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            As I was leaving, the words suddenly spilled out.


            ... I’m sorry...”


            What was it that I was apologizing for?


            For not being able to come for so long?

            For coming so late at night?





            For falling in love with you?



            —... For telling you a big lie?



            Probably, for everything.


            I couldn’t do anything. I didn’t know what I should do.


            I want to see you, but I can’t.

            I want to forget you, but I can’t.


            —... I couldn’t do anything.


            I can’t.

            My feelings for you...


            For Fate-chan—... would only be a nuisance.


            But, I couldn’t.


            Stop anymore.



            I love you, Fate-chan.




            I can’t break the chains binding me.

            No one—... is allowed to do that.


            No matter how far I reach outside of my cage.

            My hand—... will only pass through air.





            Why am I “Princess” —...

            Why can’t I be “Nanoha?”


            I’m hurt, I’m sad.


            Fate-chan, Fate-chan.



            All I want is to be beside you, holding your hand.

            Laughing, talking, and going out together.


            I just want to do the things normal children do.


            Why do I have to hide myself like this?

            Why can’t I see you without holding anything back?


            I just... want to be... with Fate-chan...”


            But even that—... is nothing more than an impossible dream.

            I am a caged bird with her wings torn off.



            Yearning for wings that aren’t there. Looking up at that vast, vast sky.


            All I can do—... is sing.



            vier (Zusammenarbeit) ~ 】



            Spring had come. Fate-chan had moved to the barracks just as planned.


            Actually, Lindy-san had told her that she could live with her, but Fate-chan apparently had declined, not wanting to trouble her.


            —... That said, the lodging house wasn’t too far away from Lindy-san’s place so it seemed they could at least eat meals together, but...


            It was my first time there, so I felt nervous the whole time.”


            I can still remember how happy Fate-chan looked as she said this, an embarrassed smile on her face.


            Don’t you get lonely by yourself?”

            When I asked this, she shyly replied, “No, because Lindy-san and Chrono are kind.”

            ... And I was able to make a new friend,” she added, with a very glad-looking smile.


            Most of all, because you come to visit like this, Nanoha.”


            With closed eyes and flushed cheeks, her smiling face looked happy. —... It made my chest feel tight. But it also became very warm.



            The barracks were still a short distance from the grounds, but compared to before the journey was much shorter.


            It seemed apprentice knights who had yet to establish themselves weren’t allowed to have an audience with me. Since there was no way Fate-chan and I would meet at the castle, it looked like I would be able to keep my secret.


            So, Fate-chan and I remained friends. And at night, I would slip out of my room to go visit her.


            About once a month. At most, twice.


            We talked about many things, and laughed with each other. —... It was happiness. Sheer happiness.


            It was our secret, one that no one else knew about—... No—... it was my own secret.


            Those days passed slowly. It was now the third spring since Fate-chan had moved to the barracks.



            As usual, I slipped out of my room and walked toward Fate-chan’s. —... Without a single person around, the grounds were completely silent.


            Even so, I walked as quietly as I could.


            Relying on the moonlight, I exited the courtyard. After a walking for a while, the lights of the barracks came into view.


            One, two, three.


            Fate-chan is the fourth room.


            Her light—... was still on. I breathed a sigh of relief, and took a deep breath.



            Knock knock.


            I knocked twice, as lightly as possible. ... Then after a while, knock knock, two knocks answered from behind the door.


            Good evening, Fate-chan!”


            Click, the knob softly turned, the door opened, and there was Fate-chan, a smile on her face.


            Yes, good evening. Nanoha.”


            She opened the door widely, saying, “You’re cold, aren’t you? Come in quickly, okay?” encouraging me to enter.


            Geez, you’re such worrywart, Fate-chan~.”

            It’s because it’s still the cold part of spring... It would be terrible if you caught a cold.”


            Saying that, she put the scarf she was wearing around me. “Is milk alright?” she asked, turning toward the small built-in kitchen.


            Ah, you don’t need to worry about that, alright? Fate-chan.”


            I followed her into the room to help and... a gasp escaped my lips.


            I’m sure, the girl I was facing did the same.


            ... Why... are you...?”

            That’s what I should be saying...”


            Everything—... turned white.


            Ah, you two haven’t met... This is Hayate. She’s the vice-captain of my unit.”




            She’s an amazing girl who’s already the princess’s steward at this age.” I couldn’t make out what Fate-chan was saying very well. Even though I always concentrated on taking in every word that came out of her mouth...


            I couldn’t even do that. The words entering my ears were just getting mixed around with thoughts of what I was going to do.


            ... This is Nanoha. ... My friend.”


            Fate-chan, not noticing the state I was in, introduced me to Hayate-chan with a smile.


            What should I do, what should I do, what should I do?


            Because—... I didn’t know. That the friend Fate-chan had spoken of, was Hayate-chan...



            If Hayate-chan speaks out, this relationship will end.


            After today... it will all be—... over.



            —... I closed my eyes tightly. Amidst the sensation of the ground crumbling from below me, Hayate-chan’s mouth slowly opened wide.


            ... ‘Nice to meet you,’ Nanoha-chan. I’m Hayate.”


            She said with a grin.



            Eh? Why...? As I blinked in surprise, not fully understanding what was going on, Hayate-chan winked at me.


            What’s this, Fate-chan? You’re quite something, to have a cute girl like her~.”

            Wh...-! I-I-I, It’s nothing like that, okay!?”


            With that, she poked Fate-chan, who had turned red at those words.






            Well, I have to get up early tomorrow, so I’m going to go, okay? Fate-chan.”

            Ah, yes. You’re right.”


            For a while, the three of us had chatted aimlessly.


            That whole time, Hayate-chan never said anything about me, and until very the end, spoke as if it was our first meeting.


            Nanoha-chan, where do you live? Since it’s dark, shall I escort you?”

            Ah, that is... um...”


            As I spoke frantically, she put her arm tightly around my shoulder.


            ... It’s okay... Just go outside like this, understand?”


            She murmured this into my ear.



            Good night... Fate-chan.”

            ... Yeah. Good night, Nanoha.”


            Fate-chan gave an almost lonely smile. It made me want to embrace her tightly. But... for myself then, that was impossible.


            ... Fate... chan.”

            Yeah. I’ll be waiting for next time... Nanoha.”


            Creak... the door closed. In an instant, before my eyes, the darkness dyeing the area expanded.


            As I stared absentmindedly at the door, Hayate-chan slowly led me by the hand.


            —... Slowly, we began to walk back to my room.


            After walking like this for a while, I felt Hayate-chan’s hand strengthen its hold on mine.


            ... Hayate... chan.”

            Haa. You really are a troublesome princess...”



            With a wry smile, she let out a sigh.


            The reason you’ve been slipping out lately. It was Fate-chan.”

            ... Yeah.”


            We were wrapped in complete silence. The only things that could be heard were two sets of footsteps shuffling over the ground and...


            —... Her usual troubled sigh.


            Have you... told the truth? To Fate-chan.”

            I haven’t...”



            If I did, I’m sure—...


            I’m sure, we... couldn’t be friends...”


            Those words I let loose painfully coursed through my body. There was a tingling, pulsing numbness that traveled through my head, and a tight knot in my chest.


            You stopped being friends already though, didn’t you? ... Nanoha-chan.”

            ... Eh?”


            At that voice I raised my downturned head.


            Hayate-chan was facing me, her expression hard to read because of the back light darkening her face.


            ... You love her, right? Fate-chan, I mean.”


            That’s the face of a girl in love, you know?” Smiling, she stroked my head like she always did. At that moment, the wind blew—... The scarf I had forgotten to return to Fate-chan danced in the wind.


            ... Fate-chan’s lingering scent softly tickled my nose.



            In an instant, tears quickly rose. To hold them back, I tightly grasped the scarf.


            But... there’s nothing... I can do...”


            The scarf that I grasped tightly until my fingers became white, was warm.


            It was only my own body heat being transferred, but it gave the illusion of being in Fate-chan’s arms.


            —... As if they’d hardened in place, my fingers wouldn’t let go.


            ... There’s nothing... I can d-”



            That shout turned into a sob—... But before it could take shape, it was gone. Blown away by the whispering wind.


            It was like the apology from that day.



            ... Nanoha-chan. I...?”


            Those stiff, shaking, hands were slowly enwrapped by warm hands. Those tightly grasping fingers were carefully unfastened, one by one.


            The fingernail marks on my palm were slowly traced over.


            ... Whatever happens, I am your ally. And I am Fate-chan’s ally. So it’s no good putting yourself behind a wall. If anyone objects, I, and my unit, will use our full strength to protect you two.”



            Her eyes sparkled with a strong will that I didn’t expect to see in a girl the same age as me. Again—... I felt a tight knot in my chest.



            ... Don’t let yourself become a bird in a cage, Nanoha-chan. Keeping those feelings pent up is no good.”


            The warmth that stroked my head slowly, was so gentle it hurt. —... My tears wouldn’t stop.


            ... Is it okay, to fall in love..., even... for me. ... Even for, Nanoha?”

            Of course it is. That should be obvious.”



            The hands that held mine, were warm.

            The words released, were warm.



            I thought these were feelings that no one would approve of.


            Never, never.



            I thought no one would approve.

            I was always thinking that I had to be a bird in a cage.


            So, those words. Their warmth made me glad.


            Hopelessly—... glad.



            Like this my voice rose,



            —... and for a time, I cried.



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