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~ sechsundzwanzig ~

 

 

            That is the tale of the princess and the knight who fell in love.

 

                        The story of two foolish girls who sought an impossible future.

 

 

            There had been nights when they wept helplessly.

 

            No matter how much they wanted to be close. How earnestly they wished. “... For such a foolish thing,” the reality that was thrust before them seemed to mock.

 

                        They tried to forget. But, they couldn’t forget.

 

            The warmth that had once connected them. The feelings. The emotions.

 

 

                        Why was I born into a world like this?

                                                the girls deeply lamented.

 

                                   And then.

 

 

            If I can’t forget, no matter how much I cry.

                        If nothing changes. If I can’t change it.

 

                                   At least.             I’ll struggle to the very end.

 

 

 

            That was the beginning of their.

 

                        — Of our, story.

 

 

            sechsundzwanzig (Nanoha)

 

 

            A small house, a little outside the bustling center of town.

 

 

            Resounding from within, the rhythmic tap tap tap of a kitchen knife striking against a cutting board, and. Faint sounds of simmering coming from a pot heated by fire from a gas burner could be heard.

 

            After checking on the contents, I scooped up some consommé powder with a spoon, and added a little to the pot. Its airy, soft scent hung over the kitchen, and feeling happy about it, I lightly mixed it with a ladle.

 

            The pretty amber color curled and spread into a small swirl.

 

            “... Let’s see... After that, add milk as a finishing touch...”

 

            As I recalled the instructions, I wrapped my finger around the refrigerator handle. Since I had found a sale on bacon today, I had decided to make my specialty, milk soup.

 

            As I took out a bottle of milk, knock knock, there was a knock at the front door.

 

            “Ah, comiiing.”

 

            At that sound that notified me that I had a visitor, I turned off the gas burner and headed toward the entranceway. Wiping my wet hands on the apron I wore, I opened the door and,

 

            “... Nanoha. I’m always telling you, see who it is before you open the door.”

 

            Fate-chan’s exasperated face peeked through.

 

            She was breathing heavily as if she had walked here at full speed for some reason, and though it was still the middle of spring, sweat was gradually beading on her forehead.

 

            In her left hand, held to her chest to carry it, was a large paper bag. And, in the opposite hand, was something in a small paper box.

 

            “Nyahaha... Sorry, I completely forgot.”

            “... Haa. Geez.”

 

            As Fate-chan sighed, I took out a handkerchief to wipe away her sweat, and gave the routine greeting, “Welcome home.”

 

            “I’m home, Nanoha.”

 

            Peck. Fate-chan gave me a quick kiss, and closed the front door. This exchange that we had repeated I didn’t know how many times, made me deeply happy.

 

            “Ehehe.”

            “What is it? Nanoha.”

 

            When I unconsciously smiled, Fate-chan, perhaps thinking something was strange, looked about, and tilted her head a little to the side.

 

            “Nothing. Anyway, you’re home early today, aren’t you?”

            “Ah, yes.”

 

            Looking at the clock hanging on the living room wall, it was still before five o’clock.

 

            The light shining in from the window was starting to be dyed madder red, but it was still bright enough inside even without turning a light on.

 

            How long has it been since Fate-chan came home this early?

 

 

 

            — Since the war, two years had passed.

 

            The squads of knights only really existed in name now, and it seemed that its members were putting all their efforts toward the town’s reconstruction.

 

            Fate-chan was no exception to this.

 

            Having turned down a promotion offered to her in commendation for her service during the war, she kept her rank of captain, and willingly spent her days working tirelessly.

 

            A little while back, I had told her with a wry smile, “I think you’ve picked up a little too much muscle lately,” as I dried her wet hair after a shower.

 

            But, thanks to all the knights, the town had already almost returned to its original appearance. It wasn’t as crowded as before. But, nothing could hold back the people’s smiles.

 

            — They believed that surely, in the years ahead it would return to how it had been.

 

            As for me, while at first everyone had seemed reserved and kept their distance, lately they had started to greet me when I walked through town. This made me deeply happy.

 

            Lately, it felt like the smiles here never ended. Everyone was very, very happy.

 

 

            “... Today’s a special day, isn’t it?”

 

            As I absent-mindedly thought about such things, Fate-chan placed the paper bag she was carrying on the table, and told me this as she chuckled in amusement.

 

            “Special?”

 

            I thought to myself, Is something going on?

 

            “You really don’t remember? Nanoha.”

 

            When I nodded, “Yes,” Fate-chan frowned troubledly. After a moment, she slowly opened the paper box she was holding.

 

            Peeking out from within, was a small cake. A strawberry sat adorably atop pure-white cream. In the middle, a design in chocolate decorated it.

 

            “Happy Birthday Nanoha”

 

            ... it said. I recognized the neat handwriting that spelled it out. It was unmistakably, Mother’s.

 

            “‘At least go home early today.’ Everyone drove me out.”

            “That’s why you came home in such a rush?”

 

            You didn’t have to hurry so much that it made you sweat.

 

            I handed a change of clothes to Fate-chan, who was going to take a shower, and as she received them she said, “There was another reason,” making an anxious-looking face.

 

            “... All the squad members wanted to come to your birthday party, and tried to follow me home.”

            “Geez. I wouldn’t really have minded. The more the merrier, right?”

 

            As I was thinking, That’s unusual, Fate-chan is normally fair and kind to everyone, she raised her head up.

 

            “But...”

 

            After she repeated this a few time. In a voice so quiet I wouldn’t have caught it if I hadn’t been straining my ears.

 

            “... It’s because, they wanted to try your cooking.”

 

            ... she said. She hung her head to hide the blush she was wearing.

 

            “Ahh~! You’re so mean, Fate-chan. I’m still practicing-!”

 

            Having never cooked before I left the castle, my first attempt was burned to a crisp. Nevertheless, for Fate-chan, who had forced herself to eat it and say, “It’s delicious,” I’d been doing my best studying cooking in secret so I could make things that were at least a little tasty.

 

            I was still no match for Fate-chan, but I thought I’d gotten quite a bit better....

 

            “Ah, t-that’s not it, Nanoha! It’s not like that!”

            “... Fa-!?”

 

            I, now disheartened, heard a flustered voice from above me. After a few moments, I was tightly embraced by a warm body.

 

            “... Because. Even for me, it was many years before I finally got the chance to try it... So,”

 

            “It isn’t fair if everyone else gets to eat your home cooking so easily.” Her face turned even redder. In a subdued voice she whispered next to my ear.

 

            “... What’s this? Fate-chan, are you jealous?”

            “No...! ...... I’m not... but-”

 

            She became a little embarrassed.

 

            “Thank you, Fate-chan.”

 

            I gently combed my fingers through Fate-chan’s hair as she tightly embraced me and pressed her forehead against my shoulder. The hair that fell from my fingers was bathed in the setting sun, adding to its luster.

 

 

***

 

 

            “Happy 18th birthday, Nanoha.”

 

            The meal we enjoyed together was finished. The cake had been placed right in the center of the table. In the dark room, the flame of the candle standing on the small cake highlighted our faces. The deep red eyes facing me caught its light, and they flickered and sparkled more prettily than usual.

 

            “Nyahaha, thank you. Fate-chan.

 

            I blew out the candle, and we cut the cake.

 

            I cut off a piece of my slice into a size that would be easy to pick up with a fork, and taking a bite, the airy, gentle, sweet flavor spread over the top of my tongue. That spreading flavor was the same as what I had eaten on my birthdays in the castle every year.

 

            — In those days I had just forced a smile, and put it in my mouth. The cake I ate then, was much larger and more elaborately decorated than now.

 

            But.

 

            “Is it good? Nanoha.”

            “Yeah! It’s the best thing I’ve ever tasted.”

 

            “You’re exaggerating,” Fate-chan laughed as she watched me eat, “but, I’m glad.” Her eyes softened and she smiled happily. After a short pause, in a quiet voice, “Nanoha.” She called my name.

 

            “... I have tomorrow off. So... could we go on a date?”

            “A date? Where to?”

            “I want to keep that a secret.”

 

            Those eyes, were so serious they made my heart beat a little faster. All I could do was nod.

 

 

***

 

 

            The next day. The sky was dyed clear blue, and was very beautiful.

 

            Fate-chan led me by the hand, and we simply strolled about the town slowly. When it was almost noon, we went into a bakery and bought a small loaf of freshly baked bread.

 

            “Why don’t we eat where there’s a nice view?” she asked, and I thought of that meadow.

 

            That place which had been burned during the war, was also little by little regaining its greenery now. The shadows of low-floating clouds drifted by, driven by the rustling wind.

 

            As we watched this, we sat down on a nearby bench. We had reached a somewhat lofty hill, and the bustling streets came into my field of vision.

 

            “Here, Nanoha. Have some?”

 

            While she smiled, “It’s really good,” I took the half she offered me. When I took a bite, the pure-white bread was extremely light, and very delicious.

 

            “It is good~!”

 

            When I said this, Fate-chan made a slightly proud face and said, “Isn’t it?” She tore off a small piece with her hand, and as she chewed it, her eyes narrowed happily.

 

            It was after we finished our meal, and were talking as we basked in the sun that had started to descend. Fate-chan abruptly sank into silence. Her gaze that had been looking away for some time now turned toward me.

 

            “Nanoha. ... Would you close your eyes?”

            “Eh?”

 

 

            Though I was puzzled at her words, I closed my eyes. After a little while, my left hand was grasped tightly. ... That hand, for some reason, was trembling.

 

            “Fate... chan?”

 

            She didn’t respond. Feeling anxious I was about to open my eyes, and at that moment. — I felt something cool slide over my ring finger.

 

            “... Eh?”

            “— You can open your eyes, Nanoha.”

 

            I slowly opened my eyelids. Reflected before my eyes were Fate-chan’s face that had become as deep a red as her eyes, and. — Shining in the sun, that silver color.

 

            “... Please, let me have you as my princess alone.”

            “— Eh?”

 

            “I swear that I will always make you happy. So. — Please, marry me.”

 

            Trembling fingers, covered my cheek. Anxious eyes quivered. But, they gazed unwaveringly at me.

 

 

            “..., Yes.”

 

            Blurred by tears. The world was distorted. I tightly embraced her, and was tightly embraced with an even greater strength.

 

            “... Nanoha.”

 

            Beautiful eyes approached. Fate-chan’s breath, grazed the tip of my nose. My heart was pounding so hard it hurt. I couldn’t breathe well, and it was a little painful. I closed my eyes tightly, and endured that pain.

 

            — But, that distance never closed. I wondered what was wrong, and when I opened my eyes slightly...

 

            “Yoohoo... You two are as sappy a couple as ever.”

            “Nya-!”

 

            There was a familiar face, now extremely close.

 

            With a wide grin, she was looking at us in amusement. Next to her, chiding, “Don’t, you’re interrupting them,” with flustered faces were Signum-san and the others.

 

            “... Fancy meeting you here, Hayate.”

            “Not at all, not at all. We’re actually off duty too. We went for a walk and just happened to see you two...?”

 

            Not faltering even at Fate-chan’s lukewarm tone, she was the same as ever. After a moment, as if noticing something interesting she smiled.

 

            “Now that the proposal’s been made, wouldn’t it be convenient to have the wedding here? I’ll do the honors-!”

            “Fue!?” “W, w-w-wha...”

 

            Grinning, Hayate-chan happily raised her right hand, and dragged Fate-chan, now flushed and stiff, beneath a large tree.

 

            “Come on, hurry over too, Nanoha-chan.”

 

            “Auuu... This has kind of taken an odd turn...”

            “... Sorry, when our mistress is like this no one can stop her.”

 

            Smiling apologetically, Signum-san ushered me forward. Fate-chan, whose face remained flushed, nodded as though she had prepared herself.

 

            “Nanoha.”

            “Ye... Yes.”

 

            At the words of the vows Hayate-chan spoke, I nodded. I slid the matching ring Fate-chan had prepared over her ring finger.

 

            “I’m truly happy for you two.”

            “Thank you, Hayate. — Thank you so much.”

 

            Hayate-chan, whose serious expression was completely different from earlier, smiled. Fate-chan expressed her gratitude to this Hayate-chan.

 

            Seeing her like that— drip. My tears began to overflow.

 

 

            “—, Hayate, chan!”

 

            I embraced her tightly, and she, who was a little shorter than me, softly returned the embrace. Her quiet beats, thump, thump, were truly gentle. I couldn’t stop my tears.

 

            “Ahaha. Why are you crying, Nanoha-chan~?”

 

            The fingers that tenderly combed through my hair felt good. Just sympathetically, earnestly gentle. I tightened my embrace.

 

            “—, If it hadn’t been for you, Hayate-chan... I’m sure, I wouldn’t be here now.”

 

            “Thank you so much.” I repeated this again and again.

 

            Feelings so great they couldn’t be conveyed with mere words. — But even if it was just a fraction, I wanted to convey them.

 

            Holding back the sobs that welled up, I pressed my forehead which had become a little hot against her chest. Seeing me like this, she smiled troubledly. Again, she stroked my head.

 

            “What are you saying? If that was so, then I wouldn’t be here either if I never met you, right?”

            “That’s not true..., that’s, not-”

 

            “Aren’t you saying that it is?”

 

            Her hand that stroked my back as though comforting a small child, was gentle. Though I didn’t want to trouble her, it was getting harder and harder to stop my tears.

 

            “..., I love you, Hayate-chan.”

 

            “Whoa! What’s this, a confession of love? All right then. I’ll take good care of you, okay?”

            “Fueh...! U-Um, that is... That’s not what I meant-”

 

            “Wha, — H-Hayate!”

 

            “I’m grateful to you, but that’s too much,” Fate-chan shouted, flustered. She hugged my shoulder, and firmly pulled me from Hayate-chan.

 

            “Aren’t you glad that you reached out your hand— that you tried your hardest? Nanoha-chan.”

            “—, ...— Yeah!”

 

            Just as I parted from Hayate-chan, who smiled when she said this, I brought my lips to her cheek in a kiss, putting my feelings of gratitude into it. In my field of vision which was wider now that I was at a distance, I saw a bright-red Hayate-chan holding her cheek.

 

 

            “Uh, Umm. ... Alright, I bought some good stuff, so everyone enjoy!”

 

            Hayate-chan turned away to hide her face for a few moments, and before I knew it she had taken out a bag and set its contents onto an outspread vinyl sheet.

 

            There lay a variety of foods and drinks.

 

 

            “All right! Now then. First let’s have a toast-! Does everyone have a cup-?”

            “Yeees!”

 

 

            “Then, cheeeers!”

 

            On the darkened meadow, mirthful voices resounded.

 

            Hayate-chan teasing, Fate-chan taking it seriously. And all the Guardian Knights trying to calm them down.

 

 

            Their smiles never faded.

 

            The fun times passed in the blink of an eye, and before I knew it the sky was dyed black. All the stars in the sky sparkled and shined.

 

            I threw myself down at a spot a little separate from everyone, and looked up at the sky. — How long has it been since I stopped and gazed at the sky like this?

 

            With nothing to obstruct the view, it was intensely clear. — The stars were truly beautiful that night.

 

            “Nanoha.”

 

            Suddenly I heard a voice from overhead. Lowering my upturned gaze a little, I caught a glimpse of beautiful golden hair.

 

            “Can I join you?” I nodded just once to that voice. Fate-chan lay down, and looked up at the sky with me.

 

            “— The sky is beautiful.”

            “Yeah.”

 

            We silently looked up at the sky. While there were no words, rather than being uncomfortable, the atmosphere was warm. I had been idly looking up at the sky like that for a while, when before my eyes deep red extended.

 

            The beautiful golden color that flowed down those shoulders, lightly caressed my cheek. A sweet scent tickled my nose. Something warm spread from within my chest.

 

            I slowly reached out my fingertips. I stroked her cheek with the hand that I held straight out, and Fate-chan narrowed her eyes happily, then nestled close to it.

 

 

            “Fate-chan, I love you.”

 

            The words spilled out smoothly. After a brief silence, I felt a warm body temperature, and. A weight slowly settling on my body. A gentle voice, and. Soft lips.

 

            I wrapped my arms around the back of her neck, and in reply the kiss I was being given deepened.

 

 

            “I also— hopelessly love you, Nanoha.”

 

 

            The stars of the sky that covered my field of vision disappeared. What I saw instead, was deep red tinged with heat. Reflected there, was blue tinged with the same heat.

 

            Now and forever.

 

 

 

 

            — Our story, will continue always.

 

 

~ END ?

 

 

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