from Shamal. "What's so funny?"

"I just can't believe Hayate actually managed to get her up there. Nanoha is going to have a fit."

"Why's that?"

"Mm." The vice-captain crossed her arms. "Something happened, don't know what, but Nanoha has been extra hard on the recruits the past two days."

Shamal sighed. "Is that why I've had a sudden increase in patients?"

"When Nanoha has a bad day, everyone has a bad day."

The medic cast a glance over her shoulder to the back of the room, where Signum still maintained her post. "Leave it to Hayate to stir the pot."

"Says the one who hid Fate's jacket."

Shamal gave her a tiny smile. "I have no idea what you are referring to."

"Right."

Back up front, Fate was still fidgeting restlessly, despite Vivio's reassuring smile. This was stupid, and she was stupid for letting herself get stuck up here. She wondered if she would end tonight on her feet, or, if like everything else, it would all blow up in her face. That's the part everyone else failed to understand. She wasn't so dumb that she couldn't see exactly what Hayate was trying to do, but it seemed like every time someone tried to 'help', things just got that much worse.

Quite frankly, she could screw up enough on her own.

The sound of the doors at the end of the aisle creaking open and the silence that fell over the chapel killed her thought process, and she knew without turning around what was coming next. Her heart rate immediately picked up and her throat had suddenly gone impossibly dry. What would Nanoha think, after another one of their less than stellar partings, to find her standing here like this? Should she even turn around? And why the hell was she so nervous anyway? It was just Nanoha, the same Nanoha she had known almost all her life, the same Nanoha that would wrap in her up in hugs that felt like home, warm and soft. Suddenly she remembered the scent of strawberry shampoo and the taste of raspberry chapstick, the gentle rise and fall of Nanoha's chest as she slept so peacefully, pressed so close. Oh. Fate felt a tremor in her legs. That wasn't helping. Her skin prickled, her palms grew damp, and against the urging of every fibre of her being and the maddening black pit that had become her stomach, she pivoted on her heels.

It was just for a minute, right?

But it was at that exact moment that Fate promptly forgot how to breathe. Maybe it was the stress, or maybe it was the situation she found herself in, she wasn't sure, but later she would swear that Nanoha got prettier every time she saw her. Clad in a white dress that Fate hadn't seen in far too long, beautiful and light like springtime personified, she seemed to suck the air right out of the room, and Fate had never felt more alone. A dull ache in her chest and the feeling of being hopelessly lost stole her breath away, and it hurt more than she had ever imagined to know that in just a few weeks, Nanoha would be wearing white again, and Yuuno would be here, in the very spot where Fate stood now.

This is what he would see, and this is what she knew she would never get.

Nanoha, so very close, their fingers knotted together. "You mean so much to me, but, I…"

Fate had to catch her breath, cut off the memory in her head. She couldn't do this, couldn't stand here, couldn't picture someone else where she stood now. A clean break? What had she been thinking? There was no such thing.

Nanoha looked equally stunned, stock still and unblinking at the far end of the aisle, and Rika's voice, giving instructions just beside her fading away into nothing but a grey buzz. She almost wanted to rub her eyes, to blink and shake away the vision of what she swore was Fate-chan up there next to Vivio. But that was impossible, right?

"Nanoha."

The ace started at the sound of her name, whipping her head to find Signum just off to her left, slouched in a pew, arms crossed, one eye cracked open. "This is the part where you start walking."

Blue eyes focused back on Fate, and their gazes locked. Start walking? She couldn't seem to feel her legs. The blood in her veins was pounding so loud, so hard, so couldn't focus on anything else. Fate's features remained expressionless, but her eyes, so dark and so sad, pinned Nanoha where she stood.

The woman beside Nanoha could feel the tension rolling off the pair in waves, and she eyed Fate up and down. "Your…husband?"

"No." Nanoha replied distantly, wondering when the air had gotten so thin. "She's…she's my…"

The memory of Fate's arms around her, Fate pulling her into her lap, warm breath in her hair, a hand on her cheek, lips tangling up all complicated and painful.

Nanoha's stomach dropped and her heart constricted in her chest. What was Fate to her anyway? Because friends…friends didn't do…friends didn't…

Her face grew hot, and she was nearly dizzy.

"Are you alright?"

Nanoha stared up at the Rika numbly, as if realizing she was there for the first time that evening. Now how was she supposed to answer that, because she was pretty sure she had taken a left turn at 'alright' about three years ago.

The woman looked concerned, laying a hand on the instructor's arm. "Do you want to do this?"

Oh, now there was a loaded question.

Vivio's gaze darted between the pair, and it took all she had in her not to shove Fate towards her mother. She settled instead for the more subtle approach, pushing out with a mental link towards the frazzled ace.

"Mom. You're supposed to walk towards her."

Nanoha finally snapped out of her daze, color staining her cheeks. "Huh?"

The group erupted into giggles, and the chaplain shook his head. He had heard mention of a bachelorette party? Maybe they had started beforehand? That was it. Maybe they were all drunk. He eyed the stand-in 'groom', who looked like she was about three seconds away from passing out and pursed his lips.

Very, very drunk.

Nanoha dropped her gaze to her feet and focused on counting out the measured steps, like she had been taught only moments before. Or was it a lifetime ago? Right now, it was difficult to tell. The assistant murmured something about the timing of the music on the actual day, but it fell on deaf ears. A steadying breath, a silent prayer for her heartbeat to slow, and she pressed on. She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to picture Yuuno, his quiet voice, his earnest gaze, but each time…

She nearly faltered.

It came back to Fate. Long golden hair, dark russet eyes that said what her voice couldn't, even now. She could feel the heated gaze on her as she struggled to remember how to move, the tiny voice in the back of her mind telling her to go, Fate was waiting.

Always waiting.

She passed the rows of her friends, steps shy of the alter, and finally worked up the courage to open her eyes once more. Close. Always close. Too close.

Fate was near enough to touch now, and Nanoha almost did, a hand reaching up through air that was way too heavy, faltering and unsure. She couldn't help the quiet breath of surprise when the blonde took her hand, fingers entwining for the briefest of moments, a gentle squeeze, and the world stopped. Nanoha tried to say something, tried to get her brain to stop misfiring, tried to stop the shaking in her limbs, and Fate was so very close, just half a step forward and she could…would it…would it be so terrible if…

Masato threw a confused look to his assistant, who tossed up her hands in a helpless gesture. Was this a prank? Maybe one of those hidden camera shows? He adjusted his tie, unsure of how to proceed. "And, uh…" a nervous cough. "Just to clarify. The groom is not here, correct?"

Vita snorted, earning an elbow to the ribs from the medic beside her, and like that, the spell was broken.

"I…uh." Nanoha blinked rapidly. "No. He. Uh." Wow. It was ungodly warm in here all of a sudden. Fate released her hand, and the world surged back into focus. While Nanoha would have loved to take a lifetime or two to sort out this hot mess she settled instead on an easy out. "I need water."


Notes!

But first, I'm going to borrow Captain America's shield. Because seriously, I don't want things hurled at my head.

Holy crap, this was looooong. And depressing. I love torturing Fate, because I can totally relate to the 'always working always travelling never home' bit. I'm sure no one will complain though.

It looks like I will be moving. Again. So, expect delays, as I need to have all worldly belongings boxed up in just two weeks. My boss, (read: bossy girlfriend) is starting to get rather cross, as I have been all, 'AHH WAIT JUST LET ME DO ONE MORE PAGE I PROMISE IT WILL BE FAST.'

*23 pages later*

See? I love you guys more.

It doesn't help that I watched the Madoka: Rebellion movie like six times. God help us all if I ever write Madoka fic.

Fun fact: Part of this chapter was inspired from a real life experience! I was a stand in 'groom' for about two hours before being demoted (or maybe promoted?) to deejay. I still get teased about it years later. :/

Like it? Hate it? Let me know! But don't hit me! I can't type if you guys break my fingers!