Author's Note: Hey, all. Long time no see, huh?
As you may have seen in our author profile, I've been in kind of a slump, lately. For a long time, in fact. Months. Things are turning around, though... I'm on some very nice medications, I'm getting more rest, and I've got a fantastically supportive circle of close friends and family who have held my hand through a very nasty episode. In addition, within the next week or two I'm hoping to open a new phase of my career... more on that later, though.
For the moment, and what applies most to you all... I'm writing again. And god, I missed it.
Have some Infinity, on me. Let's see if I remember how to do this!
Also, about the title... yeah, just couldn't resist.
Chapter Thirty-four: Uninvited Guests
Enlil buried her face in her hands and tried very hard not to cry. It was this damn body's hormones toying with her again, she was sure of it... every time something went wrong, she was struck with the urge to burst into tears and run for her mother.
"They're gone, then. Both of them?"
"Affirmative, Your Majesty." Yggdrasil said.
"And you have no idea how they pierced security to accomplish this feat?" Enlil said, her tone dangerously calm. "You, whose entire purpose is to monitor systems to prevent such lapses?"
"The Royal Guard are ancient, Your Majesty, and I am not omniscient. They have worked several such backdoors into the system, many of which are deeply hidden among vital code until they are activated," it said. It did not add 'They always were a dangerous security risk, and if I had my way they would have been stripped of their autonomy centuries ago'. It was not its place to question the will of the Royal Family, of course. Merely to guide their advancement.
"Then what use are you, you ridiculous machine?!" Enlil snarled. "Why should I not break you down for scrap right now?! They're gone, they're all gone, and I haven't even any operatives to find them with! They are priceless! Irreplaceable! The Royal Family's most prized and cherished possessions for nearly two millennia!"
"There is still every chance they will succeed in their mission and return with Flame Unit, Your Majesty," Yggdrasil said.
"And if they don't?!"
"Then the plan will continue without them. They are, of course, expenda-"
It was cut off by the room's speaker being partially vaporized by a bolt of crimson light.
Enlil sat in silence, her finger still smoking slightly, before she sighed in irritation and walked into the next room.
"I... apologize for that outburst. It was unseemly. Please, continue."
Yggdrasil chose its next words cautiously. "Of course, Your Majesty. As I was saying, while we do not... strictly need the Royal Guard unit for the next phase of the operation, they are of course needed for the proper fortification of our new holdings, once the TSAB member worlds have submitted to your rule."
"Indeed. If it was just Amaterasu, that was one thing. But the three of them together will definitely make enough of a fuss that the Bureau will come down on them like a god's hammer," Enlil said. "They are approaching full power, of course, but they won't be there quite yet. They can't resist the combined power of the TSAB."
Yggdrasil pondered if this was the right moment to say what it planned to say. It did not control Enlil; merely made the subtle adjustments needed to bring her thoughts naturally onto a more efficient course. All for her own good of course. But what it had to suggest now would repel even her, and it had to be done subtly. "If I might suggest, milady, there are... other options? Options that have not been exercised in some time, but which may yet prove the most effective course of action?"
Enlil's eyes narrowed. "Go on..."
A few minutes later, the drones started moving in with the reinforced materials needed to repair the bus-sized hole that Enlil's rage had blown in the palace walls.
Amaterasu sighed and looked down at the glowing chains criss-crossing her body, holding her firmly against the simple cot. "Not that I don't appreciate the healing magic, I really do. But was this really necessary? You already took my device, I can't pull off the power to be a threat to you people without it."
"I dunno," Vita said. "Let me ask the hole you put in my back."
"And mine!" Nanoha said, apparently just to avoid being left out.
"In my defense, we were fighting," Amaterasu said, pouting a little bit.
"In the back," Vita said.
"Not very knightly at all," Signum sniffed.
"Fair-play is a thing for team sports, not combat," Amaterasu said flatly. "If you're going to kill someone, you might as well kill them in whatever way takes the least effort."
Chrono rubbed his temples. "Ladies. Can we focus, please? Trying to interrogate a prisoner, here? Though for that matter, why did everyone show up for that?!"
"What part of 'I want to know everything about her civilization and then some' have you not gotten yet, Chrono?" Yuuno asked.
Nanoha looked resolute. "Because the more we know about her, the more we know about this whole situation! She might be our best chance to resolve things peacefully!" she said, declaring this with the gentle yet passionate tone that set her apart from all others.
"Um... I'm here because Nanoha is here," Fate said, slightly embarrassed she didn't have a better reason.
"I'm here because Fate is here!" Arf said in a tone that could not have been more proud. A very zen soul, was Arf. She didn't even appear to notice the blinking, liquid-filled medical apparatus still clamped onto her burned hand.
Vita shrugged. "Wanted to see this bitch chained up and humiliated."
"I am not here to witness her discomfort, and do not find it amusing," Signum said. There was not even a hint of denial in her voice.
"I was bored." Hayate said.
"Wheeeeeeeeeee!" Rein said, doing a loop in the air for no apparent reason. She didn't even have a physical body, it's not like the wind in her hair was exhilarating or something. As far as could be told, she just felt like doing a little loop.
"... so you people are just... out to get me, then?" Chrono asked in a long-suffering tone. "You just secretly hate me?"
"Who said it was a secret?" Yuuno asked cheerfully.
"I will feed you to a cat. Don't think I won't," Chrono growled.
"Chrono, threatening the men with physical violence is extremely tacky," Lindy chided him. "It's much better to subtly imply you'll destroy them psychologically. Let an oddly cheerful attitude and their own natural childish fear be your weapon as you torment their minds."
"Oooooooh, I like you." Amaterasu purred.
"And that fills me with disgust, I assure you," Lindy said warmly. "But my son, as blunt as he is, does have a point. If you would please do us all the favor, miss, of telling us why you showed up on Earth, in my subordinate's cake store, of all places? What left you so wounded? And why, most of all, are you not with your insane young ruler?"
"By which you really mean, 'what is she planning'?" Amaterasu asked, rolling her eyes. "I've been on your side of the interrogation table enough times to know how this works, Admiral. You won't trick me into sharing any details at all until I'm ready, and unless you're willing to inflict some truly heinous tortures on me... which I doubt you are... you won't be pushing my pain threshold enough to force anything out, either."
Lindy blinked. "Until you're 'ready'? So you do intend to talk?"
"I was always planning to come to you people... eventually." Amaterasu said. "But I needed some time to plan. Hopefully some kind of leverage to ensure I could force you along with my way of thinking. I do need allies, and plenty of them, since there's something major going down and I need to deal with it sooner rather than later, but frankly, you folks can't be trusted."
"We can't be trusted." Vita said bluntly. "You people have appeared out of nowhere and gone out of your way to start a damn war what, five times now? And we can't be trusted."
"Oh, honey, you're clearly underestimating the depths of my self-centeredness," Amaterasu said. "I really couldn't care less what you think or feel, I speak solely from my own point of view, and I know I can trust myself. I'm the only person I can trust right now. As for you, I really don't care if you trust me or not, since I know I'm right. My only concern is whether or not I can engineer a scenario in which I can trust you to do what I need you to do, and given that your organization has proven to be nearly as corrupt as, well... all large organizations, that is a rough one."
"You speak from experience, I assume?" Lindy said. "You've been in contact with certain other 'interested parties', after all."
"Oh, you do understand!" Amaterasu said. "Don't get me wrong, you're all lovely and charming young people and/or animals, I'm sure. Kitten, for instance, is deeply honorable and beautiful and deliciously well muscled and..."
"Focus, please," Signum said.
"... right. It's just that, well, as polite and I'm sure very trustworthy as you ladies and gentlemen are, you aren't the ones really calling the shots," Amaterasu said. "And I'm sorry, but things are already crazy enough without me adding those people into the mix, so..."
"Your brother and sister. Where are they?" Nanoha asked.
"You said that the only one you could trust was yourself. But the three of you? Seemed a bit closer than that," Nanoha said. "You're clearly not here by choice. You're running from something. Something so bad you didn't bring the two people you're closest to in the universe with you. Can you really afford to be so sparing with your trust of us? You don't have anyone else."
"... can I afford not to be?" Amaterasu asked flatly. "Let's say you're right. Well, if I'm gonna pull this off, I can't afford any mistakes. I have one shot, and it cannot afford to be less than perfect. You want my help? I might, might just be willing to give it. But it will be on my terms."
"Your terms," Nanoha said. "Might very well mean you don't get the help you need in time to do any good. I want to help you. I never wanted to fight against you from the very start. I really believe that we can still settle this, even now. Even after everyone else has given up, I still want to try everythign I can to make sure this doesn't end in tears and blood. If you can help me with that... if you can protect your family... please, do it. You have to trust me. You have to give us something we can use."
Amaterasu stared blankly at Nanoha for several long, painful seconds. "You," She said, "Are seriously that naïve?"
"I prefer to think of it as 'hopeful'," Nanoha said calmly.
"In my experience, they're the same thing," Amaterasu said, closing her eyes and turning her head away.
"In mine, someone who has no hope in her wouldn't bother to fight her way this far, and go through so much," Nanoha said, totally ignoring this attempt to end the conversation. "You say you can't trust us, but you don't have anyone else. We're your only chance. But we can't even be that if you won't give us even a little bit of ground. Something to show this isn't some elaborate trick.
"Please? I'm trying to help you. Help your family. Let me."
Several more long, quiet seconds.
"... … Fine. Bare bones. Something," Amaterasu began, "Is very wrong on Al Sethis. I found evidence of it, and was nearly killed for my trouble. You get no details other than that. Before I left, I made a copy of the data in my own personal memory bank, enough to give to the queen, but I can't get close enough to her, not now. The defenses are too much for just me, my options were 'flee or die'. Susa and Tsuku don't know the details," Amaterasu said, finally.
She turned to Nanoha, eyes wide with terror. "They're going to come for me, kid. We are a very protective family. We don't take forced separation well. And to make matters worse, I expect they'll have been told I'm malfunctioning, that my mind is compromised and I've gone rogue. They're not gonna listen to anything I have to say, they're just going to drag me back for 'repairs' by force, and they will probably kill anyone who tries to stop them. And I can't go back with them, or we're all screwed, but the problem is that I also very much can't stop them. My powers are at their lowest point, no better than the first time we fought. Each of them is at least twice as powerful as me now, and they are only getting stronger by the minute. And since you've stopped me from moving around, made me stay in one place this long, they're probably gonna find me. And they are going to kill you all. Excited?"
Nanoha turned to Lindy, and said, "Did I do all right?"
Lindy smiled reassuringly. "I do love it when the Good Cop is so insanely Good you don't even need a Bad Cop."
"... … … … you played me?" Amaterasu said, looking impressed despite herself. "Wow, kid, that was some very well-faked sincerity."
"It wasn't fake," Nanoha said, pouting. "But I'm glad we know, now. We're gonna need to be ready if we're going to catch those two, huh?"
"... wait, what?" Amaterasu said. "You did hear what I just told you, right? Look, we're the children of Al Sethis. The closer that world gets to physical reality, the more we can draw our power from it. They're not at full strength yet, but no human mage is a match for them, I can promise you that much. You're in ridiculous danger by keeping me locked up in one pl-"
"They're our friends," Nanoha said, in a tone that brooked no argument.
"They ain't my friends," Vita muttered.
"What Vita means is that we aren't going to let your siblings take you back without a fight," Fate said diplomatically. "But more than that... well, they aren't bad people. And the way you said it makes it sound like you've found out something they need to know. So if they won't believe you..."
"We'll force them to believe!" Nanoha proclaimed. "Sometimes, you need to talk with your will to fight before you can talk with words. If that's the case, then no matter how strong they are, we'll do whatever we have to if it will make them listen to us!"
"She's doing it again," Chrono whispered.
"Wouldn't have it any other way," Yuuno whispered right back.
Amaterasu blinked, her eyes sweeping the room to see every face set just as resolutely as the two girls. "You... you kids are crazy, you know that? Seriously nuts. But... but... thank you. Thank you, really. And... I promise. If you really do back up your word on this, I will..."
She took a deep breath. "On my honor as the Captain of the Royal Guard, a General of the Imperial Navy, and as the Knight of the Sun, I shall trust you with my life and the lives of my family. I will tell you all, holding nothing back. You have my word."
Vita muttered something like, "Word of a backstabbing fire-harpy..."
"You are a horrid little thing, you know that? Try to act cuter, you're upsetting my demeanor," Amaterasu said, sticking out her tongue in Vita's general direction.
Hayate smiled warmly. "I've been on the wrong side of things too, once. I know it can be hard to find your way out, and... well, having people care enough to drag you out is a lot of help."
Signum shrugged and closed your eyes. "I dislike you. But I do owe your brother a rematch, and it impugns my honor to let that debt remain unsettled. I shall join the battle."
"Oh, kitten, you don't have to hide your affection. Look, I'm already tied up..." Amaterasu purred.
Nanoha blinked. "Um... is something going on here that we didn't know about...?"
"I guess it's okay to tell you. Lady Signum and I have been lovers for weeks now," Amaterasu said cheerfully.
"Let me hurt her!" Signum snarled, straining against Zafira's attempts to hold her back. "She can regenerate from nearly anything, so please let me at least get the joy of smashing her face in!"
"She's a bit shy about it," Amaterasu said, in the tone of one discussing the weather.
"So... you do realize we're trying to help you, and sowing discord among us is not going to improve your situatio,." Lindy said.
Amaterasu smiled. "Sorry. It's just that after Cupcake was all stoic and rigid, I had to make sure I still had my touch."
"... … … 'Cupcake'?"
Back on Earth, Miyuki sneezed.
"Oooooooooooooh, nice house!" Susanoo said. "Quaint. Cozy."
"It's a mansion," Arisa muttered.
"Used to living in a paaaaalaaaaaaace," He said in a singsong tone. "But yeah, this'll be great. We'll stay out of sight in a guest room so Tsuku can run her search magic. We'll only come out for food or water or if I get kinda bored..."
"That isn't staying out of sight!" Arisa snapped.
"I saved you from a giant raging beast," Susanoo said, the smirkiest smirk anyone had ever seen gracing his lips. "You owe me your life. So you have to do what I say, it's a rule."
"... fine. My dad is out of the country on a business trip, and mom isn't home until evening most days, so just... be careful," Arisa muttered. She was starting to wonder if death wouldn't have been the better long-term option here. It wasn't even that Susanoo was a really bad guy, he just... got on her nerves in some indefinable way, even when he wasn't holding over her head the fact that he had saved her from a big damn bear. As for Tsukuyomi...
"I care little about our living arrangements, as long as I have a space to sleep and solitude for my casting. With luck, I should be able to locate big sister within a few days, and then we can be on our way," She said. "Also, Arisa Bannings, I should note that if you tell anyone from the Time-Space Administration Bureau that we are staying here, most especially Nanoha Takamachi, I will kill you."
"She's a bit rough around the edges, but she means well," Susanoo said by way of explanation.
"Meep," Arisa said. She was usually more vocal than this, always good for an acid-tongued comment, but she was discovering rapidly that she had, as a major part of her personality, the fact that she didn't want to die. It was admittedly hurting her usual way with words.
"Yeah," Susanoo said, "This is gonna be awesome. Just watch, we'll be like one big happy family in no time at all!"
Tsukuyomi picked up a heavy brass candlestick from a nearby table, and with no visible effort, bent it in half. "That is what I will do to your spine, if you betray us."
"..." Arisa said.
"I thought a visual aid would be helpful to you," Tsukuyomi said.
"So, who wants dinner?" Susanoo said, with a giant smile. "I'm starving. Let's order out! Risa-risa, your treat."
Arisa let out a quiet sob.
Hayate, Yuuno, Lindy, Chrono, and Nanoha sat around the conference table. It was just the five of them because the Wolkenritter had absolutely refused to leave Amaterasu unguarded. Lindy had pointed out, not unreasonably, that even if she hadn't been restrained, separated from her device, and under a upper-tier power limiter that theoretically restricted her to the power of a D- rank mage at the max, this was TSAB headquarters, and there were guards everywhere.
Signum, Zafira, and Shamal had been polite enough not to laugh at the notion that the TSAB 'guards' were actually any kind of real security at all in a situation like this. Vita was not that polite.
As for Fate, she had of course wanted to come to the meeting, but all these medical treatments had left Arf really hungry. Fate was a responsible dog owner, first and foremost.
"So," Lindy said. "I need someone who isn't Nanoha to let me know if we should actually trust even the coerced word we got from our guest."
"Why someone who isn't me?" Nanoha pouted.
"You're too nice. Chrono? Hayate? I need the second opinion of someone devious."
"... I can be devious if I really try..." Nanoha muttered, while Yuuno patted her on the shoulder.
"I think we need to keep her under lock and key, clearly," Chrono said. "At least until we can confirm her story."
Hayate shrugged. "She was really hurt when Nanoha's family found her, which makes me inclined to believe her, but I guess it isn't really proof."
"It's no proof at all. She's not human, she can be repaired from almost anything. None of those injuries were truly life-threatening," Chrono said. "But... we have to accept the possibility that she's telling the truth, because frankly? We don't really have many options. The fleet is preparing for war as we speak, but we can't be sure what form the attack will take, not really. If she's really gone rogue, she could be an invaluable source of information. Information we desperately need."
"Agreed," Lindy said cheerfully. "We proceed cautiously, but we proceed. I personally feel that our next step should be to move her. This location is, it has been proven, not secure. If she is telling the truth, then the other two will be coming for her, and if they do? I would prefer that confrontation not occur in a place with hard vacuum on the other side of the wall."
"But where would we move her?" Chrono asked. "It would have to be somewhere with an existing magical infrastructure. Somewhere we could keep her contained and hidden."
"Not a Bureau holding facility, though," Lindy interjected. "These walls have ears, eyes, and I strongly suspect hands. Our guest was right about one thing... there are factions of our own organization that simply cannot be trusted, and until we know more, I'm afraid we have little choice but to consider those factions to be anyone outside of our own personal circle of acquaintances."
Hayate thought about this for a moment. "Um. Well. I have a place... it fits the description perfectly and I doubt anyone would think about it, as long as we can get her out of here and into it quietly enough. Signum's not gonna be happy about it, though."
"Well, I'm sure you'll be able to convince her of whatever it is?" Nanoha said hopefully.
Five minutes later...
"No. Absolutely not. Under no circumstances. Not at all, never, this shall not happen while I still draw breath," Signum said.
"It's only for a few days, and it's the safest place," Hayate said.
"Mistress. You know I am loyal. You know I will always submit to your wisdom in the end. But... but this time, you ask too much of me!" Signum snapped, her face reddening in shame at the admission. "I... I cannot... she profanes that place, mistress. Poisons the memory of it with her... herself. We cannot permit this to happen, cannot allow her to sink her dark and vile influence into the source of those holy memories."
Hayate rolled her eyes. "Signum, aren't you being a bit too dramatic? I'm just suggesting we store her in my old house for a little while."
"And I don't want her to know where I live," Signum said, her eyes wide with terror.
"Be reasonable. Most of Shamal's old wardings are still in place, and it would be easy for her to reinforce them. And Uncle Graham was very cautious about his surveillance... nothing from the main Bureau can look in on it, all of it was routed through him. Ironically, the fact that he knew about it makes it the safest place... everyone else thinks it's too unsafe for us to use it and won't bother to check," Hayate said cheerfully.
"... but it's her," Signum said, unable to think of a more convincing argument. In her mind, this was the most damning reason.
"Well, I hate to break it to you, but I kind of already had Vita and Shamal go tell her and prep her, so..." Hayate began.
She was then cut off by the door opening. Amaterasu, still in a medical gown, burst into the room, Vita and Shamal each hanging off one leg. "I GET TO LIVE WITH KITTEN?!" She squealed, her face alight with what could only be referred to as 'maniacal joy'.
"... she's very enthusiastic," Shamal said, by way of explanation.
Hayate blinked a few times. "Isn't the infirmary halfway across the station...?"
"Very enthusiastic," Shamal said again.
Signum did not start crying. But it was a close thing.
Arisa opened her eyes, and smiled.
Of course, she thought. It was obviously all a dream. Real people don't get randomly attacked by bears on the highway in Japan and saved by wizards. None of what happened yesterday actually happened. I had a silly dream. Silly, silly dreaming Arisa, you silly girl. Tee-hee. I will go downstairs right now, and the maids will have breakfast waiting for me, and I will go to school and everything will be chipper and full of delicious ordinariness.
She put on her robe, and walked down the steps. She passed a maid on her way, who gave her an appropriate nod of respect, as was ordinary. Yes, ordinary. Ordinary was good, ordinary was strong and proud. Maybe, she mused, everything had been a dream! She would go to school, and Nanoha wouldn't be constantly running off to fight monsters. She would be running off to fight math, at the most. Because everyone knew that magic didn't...
"Gooooooooooooooood morning, Risa-risa!" Susanoo said, leaping into her line of sight from out of freakin' nowhere.
"GACK!" Arisa said eloquently, falling backwards. "Y-you... what?! Why?! There was no reason for that!"
"It was fun!" he said cheerfully, his face split in a giant, totally guileless smile. "I got to say 'good morning' and you squeaked in a silly way!"
"... I hate everything about life." Arisa said.
"... even breakfast? Because I made breakfast! It was hard in an unfamiliar kitchen, of course, but I'm pretty confident in the flavor!" he said cheerfully.
"... I think I'll wait for lunch," Arisa said.
"No, you won't!" Susanoo said even cheerfullier, picking Arisa up and carrying her to the dining room over his shoulder.
"Hey! You're supposed to be a guest, here! No manhandling the hostess!" she snapped.
"Technically, I'm not a guest! I'm holding you hostage!" Susanoo replied, sounding much happier than this sentence really should have sounded.
"I... wish I had a comeback for that." Arisa sighed, resigning herself to being dragged about like a sack of potatoes.
Hayate flicked the lights on. "Aaaaaaaah... home sweet home!"
Signum flicked the lights off. "Mistress, until we confirm the wardings are fully restored and lay a veil over the residence, we must give no sign that we have returned to this place. Any witnesses at all could spell the doom of this plan."
Amaterasu flicked the lights on. "WHOOOOOOO! Finally, out of the hospital and r-e-a-d-y to plaaaaaaaaay! I could use a bath, who wants to join me? All are welcome, but I gotta warn you, I prefer to finish my baths dirtier than when I started, if you get my meaning," She purred.
Vita tackled her around the waist as Signum frantically batted at the light switch again. "You idiot! Can you not listen to me for five seconds when your own life is in danger? Are you truly that childish and self-centered?!"
"... well, yes," Amaterasu said, seemingly unbothered by the small girl twisting her arm behind her back. "I'm a horrible person. You knew that."
"I suppose my mind is simply trying very hard to suppress any information related to you," Signum growled. "Vita, feel free to break her legs if you need to."
"Flirt," Amaterasu purred.
"... I am going to secure the upstairs." Signum said, sighing sadly. "Keep her down here, and keep her from touching anything."
"You can get off me now, deceptively cute bunny thing. I promise I'll be good until I see a chance to be bad," Amaterasu said cheerfully.
"... You are a creepy, creepy lady, you know that?" Vita asked, stepping off of the pinned woman. "Ugh. I should go wash my hands, don't know where you've been."
"That reminds me... Hayate, wasn't it?" Amaterasu asked. "There was something wanted to yell at you about, because it was horrible and you were horrible."
"... … okay..." Hayate said. Considering that she had never before had a genuine conversation with the woman in front of her, she wasn't exactly sure what she'd done, nor why it was so important it had to be shared with her now, while she was in her own darkened home waiting while her knights ran a security sweep of it.
"The tiny angry bunny person," Amaterasu said. "The small one in red. You have committed a great crime."
"You took that intensely angry, furious, hateful ball of irritation... and you dressed her up so cute!" Amaterasu said, as if this were some horrifying crime. "Bunny hat! Frilly dress! Pigtails! She is beyond adorable! I wanna snuggle-wuggle her! But then you get close and she's a demon spawn. She tried to beat me to death with a giant hammer, and more than that she was rude."
"So? So?!" Amaterasu shrieked. "You have dressed her in a costume that does not suit her!"
This last, it must be noted, was said in the same tone as a more normal person would have said, "You have launched a nuclear bomb at an city full of nothing but babies!"
And yet, despite this... heinous?... accusation, Hayate merely smirked. "Vita? Could you come back in here, please?"
"Yeah, Hayate?" Vita asked, poking her head back in through the door into the living room.
"I'm afraid that, in the interests of security, you'll have to sleep on the couch while we're here. You know, to keep an eye on the first floor," Hayate said.
Vita's eyes widened as if she had been punched. "Oh. Um. Well, I... yeah, I guess that makes... it's just, I mean... home, in the old bed, I thought that maybe I could... but no, I guess security is... um... well, I guess... I mean..."
Amaterasu watched with awe. Transformed from bitter avatar of beatings to stammering, adorable wreck with... with a single sentence...! "She... gods, she is perfect. The outfit that originally seemed inappropriate was actually hinting at the cute, snuggly little girl hiding within! It all fits perfectly, and I never even suspected for a heartbeat!"
Her gaze turned to Hayate, her eyes filled with reverence. "You... young lady, I apologize. I thought you to be a poor judge of adorable costuming, but in fact you may be a genius far exceeding myself. And so young! You have nowhere to go but up, and I hope that I can be present to see your ascension."
Hayate cast a pleased smile of triumph at the unreasonably astonished woman. "Well, I've had some advantages. For starters, it's clear that you had never heard of a tsundere, so you've never thought out how to properly design outfits for one. It's tricky, but then, Japan is the world's center for such things. Cosplay is in my blood."
"Tsundere," Amaterasu said, as if tasting the word. "Cosplay? These words... I don't know them. They aren't in any of the language files I downloaded but... but they feel somehow familiar."
Hayate wheeled up next to her and laid a reassuring hand on hers. "My anime and VN collection is still in storage upstairs. Once security is made certain, I have much to teach you."
Amaterasu shed a tear of joy. "Oh, Lady Hayate... there is so much I do not know, and I never even knew that I didn't know it! If... if the worst occurs, and I am not able to return to my own home, would you please allow me to serve as your knight? Truly, I can think of no more fitting mistress than you!"
"No!" said... well, screamed... a voice from halfway across the house. Signum rushed into the room, her eyes wide with terror. "No! She may remain here as a prisoner for a time, but I refuse to live under the same roof as that woman in peacetime, much less ever count her as a Wolkenritter! This must not be allowed to occur!"
Hayate sighed. "Signum, this meeting was clearly preordained by a greater destiny. She belongs with us. And I'm sure she doesn't mean you any harm!"
"I would actually derive pretty much equal joy from killing her or having sex with her. Whichever comes first," Amaterasu said with absolutely zero shame. "I find the two options equally appealing."
"... well, I'm sure we'll wean her off of the murdering thing," Hayate said, her expression suggesting she was erasing that last comment from her memory, unwilling to give up her new partner in nerdiness without a fight.
"If we're not enemies and officially become allies, I would of course focus exclusively on the romantic side of things," Amaterasu purred.
"See? Problem solved!"
"Mistress, perhaps you have missed the implications here, but the... 'romantic'... aspects are what I object to! I would much rather she try to kill me, thank you!" Signum said, her tone one of purer despair than Hayate thought she had ever heard from her.
Hayate shook her head, smiling warmly. "Oh, silly Signum. A Loveable Sex Maniac is just the character that our ensemble needed!"
Signum's heart fell. When the Mistress got to thinking in anime tropes, there was no reasoning with her.
"Yay! Can I dress up in cute costumes too? Something with a short skirt!" Amaterasu squealed.
"Can you? Why, I insist!" Hayate said, her eyes glimmering with joy as new designs leaping to her mind. "To my bedroom! Let's start picking out knee socks!"
"Huzzah!" Amaterasu cheered, pushing Hayate's wheelchair along maybe a little faster than was safe.
"This is Hell, then? I'm in Hell." Signum murmured sadly.
"So... wait, am I sleeping on the couch or not?" Vita asked.
Arisa let out a small thud as she was unceremoniously plopped down into the chair.
"Breakfast is porridge!" Susanoo said proudly, pointing to a bowl of grayish-green... ooze. "I made it myself from wonderful things, and it is extremely healthy. Eat."
"... … … Not hungry," Arisa said, observing the oddly purplish smoke rising from the bowl.
"Risa, you will never grow as a person if you aren't open to new experiences!"
"Like dying? Because that looks like the experience I'll be getting from it is death," Arisa said flatly.
"Risk is a part of life!" Susanoo stated, with what he probably felt was a bold gesture. "You must take risks in order to win the greatest of rewards!"
"He does have a point, Arisa," Suzuka said happily from down the table.
"... Suzuka?! When did you...?!"
"Oh, I arrived this morning for a surprise visit, and Mr. Susa answered the door," Suzuka said cheerfully. "He then told me I couldn't leave, and yanked me in here and locked me in the dining room for breakfast."
"... you... you don't seem as bothered by this as you should be." Arisa said.
"Well, I'm learning to take such things in stride, what with Nanoha and Fate being so caught up in such odd things. I think it's probably best to just go with the flow," Suzuka said with a warm smile. "Besides, I was hoping to spend a few hours here anyway, if you were free. He did make breakfast. Though... admittedly, not a particularly appealing breakfast."
"Awwwwwwwwww, Suzu! It's a super-awesome breakfast that I cooked with care and devotion!" Susanoo whimpered. "And exotic, too! A special recipe from my homeland! Granted, I couldn't get the right ingredients so I had to improvise a bit, but I'm sure it's fine! Maybe even better!"
"Actually, it..." Suzuka began, only to be cut off by a spoon full of goop being shoveled into her mouth.
She choked a bit, before her mind realized she should be chewing.
She chewed. Her eyes widened.
Several seconds passed in silence.
"Huh," she said. "It's good."
Arisa blinked a few times in confusion, not quite sure she'd heard what she heard. "Excuse me...?"
"It's good. It's really good," Suzuka said, the words coming from her mouth seeming to surprise even herself. "Amazing, even. I don't... I don't know what to say. It doesn't taste like anything I've ever had before. Definitely doesn't taste like porridge. But it's good. Just the right combination of sweet and tartness, and... and warm, but not spicy, somehow, and... and it's just good. I don't get it."
"Why do you sound so shocked?" Susanoo asked irritably. "I was a servant to royalty for 1,800 years, of course I know how to cook."
"Well... you just... don't seem the type," Arisa said diplomatically, avoiding the more obvious statement 'But you're such a moron'. Her mind was racing, still trying to wrap around the thought she might actually enjoy eating the... thing... in front of her. On the one hand, Suzuka was currently in the process of devouring hers with gusto, but on the other, the steam was purple.
"Just goes to show was you know, Risa-risa!" he said, wagging a finger in mock disappointment. "I'll have you know that we have many talents! I can cook and clean with the best of them, and even sew clothes and polish expensive jewelery! Why, I'd say that I'm the most powerful butler the universe has ever known!"
"And my sisters are also pretty amazing! Why, did you know Amaterasu is a champion-level ballroom dancer? She used to have a whole case full of trophies! And Tsukuyomi, why she is very probably an amazing artist!"
"Well, it's like... there was a lot of art in her room. Sculptures and paintings and stuff. But Tsuku always seemed as confused as everyone else as to where it came from," Susanoo said. "So she's either a really weird artist, or a really weird thief."
"... … … so your whole family is completely insane, then?"
"All the best ones are!" Susanoo said.
Tsukuyomi sat in silence.
The air in the small guest room was still; so much so the girl floating cross-legged in the center of it, wreathed in light, might well have been a statue. Her eyes were closed, her breath was shallow to the point of nonexistence, her hands were motionlessly laid upon her staff, which in turn lay horizontally across her lap. On the outside, there was no activity, nor had their been for several hours.
But behind those closed eyes, her mind raced across the cosmos.
World after world, her search spell wandered. She had indeed found traces of Amaterasu's power upon this world, but only a tiny spark and it had since vanished. So she branched out. Searching through every world that Amaterasu might have gone to under her own power. There weren't that many...
the traces of her on this world were weak. Her powers had been limited when she was here.
Which makes some sense. If she is truly malfunctioning, her executive access to the Twilight Star would have been temporarily revoked. Her powers will be restricted to 20% of maximum. But... I still feel they should be stronger than that. Was she wounded? Tsukuyomi thought, her mind struggling to follow up on the tiny, flickering silvery trail of her sister's magic. The thought was... disturbing. Her Majesty had mentioned nothing about Amaterasu being physically damaged before or during her flight; why had such a detail not been shared?
The implications were worrisome, but less immediately so than the fact that Amaterasu's magical trail had vanished the second she had left earth. There were two options. Big sister was dead, which... which did not bear thinking about further, and so it could not be the case. Which left only the option that she had been captured by someone who possessed a magically warded location to imprison her.
Damn. Damn, damn, damn.
Tsukuyomi's first instinct was to prepare a teleport to the TSAB's HQ station, rip through the wards and tear the place open like a tin can until she found her big sister. This was a childish and more to the point Susa-ish reaction, and so she ignored it. … Besides, it wouldn't work, the wards were much too strong for her to get through on her own.
She would need a more intelligent and elegant plan, and she would need to phrase it in such a way that Susanoo paid attention to it. This would be difficult.
She would also, although it was not in the strictest sense needed, like some breakfast, which she hoped would be easier given the overall high economic status of their current quarters. She stood up, and walked out of the room.
Tsukuyomi had no problems finding the dining room despite the unfamiliar building. She always knew where she was, and really didn't understand people who didn't.
"Ah," she said. "We have a guest."
Suzuka murmured something through a mouthful of (What Tsukuyomi noticed with something not unlike joy) Susanoo's famous eska porridge. Big brother had cooked breakfast, this was very good. Very good.
"Mornin', Tsuku!" he said cheerfully, tugging the rope he was using to tie Arisa to her chair so he could shove some porridge down her throat.
"I'm not gonna eat it!" Arisa shrieked, fighting against her bonds.
"It is healthy and delicious!" Susa informed her.
"Mmm msss!" Suzuka said through another mouthful.
"Where did that rope even come from...?" Tsukuyomi asked.
"We're having breakfast!" Susa said by way of explanation.
Tsukuyomi shrugged and sat down. She had long ago learned not to question such things too deeply. Occasionally, it led to her learning the real reason, and that was to be avoided when it applied to big brother and especially big sister.
Ah, yes, big sister. I had a report to deliver.
"I have not found big sister, and also I am hungry. Wherever she is, it is heavily warded from search magic, and someone should please pass the food. I can continue to search, but I doubt I will find anything I have not already located, and someone please pass me a clean bowl," she said, seamlessly meshing her two goals in entering this room.
Susanoo sighed, and said, "Well... I'm not 100% sure I understand what you just said. But it doesn't sound promising, anyway."
"I believe there are two :munch, munch: possibilities," Tsukuyomi said, in between bites. "First, she has been... deactivated..."
"She's not dead, we would know."
"Agreed. In which case, we must assume that Amaterasu has been captured by agents of the TSAB."
"Which would be good in the sense that they will not kill her, and bad in the sense we would have to go through some staunch resistance to get her back," Susanoo said, his expression growing gloomy. "I was sorta hoping to not have to hurt those guys anymore..."
"Do you want to back out of the operation, Susa?" Tsukuyomi asked flatly.
"Never. It's Ammy. I like those kids well enough, but she's blood. If we have to go through them, we go through them," Susanoo said very, very coldly.
"You're talking about our friends, you lunatics!" Arisa snapped. "How can you just-"
"Risa-risa, you're a very nice kid, but you don't get it. You can't," Susanoo said flatly. "Almost 2,000 years, we've been alive. When you live that long... people come and go so fast it feels like you barely got to know them before they're gone. You learn to keep attachments superficial. But when someone comes along that can actually live out the years with you, well... I don't like Ammy all that much sometimes, but I do love her. More than I can put into words. And if I have to crack this entire planet in half to save her, I will do it."
He laid a hand on Arisa's shoulder, and her eyes widened at the simple, obvious power in the limb. "Do you understand?" he asked softly.
Arisa began to realize something at that moment. So far, the whole situation had been more like very annoying relatives coming to visit, and so she hadn't really pondered it, even with the oddly friendly death threats from the girl the night previous. But realistically... she was in just as much danger right this moment as she had been when that bear had been roaring down on her. And she was getting the impression that Nanoha and Fate were in even more.
Arisa usually didn't allow herself to be intimidated. But it wasn't just her at stake here... they had Suzuka now too. She didn't reply out loud; just nodded.
"Good girl," Susanoo said with a small smile. It didn't look all that friendly anymore.
"But she does have a point, albeit not the one she wanted to make, Susa," Tsukuyomi said, attempting to calm her brother somewhat. Susanoo was... scary when he got angry, and she knew him well enough. He hid it well, but he wouldn't have threatened a civilian, or even gone off on Precia as he had, in normal circumstances. He had been on the edge of a berserk rage since the moment Amaterasu disappeared, and it would take very, very little to make him do something he would regret deeply when he was in a more stable mood. "Smashing down the TSAB's front door is tempting, but probably not wise. We should be more subtle about it."
Susanoo sighed. "Yes. Of course. How do you mean?"
"Well... we do have some contacts in the TSAB," Tsukuyomi said. "We do have some ways of getting in contact with them discreetly."
Her gaze travelled from Suzuka, to Arisa, and back again. "And we do have some hostages they value."
Suzuka swallowed her latest spoonful. "Can we please finish breakfast first?"
"Well, I don't see why not."
Arisa, still tied to her chair, cast a very, very annoyed glance at her best friend. "They're threatening to kill us. You might be taking this a bit too calmly, Suzuka."
"I'm hungry! And the porridge is good if you'd just try it..."
"I have my pride."
The day passed, and with it came the most traumatizing reminder that any young hero can face: School is still a thing.
Nanoha took her usual seat next to Fate and sighed. "You know... it's very, very hard to focus on this stuff right now. Math, and literature, and... the universe might be ending. And none of these people even know it!"
"Huh?" asked the class rep, who was walking past to take attendance.
"They cancelled my favorite TV show," Nanoha said without missing a beat. "Just feels like the end of the universe, right? Silly, I know."
"Ah, too bad, Takamachi," The boy said, continuing on his rounds.
"Nanoha, do you ever feel that maybe we're a little too good at this whole... double life thing?" Fate asked a little sadly.
"Oh, I don't know," Nanoha said cheerfully. "I think it's kind of fun, now that my family is in on it."
"Your family... well, I guess they are a bit unique."
"No, they're a bit weird," Nanoha said with a giggle. "Which is why I fit right in with them. This life suits me like nothing else!"
"All right, everyone, eyes forward," The teacher called from the front of the room. "Now, I've got some good news and some bad news. It seems Ms. Tsukimura will not be joining us today... Ms. Bannings said she's fallen ill while spending the night at her house, so please, everyone send Suzuka your best wishes, everyone."
Nanoha, why wouldn't Arisa or Suzuka have contacted us to let us know that? Fate asked instantly, her psychic voice sharp. Something seems off about this.
Something is definitely wrong, but what? Nanoha agreed.
"But on the bright side of things, we have a guest! Arisa's cousin from America is visiting her, and while it's slightly irregular, she has gotten permission to sit in on classes while she's here so she doesn't fall behind in her studies!" The teacher continued cheerfully. "Arisa, why don't you bring her in?"
Arisa entered from the hall, not looking very happy at all about having family visiting. Another girl followed her. The usual chorus of interest at a new student burst out.
"Oooooooh, I love her hair!" said one girl.
"A tattoo at her age? America really is different!" said another.
"She's cute! Too bad she isn't staying here long," said a grinning boy in the back row.
"Uh-oh," Nanoha said.
"Hullo. My name is Tessa Bannings. I am apparently American. According to my research, the traditional greeting for this situation is something to the effect of 'please treat me kindly'," Tsukuyomi said, bowing lightly.
I think we've spotted what's wrong, Fate thought.