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einundzwanzig

 

 

            If I let resignation take shape. And then, if I let it become visible, even things that are possible, will become impossible from the start.

 

            If I whine, “As I thought, it’s no use,” would I be able to give up on everything?

            If I lament, unmindful of my body language, would someone erase everything?

 

            — That’s wrong. That’s not how it works, is it?

 

            Forcing yourself to believe that if you whine, things will be easier.

            Believing that if you lament, someone will come to your rescue.

 

            Becoming unable to carry out your own will... I think that’s the scariest thing of all.

 

            Rather than someone else cutting off that extended hand, to cut it off yourself, thinking, “I don’t need it” — is scarier.

 

            — Isn’t that what you think?

 

            If.Hypothetically, okay?

 

 

            You were to say, “That’s an unforgivable sin.” If you were to scream it.

            — Before you could utter that, I would deny it entirely.

 

            If, despite that, you were still to say, “It’s an unforgivable sin.”

 

            I would firmly embrace that purest of hearts, that you say is stained with sin.

 

 

            To you, who believes that you are a criminal.

 

            I would tell a wish, from all the people thinking of you who aren’t here now as well, so large, and precious, that your thin arms wouldn’t be able to hold it.

 

 

            einundzwanzig ~ (Unschuld) ~ 】

 

 

            It was well into the night, and the increasingly cold wind seemed to bite into my skin. The sky that was dyed black as though ink was poured over it, due to the snow that had started to fall without my noticing, showed spotted patterns here and there.

 

            The moonlight that peaked through just a little from the concealing clouds, faintly colored the white that danced down. As if collected motes of light were falling, it was a surreal evening.

 

            The rubble-covered town, was dyed pure white and couldn’t be seen now. — Nor could the gunpowder smoke that covered the area, nor the empty cartridges scattered about.

 

            Like nothing had been there to begin with, everything was erased by that white.

 

            As that passed below me, I gazed at the back of Hayate-chan who had gone a little farther ahead. — I wonder how many years it’s been, since I flew in the sky with her like this. Her back was broader than I remembered, and somehow, that tickled me.

 

            Nanoha-chan, are you alright?”

            “Yes, I’m fine. Hayate-chan.”

 

            An exchange we had repeated I didn’t know how many times now.

 

            — My limit, was twelve cartridges. With the fear that came of not knowing when they would run out, my body trembled a little.

 

            I wasn’t afraid of falling from the sky. I was afraid of falling before we rescued Fate-chan.

 

 

            — That alone, was unbearably frightening.

 

            Unconsciously I tightened my grip on Raising Heart’s haft. Chilled by the cold air, its temperature gradually permeated the palm of my hand.

 

            Gaaaaah!”

            “—!”

 

            In this world that had been peaceful, a crude, inhuman, beast-like howl resounded. Waves of magical energy shook the air, and with a single stroke painted the sky.

 

            “— Tsk, they’re here!”

 

            Avoiding the slashes that had no form or method, and were simply swung with sheer strength, Hayate-chan moved forward to meet them as she deployed a shield.

 

            Hayate-chan wasn’t a front-line mage; she was obviously protecting someone— me— and I realized she was trying to draw the enemy’s attention toward herself.

 

            Immediately, I also moved ahead. While evading the incoming stream of shots of magical energy and weapons, I kept my distance, then following Hayate-chan’s example, gathered magical energy, and assembled a formula in my head.

 

            One that was— stronger, more powerful.

 

            When the image was ready I filled my body with that formula, and transferred the data into my Device. With the gathered magical energy I quickly spread a circle. In that instant, there was a loud crashing noise that seemed to pierce my eardrums as opposing magical energy was vaporized, and my surroundings were covered in smoke.

 

            I couldn’t see my opponents. — Which meant that they shouldn’t be able see me either. I quickly constructed another offensive formula in my head.

 

            Since I didn’t have as much magical energy as Hayate-chan, I couldn’t use wide-area magic at long distances. — That said, my experience with real combat was scant and maneuverability wasn’t my specialty. Following Fate-chan’s style of flying close and fighting at short range would be too risky.

 

            To be able to defeat my opponents with certainty. I would have to be... mid-range. — Bombardment was the only method I could use.

 

            Nanoha-chan! Don’t go too far ahead!”

            “It’s alright. I’ll be a decoy, so while they’re distracted, shoot off a big one, Hayate-chan!”

 

            “No, that’s defeating the purpose!” I heard her shout from behind me. Unmindful of it I went forward, and while spreading a shield and keeping my distance, I waited for the precise moment, then fired light bullets.

 

            The second empty, I loaded the third cartridge. Badum, a slight pulse-like trembling ran down it, and as the red gem in the center swallowed down my magical energy, at that moment.

 

            The magical energy that wasn’t swallowed and had no place to go, returned to my body through the small wounds on my fingertips, and all at once flowed backwards. My left arm was wrapped in a cherry-blossom-colored light.

 

            It ran through my blood vessels, and my pulse hammered intensely. That which opposed it struggled to get outside, and with that backlash, thin lacerations ran from the base of my thumb to the inside of my elbow.

 

            Red coloring white. Gushing warmth. Spouting pain.

 

            So that Hayate-chan wouldn’t notice I concealed the sleeve of my Barrier Jacket which had gradually started coloring, and firmly bearing the burning pain, I resumed my support fire.

 

            — Twenty left.

 

            From within the curling dust, I confirmed that number. Of the cartridges I carried, nine remained.

 

            In the opportunity given while my opponents faltered to my light bullets, I loaded another cartridge to stabilize my magical energy. The sound of swallowing. Bursting white. Erupting pain.

 

            Somehow keeping my slightly hazy awareness, I prepared my Device and focused straight ahead.

 

            It was that moment.

 

 

            “— Flash of Steel!”

 

            A slash tore through the air right next to me. Following it, I saw a long, burning sword blade. As if it were lighting up the deep black sky, the bright red flame illuminated the area.

 

            — Brilliant, long hair shined in the strong, flaring blaze.

 

            Signum-san!?”

 

            There were several other figures. Among them I could clearly identify crimson hair. Graf Eisen, the large Device carried in the girl’s small hands, was swung downwards.

 

            “Heaven’s Roar Smash!”

 

            A dull crunch. The mage knights that had been hit directly fell.

 

            Sparks crackled as they scattered. Countless wires peered out. To eliminate the knights that still remained in the sky, she again swung downward.

 

 

            Nanoha-chan, get out of the way!”

 

            At that voice I lowered my altitude at once. I could see the red flowing from my arm melting the white beneath my feet.

 

            “Resound, Horn of Judgment.”

 

            As the incantation ended her body was wrapped in light, and two magic circles spread, one beneath her feet and another facing her target.

 

            Ragnarok!”

 

            The next instant, there was a dazzling flash and a thunderous roar. In the sky before my slowly opening eyes, there was nothing in front of me to interrupt my field of vision.

 

            — It was simply painted by darkness, and completely silent.

 

 

 

 

            “Are you alright? Nanoha-chan.”

            “Mm... I’m fine. Thank you, Shamal-san.”

 

            After being wrapped in a soft light, what had before been a strong pain was gone, replaced with a dull one.

 

            “It seems that your body doesn’t accept magical energy waves from outside very well. If you suffer too big an injury even I won’t be able to heal it, so you need to be careful, okay?”

            “— Yes, I understand.”

 

            I lightly opened and closed my hand a few times. — It hurt a little, but moving it was no problem.

 

            Next to me, Hayate-chan had a slightly puzzled expression.

 

            “... Signum, Vita, Shamal... Zafira.Why are all of you...”

            “We are your knights, you know? It would be stranger if we weren’t at your side.”

 

            “You alone are our mistress. If you go, why would we stay behind?”

 

 

            At Signum-san’s words, the others nodded as if it was something completely natural. Seeing this, Hayate-chan smiled worriedly.

 

            “We’re attacking without permission. That’s violating the orders of the kingdom, right? ... Don’t you know that you could be severely punished?”

            “To stoop to being ignoble knights, who would fear that and desert their mistress who they should be protecting, would to us be a greater sin.”

            “That’s right. Do you know how distant you’re being, going off without telling us? Honestly, Hayate-chan.”

 

            Slowly, several times, Shamal-san stroked Hayate-chan’s head. Smiling with closed eyes at this, Hayate-chan looked very happy. Seeing this, I was happy as well.

 

            “... But, what about the front lines? Won’t the war... go badly?”

            “— A certain someone— has been doing their best behind the scenes. Recently the enemy’s numbers have dropped.”

            “... Could it be— Fate, chan?”

 

            Vita-chan laughed as though shocked. Ahh— Really now. What a strange traitor.”

 

            “Her unit is taking care of everything else. They said something like, ‘Please take care of our stubborn captain.’”

            “I see. — Fate-chan has a good bunch of kids in her unit.”

            “Yeah... That’s right.”

 

 

            “You should stick by what you believe. — Both you, and mistress. We’ll watch your backs.”

 

            Saying this. Signum-san gazed ahead at the distant sky. Before her gaze was a small kingdom surrounded by the sea. Himmel. ... The place where everything began, and would end.

 

            “She has to come back. The outcome of our mock battles is still up in the air. — I... don’t like having a losing record. Next time I’m making a comeback.”

 

            “You’re the same as ever, Signum-san.”

 

            The eyes that slowly turned toward me were kind. “I’d like to fight with you as well, but you’re a princess,” she said with a regretful smile.

 

 

***

 

 

            As dawn was breaking, we at last set foot in Himmel. — So few people could be seen I wondered if it was really a kingdom.

 

            Mountains of rubble, and silent streets. While flying at a low altitude to look it over, I suddenly thought I heard a voice.

 

            — Her voice.

 

            “Fate-chan!”

            Nanoha-chan? What is it!?”

 

 

            There wasn’t a single footprint on the ground I landed on. There was no trace of anyone. But⁠— surely, she’s here. It wasn’t just my imagination.

 

            I raced ahead in search of her. My breathing quickened. My lungs which were not receiving enough oxygen cried out. An erratic path. I saw a beautiful golden color there, as if leaning against a particularly large piece of rubble.

 

 

            “Fate... cha-”

 

 

            Her Barrier Jacket, was dyed black. That which was usually a beautiful white was sullied, now stained dark red, and the white of the outspread snow was painful to my eyes.

 

            “Fate-chan! That’s... No..., Fate-chan!”

 

            Her eyelids were closed. Long eyelashes cast shadows on her cheeks, which were frightfully pale. As though, all the blood in her body had escaped.

 

            — The hand that I touched with my fingertips, was cold as ice.

 

 

            “Who’s there...? Don’t, touch, h... er

 

            I suddenly heard a voice from somewhere, and pain ran across the hand that touched her. Looking closely, her wounds were covered in light as though they were being protected.

 

            But, even that flickered weakly, as if it would vanish at any moment.

 

            “Don’t, touch, her!”

 

            That voice trying desperately to protect Fate-chan.

 

            Nanoha-chan! Is Fate-chan there!?”

            “... Nano... ha? Could you really be, — that Nanoha!?”

 

            It changed from guarded, to astonished. After a moment, it turned into something like sobbing.

 

            “Help her! ... If you don’t hurry, she’ll die! I can’t sustain my power much longer!”

            “... The one inside her. I see... You were protecting Fate-chan.”

 

            At those words Hayate-chan nodded several times. Without help, Fate-chan would have bled so much she would have died immediately. ... This girl, had kept those wounds closed using up her own magical energy and physical strength.

 

            Immediately Shamal-san formed a magic circle, and Fate-chan’s body was wrapped in light.

 

 

            “Before she lost consciousness... Until the last moment. Fate had been saying, ‘Nanoha.’”

            “—, Mm.”

 

            “I don’t know what happened to her. But... she really loves you.”

            “Fate, chan...”

 

            I tightened my hands which were gripping firmly. As if to warm her cold hands, even slightly.

 

 

            A long, long time passed. — A twitch. Weakly, a fingertip stroked the palm of my hand. Ashen cheeks gradually returned to cherry-blossom colored, their former, healthy complexion.

 

            “uu... Na, no...”

            “Fate-chan! It’s Nanoha! I’m... I’m here!”

 

            Slowly, eyes opened thinly. In that moment, tender red peeked out.

 

            “Fate-chan!”

 

            “Yes, — She’ll be fine now. But she should rest for a while.”

 

            I embraced her body tightly. Her body which rested snugly within my arms was drained of strength, and slightly limp.

 

            Having released the Unison, a red-haired girl appeared.

 

            “Thank you so much... for protecting Fate-chan.”

 

            Slowly, I gently stroked her small head with my fingertips. “Fate saved my life. Of course I would!” She smiled as if it tickled.

 

            Nano, ha?”

            “Welcome back... Fate-chan.”

 

            Though I didn’t know whether or not she was back. I replied this way.

 

            “... Why... are you here!?”

            “I’ve come for you, Fate-chan.”

 

            Gazing into eyes that opened in surprise, I spoke those unquestionable words. Then after a short while, those eyes slowly became downcast, as if in pain.

 

            “Let’s go back together? Fate-chan.”

            “... I’m sorry, but I can’t do that.”

 

            Looking pained. She shook her head over and over. Ragged and spilling tears. “I can’t,” repeated words of denial.

 

            “... I’m begging you... please. ... Forget about me... Nanoha.”

 

            — Contrary to her words, those fingers that tightly grasped my Barrier Jacket. Gripped so strongly they turned white, and were stiff and trembling.

 

            “Why?”

 

            Without blame, I simply asked for her true feelings. Her closed eyelids opened, our gazes clashed, and suddenly, they closed again.

 

            “I am, the cause of this war... of everything. If I... If I’m gone!”

            “— Fate-chan.”

 

            I wiped ragged, spilled tears away with my finger. That body that flinched, I gently embraced.

 

            “Originally... I would, take the stone. ... And I would... kill you.”

 

            Saying this, Fate-chan looked pained.

 

 

            “But, I’m alive, aren’t I? I can be by your side like this.”

            “— That, is”

 

            “Yes. — It’s because you protected me, isn’t it? That’s why I can live like this.”

 

 

            “I, I.... Please, ... don’t say, you, hate me...”

 

            I gently disentangled the hands that tightly gripped my Barrier Jacket. When they anxiously reached out to touch it again, I took them with my hands, and intertwined our fingers.

 

            “I could never hate you.”

            “... I’m alone. From the beginning I never had a place I should be. ... Or a place I could be.”

            “But you’re not alone, are you?”

 

            Slowly I turned my gaze about the area.

 

            “That’s right. We’re here too. ... Even the other members of your squad are waiting for you to return.”

            “The place you should be is by Nanoha’s side. The place you should be, is Eldorado. What else is there?”

 

 

            “— Could I be... forgiven...?”

            “There’s nothing to forgive. Fate-chan, you haven’t done anything wrong, have you?”

 

            Fate-chan smiled troubledly, as though trying to keep herself from crying. Over and over again, I ran my hand through her hair. Carefully. To tell her, it was okay to cry.

 

            — After doing so for a little while, her hot forehead nuzzled against my chest. She made strangled sobs.

 

            Until they stopped, I stroked her soft hair over and over.

 

 

 

 

            “—... But, I can’t return like this. Nothing’s changed. It isn’t over.”

 

            Having regained her composure, Fate-chan slowly spoke those words. The reason she left the kingdom. — It was.

 

            “... The stone.”

            “Fate-chan, what do you want to do?”

 

            A little after my words, the eyes of Fate-chan, who was making an apologetic expression, slowly began to project flame.

 

            “So that this will never happen again. ... I think I should destroy it.”

 

            “But, it’s the important national treasure of your kingdom.” I interrupted the words she continued with. “Yes,” I nodded just once.

 

            “If that’s what you want to do, Fate-chan. ... No. That is what we’ll do.”

            “That’s right. Thinking about the future, it’s the safest way.”

 

            So that this war would never be repeated.

 

 

            “Let’s go. Together.”

 

            Because a treasure that invites strife— Such a thing.

            Could never bring happiness to anyone.

 

 

            Because we shouldn’t need such a thing to begin with.

 

 

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