The sound of the monitors formed a quiet background hum in the clean, uncluttered space of the room. The walls were a rich cream colour, with inset panel-screens granting views onto lush tropical beaches on one side, and a quiet, sunny woodland glade on the other. To a casual observer, the landscapes were almost indistinguishable from the open window on the far wall. It allowed the warm breeze off the ocean in to circulate, leaving a faint scent of salt where it passed. The ceiling light was soft and warm, neither too bright nor too dark for the patient's fading vision.
All in all, it was a lovely place for a hospital room.
Nothing but the best for the Ace of Aces.
The door slid open silently, and a honey-blonde head poked into the room, mismatched eyes checking the bed to see if the woman lying in it was awake or not.
"It's alright, Vivio. She drifted off to sleep half an hour ago. You won't wake her."
Nodding, the woman stepped into the room fully. The room's second occupant rose to greet her, still almost as composed and graceful as the first time they had met. Blonde hair – once lighter than Vivio's own, now run through with the beginnings of grey – swished quietly behind her. She still kept it long, even after all these years.
"Fate-mama," Vivio smiled happily, reverting to the childish title she had always used for her parents. "It's good to see you again." They embraced, and Vivio took the chance to peer at her mother's face. Despite her outward composure, the lines of worry and faint shadows under Fate's eyes spoke of sleepless nights and worried days.
Vivio took this all in at a glance, and got straight to the point. "How is she?" she asked. "We flew in as soon as we heard – Yuuno got held up at reception, he'll be up soon – but you know how it is when you're going long-distance. Even in a sprinter..."
"She's as well as can be expected, I suppose," Fate replied. "The doctors say it was a very minor stroke. A blood clot, apparently. She'll recover given time, Shamal got to her quickly. But it wasn't a one-off event. It was a symptom of a deeper problem." She sat down on the edge of the bed and leaned over to stroke the pale, lined cheek of its occupant.
Vivio bit her lip, drawing a shaky breath. "Will... will she be okay? Is she..." She trailed off, unable to bring herself to speak the words. Fate glanced up at her and shook her head.
"There'll be no permanent damage from this episode, no. But General Machenfaals has put her on indefinite medical leave. Chrono and Hayate both countersigned it. Actually, I think the decision was pretty unanimous – she tried to appeal, but got rather sternly told not to bother." Her lips twitched upwards briefly. "She took that about as well as she took me threatening to move out after she overused that dratted Blaster System."
"Badly, then." Vivio crossed the room and sat down in the chair Fate had vacated. "You wouldn't... I mean, she seems so frail, lying there. Nanoha-mama's always been kind of larger than life to me, you know? Seeing her like this..."
She sighed, falling silent. The quiet wash of the ocean filtered in through the windows for a little while, as the two women watched the sleeping patient. Eventually, Vivio spoke up again.
"Fate-mama," she started haltingly, and there was a faint tremble in her voice, a rawness and a vulnerability that hadn't been heard in decades. The powers of the Saint King reborn were formidable, but this was an enemy she could not face down and destroy, and the fear took her back almost forty years to a time when she had felt more scared and alone than anything before or since. Slowly, she looked up to hold the burgundy gaze of her mother and asked, dreading the answer, "is Nanoha-mama going to die?"
Fate looked down and sighed heavily, playing with a lock of auburn-brown hair. There were grey threads streaked through the roots, outnumbering the brown, and Vivio realised – not for the first time, though with the same undertone of surprise that the thought always brought with it – that her mothers were getting old. Nanoha had turned sixty just last year. It wasn't that old for a powerful mage – Lindy was a little past her ninetieth birthday and still going fairly strong.
But then, though it was sometimes hard to remember it, her mother was from a backwater planet. She didn't have the advantages that most of the population had. And even then, Nanoha wasn't in here because of her age. Dealt a bad hand by her genes, she had kept on pushing and pushing, trying to keep up with people half, a third, sometimes even a quarter her age. She looked older than Lindy did.
"Everyone dies eventually, Vivio," Fate eventually said. Her voice was quiet and achingly sad. "The doctors don't think we'll lose her from this, but it's not a good sign. And it's not something they can cure, not really. She's worked so hard, and for so long..." Another sigh. "And now the consequences are starting to set in."
Vivio blinked rapidly, and controlled her breathing with an effort of will. "How... how long?" she asked, not sure she wanted to hear the answer. Fate shrugged.
"They don't know," she answered simply. "Cases like this are rare enough to begin with, and Nanoha's always been... well, somewhat unique. It's a guessing game, honestly, and quite a bit of it depends on her. If she tries to push herself further, in this condition, she's liable to just... break."
A choked sob forced its way out of Vivio's throat at that, and she grabbed for Nanoha's hand. She didn't cry – no tears fell – but her breathing was harsh and rapid, gasps for air drawn raggedly as she bent over the hand that she remembered holding when she was a girl of just five years old. Everything had been so simple then – Nanoha had been her strong, brave, stern-but-loving mother, and when bad things happened she would take to the sky and defeat them.
This wasn't something she could defeat. It wasn't something anyone could defeat.
"I..." Vivio whispered, reduced to a little girl again, "... it's not fair, you know? I'll... they say I'll p-probably live a c-couple of centuries, unless something k-kills me first. And... and she won't even last one." She sniffed, moisture gleaming around her eyes. "And it's not like I'll be happy with them, not fifty extra years after everyone I know has died. I wish... I wish I could take them and give them to her. Give up the years I don't want so she can use them." Her lips trembled again, and she rubbed at her eyes absently. "I mean, she did. That's what that... that stupid Blaster system was, every time she used it she was giving up her life for others. Why can't I do that? Why can't... why..."
She trailed off, squeezing her eyes shut and lowering her head. Belatedly, she realised she was still holding Nanoha's hand – tightly enough to whiten the already-pale skin further and probably enough to bruise – and hurriedly let go.
"Why does she have to leave us, Fate-mama?" Her voice shook with pleading. "Why does she have to die?"
Fate regarded her for a long time, frowning slightly. Then she shook her head, an uncharacteristically stern expression on her face.
"Vivio," she said, firmly. "Listen to me. This is not your fault."
Vivio blinked. "But..."
"The Blaster System?" Fate cut her off. "You only bring that up when you're feeling guilty over it. She used that to rescue you, Vivio, but one use wouldn't have led to this. It was intended for things like that; rare, short-term usage. I made her gave it up because she was resorting to it too often."
She caught and held Vivio's eye, making certain the younger woman understood her. "It wasn't rescuing you that did this. She is not dy- she is not here today because she overreached herself on the Cradle. This is happening because she spent her whole life overworking herself. And I love her, and my heart is breaking that this is the result, but you cannot blame yourself for this being the end result of that life. Nobody is to blame for it. It just... is."
Rising from her seat, Fate moved round the bed and gently drew Vivio into a hug.
"She didn't give her life for yours," she whispered. "You can't blame yourself. It's not your fault."
"No' your faul'," agreed a weak voice. Both embracing women spun to the one in the bed, whose blue eyes were cracked open.
"Nanoha-mama!" Vivio almost flung herself at Nanoha before jerking to a halt, unwilling to risk hurting her. Nanoha gave her a crooked smile and spread an arm in invitation. Vivio wasted no time wrapping her in a careful but heartfelt hug, all too aware of how thin and fragile Nanoha's body felt nowadays.
"She's right, you know," Nanoha murmured to her quietly. "It's not on your shoulders. If anyone's, it's on mine."
"But I... you can't..." Vivio swallowed, shaking as she cradled Nanoha. "I don't want you to die," she whispered.
Nanoha tried her best to smile, but it didn't quite mask the fear. "I don't either, sweetie," she soothed, "but... everybody dies eventually." She took a long, shaky breath. "A-and... at least this way I'll probably go quickly. Something important failing, or..." she tailed off, gulped uneasily and changed tack. "Something peaceful. I won't get old and lose my mind bit by bit, I'll just... slip away cleanly."
Though she tried her best, the quaver in her voice slipped through. "I-it's better that way, right? Having it be clean. Don't be sad for me." She returned the hug, and Vivio winced to feel how weak it was. She could remember being picked up and thrown in the air and caught again by those arms. Now their movements were slow and tentative at best.
"It's okay, Vivio, I'm not leaving you just yet. I'll just have to take it slowly from now on." Nanoha drew back and attempted another smile. It was shaky, but a better attempt than her first. Only a trace of pain slipped through as her eyes wandered to the window, and the clear blue skies beyond. "I've been banned from any work or magic. They say that should give me another ten years or so, as long as I don't strain myself. It just means... no more flying."
She squeezed her eyes shut, turned her face away and let out a long, shuddering breath. "How long will you be staying?"
"Yuuno said I could stay until you get out of here." Vivio flicked a questioning glance between Nanoha and Fate. "You... are getting out of here, right? You're not staying in here until..."
"No." Fate squeezed her shoulder reassuringly and returned to her seat. "The doctors think that she should be recovered enough to go home within a few weeks."
"It'll be nice to be back home," Nanoha breathed tiredly. "Even if I can't go back to work."
Fate leaned over, stroking her greying hair and pressing a soft kiss to her lips. "Work on getting better," she murmured. "We'll see about going back once you're well, but for now, just focus on recovering." She gave Nanoha the same quiet, sad smile that had won her heart years ago, her eyes full of aching pain that Nanoha didn't catch; her own eyes reluctantly closing as Fate spoke. "I'll look after everyone, don't worry. Trust me to handle things while you're gone. You focus on making sure you can go back, I'll be fine until then."
Vivio looked away awkwardly. She hadn't – to her shame – thought about how hard this must be for Fate, dealing with Nanoha's stubbornness and Vivio's panic at the same time as her own grief. But despite the turmoil that must be going on inside, none of it showed on her face as she talked Nanoha into a grudging agreement to relax and rest. Vivio was sure that she'd had to do the same thing a dozen times already, and didn't doubt that she'd have to do it dozens of times to come.
"Fate-mama..." she said quietly as Nanoha slipped into a light doze. "Are you okay? You look... tired."
The sad, serene smile turned her way. "I'm fine, Vivio, thank you." Fate breathed out slowly. "I won't pretend it wasn't... painful, hearing the diagnosis," she paused for a second, swallowed heavily, and continued as if she hadn't stopped, "but it's not as serious as it could have been. She..."
Fate stopped, blinking rapidly, and let out another measured breath. "I-I'm sorry, Vivio, I think I'm rather tired. Do you mind if I take a short rest?" she asked.
Mutely, Vivio nodded, and watched as Fate settled down in her chair to sleep.
It was about half an hour later that Yuuno arrived, scowling and looking as exhausted as Vivio felt. He gave her a telepathic nudge as he approached, and she met him in the corridor.
"Bureaucracy," he grumbled before she had a chance to ask him what the hold-up had been. "And you running off in a hurry didn't help; I had to clear you as well. I understand that this is a secure clinic, but you'd think..." He tailed off, shaking his head in annoyance. "Well, I'm here now. How is she?"
Vivio looked up at him, and couldn't find words. She didn't need to. Yuuno's stance – tense and irritated after dealing with the check-in for half an hour – sagged visibly at her expression.
"... it's not as bad as it could have been," she managed to get out, echoing Fate's words. "And she'll recover, if Fate-mama can get her to stay still long enough to rest. But... oh, Yuuno, she looks so small. So frail, a-and when I was holding her hand she... it was like it could break in my fingers." She hugged him tightly, tearfully, unsure of whom was comforting who. Really, it didn't matter. There was comfort in their closeness, and it eased the burn in her heart.
Eventually they drew apart again, and Vivio dashed a few tears out of her eyes as she looked up at her old teacher. They might work in different branches of the Library nowadays, but they were still as close as uncle and niece. Perhaps even father and daughter. But she wasn't the little six-year old who'd hung around him as he'd worked anymore, and she drew her maturity around her like a cloak. She'd seen Nanoha already, and had her breakdown. Now it was her turn to be calm.
"Fate-mama is already here, she's asleep at the moment," she whispered as she nudged open the door. "I don't think she's been getting enough. Nanoha-mama was awake not long ago, but she's dozing at the moment. She'll probably wake up soon, though; we just have to wait for a little while."
Fate was already stirring as they entered, alerted even by the faint sounds of them talking in the corridor outside. Crimson eyes blinked sleepily open, sweeping over Vivio, Yuuno and the rest of the room automatically, turning to check on Nanoha, and then turning back to them. Only then did she appear to notice who had woken her.
"Yuuno," she whispered, absently rubbing the bleariness out of her eyes with the back of one hand. "It's good to see you again."
"You too, Fate," he replied, keeping his voice low so as not to wake Nanoha. Crossing the room in a few strides, he pulled her into a hug, which she returned. Vivio, for her part, bit her lip. The atmosphere had shifted somehow with Yuuno's entrance; indefinably but unmistakably, and she suddenly felt as though she was intruding by being there.
"I'll... go get drinks, shall I?" she mumbled, already edging towards the door. Fate gave her a grateful nod over Yuuno's shoulder, and Vivio ducked out of the room and vanished off down the corridor.
Yuuno waited until her footsteps faded before pulling back and examining Fate closely. "Fate?" he prompted. Resting his hands on her shoulders, he waited patiently for her to look him in the eye. When it became clear that she wasn't going to, he bit his lip and spoke anyway. "Fate. Answer me honestly. How are you holding up under this? I know... no, actually, I can't imagine what this must be like for you after..."
He hesitated, unsure of how to continue. Fate's first mother, Precia, had been dying when he'd first met her. She had adored the woman – though why he had no idea, given how Precia had treated her. But she had nonetheless, and the Precia's illness had ultimately stemmed from mana poisoning.
Just like Nanoha's condition did now.
"... what with your history," he finished lamely, and squeezed her shoulder. "Look, I know you're showing a strong face for Vivio. But Fate, really. It's me. Please. You can tell me."
It was that last plea that seemed to break through. Slowly, hesitantly, she lifted her gaze to meet his. It was full of anguish, and beneath it, a deep and well-hidden guilt. "It... it's all going to change," she whispered to him. "Everything... everything's going to change when she's gone." She didn't cry – Yuuno honestly couldn't remember if he'd ever seen Fate cry – but her voice cracked and wavered. "And maybe if... if I'd been better at making her listen, if I'd stopped her from over-exerting herself so much, she'd..."
He drew her close and hugged her again, cutting off her litany of blame. He had been expecting something like this, to be honest. Fate blamed herself, even for things that weren't her fault. All of the kindness and forgiveness she showed to others seemed to vanish when she turned a critical eye on her own actions.
"No, Fate," he sighed. "No. You did all you could, you did more than most would have been able to. Nanoha's stubborn, we both know that, and you made sure she didn't overstep her limits often." He kept talking as he guided them to the chair she had been sleeping in and sat down; both of them squeezing onto it with just enough room. His words were quiet but firm, laid out as carefully and precisely as the ancient books and relics he worked with. It wasn't the first time he'd had to talk Fate down. It probably wouldn't be the last.
It took longer than usual. But eventually she quietened; the self-recrimination sent into remission for the time being. She rested her head on his shoulder and let herself shake silently, her eyes dry but her hands trembling as she stared blankly at Nanoha.
A pale hand twitched at them from the bed. "M'awake," Nanoha mumbled without opening her eyes. "Know you're watching me."
Yuuno's mouth quirked, and he instinctively fell back to the easy back-and-forth they'd held in their youth. "I didn't hear you weighing in with your opinions," he noted.
"Mmm. You were doing such a good job, though. I'm no good at calming people down." She turned her head. Slowly, she opened an eye – her right one, a cybernetic replacement which she now favoured as her natural vision weakened. "Yuuno-kun..."
He smiled sadly. "Nanoha."
There was a depth and breadth of emotion in the simple greetings that went far beyond anything a long, heartfelt speech could convey. The three of them had known one another since they were children, after all. Yuuno had been Nanoha's first introduction to the world of magic, her first off-world friend, and had been there for every step of her journey since.
Now he would probably see her journey's end.
"Feels familiar, huh?" Nanoha murmured. "Remember that first time we were like this?"
"When we were sixteen?" Fate asked. Her face fell further at the memory. "You nearly died then..."
But Nanoha was smiling. "I didn't, though, did I?" she said sleepily. "And you took me flying every other day until I could walk again, and Yuuno brought mama and papa to see me in hospital." She sighed happily. "And then a few years later we met Vivio."
Fate's lips curved at the memory, and she let herself be pulled into reminiscing. "You had no idea how to handle her at first." Nanoha didn't try to disagree, merely smiling wider and blinking both eyes open with a tiny yawn.
"You remember Barvai, too," she sighed wistfully. "The cruise bit, anyway. It was beautiful there."
"We could go again," Yuuno suggested. "As long as you promise not to get involved in any disasters this time." He was smiling too, now. The cruise had been a holiday for the three of them and Hayate, back in their early twenties. They'd almost had to crowbar Nanoha away from her work to take it, but it had been well worth the effort.
"It would be nice to see it again," Fate put in. "Nanoha? I'm sure you'd be allowed, once you're better. You haven't taken a real holiday for years. You should have one now."
"Before it's too late, you mean?"
Silence fell like a guillotine.
Nanoha gave them a look. "We're all thinking it, aren't we?" she stated bluntly. "I'm not going to get better from this. Not completely." She took a like, slightly unsteady breath and let it out again, gathering her composure. "I'll survive this incident alright, but sometime in the next few years..."
"Nanoha, please..." Fate interrupted. "Can't we just..."
"No." Nanoha shook her head stubbornly. "No, I want to say this now. While you're both here with me. Someday I... I'm not going to be here anymore. Not too soon, but someday. And... and I know it'll hurt, and I love you both so much. S-so I want you to promise me now that you'll look after each other when I'm gone." She pinned them with a bright blue gaze, full of the resolve and determination that had earned her the title 'Ace of Aces' before her twentieth birthday. "You hear me? Be there for each other. Be there for Vivio, even if she doesn't think she needs it. Don't slip away with me. I want you all to have long and happy lives after me, understand? I was always going to leave you first, one way or another, and at least this way we get to say our goodbyes. Better this than me getting blasted out of the sky on some remote world."
She looked down at her hands, twisting the covers between them. "I don't regret what I did, really. I helped so many people, saved so many lives. But I'm still here today because of it. That means it's my fault; nobody else's. And I don't want to be responsible for ruining your lives as well. So you..."
She got no further, because Fate had all but flown across the room to latch onto her, shaking like a leaf. "How can you say that?" she choked. "Ruin our... never, Nanoha! You were... you..."
"You were one of the best things to ever happen to us," Yuuno finished, sitting on the other side of the bed and resting his hand on the shoulder Fate wasn't clinging to. His eyes were watery, but he was smiling. "You do that to people, you know. Come into their lives and change them – for the better. You couldn't ruin our lives if you tried. You already saved them both."
A watery smile was his reward, and he bent to press a kiss to her grey-streaked hair. "But for what it's worth... I promise. I know I don't see as much of you as I should, nowadays. I'll make sure to change that, starting now. And... afterwards, as well."
Fate nodded into Nanoha's shoulder. "We'll look after each other," she rasped. "But I'll miss you. I'll miss you every day. We all will." She sniffed. "I don't know what I'm going to do without you," she admitted, and Nanoha could almost hear the edge of tears in her voice.
The door slid open before she could respond, and Vivio entered with a tray of drinks. She hesitated as she saw them clustered together on the bed, but Nanoha beckoned her in with a smile and she approached. Setting the tray down on the bedside table, she handed out mugs of something sweet and smoky and edged her own way onto the bed, leaning against Yuuno and taking Nanoha's hands in her own again.
"Sorry it took me so long," she apologised. "It was hard to find the café, and then I couldn't..."
"It's alright, Vivio. Thank you for bringing them." Nanoha sipped at her drink delicately for a few moments as they sat in companionable silence. Her eyelids drooped lower as she did, and a yawn escaped her.
"I think I need to go back to sleep again," she murmured. "I love you. All of you. You were... you are the best parts of my life. You know that, don't you?" Her smile was angelic as she looked over them fondly. Fate, tall and elegant and with a sadness in her eyes that Nanoha couldn't help but want to heal. Vivio, beautiful and unconsciously regal, without a hint of conceit or entitlement in her. Yuuno, quiet and wise and so familiar that it was as if she was nine years old again, meeting him for the first time and knowing they would be inseparable forever. They were part of her, held within her heart and her most precious memories.
"We know," someone replied – her eyes were drifting shut, and she couldn't tell who. But it didn't matter. They knew, and her heart swelled with the love that they returned to her.
She carefully disentangled herself from the embrace and lay back down, allowing the weariness that had been tugging at her to take hold. "I... wish I could have said goodbye to papa, though," she breathed with a hint of regret. "I got to be there for mama, but... I didn't get to... say..."
She didn't finish; tailing off into slow breathing. Fate, Vivio and Yuuno stayed with her as she drifted off to sleep, the wrinkles of age and stress on her face smoothing over slightly as slumber overcame her.
This woman had been part of their lives since they were children. For the decades they had known her, she had been a pillar of strength, a force for good and a light of hope. To think of a world without her was almost unimaginable.
But unimaginable or not, it was a fact they would have to learn to face.
Nanoha Takamachi yet lived, weak and tired but with her spirit undiminished by the price she was paying for the life she had chosen.
But the Ace of Aces was no more.