"Here you go, Takamachi." A seventeen-year-old boy whose name Vivio didn't know--he was always just the Guy Wearing Purple Sunglasses to her--flipped a can in her direction. Without looking she snatched it out of the air and popped the tab. She was about to thank him when he pretty well ruined any chance of that by saying, "Had to go like six blocks for that, y'know."
"What, are you expecting a kiss?" she shot back.
"Ease off the kid, Shades," said a green-haired girl. She was a couple of years older than Vivio, but then, so was everyone else at the race gathering; they ranged from late teens to early twenties. "It's not like she's old enough to drink."
Which face, Vivio was aware, hadn't stopped everyone else from helping themselves to a beer if they were drinking anything at all. Part of her admitted that underage drinking wasn't really much of a step given that she'd lied through her teeth to sneak off to an illegal motorcycle street race, where she'd stand around sucking in exhaust watching people drive at speeds slower than Vivio could fly. If...no, when Nanoha-mama found out where she'd been, she'd be grounded for a month if she was lucky.
So why was she there?
One, Harley Markham was really hot, and he seemed to return the feeling about Vivio. And two, there was no chance that any time in the next two hours that Vivio would hear the words "Your Majesty" drop from anyone's lips. She'd had a substitute teacher all week who couldn't get past the idea that Vivio was an artificial mage copy of her object of worship, and being thought of as the little kid of the group was a breath of fresh air.
"Yeah, but at least she could drink soda or water or something normal instead of sending me across town."
"Quit whining, Shades; you lost the throw fair and square so you had to fetch the drinks," someone else barked.
"Seriously, Takamachi, what do you see in that stuff, anyway. It's way too sweet for me."
Vivio shrugged, making the padded shoulders of her bare-midriff leather jacket flex. "Guess I like my drinks sweet and my guys not," she said before taking a sip and letting the first gulp of hot caramel milk flow down her throat. One thing was certain: there was no way that she was going to share her real reasons for her liking her signature beverage with this bunch.
~X X X~
Ten Years Ago
The scream stabbed into Nanoha's heart like a knife-thrust, making her jerk upright from where she'd been working, immersed in the details of the ongoing Jail Scaglietti case.
Like a flash she raced across the room and into the bedroom, her combat mage's reflexes on full alert. There hadn't been any alarms or warnings that the base's perimeter had been breached, but when dealing with an enemy like Scaglietti that didn't necessarily mean anything.
The command for Raising Heart to set up Nanoha's Barrier Jacket died on her lips, though, when she burst into the bedroom to find no intruders, no signs of violence, just Vivio sitting up in the queen-sized bed, her eyes wide and staring.
"Vivio? Vivio, what's wrong?" Nanoha pleaded, her voice almost as terror-filled as the little girl's expression. Oh, God, I wish Fate was here! She's so much better at this! Give Nanoha an enemy to fight or something precious to defend and she was in her element, but a scared, crying child was way outside her comfort zone. But Fate T. Harlaown had been required to go over details of certain physical evidence at the Riot Force 6 lab and might not be back for hours.
"Mama!" Vivio squealed again, holding her arms out, and Nanoha went to her, scooping her up from the tangle of covers. Based on her development, the shape of her face and so on, RF6's chief medical officer, Shamal, had estimated Vivio's age as being four or five, but she was so little that Nanoha could carry her without trouble. Vivio's arms clamped tightly onto Nanoha's body and she began to cry. "Mama!" she wailed again, though her voice was muffled since her face was pressed up into Nanoha's shirt.
"Shhhh, it's all right, Vivio, mama's here," Nanoha said, stroking the child's honey-blonde hair. "It's all right," she repeated, trying to be reassuring, while all the while she was fighting hard to keep from spiraling off into utter panic.
What ever possessed me to do this? she moaned to herself. Nineteen was way too young to take responsibility for a child. Even on Midchilda, where mage-gifted children would often assume grown-up obligations at what the Earth-born would consider a ridiculous age, parenting was considered an adult responsibility--witness why Fate had not been able to become sole guardian of Erio and Caro. She was just so little and helpless. I couldn't let her be turned over to some faceless social-services bureaucrat.
Since they'd found Vivio chained to two cases containing Relics, the focus of Jail Scaglietti's criminal activities, she was technically "evidence" in the case. That let Hayate, RF6's commander, pull enough strings so that Vivio was to be kept in RF6 custody with Nanoha as temporary guardian. But were concern and sympathy enough? Already in just the first few days Nanoha had made so many mistakes; if it hadn't been for Fate she might have ended up really hurting Vivio through her ignorance.
But now Fate wasn't here, and Vivio was screaming in the night and clinging to her like a limpet.
"What's wrong, Vivio? You can tell mama," Nanoha said, trying for a comforting tone.
"I saw...I saw...I was in...in this big, dark place...and there were these big green bottles and, and there were people inside them! And mama wasn't there, so I...I ran from one to the next looking inside, but mama wasn't in any of them, and--"
She broke off, crying.
"I looked and looked, but mama wasn't there!"
She must mean her real mother, Nanoha realized. She must have had a bad dream.
"Don't worry, Vivio. I promised you, we'll find your mother, wherever she is. And until then I'll be your mama, okay? So don't cry. You're not alone any more; it was just a bad dream."
"That's right, just a nasty bad dream, nothing else. See, you're safe and snug."
Nanoha moved to tuck Vivio back into bed, but the little girl just clamped on more tightly.
"Mama!" she squealed.
"It's okay, it's okay!" Nanoha hastily reassured her. Oh, man, what do I do? Vivio was so much younger than even the youngest of the recruits she'd taught so she thought and reacted completely differently than Nanoha was used to. She was all heart and emotion; reason didn't work with her. It might just have been a dream, but to Vivio, she'd just been all alone in a big, scary place, desperately trying to find her mother.
Of course she doesn't want to be put back to bed, Nanoha chastised herself. I should know that!
"Hey, I've got an idea," she said, trying to inject some brightness into her voice. "Let's have some caramel milk."
"Uh-huh. It's something that my mom would make for me when I was scared or woke up in the middle of the night."
"Nanoha-mama's mama?" Vivio asked hesitantly.
"Mmn!" It was only a little fib, since Momoko had been more of a glass-of-warm-milk kind of person, but Vivio liked sweet things and Nanoha thought it might be tastier that way. She scooped Vivio's stuffed bunny off the bed and carried her into the kitchen. The bright lights in the apartment outside the bedroom seemed to help reassure her as well, and her grip on Nanoha's shirt slackened a little.
"Okay, now, up you go!" She set Vivio up on the counter. "Now, you be a good girl and don't touch the stove, okay? It's going to be hot."
Nanoha handed Vivio the bunny to help the little girl keep her hands out of trouble, then fished out a pan from the cupboard and got the stove going. She got the milk out of the fridge, keeping an eye on Vivio the whole time, and started to heat it before hunting up the caramel syrup.
"I thought milk was cold, mama?" Vivio asked, curiosity about the process helping to distract her from her fear.
"Mom always said that warm milk helps to chase away bad dreams."
"Oh." Apparently Vivio found this a little strange, but accepted it as part of the boundless wisdom a mama possessed.
Soon enough the milk was heated, and Nanoha poured it into two mugs, then mixed in the caramel before adding a dash of cinnamon, a swirl of whipped cream, and a delicate drizzle of chocolate to the top, just like it was served in her family's café. Vivio looked wide-eyed at the finished product.
"Sip slowly, because it's hot," Nanoha said, handing Vivio her cup.
Holding the mug carefully between her hands, Vivio took her first drink.
"It's really good, Nanoha-mama!"
Nanoha smiled, and brushed a bit of whipped cream off Vivio's nose.
"Does it really chase away bad dreams?"
"Uh-huh. So, why don't we go wait for Fate-mama together?"
They took their milk back to Nanoha's work area, and she settled Vivio onto her lap. She'd intended to start working again once Vivio was ready for bed, but somehow she found herself unable to do so. Vivio had curled up in Nanoha's lap once her caramel milk was finished and had nodded off right away. For some reason, Nanoha didn't want to take the little girl off into the darkened bedroom, so instead she leaned back in her chair, closed her arms around Vivio, and let herself just relax. Looking at the sleeping child's placid face, she thought, Maybe...maybe I might figure some of this out after all.
When Fate arrived home, she found the new mother and daughter still there, arms wrapped around one another, with identical content smiles on their sleeping faces.
~X X X~
The deep, throaty roar of the motorcycle engine filled Vivio's ears as the powerful machine whipped around the curves. Her hair streamed out behind her in the wind. She had to admit that it was exciting, giving herself over to the power and the speed. Since she wasn't driving but only riding behind Harley, her arms around his waist and body pressed up against his back, the sensation was completely different than when she was flying under the power of her own magic. Now she was being carried along by an external force over which she had no control; it made the speed and the exhilaration seem twice what they would have been had she been in control.
They'd ripped out ahead of the competing racer (who was riding tandem with his girlfriend, too) and at first Vivio had been consumed with the thrill of the ride. After a while, though, she'd begun to pay more attention to where they were going.
"Hey!" she yelled in Harley's ear. "This isn't the course of the race!"
He throttled down, pulling the bike over to the side of the road.
"Sure it is," he said. "You just weren't thinking of the same finish line as me."
Harley turned the handlebars slightly to point the headlight at the sign by the next turnoff. They'd come a little way out of the city proper, where suburbs and side roads had replaced the warehouses and industrial plants they'd been racing among.
"Lake Polaris Camp?" Vivio read.
"Yeah. Nobody uses these cabins this time of year, and I just happen to have a buddy's key." He fished it out of his pocket, twisting sideways to show her.
"So the 'finish line' you're talking about is me?" Vivio caught on to what the boy was saying. He grinned toothily at her.
"Looks like tonight's your lucky night, Vivio."
"Or not. Take me back right now, Harley."
His brows narrowed and the smile vanished.
"Look, chickie, I've been cutting you some slack 'cause you're a couple years younger than the other pit popsies, but I'm running out of patience here. It's been six weeks since you started hanging with us, and all I've gotten is a lot of attitude and a peck on the cheek. Around here we've got a strict policy: you either ride, or you're ridden, get me?"
She nodded slowly.
"Yeah, I get you."
Harley's smile came back.
"Well, now that we understand each other--"
She drove her left fist into his gut with all the force a custom-genetics body trained in close combat by Iron Hammer Knight Vita could muster. She swung her leg off the back of his cycle in time to dodge the second-time-around beer spew.
"Bitch!" he gasped out, choking. "Fine, then. Stay out here and rot for all I care. Call up your stuck-up friends from that fancy school to fetch you!" In the next instant he'd gunned the throttle and the machine roared into motion. For a brief moment Vivio considered blasting the bike out from under him but damped down that sudden impulse as unworthy of a military officer and a Belkan knight.
"Would've felt good, though," she muttered as he raced away, leaving her alone on the streetside.
"Parsifal, open a communications link to Artemis Taxi Service."
~X X X~
The cab dropped Vivio off in front of the Takamachi residence forty-five minutes later. The evening had been pretty much an utter disaster. She'd missed her curfew, was out the cost of the taxi ride, had broken up with her would-be boyfriend, and had pretty well closed off one recreational option forever. Most of all, she'd found that while she disliked being put on a pedestal as a literal object of worship, it was nowhere near as bad as being looked at like she was some anonymous piece of meat.
The lights were all on and Vivio didn't even bother with the pretense of trying to sneak in. "I'm home!" she called in a dull voice, then kicked off her boots and hung her jacket on the coatrack. Her mother was waiting for her as she left the foyer.
"Takamachi Vivio, do you have any idea what time--" Nanoha began, but broke off, whether it was at her daughter's expression or her slumped shoulders or just because of some ping off her Mama-sense. "Vivio, honey, what's wrong?"
"I don't want to talk about it, so can we just get on to the grounding part?"
Damn it, why does she have to sound hurt? Vivio thought. It was hard to pull an attitude on someone who wouldn't do it back!
Besides which, Nanoha had been the first person in the whole world who'd looked at her and not seen someone who could give them something, whether it was as the Sankt Kaiser or evidence in the JS Incident or, like Harley tonight, merely something female. To Nanoha, she'd always been just...Vivio.
"Let's just say that I'm starting to consider being like Fate-mama and giving up on boys entirely."
"Would you like to talk about it?" Nanoha tipped her head to one side and added, "I'll make your favorite caramel milk."
Vivio gave in, returned her mother's smile, and said, "Yeah. Yeah, I'd like that."
Nanoha slipped a comforting arm around her shoulders, and they went into the kitchen together.
~X X X~ -
A/N: Yes, Vivio is in fact wearing a jacket identical to that from her Sankt Kaiser Barrier Jacket.
~X X X~ -
Vivio's Magical Omake Theater!
The strobing red and blue lights of the police cars washed over the scene of the street race. Officers checked licenses, took down identities, and noted on more than one occasion that the names and faces were familiar. It wasn't only the cops that noted that.
"This is the third time this month we've been rousted!" Shades muttered. "What's going on?"
"Beats me. It doesn't make sense!" Harley snapped. "The hell's going on?"
"Sounds to me, Markham," said the sergeant who was taking down his name, "like you just managed to piss God off at you somehow."
"Or God's mom," chuckled his partner.