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zwei

 

 

            For as long as I can remember, I was here.

 

            As the daughter of this kingdom’s king.

            As the—... princess of this kingdom.

 

            It wasn’t as if I hated it or anything.

 

            My mother and father, who gave birth to and raised me.

            My kind brother and sister, who grew up with me.

            The people in the castle who were always looking after me in one way or another.

 

            I loved each and every one of them.

 

            ... But, I wonder when it was.

 

 

            —... that I started to think, This is a cage.

 

            The windows of my room were all secured with iron bars, so the times I’d actually see an unobscured view of the sky from there... were a thing of the past.

 

            I couldn’t ever go out to the city alone.

            ... No matter what, there would always be someone to accompany me.

 

            “Geez, you’re such a worrywart, Father, I’ll be fine~,” I would say with a smile, but thinking ... Ahh, I can’t go out alone... It was horribly painful.

 

            On the castle grounds, there were many that I was close to, but they were all older than me. And above all else... they wouldn’t see me as anything but “the princess.”

 

 

            —... They stood by “Princess Nanoha,” but next to “Nanoha,” aside from one person... there was no one.

 

            And it wasn’t often that I could meet with that person privately, seeing as she was busy with her squad.

 

 

            I was lonely. I was sad.

            I was nothing but “The Princess.” I wasn’t “Nanoha.”

 

            ... This person called “Nanoha”...

 

 

            did not belong here.

 

 

            zwei (kennenlernen) ~ 】

 

 

            ... Uu~. What should I do...

 

            As the day came to a close, covering the city in darkness, I let out a sigh. It had probably been about two hours since I seized the opportunity of no one watching to escape from the castle grounds and make a mad dash for the town.

 

            It was exciting to be out alone for the first time. While trying to still my racing heart, I strolled down the brick-lined road pretending to be calm.

 

            I had been overjoyed at first... But after a while, I began to notice something.

 

            Hung here and there in the city... were those posters.

 

            The parties held year after year had certainly been for me in name.

 

 

            ... But, I had never spent them with my family.

 

            Military leaders and nobles, all too obvious in their attempts to curry favor. And the kings and princes invited from neighboring kingdoms.

 

            And me who answers to them one by one. ... It’s the same old scene every year.

 

 

            That was never how I wanted to celebrate.

 

            At our dining table, the five members of my family are gathered around a meal slightly more extravagant than usual. A cake, small but cute, is placed right in the center. My father chides me for being so excited and while laughing, I pretend to apologize.

 

            They sing the traditional birthday song and I blow out the candles. After that, we eat the cake, smiling as we say how good it is.

 

            ... I wanted that modest but warm kind of party.

 

            And yet, even that was not granted to me. The only parties I was ever given were ones where all I could do was smile forcedly... Only cold parties.

 

            I quickly wiped away the tears that slowly and unexpectedly begin to form. Hurriedly leaving the place with the poster behind, I walked down a narrow road, doing my best not to stand out.

 

 

            ... But, that was a bad idea.

 

            Having just taken a road I was unfamiliar with, I now had no idea where I was. ... This might be bad.

 

            Thinking that, I tried to retrace my steps, but as the roads were designed to prevent enemies from reaching the castle too easily, I got even more confused by them.

 

            Pleadingly, I looked upwards, and the large castle plunged into my view, soaring above everything else.

 

            ... I wouldn’t be forgiven for escaping that cage. It felt as though the castle, dyed by the setting sun, was saying that to me.

 

            It was—... frustrating.

 

 

            Only a short amount of time passed before darkness fell completely. Left with no other choice, I crouched beneath a street light I had come across.

 

            ... What should I do now...?

            I let out a frustrated sigh, feeling pathetic.

            Ahh... It’s hopeless.

 

            Trying to hide those feelings, I buried my grimacing face in my knees... That was when it happened.

 

 

            Why are you alone in a place like this?”

 

            —... It was a very kind voice.

            As if guided by that voice, I lifted my face—... and filling my sight were deep red eyes.

 

            ... Um, I’ve kind of lost my way...”

 

            Following that honest answer, “Where did you come from?” She asked about my home. But I couldn’t tell her, “I snuck away from the castle! I’ve really done it!” As I shook my head, hesitating over an answer, the girl made a perplexed hum.

 

            ... Is she going to leave me here like this...? If that happens, what would I do?... I wondered, and suddenly... I became very anxious.

 

            Without even realizing it, I tightly grasped her sleeve.

 

            When she noticed what I had done, after a brief pause, the girl extended her hand to me. ... And when I grasped that hand, it was as if it was the warmest thing I’d ever felt.

 

            It seemed as if this girl didn’t recognize me at all. So—...

 

 

            ... This was, the first warmth offered to “Nanoha.”

 

 

***

 

 

            Um, here we are. ... I’m home, Linith.”

 

            Setting the paper bag she had been carrying onto the table, she called out to a woman standing in the kitchen. Hearing her voice, the woman named Linith leisurely made her way toward us. She was a pretty woman, with something very kind about her.

 

            Welcome home, Fate. ... My, and this girl is?”

 

            Her gaze suddenly shifted to me as she dried her hands on the apron she wore. “My?” The way she said it was as if she had noticed something—... automatically, I felt my body stiffen.

 

            ... I wonder if I’ve been found out...

 

            I felt sweat trickle down the back of my neck. My heart was beating painfully loud.

 

            ... Yeah, she said she’s lost. Linith, can she use the telephone?”

           

            At the girl’s words, that fixed gaze turned away. “Yes, by all means.” She then guided me to the phone.

                       

            ... What do I do, what do I do? My attendants are usually away at night so I don’t think anyone’s discovered that I’m missing yet, but calling one of them right now would give myself away.

 

            ... Word that I’d gone into the city would definitely make its way to Father. If that happens... going out as easily as I did today won’t be possible anymore.

 

            As I was becoming more and more at a loss over what to do, a soft voice from behind me asked, “Are you alright?” Hearing that, I replied, “Yeah.”

 

            —... In that moment, I recalled the face of a person I could call. A member of the guard force, my steward... Or rather, a girl I often played with.

 

            ... If it’s her, then definitely...

 

            Dredging up the number for her direct line from the back of my memory, I dialed the digits with a trembling finger. Pururururu... pururururu, the call sound rang twice. On the third ring, a drowsy but familiar voice picked up.

 

            Yes, hello? Who might this be?”

            Ah, it’s me. Nanoha. ... Actually...”

 

            When I had finished explaining my situation, I heard a sigh mixed with a wry laugh. I gave her the address I’d received from the girl who was now watching over me as I used the phone. After making a few reproachful comments, she told me she’d be able to come pick me up tomorrow morning.

 

            Feeling relieved, I hung up the phone.

 

            Um... I hope you don’t mind if...”

 

            As I started to say this, Linith-san, who was in the back of the room preparing dinner, immediately replied, “It’s fine.”

 

            Being given a response as suddenly as that, I began to feel rather guilty. Saying “I’m sorry,” I received a laughing response of, “It’s really fine.”

 

            Yes, it’s fine of course. ... It’s already late, and it would be dangerous for a girl to be out alone.”

 

            As she said this the girl standing behind me also smiled brightly.

 

 

***

 

 

            Um... I’m really sorry about today...”

 

            Dinner was over, and it was already time for bed. According to the clock hanging on the wall, it was already 10 o’clock.

 

            No, don’t worry about it. I’m glad I was passing by.”

 

            It was scary to be by yourself on a street you don’t know, wasn’t it?” ... She said with a smile. —... Seeing that smiling face, I felt my heart grow strangely hot for some reason.

 

            ... I wonder what’s wrong with me... Maybe I’m tired from walking so much?

 

 

            I was idly wondering about that at the back of my mind when, “Oh, that’s right,” a voice spoke up as if remembering something.

 

            ... Now that I think about it, I never asked what your name was.”

            ... Ah, you’re right...”

 

            Various things had been talked about during dinner, but now that I thought about it, I didn’t think I’d heard her name even once. “Ah... I’m sorry.” Apologizing so, I shyly added, “I haven’t heard yours either.”

 

            I’m Nanoha. ... And you are?”

            Fate.... Fate Testarossa...”

 

            Despite my circumstances, I know my full name. It’s something like a memento from my parents,” smiling as she said this, she showed me the pendant she wore. Attached was a coin that gave the impression of being very old, and when she turned it over the letters of “Fate Testarossa” could be seen on the back, slightly chipped in a way that made it seem as if they’d been carved in with something.

 

            Not knowing what to say, I was silent until she said, “Ah, I’m sorry.” Hearing those words, I shook my head a few times.

 

            But, I wonder when it last was. That I’ve talked like this. There aren’t any children my age at the institute.”

            ... Yeah. I don’t really have anyone my own age I can talk to either, so I’m happy.”

 

            She smiled shyly, and I couldn’t help but smile as well. It had probably been a really long time since I’d last smiled like this... from the bottom of my heart. My heart was racing for some reason, and it made my cheeks feel like they were burning.

 

            Fate-chan. ... Um... If you like,”

            Yes? Wh... What is it?”

 

            I summoned my courage. I took a deep breath. And put my feelings—... into words.

 

            Could we be friends? ... Fate-chan.”

 

            Was my voice shaking? Does she think I’m strange? Thinking this, I tightly clenched my fists to hide my sweaty palms.

 

            Fr-iends...?”

 

            Fate-chan’s expression was blank. ... Maybe she won’t become friends with someone like me... Someone who’s keeping such a big secret... Thinking that, I tightly clenched my hands once again.

 

            After a moment, “If you’re okay with me...” her slightly trembling voice returned.

 

            ... Overjoyed... I began to cry.

 

 

            Yeah! And, would you... call me Nanoha?”

            Nano... ha.”

 

            For the first time, someone other than my family... called my name.

            For the first time, looking at “the true me”... were warm eyes.

 

            I was hopelessly happy.... And at the same time, something warm was spreading throughout my heart.

 

            Yeah!”

 

            We called our names like this several times, smiling. For the first time since I had been born, while feeling like I was wrapped in joy...

 

 

            I gently fell into the depths of sleep—...

 

 

***

 

 

            Then, Nanoha...”

            ... Yeah.”

 

            Morning came, and my escort would be coming for me soon... It was the time of our parting. Desolately, I tightly grasped her hands, and those hands squeezed back even tighter.

 

            ... Fate-chan, can... I come and see you again?”

            Yes, if you want to, anytime...”

 

            Our connected hands, as if they’d hardened together, didn’t move. I couldn’t remove my gaze from those deep, gentle, red eyes.

 

            ... I don’t want us to be separated.

 

            —... It was strange how strongly I felt that. I wonder why...? I’ve never felt this way before. Is it because I finally made a friend...? I felt so sad.

 

            ... Nanoha, I’m sure your family... must be waiting.”

            ... Yeah.”

 

            With effort, we released our hands, our fingers straining as they separated. ... Slowly, finger by finger, they came undone.

 

            I’ll definitely come again.”

            ... Yeah. I’ll be waiting.”

 

            I turned the cool doorknob, opening the door wide. “I’ll see you again,” I said, waving goodbye. Quietly... the door closed.

 

            My mood fell a little with each step forward I took to the corner several intersections ahead, toward a person I recognized from behind.

 

            ... Um, that is... I’m sorry...”

            Seriously, huh~. Can’t you try putting yourself in my shoes, as the one who has to cover this up? Nanoha-chan.”

 

            —... She said that with a wry laugh mixed in. “Honestly, our princess is so naughty, I can’t keep up,” she said, stroking my head. I was happy but... as I thought, it was a different feeling than with Fate-chan.

 

            Well, it is for cute little Nanoha-chan... so I’ll gracefully submit~.”

            Sorry for the trouble.”

 

            I bowed my head, and she stroked it again. Then leading me by hand, we got into the coach.

 

            ... Hey, Hayate-chan.”

            Yes? What is it?”

 

 

            I remembered that somewhat shy, bashful, smiling face.

            I remembered the incredible warmth of that palm.

 

            I made a friend.”

 

            That warmth was now gone... My heart tightened painfully.

 

 

            —... I want to see her again...

 

 

 

            Hopelessly—... I thought only that.

 

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