Chapter Forty-one: Getting to Know You

(*)

Admiral Lindy sipped her tea, staring out the viewport. "Five hundred cruisers, twice again that many patrol craft, and more transports and shuttlecraft than I can count, each one packed with every mage we could get our hands on, right on town to the D-ranks in the civilian academy. The bulk of the TSAB fleet. A force that would scare any one of our enemies out of the sky, more than enough to reduce a planetary surface to glass and ash.

"And all I can think is that they won't be enough."

Mizetto nodded. "They may not be, if intelligence is accurate. The rest of the fourth and seventh patrol fleets should be in shortly, but it's not clear if that will make a difference or not. We're dealing with magic that isn't entirely comprehensible to us."

Lindy chuckled. "Aren't we always, sir? It seems like no matter what we do, there's always something new and entirely more horrible lurking around the corner. If it's not a crazed witch, it's a book that eats planets. If it's not a book that eats planets, it's a superweapon pointed at us ready to go off in... what, a week?"

"Four days, if I recall the readings correctly."

"It's a bit hard to picture, isn't it?" Lindy asked. "The thought that in four days, our home might just be... gone."

Mizetto snorted lightly. "Not to anyone who lived through the Testarossa Experiment. Or the 2nd and 4th Book of Darkness incidents. Or the Orion Cascade. Or the unearthing of the Panoptichron. Or the..."

Lindy winced. "Midchilda gets almost destroyed a lot, doesn't it?"

Mizetto chuckled almost inaudibly, patting her fellow officer on the shoulder. "Take some heart from the fact it's 'almost'. And that is largely due to our efforts."

Lindy smirked slightly. "I don't know... we usually sit in the comfy chairs and tell insane children to deal with the problems?"

"Only because we used to be the insane children ourselves," Mizetto said primly. "And that earned us the right to sit in those chairs and stay far away from them exploding themselves."

Lindy smiled. "And you know what? A part of me wants to go down with them anyway. Even knowing that a sealing specialist like me will be more essential up here. Those children... don't tell them I said this. But they're special. And not just because two of them are mine, though that helps. They're special because they can change people. Turn enemies into allies, and turn disasters into miracles. It's something I've never seen before and... well.

"They give me real hope."

(*)

The hopes of the universe sat in the break room, a plate of pastries between them. Every so often, one of them would pick one up and nibble on it.

They kind of stared at each other in silence. Signum idly toyed with her ponytail, and Vita muttered something surly under her breath. Nanoha took a pastry and nibbled on it.

Fate coughed a little bit.

"So," Vita said, "We have four days until we have to go beat up that crazy Fate-looking chick and her computer. Wanna just go around and do random stuff while we wait?"

"Sure," Nanoha said.

(*)

Tsukuyomi looked at the canvas in confusion. "I'm sorry?"

"We have some time, and Fate and I have been talking about the best way to really bond with you," Nanoha said cheerfully. "I mean, we're already friends, of course, but I feel that we need to solidify things, since there's so much awkwardness in the past. Fate and I both want to, you know. And Arisa and Suzuka think you're wonderful!"

"... That isn't... what Arisa said..." Fate murmured.

"It's what she meant," Nanoha said firmly. "But the problem is that, well, we really need to find some kind of common ground to start building a firmer relationship and really welcome you into the circle of friends like the other girls."

"I am not like the other girls. I am 1,800 years old."

"That doesn't matter as much as you'd think! Just ask Vita," Nanoha said.

"I don't even know why they made me come. Sorry about this, Little Blue," Vita said.

"... what?"

"You're Little Blue, your brother's just Blue, and I guess that makes your sis Big Blue," Vita said with a shrug. "Spent too much time around Blue, I guess. Caught nicknaming."

Tsukuyomi blinked. "I... confess to being extremely confused by everything going on right now."

"Look. The thing about these kids is, they're like a goddamn battering ram of friendship. I tried not to get like, too involved with them? But they're relentless, especially Takamachi. They just keep hanging around, and for some reason Hayate loves 'em. I blame a lack of proper schooling."

"Vita. Bad girls get no ice cream," Hayate said primly.

"... Not that Hayate is ever wrong about anything," Vita said quickly. "Just saying... you can try to not be their friend? But you'll fail."

"And... what does this have to do with why we are here?" Tsukuyomi asked.

Nanoha pointed at the canvas proudly, and set down a bag filled with brushes, assorted paints, and a palette. "You like painting, right? So I thought we could bond over art! You can... teach us, maybe! Vita's a terrible artist, especially."

"Hey!"

"You do have a poor grasp of complementary colors, Vita," Hayate said delicately.

"Traitor."

Tsukuyomi pondered the situation a bit. On the one hand, she had never taught anyone else how to pain. Mother Vale had deemed that teaching others was important, allowing them to express their souls properly, but honestly Tsuku was not quite sure about her own soul most days. She wasn't quite certain how to go about teaching others how to do a thing that she wasn't totally sure how she did herself. She opened her mouth to suggest perhaps teaching Nanoha and her friends something she was more comfortable in her ability to share, such as quantum field theory...

"Eeeeep!' Nanoha said, jumping back as she happened to glance at the canvas and see a swirl of blue-green color on it, the first stroke of a painting.

Tsuku looked down at her own hand to see a paintbrush in it, still wet with the aquamarine color that currently lined the canvas. "Hm. Now when did I pick that up?"

"I... I was watching you, the whole time," Vita said. "You didn't. And you did not paint anything. I... well, no, now that you mention it, maybe you did...?"

"I... I think we'd remember if she had painted that," Hayate said doubtfully. "We were all looking right at her. …. Weren't we?"

"I... think so?" Fate said.

"It seems unlikely that I mixed the paints and began a work without knowing it," Tsukuyomi said. "But... oh, my."

As one, the five girls all turned to look suspiciously at the canvas.

Another line of color had appeared on it.

(*)

"Sir Susanoo! I would speak at you."

Susanoo turned to find Signum striding down the halls purposefully at him, a grim expression on her face, and blinked. "Is this something about chivalry and the likes? Because I understand that working with former enemies is kind of a weird thing for you, what with probably killing most of your former enemies, and..."

"Eh? No, no. In point of fact, Testarossa and I were once on opposing sides, and now I count her a friend and ally. I have no issues working with anyone that my mistress commands me to draw blades beside," Signum said. "... mostly."

"Mostly?"

"There is one who continues to vex me, and I was hoping you might be able to offer me assistance, as this is a foe you have more experience with."

"So you... wanna spar?" Susanoo asked, blinking in confusion.

"No. I..." Signum sighed, trailing off as her cheeks went red. "Your sister. I wish... to know how to make her stop pursuing me."

Susanoo considered this for a second.

"HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!" he said, sympathetically.

"I am serious."

"I... I know! That's why it's so funny!" he gasped, holding his aching sides as laughter poured forth. "Oh gods. Oh gods! You... you think there's... ahahahahaha! Y-you think that I-! HAHAHAHAHAHA! Oh, come on! Come with me, I have to share this!" Susanoo gasped, tears filling his eyes. He grabbed Signum's hand and dragged the highly confused knight down several hallways, before bursting into a breakroom.

"I don't get it..." Nanoha murmured, standing next to Tsukuyomi, who was perched in front of a canvas with Nanoha and Fate on either side of her and Vita looking over their shoulders.

"Nor do I," Tsuku admitted.

"I would swear you didn't paint anything, but... but..." Fate whispered. "If you didn't, where did the painting come from...?"

"Tsuku! Look away from your madness for awhile, I have the funniest joke!" Susanoo said with a giant smile on his face. "Siggy, Siggy! Tell her what you told me!"

"I was not... making a joke," Signum grumbled, her face going painfully scarlet. Of course Vita would be there too. "I was trying to have a serious... and private... discussion with you."

"He's horrible at those," Fate offered. "Just... just a very loud person, overall."

"I... am realizing this."

"Siggy, come on, stop being embarrassed! You built morale!" Susanoo said. "Come on, tell them what you told me!"

"I... I... I..."

"She asked me if there was a way to stop big sis from hitting on her!" Susanoo declared.

Something strange happened then.

Tsukuyomi snorted.

Nanoha, eyes wide, turned to her newest friend, and said, "D... did she just..."

"I... hehehe... I'm sure I don't know what you mean. I... would never behave in such... pffffff... undignified fashion," Tsukuyomi said, taking care to cover her mouth for reasons which were surely unimportant.

"I know, right?" Susanoo asked. "It was... gods, it cheered me up right away. Why did nobody tell me this woman was so funny? I'd have been hanging around her before!"

"I was not. Making. A joke," Signum snarled.

"She just can't stop herself! Best comedian of all time."

"It... it is a little..." Tsukuyomi murmured, clearly trying not to laugh and even more clearly trying to disguise this fact. "I... well, it is just that... I mean, the very idea..."

"Like we know, right?" Susanoo asked, chuckling. "Like if we could stop Ammy from hitting on us, we'd have let it keep happening for 1,800 years."

"1,800..." Vita asked. "She... she hasn't given up after that long?"

"Wait, aren't you her siblings?" Fate asked.

"HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!" Susanoo laughed, falling over onto his side, his entire body shaking with mirth. "Oh! O-oh, gods, you kids! Wow, I... I wish we'd made peace weeks ago, I... HAHAHAHAHAHA!"

"N-now, Susa," Tsukuyomi said, her lips twitching at their sides. "They don't know her like we do. They... they still have some hope."

"HAAAAAAAAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!" Susanoo laughed, gasping for air. "H-hope! Oh, wow, they have hope, that's... that's amazing."

"The thing you must understand about Amaterasu, Miss Signum," Tsukuyomi said, "Is that she is very easily bored... but only after she has been exposed to something. Her ability to fantasize is quite literally inhuman. She can ponder the same situation for centuries. Millennia. Devote truly bizarre amounts of processing power to it. Once she has actually experienced it, she will lose interest and move on quickly. But so long as it is only her imagination..."

"She can imagine forever."

"So... you are suggesting the way to get your sister to stop wanting to sleep with me... is to let her sleep with me?"

"Or die!" Susanoo offered. "She loses interest in dead people really quick."

"... Do not take this personally, sir and lady knight. But I wish we had never met any of your horrible, horrible people."

"Yeah, we got that a lot."

(*)

Amaterasu sighed and sipped her drink right from the bottle. "You know, this is not as much fun as it should be."

"I would really feel more comfortable if you left," Arf said, hiding behind her bed in the medical ward.

"Ditto," Yuuno said.

"This is a hospital, why are you even here?" Shamal asked.

"See, that's what I mean! I'm here with three amazing cuties. Beds all over the place. And yet, all I can think about is work, work, work," Amaterasu said, once again sighing in sadness.

"I am ten years old," Yuuno said, shuddering slightly.

"I'm technically a dog!" Arf said.

"Again: hospital," Shamal snapped. "And what are you drinking? Alcohol isn't allowed on the station, you know, and especially not in here!"

"I think it's because of Odin. Y'know, he trained me? Taught me everything I know about handling a spear. I actually took on this device form because of him. He was... so strong, so cool, so proud. More than a big brother, he was my idol. I... oh it's not like this is a shock to anyone at this point, I was head-over-heels for him," Amaterasu said, taking another sip of something that smelled like whiskey and vodka had a baby, and then that baby hooked up behind an alley with pure grain alcohol. "'Big brother'. What idiot programmed sibling relationships into us, huh?! We're not related! We're not human! All my 'siblings' refuse to even consider it when we're all about as 'related' as two toasters made in the same factory! It's absurd."

"Yuuno, why won't she leave?" Arf asked sadly.

"Because she's self-centered to the point of insanity, and I think a little drunk."

"You know, I think he's the main reason I turned out like I did. When your first love goes godsdamned crazy and starts trying to murder you and your siblings, you start to approach life a little differently," Amaterasu muttered. "Never let anyone get too close. Never let a relationship get beyond meaningless sex. Love 'em and leave 'em, only without the love. Just raw, mindless animal passion without remorse or consequences."

"Still ten!" Yuuno said, a touch of desperation in his tone.

"And y'know? It's lonely. I'm lonely. But I don't know how to change anymore," Amaterasu sighed. "For starters, what else can I do? Assuming I don't die in four days when we engage in Operation: Suicidal Stupidity, I'm immortal. It's not like I can meet someone nice and get married. They'll be dead in sixty years and I'll still be me. And I don't know if you noticed this, but people find my personality off-putting. I don't think I'm wife material. One-night stand material, oh yes. There's about... hmmm... I think I stopped counting at fifteen thousand, but two to three per week for an 1,800 year career. You can add it up. Point is, there's a lot of people who will attest that I am amazing at one-night-stands. But long-term, I tend to wear on people."

"We noticed," Shamal said.

"God, did we," Arf said.

"Please go away," Yuuno added.

"So I just kinda wander on," Amaterasu said, ignoring them and taking another swig. "Unable to achieve any kind of real emotional connections because the only people who are like me have some kind of weird problem with pseudo-incest that's all in their heads anyway. Gods, am I just the most pathetic person you've ever met, or what?"

"I wasn't gonna say it, but..." Arf began.

"But on the other hand, it's not like I've had a bad couple millennia," Amaterasu mused. "I mean, I have a loving family, a fulfilling career... and the sex might have been meaningless, but damn if it wasn't insanely good."

"Still! Ten!" Yuuno snapped, a bit of pleading fighting with a lot of rage in his tone.

"And here I am today. Still gorgeous, athletic, and brilliant. Still meeting interesting new people. My family is still here, and I get to murder the awful ones again," she said, as far as anyone could tell no longer even aware that anyone was in the room. "Yeah... yeah, maybe things will be okay, after all. Sometimes it really pays to just spend some time alone with your thoughts, and work things out, y'know?"

"You are not alone," Arf said. "And I don't mean that in the reassuring way that Nanoha and I are always telling Fate when she's depressed. I mean that in the 'what is wrong with you?' way."

"Yes, I love you too, my sweet puppy."

"You worry me. You worry me a lot."

(*)

Jail Scaglietti smiled, running a hand over the oblong disk of metal with the delicacy most people would have used to handle an infant. In the center of it, the Dimension Driver lay, partially melded into the metal of the disk, a faintly shimmering aura of power roiling through the construct. "It's beautiful, isn't it? I wish I could have created it myself, instead of being handed it as a simple jury-rigging, but still..."

"I'm not interested in the aesthetics, doctor. Only the functionality."

"... Are you a machine? Have you no soul, no appreciation for the finer things in life? Are you, in short, a being absolutely devoid of art?" Jail asked, an exaggerated frown on his face. "We stand on the cusp of a moment that may well alter the course of the future! We stand astride the breach against a foe from the depths of the ancient past! Should she claim victory, then we shall find ourselves cast back into her age of barbarism and chaos, an age of brutality where only the strongest survive and feed on the weak. You could put a bit of gravitas in your tone!"

"I would be more inclined if the way you describe it," the Director said softly, "Did not make it sound like you're hoping we lose."

"Do you not trust me, dear sir?"

"Ha."

"And that is why I actually like you," Jail admitted, smirking widely and without a tiny hint of shame. "Well, I confess the fall of the TSAB would be an intriguing social experiment. And I am quite certain her new regime would put fewer restrictions on weapons testing and humanoid body modification projects. I could get so much more work done..."

"Doctor, you should probably be aware that even joking about this is sufficient grounds for your immediate termination in my eyes."

"...But I am forced to point out that if the Infinite Empire accomplishes their resurgence, that means that my work on your little project here was somehow sub-par. And my work is never less than magnificent, thank you kindly," Jail finished, no worry in his voice and his smile only growing wider at the threat. "You do not trust me, and this is wise. But at least trust that when I take up a project, that project will always, always be completed above and beyond the highest of expectations. Case. In. Point." He ran another hand lovingly over the deceptively simple-looking device, and a line of hidden runes briefly glowed with a soft verdant light at his touch.

"A point. And it is true none of our observers noted any hints of tampering in the control code you turned over to us."

Jail snorted derisively. "As if they would notice one of my viruses."

"I can have you killed, you realize. I would just have to fill out some paperwork afterward and attend a disciplinary hearing, all told it takes about a month to clear up."

"Tell them to check for delayed-reaction programs in the base code that activate on a later boot-up. Usually between thirty and forty, so the initial programmer isn't suspected. They never remember to run that check."

"I have the paperwork handy."

"And of course, they usually forget the worms that are harmless in the device itself, but will transmit themselves into the sender's systems on the receipt of the activation key and begin generating trash code..."

"And a pen."

"Have you no humor at all?"

"None, thankfully."

"Well, either way, the deed is done. The device will function as intended, you can have one of your drones by any time to handle delivery. Unless you'd prefer Uno drop by?"

"No, I do not want your ultimate hacker in my secure facility. A black-ops team will be in shortly to collect it. I want to make absolutely sure it reaches the destination unimpeded."

"Fearing I might want to keep this one for myself?" Scaglietti asked mildly.

"I know you do, but you're not quite that stupid. No, I want the extra security because operations of late have been... compromised, in unusual ways. Our enemy isn't only this Al Sethis device. Certain agents of our own Bureau have proven themselves to be unusually perceptive, resourceful, and dangerous in thwarting our efforts for the greater good of the institution."

Jail raised a questioning eyebrow. "Are you quite serious? Precia Testarossa's amusing little pet project and little kindergarten club? Misfits, half-trained children, incomplete experiments and improperly functioning Belkan hardware?"

"Do not underestimate them, Doctor. We did, to our repeated detriment. That unit worries me deeply, I admit it without shame. It has been a long, long time since we've seen their like in the Bureau, either for or against us."

Jail's eyes widened. "You are serious."

" Deadly so. They remind me of the Three Admirals in their youth... effective, efficient, almost inhumanly powerful and skilled beyond their years. I can truly say that being aware they stand against us is almost more worrisome than anything some ancient empire could throw at us. At least some amoral conqueror can be anticipated.

"Who knows what those children will do next?"

Elsewhere...

"Fate the pudding is angry!" Nanoha screamed as the kitchen overflowed, the scalding concoction burning through her shields.

"I told you not to let Arf cook!" Fate shrieked.

"It wasn't my fault, Tsuku was distracting me!"

"The color on this dish is a bit off," Tsukuyomi said, observing the spreading pool. "Also, I believe it is lethally poisonous to most forms of organic life, and probably will provoke allergic reactions in Thaxillian crystal birds."

"You could help out a bit, Tsuku!" Arf squeaked, trying her best to suppress the fire.

"I did. I told you not to put in that much pepper."

"Oooh, you are such a little..." Arf began, before squealing in pain and screaming, "Fate, the whipped cream has grown teeth!"

Three Days Later...

Admiral Lindy coughed lightly. "Well. As we stand on the cusp of what may well be our final battle, I seek the words to properly express my feelings.

"Miss Nanoha, Fate, Arf. The kitchen will never be the same, and I mean this literally as much of the equipment and about two-thirds of the floor and south wall had to be replaced. Miss Tsukuyomi, while I am sure you consider 'add a bit of milk' to be helping out, I cannot help but notice that your contribution to the entire fiasco was to mostly stand there and watch it, so while you did not technically make things worse, I do wish you'd thought to make them better."

"Miss Amaterasu. No. No, you can't pick up singles in the hospital ward. Nor can you do so in the brig. Why exactly you chose these two locations and nowhere else escapes me, but be aware that both sexual harassment complaints and requests by convicts for conjugal visits have gone up four-hundred percent in three days. And nobody needed that much paperwork whilst in the middle of the single largest military movement in TSAB history."

"Mr. Susanoo. There is not, and there never will be, an acceptable place on-board the HQ station for... and I have to quote you directly, since I have no idea what this even meas, 'fist-axe-fighting.' Seriously, what even is that? Are you fighting axes with fists? Fighting with fists made of axes? No, don't tell me I don't want to know. And no, walking into the middle of the largest chamber on-board and screaming, 'fist-axe-fight zone declared, enter all fist-axefighters!' does not make anything you did acceptable."

"Miss Vita, you should not have entered the fist-axe-fighting zone. As before, just because he declares it does not make it so, and 'but he just looked like he needed a punch' is not a suitable excuse for anything like the amount of damage you caused. Be aware that both of you are having the repair bills taken out of your pay, and neither of you gets paid."

"Miss Signum. I have to say I expected better of you. I thought that if anyone here was capable of adult behavior, it was you. So I'm just going to say this one time: I don't care what Miss Amaterasu managed to take a picture of, there is no appropriate time to burn a hole in the hull. Ever. And no, just because nobody died doesn't make it okay. Hard vacuum is still Hell on the upholstery."

"Miss Hayate. I know that you helped her get the photo. The maid uniform gave you away. You are technically already a criminal, please for the love of all that's holy stop making it worse."

"Miss Shamal... you were actually quite okay. That was a lovely job you did with Chrono's care, and if you're free next weekend and reality hasn't collapsed, Momoko and I were thinking of meeting up for tea. You're welcome to join us, we really should catch up."

Lindy paused, looking around the assembled group none of whom were willing to meet her eyes except Zafira and Yuuno, who had been very busy sitting in hospital beds over the last three days while the rest of the Brightest Hope of the Universe had revealed that locking a group of energetic geniuses with extremely unusual world views in a giant tin can floating in space was a horrible idea.

Chrono, in his own bed, still sleeping, twitched.

"Now, as you all seem to be unable to act your age... and I am including the ten-year-olds in that statement... you can spend your last day of preparation before we embark with the fleet task force cleaning up and repairing the frankly somewhat horrifying amount of damage you all did. Tomorrow we're going to face down genocidal despair in a final battle for the fate of billions and our very way of life," Lindy said flatly. "And I expect this station to be spotless when we do it. Am I perfectly clear?"

"... … … Yes'm," the Brightest Hope of the Universe said in dejected unison.

(*)

Susanoo hummed a little tune as he applied more cleaning agent to his mop and dunked it in the water. "You know, Tsusku, if you were cooking, you should have asked me to help."

"In my defense," Tsukuyomi said as she tried to straighten out a bent panel, "From the ingredients that Miss Arf procured, I assumed we were brewing some kind of chemical weapon for the assault tomorrow."

"Eeeeeeeh, that sounds even more fun! I wouldn't have had to start a fist-axe-fighting league if I'd known you were doing something cool!"

"What is that?" Signum asked, despite herself. Removing carbon scoring from duranium plating was, overall, more boring than whatever they were talking about.

"I'm not sure. Every time I try to start a league for it I end up getting arrested," Susanoo said cheerfully. "I'm sure that someday I'll manage to get a league going long enough to work out what it is, though. Vi will help!"

"No, I won't," Vita murmured, scraping something black and oddly hard off the wall with a razor.

"But you joined the league!"

"I punched you in the face, Blue."

"Which might be joining the league. And you know, we need to get our nicknames straight, because if I'm Blue, then you should probably be red. Friends should have matching nicknames, and we're friends, right?"

"No."

"The best!" Susanoo agreed. "So... I have to say, guys. This has been... well. Y'know? Fun."

"Cleaning?" Tsukuyomi asked mildly.

"No... well, yes. Just... the last few days. I know that we're all kinda trying to keep busy and not think about the future... or the past... or, well, think at all. There's a lot of bad blood to go around and maybe a lot more coming," he said. "So... I dunno. Just kinda chilling out and shooting the breeze with you people for a few days has been really nice. It feels... right. And that's why it's... kiiiinda hard to ask this of you all."

Vita and Signum stopped their work, turning to face Susanoo and Tsukuyomi, who were staring at them with identical expressions of worry. "What is it?" the leader of the Wolkenritter asked, her tone one of mixed confusion and concern.

"You all... especially those children. You've all been... way nicer and more patient with the three of us than we deserve. So we have no right to ask this. Any of it," Susanoo said with a sigh. "But Ammy and Tsuku and I have talked it over, and we really don't see another option. So we have to ask you..."

"Should this wait until the whole team is here, if it's that big?" Vita asked, arching an eyebrow.

"Not 'you' the group. 'You' the Wolkenritter," Tsukuyomi said softly. "This is a discussion we need to have knight to knight."

"Ah. Ah-ha," Signum said, nodding solemnly. "This is about your other siblings, is it not?"

Susanoo smiled sadly. "How'd you guess?"

"Knights understand a debt of honor," Vita said. "Us more than most, since as the Guardians of the Book of Darkness, we lost our honor for a long time, and getting it back was... a long road. Sometimes I feel like we're still not there, y'know?"

"Then you understand why we have to do something that the kids... the real kids, sorry Red... aren't going to like," Susanoo said firmly. "Loki, Thor, and Odin... we are not going to take them alive. We can't. They're traitors. Murderers. Abominations who turned against country and family alike. And I know that... Fate and them. They're not going to accept a fight to the death. They'll try to reason with them and... and be friends and all that kiddie junk."

"They did that with you, you might recall."

"Yes, but we're sane."

"..."

"Okay, sane-ish," Susanoo admitted. "Look, we're asking you this because you're older. You've been around the block a few times, and you know."

"Know what?" Vita asked.

"Know that there are many reasons to do battle. There are people who fight because they believe in a cause, and people who fight because they believe in a person, and people who fight for fun..." Tsukuyomi said, "And there are people who fight because they just enjoy killing. And there is only one way to deal with that sort."

Signum raised an eyebrow. "And if you truly believed this, why would you be ashamed to say it?"

"We are not... ashamed, per se," Tsukuyomi said with a sigh. "It is not so much an unwillingness to do what must be done. It's... well. How to put this..."

"An unwillingness to do it where Nanoha can see?" Vita asked.

"... … … Who?" Susanoo asked.

"Yes, that is what we mean," Tsukuyomi said, elegantly and discreetly elbowing her brother in the solar plexus. "The children. Nanoha Takamachi, Fate Testarossa... even the unpleasant little rodenty one. They're not soldiers. They're strong, in their own way, but... the thought of putting blood on their hands..."

"They can't know about this," Susanoo said bluntly. "And they definitely can't help. And frankly, we're not expecting you to help either. I know your master wouldn't allow it. All we ask is that... well. You just don't try to stop us when the time comes."

"We're not doing this for the sake of it, we swear. Well, Amaterasu maybe, but..." Tsukuyomi sighed. "We won't have any chance with Her Majesty if those three are guarding Yggdrasil. We can't afford to waste energy sealing them once we're engaged, and they will heal rather shockingly fast while on Al Sethis. Even if we can beat them at all, of course..."

"... then the only way to keep them down may well be destroying them," Signum said, an old sadness in her eyes.

"Hayate won't like it," Vita said simply.

"And Hayate never needs to know," Susanoo said. "I'm sorry to put you in this position. But we have our own duty to do, you know. This is an imperial execution for three criminals who committed high treason." He smiled sadly. "Just like in the old days, hm?"

"Why is it," Vita asked with a hint of annoyance in her tone, "that the old days always seem to be about people getting murdered, yet everyone we meet wants to bring some piece of technological horror back from them?!"

The four ancient knights pondered this in silence for awhile, before Susanoo said, "Well... we did have really good engineering back then..."

"Rhetorical, idiot."

"Sorry."

"I don't hear cleeeeeeaning!" Lindy's sing-song voice came from down the hall, prompting a shudder from all four. And the night continued in silence, until finally a group of very clean and unhappy warriors-to-be fell into bed for their last peaceful night before the plunge.

Outside the station, in the swirling void of the dimensional sea, another half-dozen ships joined the fleet.

Fifteen hours to launch.

(*)

Alone in her throne room, Enlil te Larsea the Third sat on a cold throne, her gaze far away. "They're coming for me, aren't they Yggdrasil?"

"Fleet movements confirmed, your majesty. A task force of respectable size is gathered, and..."

"And my knights have turned on me. I am surrounded by traitors and murderers who will stab the knife in as soon as my back turns," Enlil murmured. "Only you remain loyal, my prime adviser. Only you."

"Of course, your majesty," Yggdrasil said.

"But it's not over. It's never over," she continued, speaking to nobody in particular. "This is my world, you see? My empire. I defended it my entire life, and I will not stop now. Not for some... some rabble of ignorant children and moralizing dolts who turn aside my offers of peace and prosperity in favor of wallowing in the chaos they've built for themselves. No, no. I will not turn my throne over to such as them. Never to them."

Red light limned her form, running down her limbs, shimmering out from the folds in her cloak of office and making the garment blow like a hurricane had sprung up in the room. The walls of the castle, reinforced to withstand nearly any attack that could be named, creaked in protest from her bared power.

"This is my world. You want to claim it from me, you little insects?" she snarled. "You want it?! The doors are open! The Children of Infinity welcome you to Al Sethis with open arms!

"And we will bury you here."

The bracelet on her right arm gleamed black among the scarlet of her rage, answering the Twilight Queen's call to the final battle poised to begin.

The sword of kings, thirsty for blood.

(*)

Author's Note: It hits me surprisingly hard that the story is, finally, on the cusp of completion. In particular, this is the final 'happy-funny' chapter that it will ever, ever have. I... wow. I can't really wrap my mind around that, but wow.

Thank you, to all of you who have read, and all of you who have stood by through this interminably long and way too complicated mess of a story. I'm not sure why you did it, but you're amazing in my eyes for doing so.