"N-Nanoha-mama?" twelve-year-old Takamachi Vivio squeaked. Seeing her adoptive mother waiting for her at her morning training session wasn't something she expected. She glanced left and right, verifying that the training ground entryway didn't have any good hiding places. Nope. No luck.
"Hi, Vivio!" The TSAB's top air combat instructor gave her daughter a sunny smile.
"What are you doing here?" That wasn't the real question. The question was, what is she doing here in her Barrier Jacket, ready for combat? Nanoha's Intelligent Device, Raising Heart, was in staff form; Vivio recognized the unbalanced U-shape of the crest as being Accel Mode, suitable for high-velocity bombardment.
"We're doing something a little different today, kid." It wasn't Nanoha who answered, but Vivio's instructor, Vita. The petite, red-haired Belkan knight looked like she was about Vivio's age, but that estimate was several hundred years low. "Nanoha wanted to get a look in person as to how you're coming along. She's seen all the reports, of course, but it's not the same as getting a feel for it in the field. So she'll be putting you through your paces today."
"Um, Vita-sensei, why don't you just fracture my skull with Graf Eisen and send me straight to Shamal? It'll save the military lots of money for powering up the training ground and I don't really...want..." She was trying to be flippant about it in imitation of Vita's casual style, but nervousness tangled up her tongue.
"Mou," Nanoha moaned, facepalming, "what have you been telling her about me, Vita-chan?"
"Nothing, honest!" Vita protested. "But she does have her afternoon training sessions with the school recruits. Is that it, Vivio?"
"Geez, kid, what have they been saying to you?"
"Um, well...they say that Nanoha-mama is the best of all the combat instructors..."
"That's true," Vita agreed, "but not scary. Out with it."
"...but they're all terrified of her; even the ones that want to train with her are hoping to beat the odds..."
"Beat...the odds?" Nanoha looked totally confused. Vivio didn't look at her at all, instead keeping her eyes on Vita. It was the only way she could force herself to keep talking.
"They say that...um...if you pass Nanoha-mama's course you'll be a master of magic and guaranteed a spot in OCS or a prime front-line assignment, but that...um...the...t-the White D-Devil takes the life of every tenth student in payment for..."
Vivio jumped at Vita's shout and embarrassed herself by squeaking.
"Is there anything else?"
"...Um, only that they think I'm studying with Vita-sensei because Nanoha-mama doesn't want to risk killing her own daughter..." Now Vita was looking furious, and Vivio started wondering if she could get her own Barrier Jacket set up and a shield spell raised in time.
"Of all the...My God, I should go over there and pound those little worms into the floor! And you? You're trying to tell me that you actually believe this absolute crap?"
"Well...I..."Vivio stammered. Vita's color was rising; her face was nearly as red as the dress that was her battle armor. Her eyes flicked from her teacher to Nanoha and received a jolt when she saw her mother's stricken face, tears at the corners of her eyes.
"I can't do anything about those recruits," Vita stormed on, "but I damn well am not going to put up with it from you. Yes, training under Nanoha is hard. She pushes herself and her trainees to their limits, to get the absolute best out of every one. She's got around a thirty percent washout rate, yes, for people who don't have the guts of the drive to be the best, and that's higher than any other instructor in the service. But she has never had a training fatality. Not. One. What's more, she's got one of the lowest incidences of injury or accident, because no matter how crazy things get on the field or how intensely she drives people she always keeps the situation under control! She's not some crazed lunatic who likes to break kids for the fun of it or goes off blowing people up when she gets mad at them. Or am I wrong here? Come on, you're her daughter after all. Maybe she Divine Busters you if you forget to make the bed or has you cleaning the house with a toothbrush if you get a C on your report card, maybe?"
"...No..." Vivio said in a very small voice.
"And here you are shaking in your boots because of what some stupid kids that don't even know her say?"
"I've never been so ashamed of you—hell , of anyone—in my whole life!"
"Vita-chan, that's enough." Nanoha's hand gripped the Iron Hammer Knight's shoulder. "Please, just...just stop it..."
Now it was Vivio who felt tears sting at her eyes. She didn't know how ashamed Vita felt, but it couldn't have been worse than her own feelings. She wanted to slither under a rock, a task that as low as she'd acted she didn't think would be very hard. But she couldn't do that, at least not yet.
"Mama, I..." she started, the stopped. Words weren't coming easily to her, but she had to continue. She'd screwed up badly and hurt her mother's feelings. Her mother. And it wasn't like Nanoha was her real mother, with a tie of responsibility imposed by blood. The closest thing Vivio had to someone like that was Jail Scaglietti, the crazed scientist who's created her, a clone of ancient Belkan genetically-enhanced royalty, as a living bioweapon. Nanoha had chosen to treat her as a child instead of a science experiment, to give her a home and a family and love. Is there anyone in the whole world who has less right than I do to criticize Nanoha-mama's feelings?
Now she did break down in tears, and flung her arms around her mother's waist, her head nestled against Nanoha's chest.
"I'm sorry!" she wailed. "I'm really, really sorry! I had no right to say those things. I...I was so stupid."
"Shhh; it's all right." Nanoha lightly stroked the back of her head. "It's my fault too, Vivio. I should have made sure you understand better about my work, especially with you wanting to join the military, too."
"But I was so awful! I as good as called you a monster!"
"I know, and that hurt," Nanoha said honestly. "But you'll know next time, won't you, that if you have questions you can always come to me?"
"Then that's okay, right?" She lightly pushed Vivio back, hands on her daughter's shoulders, so they could look at one another. "Loving someone means trusting them. A lack of trust will cut away at love faster than anything else. So make sure you bring any concerns right to me." She ruffled the top of Vivio's head.
"Um...so what are you doing today?" Vivio asked.
"Hey, if you weren't cringing from your mom 'cause of kids flapping their lips, you'd know already," Vita put in. "You're doing mock battle today. Rules are simple: you go until you score one hit, you drop from exhaustion, or you have to go to school. Got it?"
Vivio was about to say yes, then stopped.
"Vita-sensei," she began hesitantly, "I'll never be able to hit Nanoha-mama. She's an air combat mage whose specialty is mid-to-long range bombardment. I only have one mid-range attack spell and it's not strong enough to break her shields."
Vita broke into a smile.
"Now that's the Vivio I know! Thinking tactically already, aren't you?"
"But all the tactics in the world won't help in that kind of power gap. I don't even have any movement magic to make up for not being able to fly."
"Which is why for the purposes of this exercise, she'll be grounded, too. If she flies, you win."
"And my limiter is in effect, so I won't be able to win by Divine Bustering you from the far corner of the training field," Nanoha added.
"Or at least if she does you'd better be able to block it," added Vita. "You're supposed to be this hotshot at defensive magic, after all."
"Mmn!" Vivio wasn't scared of getting hurt any more (beyond the usual battering that combat training brought on), so she firmly vowed that she wasn't going to let herself be embarrassed, either. She might not win, but at least she could be spared any further humiliation.
"All right, then. Nanoha, you've got a three-minute head start. Go to it."
The Ace of Aces dashed off into the training ground on foot. Vivio watched impatiently as the timer scrolled down to zero.
"Parsifal! Barrier Jacket: Armor Mode, set up!"
"Jawohl," answered her device. A flare of azure light roared up around her, replacing Vivio's T-shirt and shorts with her Barrier Jacket: a charcoal-gray bodysuit beneath a blue-piped black dress and blued-steel boots and gauntlets. Parsifal assumed the form not of a weapon but a vambrace on her right arm, emphasizing the heavily defense-slanted nature of her magical talents as well of this particular mode. Like Vita, Vivio was a close-combat forward, but unlike Vita whose primary strategy was to annihilate her opponents with overwhelming force, Vivio was more of a shield wall to block enemy attacks and keep her team protected. "Panzer Modus."
She stepped out onto the training ground, which magically generated artificial environments for combat practice. It had been set to its most common stage, a modern city of glass and steel. Urban combat skills were vital for mage soldiers to develop; it wasn't like a wilderness where there was nothing at risk or a low-magic planet where a fight could be contained within a barrier. With a magically active population and technology, barriers weren't feasible on most TSAB worlds, meaning that combat raised high risks of collateral damage. Thus, special emphasis was placed on urban scenarios in combat training.
Now, where is Nanoha-mama? On foot she couldn't have gotten too far, could she? But that wasn't quite right, Vivio realized. This wasn't hide-and-seek; it was a mock battle. Nanoha would be thinking tactically, preparing to use her strengths to defeat her opponent.
Vivio's personal barrier spell sprang up just in time as balls of pink light arrowed towards her. Nanoha's advanced shooting magic, Accel Shooter, conjured homing projectiles that could be as powerful as a lesser mage's buster-type shots. These wouldn't be at full power, but ever so Vivio felt the impact as they started to hit her defenses. It was lucky she'd put up the barrier, though, she thought as she bolted for cover; her Barrier Jacket was stronger than most—indeed, it was probably stronger than Nanoha's with her limiter in effect—but a steady pummeling could be too much.
She got around the corner of a building, but the shots swept around the corner after her and she took two more hits while dodging a third that crashed into the ground. More buzzed in on her; Accel Shooter created a good two dozen shots, after all, with just one casting. Vivio rounded another corner of the building, but they kept right on following, homing in on her.
But that's not possible! She'd have to have her sight blocked by the building. Even if she's high up, she'd have to be directly overhead to—
There was a way it would work—if she'd run towards Nanoha's position initially instead of away from it. Vivio spun around, planted her feet, and cast another spell.
This personal barrier was similar to the Eisengeist, but it was considerably stronger. Its weaknesses were that it didn't last as long and prevented Vivio from moving while it was in effect, but those didn't apply here. My strength is supposed to be my ability to take a hit, so let's use it! The missiles crashed into her barrier, but Vivio shrugged them off while her eyes raced up the side of the building opposite. Ah! There! Protruding over the lip of the roof was the edge of a bright pink rune, from the magic in effect for controlling the Accel Shooter. Nanoha was on the roof, probably because it gave the greatest number of vantage points.
"Panzerfaust!" An orb of rainbow-streaked white light formed and Vivio punched it, sending it cannoning upwards. It divided into four separate orbs in flight, which bent and streaked towards the edge. She doubted they'd score a hit since they weren't that powerful, but they gave her cover to rush across the street without taking further fire. Vivio barged through the front doors and into the building lobby, then stopped, glancing left and right. She had to get up to the roof, but how? The stairs would allow more freedom and not give an external sign of where she was, but this building was at least twenty stories! The elevator would be faster, but restrict her options and tell Nanoha exactly how and when she was coming.
Then she stopped and thought, realizing that it had to be the elevator. No elevator would go to the roof, anyway, so she wouldn't need to worry about the floor readout giving her position. And there was another, much more important reason...
She pressed the button, the doors opened, and she stepped into the cylindrical car. As Vivio had expected, there was no "roof" setting, so she pressed the highest floor and felt the elevator begin to whistle her upwards. Around floor ten, a pink orb flitted through the walls into the car.
"Area Search successful, my master!"
"Tell her I'll be there in a minute, Raising Heart," Vivio said with a flippancy she didn't quite feel. Yes, she trusted Nanoha, but the ghosts of her earlier fears were playing around the corners of her mind. The ghosts did not materialize, though; the doors opened and she exited the elevator. The stairs were just down the hall; she ran for them. As she stormed upwards, feet slapping off the bare concrete of the utility steps, she realized that now all bets were off.
"Parsifal, load cartridge!"
The vambrace rose and fell, popping out the empty shell of the concentrated, stored magic now pulsing through it. Vivio threw open the door, finding himself face-to-face, about fifteen feet away, from Nanoha, who held Raising Heart at her side in a shooter's stance. Just as she'd expected.
Brilliant pink light blotted out everything as it crashed into the Belkan-triangle rune of Vivio's most powerful shield spell. Even in limited form, Nanoha's Divine Buster was ridiculously overpowered compared to other spells of its type, and having to eat it at point-blank range made Vivio's whole body ache with the strain. But her shield held, matching the attack.
It was impossible to hear Raising Heart eject a cartridge or the rattle of brass on the rooftop, but Nanoha's voice calling "Break Shoot!" sent icewater down Vivio's spine. She'd forgotten that her mother's high-end magics had barrier-piercing capabilities!
Luckily, Parsifal was with her.
The shock of magic leaving her body at her Device's behest was like a dash of icewater in her bloodstream, but that was mild compared with what would have happened if the rose-tinted inferno had consumed her. Working together with Parsifal, Vivio had enhanced her base defensive spells so they could nullify any added properties of attacks striking them. Why should the shooting mages get all the fun?
The instant the Divine Buster ended, she was in motion, springing forward, covering the distance as fast as possible. The complete lack of any delay seemed to put Nanoha off her guard; Vivio got close enough to throw a punch, which Nanoha dodged—Stupid! Attack the body, not the head!—then followed with a spin kick to the midsection that was blocked with a Protection spell. Though no master at close combat, Nanoha brought Raising Heart around and crashed it into Vivio's side. The Flash Impact didn't do much more than stagger the girl, but Nanoha did take the chance to start opening up distance.
The basic shield spell was ordinarily a defense that appeared right in front of the caster, but Vivio had been training hard at doing more with her best area of skill than the basics. The shield appeared a good ten feet away from her, facing sideways—and about a foot in front of Nanoha.
Again, it was years of combat experience and reflexes that saved the Ace of Aces; her boot skidded slightly on the tarpaper but she saved herself from faceplanting into the shield and losing the fight by a single inch. Vivio had followed it up with another Panzerfaust, but Raising Heart's autoguard blocked the shots.
Weaker than Accel but faster to cast, Nanoha sprayed homing shots towards Vivio. Not wanting to lose the chance to cast another spell of her own, Vivio dodged on foot, sprinting along the roof while the shots pelted in behind her. She'd worked on this in her mobility training with Vita and the close range virtually negated the homing function of Nanoha's shooting magic because of the speed of the missiles covering the distance between them.
Vivio turned, kicking against the lip of the roof's edge to increase the speed of her pivot. If she could get back into close range...
She'd been charging it up while guiding the last attack at me! Vivio realized, and with no time to do anything else she went turtle with another Panzergeist. Shots rained onto her, pounding her barrier when they hit directly, while more glancing strikes tore gouges from the roof around her. The assault ended and the barrier came down, and a slightly dizzy Vivio began considering what was her next option, when she saw eight more orbs streaking down at her. Nanoha had known the duration of Vivio's barrier, from the first time she'd used it if nothing else, and had held back several of the homing missiles until the spell had dropped. The shots dove in as one, slightly fanned to prevent any last-second dodge. One glanced off Vivio's head, three were square hits to the torso, one tagged her left calf, and three missed, pelting the roof.
The latter were the ones that proved the real problem. That area of the roof edge had simply taken one too many hits in structurally significant places; it might have been bad design in the training ground program or just plain bad luck, but a roughly eight-foot-wide semicircle crumbled out from under Vivio's feet and she went tumbling over the edge.
The last image she saw before blue sky replaced it was her mother's face turning from a smug "Gotcha!" look to one of stark terror. This was, after all, why Vivio had taken the elevator. Nanoha had been quite capable of spearing a Divine Buster right through the building's walls and floors to hit Vivio, but in the elevator she couldn't afford to do that. The purely magic damage of the buster, while hell on inanimate objects, wouldn't do worse than knock out the living, but a fall down the elevator shaft was an entirely different story.
At least I'm conscious, Vivio thought. Shields and barriers were useless against this kind of "attack"; they would do nothing to slow her descent and hence the force of the sudden stop, but her Barrier Jacket would at least cushion some of the impact. If she'd been knocked out that would go down-or would Parsifal keep it up?-and she'd never survive. Would she make it even with the jacket? Wait—maybe if I cast shields under me facing up I could make it a series of little falls instead of one big one...but she was already halfway down and—
Suddenly, Vivio's descent began to slow, easing from a plummet into a gentle, almost lazy drift. A pink aura cradled her, holding her upright, and the white-clad figure of Nanoha, pink wings sprouting from her feet, swept down beside her, ushering her slowly to the ground. As soon as they touched down, Vivio flung her arms around her mother and clung to her, shaking like a leaf, and although Nanoha's arms closed comfortingly around Vivio as well, Vivio detected a nervous tremble running through her, too.
~X X X~
A/N: The scenario for the end of this chapter was suggested to me by the scene in StrikerS where Nanoha delivers a well-deserved beatdown in training to Teana, but then gently lowers the unconscious girl to the safety of one of Subaru's Wing Roads rather than just sending her flying. I strongly suspect that most accidents in TSAB training aren't the result of the actual exchanges of magic but what might be called "unscheduled environmental interaction." This is why I believe Nanoha has a low rate of such incidents: while she drives her trainees notoriously hard, she does so with great situational awareness (the same as she displays in actual battle) that lets her head off most such incidents before they occur and be ready to take preventative action for the few that do. The White Devil is, after all, not a crazed psychotic who runs around committing aggravated assault or attempted murder at the drop of a hat...she wouldn't be half as scary that way. The rumors about her, though, are taken from the real-world legend of the Scholomance, where the devil teaches magic to aspiring pupils but claims the soul of every tenth student as payment...
Additionally, as in previous fics, devices speak in boldface type, and English-to-German translations are courtesy of Google (with "negation" doublechecked since I was rather surprised that it was a cognate).