'Beep… Beep… Beep… Beep…'

8:36 PM (16:36 hours)

Cranagan City

West Coast Base Area

Riot Force Six Headquarters

'Beep… Beep… Beep… Beep…'

That sound…

'Beep… Beep… Beep… Beep…'

What is it about that sound?

'Beep… Beep… Beep… Beep…'

There's just something about it that's so…

'Beep…'

Consistent?

'Beep…'

Repetitive?

'Beep…'

Monotonous?

'Beep…'

ANNOYING.

'Beep… Beep… Beep… Beep…'

Anyone care to shut that thing up?

"Ne! Ne! Tia! Get a load of this… It says, 'The Enemy invariably attacks on two occasions. A, when they're ready. B, when you're not.' Hilarious right?"

Drowning it out works too…

"No kidding. Tell me if this seems familiar to you… 'Professionals are predictable. It's the amateurs who are dangerous.' Sound like somebody?"

"You only got blasted by Nanoha twice for something like that… Hey! Speaking of… 'When you've secured the area, don't forget to tell the enemy.' Nanoha learned that the hard way remember?"

"So did we… This morning."

"Yeah, surprise-surprise…"

This was an interesting conversation…

"I can't believe this stuff is in a special operations manual. This entire list is like the most idiotic little reminders of common sense I've ever seen. I mean, listen to this one. 'Anything you do can get you killed, including nothing.' What do enforcers need this kind of information for?"

Maybe because if someone like Nanoha fell victim to that one from a while before…

"You should see the section on tactical movement strategies Tia. It has everything the general yelled at us about this morning during practice."

Practice? What…

"If he considers this content nothing more than basic training routines, how sad do you think that really looked this morning?"

Where?

"Or more importantly, if the TSAB as a whole considers this information to be of a Special Operations level, just what does he know that we don't?"

Special Operations? Enforcers? The Enforcer Special Operations Field Manual number six dash seven! The general was talking about that practice fight with…

What happened? What time was it? Why was he on his back?

Mind, check. Feeling of sheets, check. Wiggle your big toe?

"Hey, he's moving. Maybe he's dreaming about someone tickling his feet…"

Check.

"Get your face back! We don't need a repeat of this morning."

The darkness parted and fled to the corners of his sight as light flooded Crash's vision. The ceiling greeted him as he did so. He recognized the style immediately. A TSAB Infirmary. The incessant beeping of the Electrocardiograph reinforced the conclusion.

Why was he in an infirmary? Well, actually, given the kinds of things that liked to happen around him, the question would rather be why WOULDN'T he be there?

"I said get your face back!"

"I think he's awake… Hey! He is!"

"Then leave him alone a bit while I call Shamal."

Crash realized just how out of focus the world was when the blue and tan colored blur stuck itself into his line of sight. Blinking several times, he managed to bring the image into focus. A blue haired girl was grinning wildly down at him.

"Rise and shine," she singsonged mischievously. "You owe me an ice cream after what you put us through."

"Subaru!"

The name clicked in Crash's mind, and the events of the morning replayed. The general had surprised him by leaving him with Nanoha to practice. He fought the RF6 forwards, a group of Nanoha's trainees that included the girl leaning over him. Things had gotten pretty hectic and he was trying to buy some breathing room when… When…

"Oh," he grumbled, sitting up. "Never even saw it coming…"

"How are you feeling?" Tiana asked, yanking her partner back. Crash looked over at the brown haired girl before taking a deep breath and rubbing his temple.

"Aside from a splitting headache…" he paused. "Not bad actually. Very loose in fact… What time is it?"

"Nine PM," Subaru supplied. Crashed winced.

"Damn," he grumbled. "Twelve hours. No wonder I feel good. I've been out all day."

"Out nothing," Tia responded. "We thought you were going to end up in a coma after what happened."

Crash suppressed a small chuckle. Vita really did hammer him hard.

"I take it I lost pretty bad then…"

Tia seemed to tilt her head, before looking at Subaru, who shared an equally confused look.

"Are you kidding?" The center asked him. "You won. You about tore everyone apart in the process."

"What are you talking about?" Crash countered. The last thing that went through his mind was Graf Eisen. Almost Literally.

Both girls shared another look.

"You don't remember?" Subaru asked at length.

"I remember trying to jump away, and then… a loud bang, and concrete," Crash responded. "I guess that's around the point Vita managed to give me a concussion. Thank god for helmets."

"You really don't remember what happened after that do you?" Tia asked. Crash fixed her with a perplexed stare.

"After a 'Count Iron' induced concussion," Crash began. "I'm surprised I can remember my own name… Since it well, put me out for twelve hours."

"That didn't put you out at all," Subaru responded. "I would know. I was there when you put me through an office building a few seconds later."

"An office building?" Crash asked. That must have been-Wait, THROUGH?! WHAT THE-

"No…" he smiled. "You're pulling my leg… Trying to make me feel better after that defeat. There's no way I have the peak output to utilize that level of physical attack, even with armor augmentation."

"It's true!" Subaru pleaded. "Everything was caught on the monitors!"

As she said that, she brought up a local terminal and connected to the file in question. After about thirty seconds of hunting, she opened a display screen. Crash stared in disbelief, then in shock as he watched, HIMSELF, not only punch so hard it put the cyborg girl into a ballistic arc, but follow up with the most absurd chain combination attack he'd 'never' have come up with. One that included putting her through a building and hitting her immediately with a high power attack.

"No no no!" he snapped in denial. "That's physically impossible! I'm a C rank power with a Peak Output Tolerance of high B rank. That attack combination would require at least a triple A level sustained surge. Where'd I manage to draw that power from?"

"Cartridges," Tia said evenly. "In those few seconds alone, you went through nine of them."

"NINE?" Crash's mouth was hanging open. "That's suicide, even for an A Rank! How long did this go on? How many cartridges did I end up using?"

"Thirty-three," a new voice interrupted before Subaru could open her mouth. They all turned to see Shamal at the entrance with a rather bloodshot-eyed Shari shadowing her. Both had a serious look on their face as she continued. "In five minutes."

Crash blanked. Thirty-three? In how long? Five minutes? That wasn't unbelievable, that was absurd.

"That much energy forced into a body not conditioned to handle it is insane," Crash noted. "By all rights, using thirty-three cartridges would have killed an SS rank mage. It should have killed me."

"It almost did," Shamal nodded, leaning over to shine a light in his eyes. "The concussion Vita gave you on accident didn't help, but the backlash when you came down from your boosted state came very close to causing a cardiac arrest. Hypermana-shock. But that's just part of it... Magic also produces excess waste heat, especially when excessive amounts are channeled through low rank mages. By all rights, you should have been cooked in your own fluids."

"So why wasn't I boiled alive?" Crash responded while the doctor stood back and went to put her examination light to the side.

"Because of this," Shari responded, tossing a small metal object similar to a soda can at him. Crash caught it, and gave it a bit of an examination. The cylinder showed blatantly obvious signs of thermal damage. It was made of metal, but it was burned and melted so badly he couldn't even figure out what it had been.

"What this?" He asked. Shamal placed a stethoscope to his chest as Shari explained.

"That is, or rather was, a medium, laboratory scale Self Governing Focal Core. Now it's just five pounds of slag. I pulled that from your suit after they stripped it off you. You know what it does. It's essentially the equipment version of a Linker Core, but less efficient. It was burned up and almost fused into its module socket, and the two heat sink circulators that supported it were MELTED. I went through your device's performance data. Turns out that the whole system was still operating in test mode, which operates under elevated safety guidelines and has self-preservation limiters removed. Essentially, Battery went into Emergency Mode and ran the focal core at over three hundred percent output to take the load off your own linker core. Given another two minutes, it would have melted too, and then the armor around it."

"At which point we'd be peeling you out of it with a scalpel…" Shamal noted, holding one of Crash's' arms up and taking his pulse. "You are VERY lucky you didn't end up much worse…"

"Yeah," Crash nodded quietly. "Lucky. My kind of lucky more than likely…"

He turned the melted focal core over in his hand. This was what powered the Olympian Armor, and allowed him to get the boosted power systems. Battery had pretty much burned the suit out to save his life. Battery? BATTERY!

"What about Battery?" he shot back. "Is he-"

"Good news there," Shari smirked, pulling a pair of dog tags out of her pocket. "It was pretty easy to repair the damage and restore him to full capacity."

She tossed them to Crash, who quickly dropped the former magic core and caught them with a sigh of relief.

"I wish other devices were this modular," she continued. "Other than having to break the parts free where they'd partially melted to the socket, I had almost no problems replacing the damaged components."

"That's good to hear," Crash smiled. "How you doing Battery?"

[PRIMED. ALL SYSTEMS FUNCTIONAL AT ONE HUNDRED PERCENT]

Crash chuckled. Leave it to this device to make any comment at full force.

"Now," Shari held up a hand. "I didn't have the exact parts that were used in your equipment. It was all laboratory-grade. That stuff tends to be old surplus gear. Your core was a ten-year-old S3U module. I couldn't find anything that matched in inventory, so I had to find a part that fit by hand. It ended up being a type sixteen reinforced assault core. Just like what Raising Heart uses now."

"Doesn't that require a high pressure freon circulator and steam purge heat exchangar to cool?" Crash asked.

Shari nodded as Shamal stood back brought up a scanning terminal.

"At maximum power, yes. But maximum power for this thing is like the three hundred percent output for your old core. You won't be running very hot. But just in case, I made sure the replacement heat circulators had at least a steam purge mechanism. Your armor has more space for a heat sink than Raising Heart, and the armor itself can be used to dump waste heat in a pinch. You'll have a much better margin for error if anything like this morning ever happens again."

"What exactly DID happen?" Crash asked. "I don't move like that, no way no how."

"Aggravated Traumatic Flashback," Shamal replied. "The exact triggers are hard to figure out, but the symptoms are obvious. I'm not sure exactly what did it in this case, because you had been exposed to all the associated stimuli previously with no ill effects. It might have been simply that it required a combination of stimuli, or perhaps the concussion you received made you more susceptible to it. Regardless, whatever the exact trigger, the results were obvious. An immediate and aggressive defense response."

"What?" Crash asked.

"You went berserk," Tia supplied. "You not only punched Subaru through a building, you turned into a seven foot tall armored killing machine hell bent on her destruction. It took nine of us just to draw even with you. And even then we couldn't stop you. The only thing that seemed to make you stop was when you finally shot Nanoha-"

"I WHAT?" Crash gaped.

"Remember we said you WON?" Subaru asked. "We all tackled you at once. And somehow you managed to aim, fire, and HIT Nanoha with a shot powerful enough to leave a rather nasty burn at over a hundred meters."

"How could I possibly manage something like that?" Crash asked, turning to throw his feet off the bed and put his face in his hands. "I could barely think fast enough to keep up with two of you at once. Let alone nine."

"When one goes into a berserk state," Shamal advised. "The mind falls back on deeply engrained behavioral patterns and reflex memory. The body remembers what it was taught."

"But I wasn't TAUGHT combat!" Crash snapped. "That's what I've been trying to tell you! What I've been trying to tell EVERYONE. I'm a TEST PILOT. I do on the fly statistical analysis and behavioral prediction with a side of 'Dodge the Random Malfunctioning Machine'… For god's sake, I just break stuff!"

"That's what combat is," Shamal stated pointedly. "That is EXACTLY, what combat is. Everything you just described, the exact same thing."

The pilot and the doctor stared at each other for several seconds before she finished.

"People, breaking things, and each other."

They continued to stare, before finally, the pilot started to shake his head again.

"No…" He began. "No. It's not that simple. It's never that simple."

He pushed off the bed and grabbed the uniform jacket that had been laying on the stand.

"What are you doing?" Shamal asked.

"I need to think," Crash grumbled, quickly throwing the jacket on.

"It's not a good idea for you to be up and about after an episode like that," Shamal advised. "The long term effects may be more sever-"

"Try and stop me," Crash snapped, making for the door. Before he could get there however, Subaru managed to slip in front of him and block the way out.

"You should listen to the doctor," she advised. "It's for your own good."

Crash frowned, truly frowned, and leaned down and into the Cyborg's face.

"Move," he all but breathed, looking her straight in the eyes.

Subaru remained steadfast, looking past him to Tia for any ideas, but found her friend almost franticly trying to wave her off silently. Sighing, she stepped aside.

"Thank you," and with that, Crash was gone.

After a few seconds, Tia practically jumped across the room to slap her upside the back of the head.

"Idiot!" she growled. "Getting in his face like that. Do you have a learning disability? What if you set him off again? Do you have any idea what kind of damage he could do in here?"

Shamal shook her head, but looked at the two girls arguing, then turned to Shari.

"Did you see what I saw?" she asked.

"I saw a cute guy with poor self confidence," the tech responded. "I still can't believe he took out half my lab just by touching a light switch. What did you see?"

"Well when-" Shamal began, but was interrupted by a cavernous yawn from her associate. Of course, Shari had been up for twenty-four hours. Running on stimulants would only work for so long.

"Nothing," she smiled. "Go get some sleep."

"I've still got a component function test to do on that AMF pod," Shari responded. "I can't sleep yet."

"Doctor's orders," Shamal quipped.

"Fine," Shari shrugged. "I guess you're right… Maybe I'll figure something out after I sleep on it. Goodnight."


Hayate's room, two floors up, and half way across the building, was an entirely different mood. Lynn and Nanoha stood on either side of her bed, while General Roland stared at one of half a dozen screens showing various viewpoints of the replay of the early morning exercise. The tension was so thick you could probably can the stuff and sell it to a rubber band factory.

Truth-be-told, it was all Nanoha could do not to fidget in place despite being there for seven hours.

When the general received that little call informing him of what happened, it took him about an hour to get back to Riot Force Six Headquarters. Nanoha had been prepared for almost any response. She could handle screaming and yelling. She would have no problems with the creative number of ways the general would call her stupid or irresponsible. After all, it was her mistake, and she knew it.

What she hadn't been prepared for, was this.

When Roland arrived, everyone instinctively knew to clear out of his way. He spoke very little, but his posture screamed silently. First, he checked on Crash in the infirmary, then he'd turned to the two of them and had spoken some of the few words he'd uttered all afternoon.

"You two. Commander's Quarters… Now."

Nanoha knew how to handle just about any situation, save for the one she found herself experiencing. With most people, their anger was worn on their sleeve. They were easy to read. It was easy to think and react to the situation. Roland, she realized at that moment, was the Quiet Type. The Quiet Type were very BAD. She would know, she was one of them. And she'd never really considered the possibility of having to answer to… well, herself. So in this situation, knowing how she would be reacting made her sweat run cold.

Hayate wondered what was going on when the two captains had shown up in her room, followed by a frighteningly calm General a moment later. However, when she'd started to ask about it, the general had cut her off. 'Shut up Yagami', of course, was not the most polite way to respond, but it got the point across.

He followed up with a rapid-fire series of orders to the two captains, starting with setting up the half dozen monitoring screens, and then accessing the multitude of monitoring records from the early morning exercise. Then he began watching the entire training exercise. Nanoha and Lynn found themselves instructed to stand at attention.

If one has ever stood at attention for any length of time, one knew this could become uncomfortable after ten to fifteen minutes. This by extension, was borderline torture, because they stood there unmoving for the next seven hours.

Roland watched the training session over and over again, reviewing dialogue, angles, examining events, and generally going over the entire thing with a fine-tooth comb. After a while, he began to ask Hayate questions about certain things that were occurring, asking power descriptions, and beginning a running commentary with her. It almost seemed as if the two captains had found themselves forgotten.

But Nanoha had this sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach this was going to get worse before it got better. Of the things she noted. During the entire seven hours, Roland never once relaxed his posture. Opting instead to stand, arms crossed, at the foot of Hayate's bed.

Finally, her legs numbed up long ago, she almost gave a start when, in the middle of probably the eighteenth time she'd watched herself get shot in the back, the General suddenly paused playback and turned around, eyeing them both.

"Front and center," he snapped.

Relieved to be allowed the luxury of moving, if only for a moment, both captains quickly followed the instructions, coming to a rest, once again at attention side-by-side next to the general. Of course, now directly under the gaze of the commander, any relief they felt physically was certainly replaced by the spike in anxiety as he eyed the two.

"What happened?"

That was a question that, after witnessing the way it was used before, was obviously rhetorical. He wasn't asking what had happened. He had seven hours to determine that, and he had his conclusions already. What he was really asking was: 'What were you thinking at the time?'

However, answering that effectively often felt to a person like confessing to murder. One wanted to phrase it in the least harmful way, but at the same time, there literally was no least harmful way to confess to murder. And for Nanoha, who'd never willfully kill a person, this was not an easy question to formulate a response to.

"I'll start then," he continued, turning to the monitor.

"This, was the biggest, most absurd CLUSTERFUCK I've seen in twenty years."

Nanoha suppressed a wince as he elevated his voice to emphasize… That word.

"Yet words don't even BEGIN to describe the screw up here," Roland continued. "So it's no surprise you don't have a proper answer to give me. There really is no proper answer to give me to start with."

Hayate wanted to say something from her spot in bed, but knew better than to speak.

"However," he whirled on them again. "Given exactly what happened, we're going to try anyway. Takamachi, I expect after watching this for seven hours, you've spent at least some of the time actually thinking about what happened here?"

Crap! Read like an open book.

"So I expect you finally noticed your mistakes," he continued. "I count four, I only expect you to spot three."

Nanoha blinked.

"Sir," she began, then paused. Four mistakes? Why did this have to be so hard?

"Just tell what you know," he nodded.

"I failed to recognize the seriousness of Vita's panic, and was too engrossed in my own scenario to safely manage my exercise."

"One," Roland nodded.

"I… failed to adhere to proper safety protocols regarding large group training sessions," Nanoha continued.

"Regulation Alpha-Alpha Twenty Charlie," Roland nodded. "Any exercise that contains ten or more participants is to be deemed hazardous by default regardless of activity. Which invokes a plethora of other safety regulations. Regulations which, were thus violated by extension of the violation of Alpha-Alpha Twenty Charlie. Which brings us to mistake three, one that could have prevented such violations."

Nanoha blinked. What did she do wrong? Was she a little careless? Well, more people showed up than she'd expect, but still…

"Okay, you're human," Roland shook his head. "So I'll throw you a bone. Bardou!"

"Yes Sir!" the other captain snapped.

"What was your first mistake, and in turn, a mistake Takamachi reciprocated. I KNOW you know."

Lynn sighed, but answered.

"I mistakenly allowed myself and my team to join the exercise without expressing the number or type of participants involved, and failed to take into account the response of others in the area," she stated, never taking her eyes off a spot on the wall.

"Correct," Roland snapped, turning back to Nanoha. "You failed to clarify with her who, and how many. Which leads directly to the fourth mistake. Complacency."

"This is the other mistake you both made," he commented more loudly, addressing them both. "Takamachi, you made the assumption that everything was going as normal, and that when Bardou requested entry into the scenario, you assumed that she was the only one. Likewise Bardou, you assumed that Takamachi's scenario would remain static without her direct instruction. You each made a combined assumption that the other knew what she was doing, and made no efforts to double check."

Roland began to pace back and forth as he continued, his voice climbing as he did so.

"Because you two were so complacent in your assumptions about what was going on, you both neglected to be one-hundred percent sure about the situation and how things may evolve beyond your control, as is prone to occur in these situations. In short, your complacency caused you to bungle your jobs! The result of your combined complacent bungling caused the biggest obnoxious snowball of a situation that ended in a god damned CLUSTERFUCK THAT ALMOST GOT, MY PERSONNEL, KILLED!"

Roland emphasized 'killed' by slamming his fist on the corner of Hayate's bed, making a loud crack noise as it did so. Nanoha tried her best to contain her nervousness. He seemed to be taking great care to work slowly up to the screaming rage she had initially expected. A method of which was really good at cracking even the best composure.

"Takamachi, I KNOW you know better than that!" he continued. "You almost got killed yourself because of complacency, so I figured you would know not to drop your guard even under controlled circumstances. But I guess even the best of us need a little nip in the ass every once in a while to remind them they aren't fucking perfect."

"Sir," Lynn began. "I will accept full responsibility for this situation. If I hadn't brought my team to participate in the exercise, it would have remained well under Takamachi's control."

"Wrong answer Bardou," Roland shook his head. "It takes two to tango, and Takamachi dropped the ball just as badly as you did. There are no excuses to compensate for the complete breakdown of the situation or the failure to communicate. Mistakes were made on a fundamental level that caused further mistakes to occur with rapidly increasing frequency. This is unacceptable and must be corrected. Right now."

"Sir?" Hayate inquired from her spot. "If I may…"

Roland regarded the Lieutenant Colonel with a curious eye, but found her serious face betraying a valid contribution instead of any sympathies for her friends-come-subordinates.

"Go ahead Yagami," he nodded.

"I'd like to point out that there may in fact be a fifth mistake you either didn't notice, or neglected to mention in this scenario," she began. "One that really could not have been expected."

The general turned fully to Hayate.

"You have my attention," he nodded.

"Crash's abilities," Hayate motioned at the paused screen. "Even if you could predict the likely outcome from psychological experience, there was no way for anyone to expect, or even contemplate his abilities to be of this magnitude."

Pausing to see if there were any counters, but seeing none, she continued.

"By all rights, he's just a physically augmented C rank mage. Historically, there should be no way that a mage of his grade could possibly be anywhere near capable of the feats he pulled off. That being taken into account in the scenario that occurred here, by all rights should be impossible. Even with an intentional failure to adhere to safety protocols…

There was no evidence to suggest that he would become increasingly hostile if he snapped. Rather the contrary... And there was even less to suggest that if he became hostile, that he would be able to perform to a level to match nearly a dozen mages ranging from B rank to triple A rank. By every right, if he had gone crazy like he did, its perfectly understandable that Vita, plus the forwards, plus anyone else SHOULD have been able to quite easily suppress him."

Roland nodded in understanding. Hayate indeed had an investigator's mind.

"In short, his abilities were vastly underestimated," she finished.

"So I saw," the general commented. "However that does not dismiss the fact that there were several blatant critical safety errors out there this morning. Errors that by every right, should not occur. Errors that, no matter how you look at them, should have these two captains standing before review board for gross negligence and endangerment of Bureau personnel. An act which frankly, can destroy a career faster than you can say FLASH MOVE."

Nanoha gulped.

"However," Roland continued after letting that sink in for a moment. "There are a number of things here working in our favor. The first, being that the mages in question have wonderful records outside of this incident. The second is that despite what happened, nobody actually died today as a result of these actions. Despite coming very VERY close."

He paused again.

"Thirdly, since this was also a very unique scenario, it can be said that a lot of things occurred that nobody could have predicted. Given what we've seen, even if every safety protocol was followed perfectly, this might still have turned into a nightmare scenario beyond our control. As a result, I have decided to take the following administrative action."

The way he went flat in his tone for the last line made the room drop to icy cold.

"This entire fiasco never happened. These records will be erased from the primary database, and you will give me the backup on disk. I will be filing a report on holes in safety protocol under the excuse that I might have seen possible causes for severe injury or trauma from some training routines I witnessed."

The room was silent. For a few seconds, the three women each thought they heard the general just suggest something that was less than morally acceptable TSAB behavior.

"Wait," Hayate began. "Can you do that?"

"I most certainly can," Roland nodded. "Its called 'I'm a general, bite me' authority."

"You can't be serious!" She continued. "You can't just snap your fingers and 'POOF!' Regius couldn't even do that and he had more pull than you."

General Roland smirked, the first smile they'd seen out of him all evening.

"You'll discover that I'm not Regius, and for all his political skills, he didn't know crap about milking the loopholes of a bureaucratic system, or he wouldn't have been stuck in the hole he was in. I may get lost trying to get simple paperwork done, but never underestimate the power of technicalities."

"What technicalities?" Hayate asked at length. "This should, by procedure, be on its way up the line for critical oversight review immediately. To do otherwise is a violation of those procedures, and illegal."

"The technicality," Roland began. "That the Olympian Powered Armor Exoskeleton, is a classified prototype. And that any information involving said prototype, its activities, or its capabilities, may only be distributed at my discretion, and/or a need-to-know basis, only to people who have acceptable clearance levels."

Hayate's mouth worked in confused motions, trying to formulate a response. Roland turned and motioned at the monitor screens before she could settle on one.

"And that," he waved, "most certainly qualifies as information about the prototype, its activities, and capabilities. Would you not agree?"

Silence, for several long seconds. Then Hayate snorted, but suppressed a laugh since her chest was still sore. He had that excuse ready from the start. He had it planned out quite coldly. Anything he did, as long as Crash brought that armor along and put it into action, could be legally withheld from anything … Short of major criminal investigations by TSAB Internal Affairs. And knowing the system would tie anyone looking to pry up for months. Just attempting to get the clearance would give the general ample time to prepare legally.

"How do you manage to pull off being so… so," she began

"Two faced?" Roland completed her question. "Practice Yagami… As only worming your way up a bureaucracy while a hard ass keeps you under a microscope can give. Lots and lots of practice. I don't need a bunch of books to tell me how to dictate right and wrong. Neither do you. Half the laws in place are oversight-oriented ass-covering policies… Besides."

He turned to Nanoha and Lynn.

"I think making them stand at attention for seven hours while they contemplated their Fate was plenty of punishment for their offenses. As I learned long ago. Stupid punishments for stupid mistakes are real good at canceling out the stupidity."

Nanoha blinked as her mouth dropped open.

"You mean," she began. "You… You had me standing like that AS my punishment the whole time?!"

"Works quite well doesn't it?" Roland asked. "Made you go 'Oh no! He's angry, what is going to happen to me? I did something bad…' didn't it? My old drill sergeant once said: 'You can be stupid, and I can be stupid. But If I'm going to be stupid, I'm going to WIN.' And that always stuck with me."

Nanoha had to admit. It did work. She hadn't been this worried about her own future since way back in grade school… As she started to laugh unsteadily at the revelation that she'd been on the receiving end of direct psychological warfare, there was a beep at the door.

"Enter," Roland instructed. A moment later, Shamal stepped into the room.

"How's he doing?" Roland asked.

"Up and about," the doctor nodded with a slightly annoyed look. "Though he really shouldn't be."

"Wow, that was fast." He continued. "I knew the boy was made of sterner stuff, but to be up this quickly…"

"I did a quick routine examination," Shamal explained. "And despite having experienced a very severe Post-Hypermana Shock, he's in wonderful condition. His device did such a good job of safeguarding his life, that his linker core barely suffered any direct strain, and was actually strengthened as a result."

"What does not kill you makes you stronger," the general laughed.

"I wish that proved true more often," Shamal shook her head. "I wouldn't suggest something like that the first time around, let alone a second time. If even one thing had gone differently… His suit not working to save his life, or the components failing sooner, he'd be in a casket right now. It will be days before I'll be able to make any long term assessments on his condition, if he has one."

"We don't intend to have a repeat of this incident," Roland nodded. "It's not exactly a scenario one sets off intentionally. Most people don't like having a berserker on the loose. Which brings me to a question. What was your evaluation of his mental state?"

"He was certainly within the acceptable limits for someone who almost died," Shamal stated. "He didn't take learning how much damage he did too well. Perfectly plausible denial given the conditions he's been in lately. I suspect he needs some time to be alone and come to terms with the fact, but otherwise he didn't seem too bad."

Roland nodded.

"The only thing that really got me," Shamal noted after a moment. "Was the way he reacted to Subaru."

"Still paranoid of her," Roland shook his head. "Don't' worry that's-"

"No sir," Shamal interrupted, causing the general to blink.

"What?"

"I heard about the reaction he'd been having from Shari and the others. It strikes me as major Symptom of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The one his records show he was diagnosed negative. Though the evidence suggests otherwise, but I'll rant about that later." She partially glared for her last sentence.

"The thing that gets me here was the complete lack of a reaction when she got right in his face."

"He DIDN'T react to her?" Roland asked. "You sure?"

"Unless he learned to hide it really well," Shamal shook her head. "He was ready to initiate confrontation with her."

"That's definitely not what he would have done before," Roland frowned. "Again, are you ABSOLUTELY sure about what you saw?"

"Sir, he leaned down into her face and GROWLED at her to move. If she hadn't, I'm pretty certain he would have moved her, by force. He wasn't afraid. Period."

Roland placed his hand on his chin. If it wasn't one thing, it was another. Crash was turning into a conundrum. One minute he was a frightened kitten, the next he was a cornered lion. He'd been afraid of her before now… It had actually been his fear of her that had resulted in his little rampage. Now he didn't- wait, back up.

"Doctor," the general began. "Is it possible to that if someone is no longer threatened by the object of their fear, they'd stop fearing it?"

"It's theorized," Shamal stated. "One documented method for treating post traumatic stress disorder is through exposure therapy. And most therapy methods involve a form of mental confrontation with the express purpose of rationalizing, downplaying, and dismissing the threat until the person no longer reacts to it."

"What would you call… Aggressively attacking the threat and beating the crap out of it until you were informed that you were victorious?" Roland asked.

"What?"

The general turned to the monitor screens and hit several buttons. Bringing up loops of the various offenses Crash had launched on Subaru.

"What if Crash, who gained his phobia as a result of being beaten up by Combat Cyborgs, beat the ever living shit out of a combat cyborg?"

Shamal examined each of the scenes in turn. Technically, it would be similar in function to an extreme form of exposure therapy. Except, the recovery from exposure therapy was questionable on a good day. Still, there was the possibility that in beating Subaru this badly while in a primitive mental state, followed by receiving the reward response of a victory right after doing so, his subconscious closed the book on Combat Cyborgs being a threat. It would be valuable research material if true.

"It's possible," she commented at length. "But highly unlikely. Even if its accurate, it would be the fastest recovery from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder ever recorded. I suspect it may be only temporary, or at least, partial, pertaining only to Subaru."

"Still," Roland nodded. "It means that he can be snapped out of it with the right stimulation."

"I guess you could put it that way."

Roland stared at the screens and mulled over the thought of Crash broken of his annoying little phobia. If this could work…

"I'll have to think on this," the general nodded at length. "We're pretty much done here. Shamal, the information here is classified. I'll have Yagami brief you on the details."

"Yes sir…"

He turned to the two captains.

"Takamachi, Bardou. You're dismissed. Get out of my sight."

The two captains quickly saluted and made haste for the door.


Lynn, for the life of her, couldn't figure out exactly what had just transpired. A mistake nearly costing the life of a fellow member of the TSAB was not something that simply got brushed over with some forceful yelling. Sure, General Roland wasn't your average bureau commander, but still… She'd made a genuine life-threatening mistake of her own in starting the whole fiasco. Such a mistake was a complete failure on her part. A failure.

Failure was unacceptable.

It was thought that crossed her mind as she parted ways with a quiet nod to Captain Takamachi, and started wandering towards the roof. Crash had survived, no thanks to her carelessness, but it still pointed out how poor her judgement had been. She wanted to try a little of the legendary Ace of Aces herself since she had the opportunity. She wanted to pit her team against the group of Forward Combatants Nanoha had trained personally. The group who had stopped the Numbers while her own unit was chasing shadows on the far fringes of nowhere.

It wouldn't have hurt.

It SHOULDN'T have hurt.

Someone almost got killed…

A failure is a failure, and poor judgement must be corrected.

In order to be able to strike an enemy quickly, effectively, and decisively, one must have the clear and objective judgement to out think the enemy before they are even aware of the attack. A High Risk Assault specialist needed to be assured that the first strike delivered was the only strike needed. If she didn't have the judgement to recognize a possible danger, however unusual it might be considering the method of combat, she couldn't have that assurance in a critical situation.

And that would most certainly get her entire team killed…

Again.

Lynn buried that thought as she emerged onto the roof of RF-6 headquarters near the Helipad. It was dark out, and the JF-704 was likewise dark. However, despite this, the glow of Cranagan behind the building reflecting off some scattered mid-level clouds made more than enough light to see by. She'd come up here to think, but in the dark, noticed another figure over by the building's railing, looking out to sea.

Crash.

Deciding that she wouldn't find any solitude where someone else was seeking it, she started to turn away to find somewhere else. However, that nagging tone in the back of her head insisted that she owed him an apology at the very least. Causing her to freeze in half step.

Mistakes were to be corrected.

Heaving a sigh, she turned back to the pilot and walked towards a spot a moderate, but conversational distance away down the railing.


Crash, meanwhile, was brooding. He heard the person emerge from exit onto the roof, noticed the reflecting of indoor lighting on the rail. But he didn't care. He was too busy thinking about what he must have done in that fight. The total lack of any restraint he must have shown in that berserker state. He couldn't believe what the doc had told him. Even though he saw the recordings, he refused to believe it. There was no way he was essentially a sleepwalking killing machine on top of the hazard he'd become accustomed to life as.

The person behind heaved a sigh, and while he continued to mull over those thoughts, made to walk towards the rail, angling off to the left.

A minor note in Crash's mind considered the distance of the footsteps amidst his private self-loathing, noting that they would end at the rail just far enough to be respectful of his silent desire to be alone, but close enough to talk.

Deliberate.

But Crash continued to refuse to acknowledge that, choosing instead to drown his thinking in the sound of the waves from the shore not all that far from the building.

When the figure finally crossed into his peripheral vision, Crash noted the shiny silver of her hair the most. Lynn, that Shock Enforcer. Not Vita, not Roland, Not Nanoha, Subaru, or even Shamal trying to drag him back to a bed like a doctor would be prone to do. Just the Shock Enforcer.

Considering how little in the way of conversation she'd been up until this point, the threat of being disturbed vanished.

But still, the positioning was ideal for starting a conversation on awkward grounds. There was no doubt she wanted to say something, but also wanted to respect his privacy.

That's better than how most people had been behaving the last two days. Being treated like an object by everyone and his best friend had worn thin. Appraising out of the corner of his eye, he couldn't help but fall into a slightly old habit. Tracing the length of the rail from Lynn back to his spot where he leaned on an extremely sturdy concrete pillar that acted as an anchor for the rails, he spotted it. The building had been damaged in a firefight once, and it had minor signs of the damage left over where crews had obviously missed it over more critical damages. The loose bolt that anchored the rail to the pillar he rested against.

"Don't lean on the rail," he commented dryly, returning his eyes to the reflections of stars off the water. Lynn obviously wasn't expecting to have conversation initiated ahead of her. Reacting more in surprise than in acknowledgement, she backed off the rail.

"What?"

"Don't lean on the rail," he commented again. "It's not secure."

To emphasize, he decided on a quick demonstration, and dropped his hand from his chin, to slap the pillar he was leaning on.

"Ping!"

He couldn't see where it went in the dark, but he could tell the Shock Enforcer understood what he meant when the bolt freed itself from whatever tension it had been under.

"Oh," came the simple comment. "Thank you."

"Don't mention it," Crash responded. "Don't need any enforcers diving head first to their deaths… I already used our free pass regarding that. I don't think you'd be so lucky."

Lynn closed her mouth in silence. He pretty much started and ended the conversation with no real way for her to break the ice. And she couldn't exactly remain out here close enough to start another one if she looked silly standing back from the rail. Seeing no other option, she chose to be direct.

"I must apologize," she turned to him.

Crash regarded her in the corner of his vision.

"What for?"

"For my actions this morning," she continued.

"What actions?" he asked. "You didn't do anything to me."

"It was my decision to intrude on Captain Takamachi's training battle that resulted in the events that occurred." Lynn explained. "I made a critical error in my judgement based on eager selfishness. An error that got you hurt. I failed."

Crash turned his eyes back to the ocean, watching a play of moonlight from one of Mid-Childa's two moons on the waves.

"Not your fault," he began again at length. "Some things are going to fail whether you are involved or not. Trust me, I break enough stuff to know it. Just, things like to fail around some people a lot more than others. Don't let it bother you."

Lynn seemed somewhat satisfied, nodding silently before turning to walk away towards the rooftop exit somewhere behind... Still, it didn't seem quite right. It was just too easy. A few words just don't fix a mistake of this-

"Is it really so simple?"

The shock enforcer paused at the unexpected question the test pilot asked.

"Is what simple?" she asked.

"Combat," he responded. "Is it really nothing more than people breaking each other?"

Lynn regarded the unusual question with minor scrutiny. Something was definitely bothering him, and if she could help him come to terms, that would at least make up for loss. But this question…

"Yes," she commented at length, wandering back towards the pilot to come up along side him on the right. "It's a very simplified- Is this rail safe?"

"This one's fine," he commented, at which point she leaned against the rail opposite the one he'd warned her against.

"It's a very simplified way of putting it." She continued. "The nuances and methods are complex, but the core idea is that either you break your opponent, or your opponent will break you. Why do you ask?"

Crash sighed. "Long story, short point. I've never had a day of combat training outside of the TSAB basic course, and I've got everyone from the Ace of Aces to my own commander insisting that I could be utterly devastating if I would just go with it."

"From what I saw," Lynn commented. "You really could."

"Exactly," Crash sighed. "I proved them all right. I proved them all so right without a shadow of a doubt as to the contrary. Without a single day of active combat training."

"So what if they're right?" she asked. "If they're right, that's all there is to it. You have a quality most people train their entire lives for."

"A quality I don't fully understand," Crash commented sourly. "My first experience with combat was a nightmare. I was doing the preliminary field test work for my armor, when I was rerouted by someone in high command to be a mop up man for some straggler drones involved in the auction incident. Instead, I was engaged by six combat cyborgs in a jamming barrier in the middle of the Ceres Ocean without anyone to back me up. I remember every move we made, even as I futilely tried to evade them for exactly two minutes and twenty-eight seconds before they finally managed to out maneuver me. The armor was the only thing that saved me, and was probably what they were after the whole time."

"Not bad for no experience," Lynn nodded.

"It gets better," Crash prompted. "Since the armor protected me from the attack, they hadn't taken me out like they intended. And when I recovered from the hit, something snapped. I went ballistic. I splashed the one who'd hit me first in under fifteen seconds. I don't know who she was, but I remember the cold business-like look on her face when she'd hit me the first time… And then the look of shock when I cleared six thousand vertical feet with a MACH Strafe and punched as if to go right through her. After she went flying, I shot her with a low power buster before she'd even recovered orientation. I remember every move I made, but not why I was making them and what I was responding to. I just 'DID'… The only other thing I could remember was thinking that if I was going down, I was going to make regret having to carry me back as a prize."

"Hell of a first battle," Lynn nodded solemnly. "I can see what made you act the way you did this morning. So what happened next?"

"I fought them at those odds for another five minutes," Crash continued. "I was beyond fighting for my life, I was fighting just to spite them as much as possible before they killed me. But they were catching on to the tricks the armor was allowing me to pull off. They would have run me down simply by taking turns in the attack slot. Then Roland finally got a message that reinforcements were on the way using a very odd trick with ionizing the upper atmosphere… Don't ask. It snapped me out of it, and I broke off. It was actually Nanoha and Fate who made the intercept, but I never saw them. I just saw their busters clearing the air, and had a brief radio exchange before sprinting at mach three all the way back to base… But not before taking out the drone that had been causing the jamming."

"You stood up to superior odds and came out not only alive, but in good shape," Lynn commented. "There are many who've gone up against far less, and come out far worse. I lost my first squad command over an intelligence error and a tactical mistake. The people I'd been through the academy with, my best friends. All dead… I barely came out alive. I don't know how it happened really, but we were slaughtered so fast and clinically, it was infuriating."

"What happened?" Crash asked.

"HE happened," Lynn shook her head. "We encountered the silent shadow himself. Mr. Kage, the man in the mask, head of Sektor Twenty One. He never spoke. He simply appeared, and destroyed my squad so fast I couldn't even figure out what fighting style he used. I was pinned under a cinder block wall and severely burned by an explosion from one of his attacks. That's why my hair is uneven. If it weren't for modern magical healing, I'd have been scarred for life, had I survived. But as a reminder of that failure, I kept my hair this way."

"You never even stood a chance," Crash pointed out.

"But if I had even one TENTH the natural skills at the time that you have," Lynn continued. "I could have done something. I could have injured him, slowed him down… Just making him bleed would have been enough to get a DNA ID on the bastard. But as it stands, I made a grievous mistake choosing to pursue after it was obvious the intel was botched. I thought my squad of rookies could handle whomever we met. They paid for my mistake with their life. Just a tenth of your skill would have been all I asked for."

"Skill I'm not in control of…" Crash quipped. "Okay, so I can fight. Whoopee. I proved Will right, sure, but how many people might I have accidentally killed with my own two hands? If they hadn't been so sharp, I might have gone and killed Subaru… And THAT scares me more than life threatening combat ever could."

"Fear is normal," Lynn nodded.

"Is it normal to fear yourself more than the enemy?" Crash asked. "I'm a danger to myself and everyone around me on a good day. But now…"

Lynn turned her head. He really was beating himself up over this. The sad look on his face just didn't seem to belong.

"You have the ability to handle it," she reassured him.

"I don't know how," Crash sighed. "I just don't know how."

"Then perhaps," she began again. "What you need, is to learn how."

Crash turned his head to look at her.

"What do you mean?" he began. "That's what everyone's been trying to teach me."

Lynn shook her head.

"They've been trying to teach you skills you already know. From what you've told me, the thing that's lacking is your own confidence in what you can do."

"And what do you suggest I do there?" Crash asked, turning his head to look at the waves again. "Watch video of myself? News flash. Already did, doesn't work."

"No."

Crash looked Lynn once more. Her features had hardened to their cold determination he'd remembered.

"What you need, is to experience your own skills," she stated, then smiled softly. "Would you care to spar?"

"Spar?" Crash asked.

"Spar," Lynn nodded. "No magic, no scenarios, no pressure. Just, spar."

"And what if I accidentally hurt you?" he asked. "I'm pretty sure that if I hurt you right after the insanity that happened today that-"

"You WON'T hurt me," Lynn interrupted, her gaze turning deadly. Crash could almost feel the frosty glare before it softened and she spoke up again. "You also worry too much."

"For good reason," he patted the rail he'd warned her against.

'Clang!' it dropped free and hit the concrete at their feet.

"Except you notice it," she admonished. "If you can figure out what will happen before it has a chance to happen, that's a threat accounted for. It's something you can prepare for."

Crash sighed. The enforcer was right. He was worrying over things he could easily account for.

"Alright," he nodded at last. "If you think it will help."

Lynn smiled. Perfect! If she could just get him to engage his own fears, he'd be on the road to recovering his dignity. This would require a, 'creative' approach.

"Step over here," she motioned towards the wide area away from the edge of the roof. Crash followed the shock enforcer until she planted herself squarely in the middle.

"We'll start by letting you see for yourself just how fast you can react to threats," she instructed. "This exercise will be simple. I'm going to hit you, and you must avoid being hit. To make things easier, I'll be calling out the intended target of my strike. You simply prevent that blow from landing."

Crash blinked.

"Wait, how am I supposed to prevent you from-"

"FACE!" she snapped.

Crash's eyes widened as a blur shot forward at him. Moving to protect his nose, he snapped his arm up in response, knocking Lynn's fist to the side."

"Just like that," she pointed out. Crash looked over, she'd kept her arm in place where he'd pushed it to the outside. "Your body knows what it's doing. Trust it."

The test pilot nodded mutely as she pulled her arm back and took a fighting stance. After a moment, she instructed again.

"Watch my face," she indicated. "Don't telegraph what you're thinking. Ready?"

Crash locked his eyes on Lynn's.

"Okay…"

She inhaled deeply and then let it out, relaxing and loosening up, then paused for several seconds. Crash was beginning to think-

"FACE!"

He moved on instinct to swat the blow away again. Lynn's eyes flicked off his to the hand he used for a moment then back to him.

"STOMACH!"

'Swat!'

"Throat!"

Deflected. Lynn then decided to change up on him.

"KNEE!"

Crash bent and swatted, but missed as she snapped a soft kick to the side of his knee, causing him to hop the blow off slightly. However, she didn't really strike with force, intending only to make it sting.

"You don't have to hold still," she advised. "If you can avoid the blow by dodging, do so."

Crash nodded and resumed the stance he was using.

"KNEE!" she snapped. Again, she lashed out with her leg, but this time Crash snapped the intended target back in a step motion.

"FACE!" and she took a swipe again. This time Crash tilted his head back, using the combination of the slight distance gained from his step and the motion to make her strike pass inches in front of him.

"Very good," she commented. "See, you are perfectly capable of reading these moves. Now I'm going to speed this up. Get ready for a combo. And relax… you don't need to be tense."

Crash nodded, trying to follow her method of loosening.

After a few more seconds, she stepped in. Crash caught the motion and started moving his hands before her mouth opened.

"FACE!"

'SWAT'

"STOMACH!"

'SWAT'

"STOMACH!"

'SWAT!'

"FACE!"

'SWOOSH!'

Crash ducked back as he read her motion, flowing from the reverse punch around the spin on her foot into a kick, and stepped back. Then she picked up even more speed.

"FACE! KNEE! STOMACH! SHOULDER! FOOT! FOOT! CHEST! THROAT! GROIN! FACE!"

In a blur, the test pilot rapidly worked to keep up with the wild and varied barrage, no longer even paying attention to what she was saying, and gulping internally at a narrowly avoided groin strike before jumping back completely to clear her face swing.

"Very good!" she nodded as she came to a stop. "I see I can dispense with the informed attacks. The next set will have no warnings. Don't get hit!"

Crash blinked and took a surprise step back, but before he could open his mouth, the shock enforcer was coiling into an attack stance. The first move she let loose was a roundhouse kick, closing the distance at the same time. Then she repeated the move and used the momentum to launch into a series of blows that conserved her angular momentum as well as minimized the time between one attack and the next.

Crash responded to the attack by backpedaling away from the two kicks before slapping a blow down and stepping over a sweep. Lynn increased the rate of her attack once more, stepping in close and attempting to either punch him, or slap him in the face with the flat of her hand, just because she could. He couldn't quite tell, but he swore he caught her smirking when he slapped that one away. This went on for several more seconds as the test pilot systematically retreated to control her distance from him.

"You. Can. Do. This." she commented between swings. And then she finished with a flourish by stepping out of a spin and lashing her palm flat and forward. Crash rolled sideways and let it hit air. Lynn paused in the finishing stance.

"Simple," she nodded. "Look how well you avoided that mess."

"Did you try to SLAP me in the face?" Crash asked.

Lynn smirked. He been able to pick that detail out…

"What's it to you?"

Crash bristled. She DID, she did try to sneak a cheeky little insult to mock him. Good thing it didn't land.

Lynn saw his eyes twitch ever so slightly. Good.

"Now if you want to make something of it," she commented. "We'll take this up a notch. You are welcome to attack."

And she stepped in again, slower once more, but still rather quickly as she launched an assault. Crash backpedaled from the attack, a little shocked at how fast this was progressing. Catching an opening, he took a swipe, which was blocked easily, forcing him to defend against a snap combo as she took revenge on the attack. Again, he saw an opening and started to go for it, but rescinded half way there when she came around to counter it with a weak strike, causing him to flinch and step back before it could land.

"You'll never hit me second guessing your moves like that," she snapped after the follow up sweep. "If you're going to fight, you're going to take a few hits. Stop thinking about it and get used to it. It's more important to know what you can and can't handle."

To emphasize her point, Lynn feinted twice and tapped a snap punch into Crash's open shoulder. The pilot winced, but the blow wasn't intended to really hurt more than just be felt. Crash jumped back and sized her up for a moment, absent-mindedly rubbing the spot she hit.

"Right…" he commented, eyes narrowing. "Stop thinking…"

"Exactly!" Lynn responded. "Don't think, DO."

And to her surprise, Crash planted his foot and launched a true attack.

The blows were sloppy, but quickly showed clear intent to hold the initiative, keeping her defensive as they reversed the overall picture of who was forcing who to backpedal. Quickly bringing herself back up to speed, Lynn let her combat skills take hold and found an opening in his moves to launch a counter assault, reversing momentum again.

This went on for a few seconds until Crash likewise turned the offensive about… with the same exploit she'd just used. He couldn't have learned to recognize that! Could he?

"Incredible!" she snapped in the middle of her retreating exchange. "Pay attention! This is what you can do and more!"

Crash blinked wide eyed, realizing how fast his body was moving in response to her, and for just a moment, slowed down. Lynn smirked and shot in on the opening he left, only to blink in surprise when the opening closed itself via Crash slapping her strike aside forcefully. That's when it really hit her. While working him over, she'd been more occupied with building his confidence than evaluating him as a fellow combatant. That last sloppy response made her realize one important factor. Without their magic, he was the physically superior specimen. He was bigger, stronger, and had much farther reach, and he was in great shape.

Lynn leapt back as he seemed to take energy from the confidence he was gaining to accelerate his assault. On top of things, big didn't mean slow. Crash was up to speed, and Lynn was amazed. He was lightning fast. Almost as fast as her in a powered down state. In the accelerated attack, he quickly drove the shock enforcer back as she relaxed to evaluate him some more. His moves were fast, but he was very sloppy. His techniques little more than close mimics of actual refined combat moves. He was wasting precious energy and time telegraphing the moves he was making and striking many a time with more force than he had to. Against anything less than a person specialized in open hand close combat, it would remain unnoticed, but for her, it was showing in bright neon lettering. He would wear himself out if he didn't go for a-

Crash pushed her defense to the side, long enough for his foot to snap into the air above his head.

-Finishing Move!

Lynn responded with insane speed, rolling counter-intuitively into the kill zone of the attack and lashed out with her foot, knocking Crash's planted leg out from under him. The test pilot toppled instantly. Lynn then realized what he did as her thinking caught up with her. Add flexibility to the list. That was a heal kick he'd attempted.

Crash struck the ground, but didn't stop there, even as Lynn followed up to hit him while he was on the ground. He rolled clear of her attack and pushed himself to his feet, immediately having to skip back several steps as Lynn arrested total initiative and drove him retreating across the rooftop.

Crash finally managed to fight his way to a stop and leaned into a tight guard, breaking into a counter offensive that drove her back as fast as she had driven him. This time the moves, while still sloppy, were a lot tighter, almost as if he'd already worked out what was wrong and was fixing the moves up to make it work. Not wanting to let him slack off, Lynn broke his guard and pressed a counter-attack, coming well inside his reach and exchanging strike attempts so close she noticed how fast his eyes were darting back and forth.

Crash snapped a punch and used that to step back out of the fray and coil his body. Lynn prepared to close in and prevent him from launching when she realized he was already half way there. His foot coming up and over so fast into a heal drop that her only option was to catch and roll with the blow before trying to dump him off to the side.

The enforcer was genuinely shocked. Did he actually recognize the mistake of his previous heel kick and corrected it in that brief amount of time? The problem with the previous kick was that it was a two step up-and-down motion. Which left it wide open during the momentary pause at the top of the swing. In this one, he'd launched it as a circular sweep from the side, cutting the time on it in half. He was doing spectacularly, but it would take more than just some hand to hand to get him comfortable with his techniques. He would still require having a feel for his powered up state. Given how his body seemed to be fine, it was probably safe to do so.

"Look at that!" she snapped as they parted. "You have a master fighter's reflexes. Even if you're sloppy. You actually surprised me with that kick."

"I did?" Crash asked.

Lynn nodded.

"I've not sparred with someone capable of landing a straight blow on me except for the most well trained hand to hand experts," she complimented him. Of course, she left out that she wasn't fighting to the fullest of her natural talent, but he needed the confidence. "You're still lacking in subtlety though, but I have just the trick for that."

With a snap, she activated her barrier jacket, going from her regular enforcer uniform to a white body suit. She could visibly see Crash try to hide a cringe, obviously understanding where this was heading.

"Transform and power up," she ordered. "You know what your body can do, now you just need to see your power at work."

"Is that a good idea?" Crash asked. "I'm over a hundred times stronger in the armor and if I slip up in that it'll end up hurting-"

"Don't THINK" Lynn admonished. "Just DO."

Crash shut his mouth and activated the Olympian armor with a flash of light.

"The armor is merely an extension of your body," Lynn advised him. "It doesn't do anything you don't tell it to do first. If you punch, it punches. If you dodge, it dodges. It's your body it's following, not a predetermined path. If you jump…"

Lynn pushed off the concrete and flipped backward in a wide arc to land on the elevated part of the roof. Over a dozen meters away.

"…It jumps!" She finished. "Now jump up here!"

Crash took an apprehensive breath, but obeyed, jumping up after the enforcer in a slightly steeper arc, without any of the fancy flipping she had done in the process. He landed with a mild thud that made him wince as cracks splintered out from where he'd come to a stop.

Lynn regarded the damage left without betraying any emotion. It gave her an idea on how to teach this lesson, without having to make him more nervous by fighting in his armor.

"All you need to do," she explained. "Is learn to recognize exactly how much more powerful your armor makes you, and learn to recognize the difference. It's just a simple matter of learning control. Power is nothing. If you can make the armor do things as gently as you desire, you're in full control."

With that she turned, looking down at some of the balconies below.

"This is what we're going to do," she instructed. "Follow me. Land where I land. And all you have to do, is land softly."

And she jumped. Crash watched her seem to float silently until she landed like a cat on a pillar for a balcony rail below. Looking back up, she waved him down.

Crash leapt into open space… Apprehensive as he aimed for her. As he approached, she bounced down to a lower balcony as lithely as a gymnast. Crash hit the pillar with a thud, feeling a slight shift as it cracked and tried to crumble from the impact.

"Use some flight magic to lighten the load," she instructed. "Float that landing!"

Crash leapt again, following her down and taking her advice to try and soften the landing. Lynn split her legs and pitched backwards off her perch with a flip.

Roland, Hayate, and Shamal were still conversing when Lynn's sudden landing on the balcony beyond Hayate's window caught the General's attention. As he gave a startled look, the other two turned to observe as Lynn, staring at something above her, hopped back from one rail pillar to the next deftly, then did a back flip over to the next before leaping on out of sight.

A second later, an even bigger surprise happened when a matte gray eight hundred pound power armored suit landed with only a mild clank in the same spot, on one foot. Then it bounded quickly to the next step and mimicked the flip by twisting first. Then it too leapt clear.

For a few seconds, the three stared out the window, until finally, they looked at each other. Roland and Shamal then raced for the balcony and threw it open as fast as they could.

"Keep it up!" Lynn responded as Crash followed her across the length of the building, hopping from balcony to balcony in a clumsy, but softening chase. At last, she ran out of building and bounded cleanly onto the top of one of the parking lot lampposts. Crash landed on the balcony she'd left and turned, then stopped and crossed his arms.

Lynn looked down at her perch and understood. Even landing lightly, this one wouldn't hold that armor.

"Okay!" She shouted. "Try and keep up!"

And with a spring, rocketed upwards into a high arc, leaving a faint silver blue trail of the flight magic she'd used to massively augment the jump.

Crash crouched, the Grav Drive having warmed up, and leapt after her. They arced over the highway running behind RF-6 Headquarters and landed on a building across it, but she didn't stop, choosing instead to bound farther and higher onto a taller building, making her way towards the largest buildings she could find in the area. Crash worked doggedly to land exactly where she had been, as if trying to jump on her. Lynn didn't make it easy, but she didn't make it too hard by staying only half a jump ahead of him.

Soon the two were bounding a quarter mile at a time, their ground speed higher than most light aircraft as they leapfrogged about the district. Things got increasingly more difficult when Lynn suddenly decided to land on a delivery truck moving down the highway, before bouncing into the gap between two buildings and wall jumping back and forth up the side of them. It was an exercise in precision and speed, one that Crash concentrated all he could to prevent damaging the vehicle when he landed with a hollow thump and took off again without so much as a dent.

As he ascended into the gap, he put his arm out to soften his impact into the wall, and then pushed up and off to the other one, then repeated Lynn's moves before following her out of the gap at the top onto the rooftop. He landed deceptively soft as she took several running bounds ahead across the rooftop before taking a diving leap over the side.

He could do this! And what's more… this was… FUN!

Inhaling deeply, Crash smiled, and took a running start, diving headfirst over the side… To be presented with a rooftop a lot closer than he had predicted. Twirling rapidly and controlling his descent, he hit the roof and launched himself forward into a roll before pushing off with his hands and bounding right to his feet and into a dash behind Lynn. Who bounded off an air conditioning unit the size of a truck and over the side of the building.

This wasn't so bad! The armor was so responsive, that if the HUD wasn't there, he would have forgotten it was there in the first place.

About then, a message alert popped up in the corner.

Cranagan Center Air Traffic Control (CCATC):

-CLASS B AIRSPACE CLEARANCE APPROVED-

Altitude and airspeed restrictions canceled.

"I didn't request a class B airspace transition," he blinked in confusion, absentmindedly following Lynn through another bound off a highway right in front of a slightly surprised motorist.

Watching Lynn bound in front of him, and realizing he hadn't had this much fun since that first flight test of the armor, a devilish grin washed over his face. As they bounded their way back westward, he pushed off sharply, climbing through his arc much faster than the enforcer did.

Timing the stunt just right, he swooped up behind her and above, just fast enough to easily slip his arms under hers, and hook her below the shoulders.

"What the-" she began, craning her neck back to look up at him. "What are you doing?"

"I feel like having some fun," Crash crackled. "What's the fastest you've ever gone?"

"I can hit mach one in an attack dive," she snapped. "Why?"

"Way too slow!" Crash smirked behind his faceplate.

Transitioning into full flight, he leveled them off, but kept her held firmly in his grip.

"You ever heard of advanced barrier shaping principle?" he asked. "It's got some really neat uses."

"I've heard of it," she commented. "But I don't normally have time for 'neat' uses."

"Oh you'll like this one," the pilot crackled back. Looking down, he watched the coastline approach as he took them out of the city and into the bay. He was picking up a little speed as he did so. "The idea is that shaped barrier principle can be used to simulate complex mechanical designs. In fact, an aerodynamics barrier is a very simple use for it."

"What's that got to do with how fast I've gone, or what we're doing here?" Lynn asked.

Crash checked again, the coast passed below them and they were now over the water. Commanding silently, the armor and the device running it responded by activating the barrier.

Lynn looked as a cone shaped barrier formed around them, followed a moment later by a second barrier that looked like two funnels meeting end on end.

"What are-"

There was a crack back behind their feet, and a glow, and she felt as if someone had just strapped a rocket to her as they began to pick up speed rapidly.

"This is called a SCRAMJET!" Crash crackled over the noise. "It's the engine principle that makes this armor capable of doing mach three, and it's made completely out of barriers! HOLD ON!"

The enforcer's eyes nearly bugged out as they passed through the mach one threshold; moonlight briefly reflecting off a conical cloud that formed as they continued to accelerate.

She wasn't used to this. This wasn't what she was trained for. This wasn't what she had in mind. Maybe this was a bad idea after all.

Crash leaned back slightly, causing them to climb.

"Mach two!" he announced. "We're clear to go as fast as we want out here."

With that, he rolled on his side and yanked them to the left, causing her heart to skip a beat. And after a moment, he snapped a roll the other direction and turned hard again.

"Mach two point five!" He announced over the din of the super cruise 'engine'. "Two and a half times faster than you've ever gone! Now to get some altitude!"

Crash yanked hard upwards, causing Lynn to feel vertigo she felt only during her most intense attack moves, but worse. After a brief climb, Crash suddenly rolled on his back and pitched himself back to level off, causing Lynn a elicit a yelp of surprise.

"Now who's scared?" he asked in amusement. "Cruisers in orbit go faster than this. Relax, or you'll miss the light show."

Light show? Lynn calmed herself slightly trying to figure out what he was talking about. Looking around, she realized that at the speed he was holding, they'd already carried out to sea quite the distance from Cranagan. Away from the light of the city, the moon reflected off the waves far below them in a hazy pattern, and the clouds around them were lined with silver. However, out ahead of them, was what he meant. A solid mass of silver topped clouds stretching in a line from the north to the south, flickering constantly with the internal lighting of lightning.

The effect was stunning.

"That's beautiful…" she stated in surprise. Seeing things like this from orbit didn't have quite that feeling of… REAL, that this had. Being in the middle of the picture was a little different than observing the painting from a distance.

"Isn't it?" Crash asked in response. "This is where it's at, being in the middle of it and seeing nature at it's most awesome. And that cold front is about get a LOT more awesome."

"Wait, you're going to fly INTO it?" Lynn asked. There was a line one didn't cross when it came to ignoring your fears, and doing things that were just plain stupid.

"Oh HELL no," Crash crackled back. "We're not flying INTO it. At this speed we'll cause compression lightning non-stop and I don't even want to think about mach three hail stones. I'm not crazy enough to see if this suit can survive that kind of punishment, barriers or no. We're just going to get… a little closer. You up for it?"

Lynn took a breath and looked around. He hadn't lost it after all. That was a good sign. Might as well have some fun. Looking up, she smiled, and nodded.

Crash, for his part, was just having fun flying like he'd always wanted to, but having been stressed and worried almost from the day he'd gotten this suit, he'd never had the chance. Now it was back. The feeling he'd lost months ago. The reason he was a test pilot.

'Crack!'

They accelerated again, this time Lynn watched their surroundings as Crash picked an altitude that placed them amidst the most clouds, giving a true sense of speed as they raced past. They closed on the cold front that lurked far out to sea, the wall of storm clouds looming up before them menacingly. With a single sharp roll, Crash began a turn to the south, his turning radius stretching for over a mile at this speed. But he lined it up perfectly and before long they were skirting the front of the weather system. Huge cumulonimbus clouds billowed on their right, blinking brilliantly in the dark as they tore a line sometimes, just feet away. After a bit of altitude shifting, Crash found where the lower clouds depressed back into the storm, and where the higher clouds spread out above them, leaving a gap of clear air, and flew them right into the niche. Now the flickering light show was on three sides, with moonlight and the distant glow of Cranagan off to the left.

Lynn relaxed completely. This is what it felt like to just cut loose and have fun with magic. It was exhilarating.

After about a minute of straight up cruising, Crash yanked them up and to the left, passing only just barely through the cloud tops of an anvil before leveling off at thirty-five thousand feet, pointing them back towards Cranagan.

"I guess I should thank you," Crash crackled at length. Lynn craned her neck and looked up.

"You helped me find something I thought I'd lost," he continued. "I owe you one, thanks."

"Don't mention it," Lynn smiled. "I was just trying to make up for my mistake this morning."

"You'll have to teach me some of those moves though," Crash commented. "I'm apparently not half bad, but I'm no expert. And Fox doesn't teach as well as she learns."

"She did good enough," Lynn laughed.

"Hey," Crash interjected. "You CAN laugh! And here since I met you I thought you were nothing but business."

Lynn laughed again. It felt so good.


Ten minutes later they were sub-sonic again, coasting in gently to the rooftop of RF-6 headquarters. Crash set down like a feather, letting go of Lynn as he transitioned from flying to a brisk walk as if it was nothing.

"Easier than I thought," he commented. "Just ease the angle right into a walk and reach out, nothing to it."

With a flash, he powered down, returning to his normal uniform jacket. Lynn did the same and they both made their way for the door. It was then that Crash noticed they weren't alone on the roof.

Shamal was there, looking like a very angry mother hen with her arms crossed in front of her. Vita was next to her, almost seething with anger, but strangely quiet, Graf Eisen clearly out over her shoulder. Roland was behind them, his emotions masked behind his game face.

"Uh oh," Crash muttered to the enforcer quietly. "Mama bear isn't happy, and she brought papa bear and hammer bear with her. I think we're in trouble."

Lynn quickly melted into her own game face in response.

"You!" Shamal pointed at Crash. "I told you that you weren't even supposed to be UP and about, and here you are not only participating in strenuous activity without my approval, but flying… FLYING! You're as bad as Nanoha! Back in bed. NOW!"

Crash tried to suppress a laugh, but knew there was no arguing with the doctor this time. Not when she had her right hand hammer girl with the anesthesia at the ready.

Crash walked up to them but stopped just short as he glanced at Vita. And a silly thought popped into his head. He'd won their little bet after all…

"You owe me a 'bed time' story," he pointed out. "And I'm not going to sleep until I get it."

Vita's eyes widened in shock, and she worked her mouth several times before she completely lost her 'Hired Muscle' composure and lowered her head, shaking it.

"Whatever," she grumbled. "Just go get in bed… And don't think for a second I'm going to tuck your ass in."

"Fair enough," Crash smirked, then moved forward, stopping next to Roland.

"Funny thing," he stated curiously. "Did you hear from anyone about airspace clearance?"

Shamal glared at the two.

"I authorized no requests for Class B airspace clearance," the General commented coldly.

"Didn't think so," Crash shook his head and continued on, Vita giving him a gentle 'move prisoner' kind of poke with Graf Eisen. After a moment, Shamal sighed, and shook her head, casting a softening glare at Lynn before she followed.

For a second, the general stood quietly, glaring at the enforcer until Shamal's footsteps retreated. Then, he let his poker face slip, and smirked.

"After all," he commented dryly to his remaining audience. "I didn't receive any 'requests' for Class B airspace clearance, or altitude clearance, or speed clearance. How could I grant them?"

Lynn's mouth dropped open as the general turned away.

He really was two-faced!