Nanoha and Fate stood, side-by-side, on the observation deck of Asura, looking at the stars.
"I'm told we won," Fate said softly. "It doesn't really feel like it."
"We saved a lot of lives. Billions, in fact," Nanoha said.
"Yes. That's what Chrono keeps telling me," Fate agreed.
"But we couldn't save everyone."
"And you're right. It doesn't feel like a win. At all," Nanoha said.
"So… what do we do about that?" Fate asked.
"Try harder next time. Work harder. Be better. Never let anyone go again," Nanoha said. "I can't think of anything else to do. That's the only path for me, at the very least."
Fate sighed. "Try harder? I don't know if there's more we could have done, Nanoha."
"There's always more. I'm not going to stop, ever. If I do, then it was pointless," Nanoha said flatly. "The sky is in front of me, and I'm going to fly. If there's nothing I can do, then I'll keep going until I find something. And I'm going to save everyone I can, every time. That's just me, you know?"
Fate blinked a few times… and giggled. "Yes. Yes, that's you."
Nanoha pouted, and Fate was happy to see the somewhat goofy look on her face. "It isn't funny, Fate."
"No, no it isn't," Fate said, still giggling.
"You're being mean again."
"I'm not, really. I just…" she wiped away a tear of mirth, and smiled. "I'm happy to hear that. And I'll always be right there with you. I swear it."
The two stared at the stars a little while more after that, but they didn't say anything. It was a big, cold universe, but if nothing else, they could make it a little bit warmer. That would have to be something.
Hayate wheeled herself out of the hearing room, wincing at the pins and needle feelings up and down her legs. "This is unpleasant, all around."
"I warned you about too much fighting. You're lucky you didn't do any more damage to your legs that I could find," Shamal said primly.
"And I warned you that we would not be getting a full pardon, saving their homeworld or no," Signum said.
"And I warned you that we really should have eaten before we went inside," Vita said.
"Oh, all of you hush. I'm allowed to be bitter, it's been a terrible month," Hayate said. "And they really could have given us a full pardon. 'Limited house arrest' hardly counts. We saved the world."
"Technically, I believe we 'offered unofficial aid to a peacekeeping unit.' It lightened our sentence, but you knew they were always going to keep us under their thumb," Zafira said.
"Intellectually, yes. All of us make them very nervous," Hayate admitted. "But in my heart I was kind of hoping for better. I sometimes forget that not all higher-up officials are as nice as Admiral Lindy."
"And with that whole nonsense about deep-cover units going rogue, we needed to keep things on the up-and-up," Shamal agreed. "The Three Admirals are trying to keep the investigation quiet, but… everyone knows someone within the bureau is a traitor who tried to sabotage the final operation. We have to be seen as being treated with total fairness, or they'll be looking at us next."
"If it helps, I suspect we'll be providing more 'aid to peacekeeping units' in the future. Perhaps even receiving official ranks once we've worked off the full sentence, which should continue to shrink. We're too valuable a unit to give up," Signum said.
"Why would that help?"
"We have to keep our combat skills sharp somehow. And being part of an army is quite refreshing after all those years as a small unit. It's good to have a full support infrastructure."
"You worry me, Signum," Hayate said sadly.
"What? What did I say?"
Enlil picked a direction, and began to walk.
She didn't know where she was. She didn't know if there was anyone to find. Her guardians had deposited her somewhere seemingly at random; other than 'able to support life' she had seen no distinguishing landmarks. She was alone, and with Al Sethis gone, she was restricted only to Alicia Testarossa's truly pitiful Linker Core. She could barely keep up her Barrier Jacket (which was fortunate, because being a naked small child was about the only thing she could imagine that would make her situation worse) and both her devices had been broken, perhaps beyond repair. She had nothing and nobody.
She had considered laying down and dying, but it seemed petty. Her guardians had saved her life, regardless of her own feelings on the subject. It was a gift, in a way, albeit one she hadn't wanted. And further, the very fact she hadn't wanted it distressed her. Giving up was simply not in her character. It was getting harder and harder to disabuse herself of the notion that Yggdrasil had altered her in some way, which was… mildly horrifying. On a few levels.
Well, it didn't matter now. The haze was gone from her mind, her passion and hate had burned more or less out, and she had no idea what the future held for the first time in her life. And so she moved forward, uncertain what she walking toward, and focused on staying alive. Some kind of future had been given back to her, and she had chosen not to waste it, even if only to spite the universe.
That was something to consider, if nothing else.
Jail Scaglietti sipped his tea, and smiled at the Director's distorted face on his viewscreen. "Honestly, my friend, I wasn't expecting to hear back from you after that resounding success. You usually only call me when something has gone horribly wrong."
"Something has gone horribly wrong. You won't agree, but it's true."
"And you called to cry on my shoulder? I'm flattered! But really, the only reward I needed was the chance to work on that magnificent piece from your archives. Where did you even get it? I've never seen a dimensional distortion engine so potent and yet so delightfully portable. Oh, I have such ideas for how to incorporate some of the design schematics into the AMF generators."
"The location is classified. And even if it wasn't, I'm not here to do your job for you."
"You provide me with tech. In small, annoying doses, perhaps, but it is precisely your job. You know nobody can work it out better than me," Jail said cheerfully. "You hate it. But you know it."
Jail blinked in confusion. "I'm afraid I don't follow you."
"The founders are not pleased. Exposure was ridiculous on this mission. Resources were lost in unacceptable amounts. People saw many, many things that should not have been seen. Items that should never have seen the light of day were unleashed, and items that should have been safely taken and exploited were lost. And the Founders are… displeased. To say the least."
Jail's jaw dropped. "Surely you don't mean…"
"Section Black is being… reallocated. Our agents will be quietly retired or shunted to other branches. Our resources will be redistributed where appropriate and disposed of where not. We will technically still exist, but you and I both know what this sort of language really means. We failed and we're being shut down before an investigation can find something too incriminating."
Jail arched an eyebrow. "And my research? I am not truly part of your little clubhouse, but I do rely quite a bit on your services. Am I too being shut down?"
The Director said, his words sounding physically pained, "You are being… assigned a new liason with the Ground Forces. Regius Gaiz, you may have heard of him. But he is someone who will be judging your progress and determining the use for your output. You will be responsible for procuring your own research materials."
Jail was glad he was sitting down, because his knees felt weak. "The early-model drones are ready. Four of the current Combat Cyborg models can start operations on a moment's notice. To think I don't have to hold them back anymore…"
"I don't trust you. I don't believe that giving you any sort of authority will produce results other than disaster. But it is no longer my decision to make," the Director said flatly. "I don't truly think that there is any saving the TSAB at this point. Testarossa, the Book, and now this… too much chaos. Too much beyond our ability to control and prevent. You're another nail in the coffin, that's all. I just wish I didn't have to see it happen."
The line went dead, and Jail Scaglietti sat in silence for a few moments, until Uno finally peeked her head into the room. "Doctor, is your call over? Lunch is prepared."
"Uno, my dear. We seem to have found something unexpected. A bit of real freedom," he said. "True autonomy. Limited, perhaps, but…"
"I see. Unexpected, but… I should think this is good news? Why do you seem so somber?"
"Well, I was always planning to do this at some point. The power I want, the knowledge… there was no way the scraps they fed me could sate my hunger forever. But I was expecting it to take decades. Longer! I thought I would be on my third or fourth clone body by the time I achieved any sort of real progress! And here it is, while I am still a comparative child! I confess, I am not sure what to do next."
Uno pondered this for a few moments, and with a motion of will, turned on the lighting in the central storage unit. Through a window on the side of the room, they looked down over twelve tanks; some empty, some with a female figure floating inside, suspended in bubbling liquid.
"It seems to me, sir, that you should look at the power you have acquired, and what will be acquired now," she said, "and consider that you can do very nearly anything you want."
Jail smiled. "What I want. What. I. Want. Simple enough, and yet something denied us for so long! Well then. What I want is to, of course, have lunch; wasting your delightful cooking is inexcusable. Then, I really ought to work on using my new autonomy to find an appropriate gene-matrix to handle Nove's unique sensibilities. Certainly some mage, somewhere, will have a body suitable for her frame.
"And after that, I think I should like to write my name in giant, burning letters across the face of the universe. A tide of power and chaos that will end this decaying age, and spring us forth into a new era! A new world, forged in my image, where only the strong survive and the future is ripped from the cold, dead hands of those who would seek to hold us back from it!"
He held his hands high, looking down over his daughters, and the grin that split his face was disturbing indeed. But then, that was the fun of it all, no? Sanity was for those with no ambition. If you truly wanted to make your mark, to stand above society?
You needed to be a little bit mad.
"Welcome, my daughters. Welcome to my new world!"
Uno smiled demurely, merely watching in silence as the doctor laughed, and laughed, and laughed.
Author's Note: Dear Lord, it's done.
This story has taken up years of my life and far too many of my words, and most of it is my own fault. I started this piece at a time when I thought 'long' meant 'good' and so the end result was a piece that was ridiculously bloated and I could only do so much to fix it. But you know… I'm still a little sad to see it go?
Don't get me wrong. This story needs to end, it needed to end awhile ago. When I started I wrote it from the perspective of 'writing a season of the show.' But then I kept having ideas and piling on more and more and more (a problem that Chaos Theory also has, though to a lesser degree), so it ended up being more like four seasons worth of material. And that's crazy. I was crazy. Why did you let me write this, you loons?
But it was a learning experience, certainly. I had no idea how to write a novel when I started this, and it taught me a lot. Like 'for God's sake fewer action scenes' and 'for God's sake fewer scenes, period.' Again, poor Chaos Theory was started before it really started to sink in, but even that is slightly less bloated. Slightly. Brothers and Sisters is really the first story I started that really benefited from the lessons I learned working on Infinity, but I've put more than one of them to use in my original works, and hope to keep putting them to use for years to come.
This piece had some tremendous flaws. But it was a learning experience in a big way, and I like to think that finishing it all up has made me a better writer. I obviously still have a long way to go, but that's the thing about writing: you never stop learning, not until the day you write your last word, hang up your pen (or rather, keyboard. My handwriting is hideous) and go off to the final reward of all authors.
Which is, of course, some kind of insane asylum.
Thank you to everyone who has read this story, from those who dropped in last week to those who have stuck around from the very beginning. I'm so happy you enjoyed it (assuming you weren't just reading to let my awful work feed your hate, which I guess you could if you want) and I hope you'll stick around for future works, both original and fanfic. Keep an eye on my home page for both!
Which will hopefully be shorter and better.
Never stop improving, right?