A/N: This story takes place within the overall arc of RadiantBeam's ViCia stories (you probably already guessed that from the word "Shadow" in the title). Technically, it takes place more or less concurrently with Chapter 2 of her story "Sunrise." You don't have to read "Sunrise" first, but you probably ought to, as well as "Shadow," both to give you better background on the story and because they're darned good reads. My own "Shadow's Fall" probably would help, too.
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"Do you ever get tired of being the bad guy?"
Admiral Chrono Harlaown looked up in surprise. He hadn't heard the door open. That bothered him. His days as an Enforcer had honed his combat reflexes, and his years in the Naval Special Intelligence Service had turned paranoia into a job skill. Just because he sat in the director's chair now didn't mean he should have lost that edge. Was he just that tired, or--?
General Yagami Hayate nodded. Even in her thirties, her petite build and pixie face made her look like a schoolgirl trying on her mother's uniform rather than a general officer, a mother, and one of the most powerful mages in the TSAB. It was an effect she often played to her advantage.
Chrono had known her since she was nine. He hadn't been fooled by her even then.
"That's right," Hayate told him.
"I see. I'll have to have the security protocols upgraded. I should at least be alerted when someone is being teleported into my office, even if they throw in enough power to breach the barrier. Luckily it was you and not an assassin--or have you decided that I've finally stepped over a line that can't be crossed?"
"I wouldn't worry so much about me, Chrono-kun. There's a fair chance there won't be enough left of you to fill Zafira's supper dish when your sister gets done with you. Fate-chan's a teleporter, too, come to think of it."
Chrono raised an eyebrow.
"My sister? What have I done that would make Fate angry?"
Hayate smiled at him without really smiling.
One of the things about talking with Hayate was that she didn't feel the need to provide a five-minute explanatory speech when she thought that the person she was talking to was bright enough to connect the dots on his or her own. Chrono appreciated the compliment, but he'd almost have preferred she spell it out for him. It'd have given him time to think.
"Shit!" was his eloquent response. "Vivio?" he added, feeling that perhaps something more was needed.
"That's right," Hayate said.
"Does that book of yours contain any resurrection spells, Hayate? Because if that idiot wasn't already dead I'd very much like to kill him myself, and slowly."
It shouldn't have been half as much of a problem as it had turned into. The target had been the leader of a cross-dimensional drug cartel. That would have been a police matter, or one for the TSAB Enforcers since it involved multiple worlds. Certainly not the NSIS, the TSAB's espionage and covert-action branch. Stopping drug-running just wasn't a Shadow job.
But this particular cartel had something new in its product line: a hallucinogen that produced specific and vivid fantasies at the user's whim. In short, a chemical that wasn't chemical at all, but magical, and maybe one that pointed towards solving one of the problems Midchildan magical technology had yet to solve: a telepathic interface between a mage and his or her tech without an AI present. Jail Scaglietti had gotten halfway there with his combat cyborgs and their nerve links, but a cyborg's artificial parts were directly wired to the subject's central nervous system.
A discovery like this needed to be isolated, studied, and above all kept out of the hands of the masses until the TSAB could discover if it really did mean a new leap forward or just a fancier way for the gullible or desperate to fry their brains. So the Shadows had sent in a team to identify the drug lord's source, preferably before someone got the bright idea to simply buy a load of Ascension, as the drug was called, and sic a lab on it.
They'd started off well. Black ops being what they were the Shadows were able to proceed quickly without the pesky burdens of warrants or the need to get evidence that would stand up in court. They investigated, and soon isolated one of the men in the cartel head's inner circle, one of his "elite" (in reality, "a better grade of mercenary") security team that protected him against the occasional business dispute with a rival. They'd turned him, a little bribery here, a few threats there, a casual mention that the nice purple-haired lady who'd retrieved his daughter's balloon was a mage-assassin capable of annihilating everyone in the park in an eyeblink, and the fellow was ripe to pass on information about shipments and facilities.
Or at least that's how it was drawn up.
When he'd read the file the supervisory assistant director had nervously passed on, Chrono had gotten a pretty good idea what went wrong. Vernet Ransam had been the wrong man to tap as op leader, for one thing; the AD shouldn't have gone by seniority but by skill. Ransam wasn't a blunt instrument, but he wasn't a scalpel either, more of a knife with a twist. Too prone to use the stick when the carrot would have done a better job. It hadn't said so on paper, but Chrono was sure the security man had been left with the impression that if he didn't give the Shadows what they wanted, his family would die in some horribly painful way. Only, knowing the drug lord and his kind, that would have been the price of betraying him as well. The cartels liked "object lessons" like that. The guard had been left believing he could choose for his family to be killed by the Shadows or the cartel.
So he'd killed them himself. Quickly, painlessly, expertly, he'd taken a silenced handgun and murdered three children and his wife in their sleep, then killed himself. Four innocent people killed. Chrono had kids of his own. The man under the spiky black cloak was sickened by the waste, the human tragedy.
Not that the part of him that was NSIS Director had it any easier. The guard hadn't passed along any data. Small wonder, if he saw the Shadows as one of the monsters that had driven him to this act. So five people were dead for exactly nothing. Actually, for less than nothing, because it put the drug lord on alert that gee, something might be wrong if one of his hired pro badasses had just gone off his nut.
And for a lot less than nothing, because the Enforcers weren't idiots and had become curious as to just why this fellow had decided to commit a crime that was generally rooted in despair. And they'd figured out what had happened. There was a damned incident report in Enforcement Bureau files about a blown NSIS op! They call us Shadows for a reason, damn it! Chrono thought. We don't stand out in the open for other branches to dissect our missions.
It was going to mean another meeting with the Oversight Subcommittee, the kind of meeting where he'd have to tap-dance fast or get a sharp slash in funding, a more active eye over his shoulder, or both. And he couldn't afford that. The TSAB needed the Shadows. A government without espionage or covert action was a blind government. The threats out there were real, and just reacting to them wasn't good enough. How many people had the Book of Darkness destroyed because the TSAB had always just waited for it to surface instead of being ready for it? How many had Jail Scaglietti killed because he was allowed to operate freely--okay, bad example since he had government backing--until he started launching military attacks on the capital city? How many people had been killed by the Mariage because the investigation hadn't gotten serious until the murders reached Mid itself? And how many incidents of that nature hadn't happened because the Shadows had taken action?
Forget the guard, I should kill Ransam, Chrono thought, not entirely in jest. As Hayate said, they were the "bad guys." Even moreso within the TSAB than their parallels on non-administered worlds, he'd noted, because the TSAB indoctrinated its mage-warriors with the ideals of comic-book heroism. There was a good reason they took in elementary school kids as cadets for training: every one of them who bought into the shiny-happy-sparkling-rainbows TSAB party line was one less mage who wasn't going to turn his or her talents to murdering, looting, and generally doing the kinds of things evil wizards did. But how many of those "heroes" were willing to discard their morality for the sake of the greater good? Not many. A Shadow sacrificed his or her personal honor for the sake of the greater ideal--for the sake of the happiness and welfare of a population who, for the most part, considered them evil, barely-tolerated garbage.
There was a good reason why the NSIS spent a good half of its medical budget on psychological support. The strain on the field agents was appalling. Some succumbed all the way--not only willing to do what a Shadow did, but liking it. Others broke down, unable to bear the guilt.
As Lutecia Alphine had broken, upon seeing the butchered corpses of children she'd held and played with while her team leaders were confronting the guard directly. And as so many agents did, she'd given way to the horrors in the arms of a loved one, her girlfriend. Only the problem was that Lutecia's girlfriend was Takamachi Vivio, the adopted daughter of Ace of Aces Takamachi Nanoha, and of Chrono's sister, Fate. For eight years Lutecia had been Vivio's best friend, then girlfriend. Eight years during which she hadn't mentioned to the Takamachi-Harlaowns that she'd been a thief, a spy, and a murderer.
And since Hayate was here in front of him, it was a good bet that Vivio had immediately told her mothers that Lutecia was a Shadow. The assorted family conversations must have been fun to watch.
"So why would Fate want me dead?" Unless Fate had found out precisely what manipulations had been used to draft Lutecia into the Shadows in the first place, an expert piece of nastiness that Chrono had been disgusted to read the report on, for all that he himself had suggested a good half of it. But that wasn't likely; even Lutecia wasn't aware of how thoroughly she'd been played during her recruitment.
"Because she's sure to think of it sooner or later, Chrono-kun. You put a Shadow in the middle of her family circle. A Shadow who kept her affiliation a secret from them all, and who became the most important person in Vivio's life." Hayate paused, then commented idly, "Offhand, Chrono-kun, what would happen within the Belkan Saint Church if Vivio ever decided to take that 'Sankt Kaiser' business seriously? Who would say, 'She's just an artificial mage, not a deity,' and who would say, 'We will follow Her Majesty with all our souls!' To say nothing of whatever other Ancient Belkan Lost Logia she can interface with. Could there be another Cradle out there, a previous model or the like?"
"Who can say? They're called Lost Logia for a reason."
"So you hadn't thought about it?"
His lips quirked into a parody of a smile.
"She's my niece, Hayate. I can hardly help think of that. The girl's practically a Lost Logia all by herself. She's an SS-potential talent and she's being raised by our top magical-combat trainer."
"And she's had a deep-cover Shadow in her life the whole time," Hayate noted.
Chrono closed his eyes.
"That's why Fate will kill me?"
"Pretty much. She's almost as bad as Nanoha-chan when it comes to her kids. And she's an investigator. Nanoha-chan will just nail Lutecia-chan to a wall. Fate-chan will see that Lutecia-chan was just a weapon that her beloved brother used to abuse and manipulate her family."
"So you're here to tell me to start running now?"
"You couldn't run fast enough. I'm here to work on your story."
Chrono pinched the bridge of his nose; he could feel another headache coming on.
"Hayate, pretend that I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Oh, it obviously isn't true."
"Look, Chrono-kun, you know that I don't agree with a lot of what you do."
"Yes, and it feels so good to know that I've fallen far enough that the Master of the Book of Darkness can act as my conscience."
He knew her flinch was coming before it happened, and he wanted to go back in time to stifle his big mouth before it opened. Too late. As always, it seemed, his second thoughts came too late, leaving him with only consequences to deal with.
"...Sorry. That...no, I'm not even going to bother with the excuses. Nothing justifies it."
Hayate didn't say anything for the longest time, and when she did her arms were crossed over her chest in a defensive posture. Congratulations, Chrono, he told himself. Maybe by the time the day's over you can get Amy to stop talking to you too. Go for the clean sweep of friends and family.
"You're lucky it isn't true. About Lutecia-chan, I mean."
"Would you have a deep-cover operative still operating as an active field agent? Put her under the kind of psychological stress that causes her to break down and confess what she is? Give up eight years of worming her way into Vivio's heart? Winning her trust as a friend, then her devotion as a lover, and give it all away for a penny-ante mission you've got a dozen other people equally suited to do? You're a lot of things, Chrono-kun, but you're not stupid. And do you really think I'd have let one of your people stay that close to Vivio if I thought for an instant it was part of a political power play?"
"Wait--you knew Lutecia was a Shadow?"
"Lutecia was sentenced to eight years on Mau Gram following the JS incident--eight years 'pending consideration of her progress in re-socialization.' The early release order originated with your office. I can connect the big, flashing dots, Chrono-kun."
"And you didn't tell Nanoha or Fate?" he marveled.
"It was Lutecia-chan's secret, not mine. If a Shadow is using my friends' family for some greater agenda, that's one thing. If a family friend just happens to be a Shadow, that's a different matter, one between Lutecia-chan and Vivio. As you so graciously reminded me, I know a bit about people who have blood on their hands despite not being bad people. How many people did Signum, Vita, Zafira, and even Shamal kill when they were controlled by the Book's evil masters? How many lives did Reinforce take while her defense program was out of control over the centuries? If you want me to condemn Lutecia-chan, then you'll have to wait until she does something unforgivable of her own will."
She turned towards the door and started walking.
"Tell Fate-chan hi for me when you see her." Hayate stopped, then said thoughtfully. "Although, you may not. She'll probably realize that this wasn't an op, once she thinks about it. Deductive reasoning is one of her specialties."
The door swished open and Hayate left, startling the hell out of the secretary, who'd believed her boss was alone. Chrono managed to hold back the wry, bitter smile until the door had shut again.
Because, of course, she was wrong.
Oh, not about Lutecia. She was completely right there. Lutecia wasn't under any orders to watch, seduce, or manipulate Vivio. Their relationship had started naturally, in the aftermath of the JS Incident, and developed over video letters and link calls while Lutecia was on Mau Gram. They were good friends long before Lutecia had been recruited into the NSIS.
Which was why Chrono had been sure to bring Lutecia back to Mid, to a posting where she'd get to interact daily with the girl when not actually in the field. To, naturally enough, build on a friendship that already existed. To be welcomed into Vivio's family circle. It wasn't hard to anticipate that bond growing stronger. Lutecia didn't have many friends, and unlike the ones she made at work this one would be untainted by the corruption of the NSIS, her youth only emphasizing that quality of innocence. A precious friend, one for Lutecia to keep and treasure. And for Vivio too, a relationship that would likely stay--an older girl, exciting, mature, who nonetheless took an interest in her. Yes, he hadn't needed the psych profiles to tell him that the friendship was likely to last over time.
That it had turned to romance, well, that had been unpredictable, but it was all to the good.
Yes, Hayate was right: Lutecia did not act like a deep cover operative, sent in to seduce a girl to make her a political pawn. But sometimes the best agent was the one who didn't know they were on the job. The strategy was all wrong if his objective had been to push Vivio into becoming a political tool, yes.
But that wasn't his goal.
On the contrary, it was the opposite. He wanted his niece to grow up with a happy family life, to become another one of the magical heroes of the TSAB, to follow in the footsteps of her mothers. Because then she wouldn't become a destabilizing agent for social change, or a political rallying point for the Belkan Autonomous Region and its citizens right here on Midchilda, or inspired or manipulated to seek out the kind of power the Sankt Kaiser might be expected to wield.
With Lutecia beside her, she'd have a friend who could see the manipulative and the corrupt coming from far away. A Shadow knew her own kind, after all. A lover was even better; no one would be filling Vivio's head with bedroom talk into taking the wrong path.
And now that the truth was out? Only one of two paths seemed likely. Either Vivio would accept Lutecia as she would and Chrono would still have that hidden leash, one whose own happiness was rooted in protecting Vivio's decency and innocence as best she could, or else Vivio would be so repulsed by the deception that she'd thrust Lutecia away--and with her, the entire package of covert manipulations and underhanded methods, cementing her determination to stay in the light with a lesson taught in pain. Either way he got what he wanted. Either way the TSAB stayed safe, and his family--indeed, Vivio herself--protected.
He wondered offhandedly if Fate would appreciate that.
Or if, for that matter, Lutecia would.
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A/N: This story has more inspiration coming from more different people than I'm used to seeing for my fics, and credit needs to be firmly given where credit is due! RadiantBeam's "Sunrise" was the main inspiration, of course. I'd originally mentioned to her the "deep cover" question that Nanoha asked in chapter 2 of that fic, and I was so fascinated by how she worked out the response for Lutecia that I had to go and make a fic of my own out of it. The idea that Hayate tends to keep an eye on Chrono to make sure that the NSIS doesn't get too far out of hand with its assorted covert action actually comes from a Chrono-centric vignette that Dracis Tran contributed to what's rapidly growing into a shared-universe concept. I recommend a brisk campaign of ruthless nagging to get him to post it here, if he hasn't already done it (oops, he did; it's "The Deep Shadow of Chrono Harlaown."). The comment about the TSAB needing to work on a telepathically based machine-interface was based off a remark on the AnimeSuki Nanoha forums by AdmiralTigerclaw. And the mention that Chrono didn't entirely script Lutecia's recruitment in "Shadow's Fall" came out of some discussions I had with Sunder the Gold about that fic, where it was brought home to me just how blackly I'd painted Chrono's character.
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Vivio's Magical Omake Theater!
"Come in, Agent Alphine."
Lutecia stepped a bit nervously into the director's office. Admiral Harlaown was glaring at her. This did not bode well.
"Alphine, do you know what 'covert' means?"
"Because there's a reason that NSIS field agents do not go around revealing their agency affiliation. We're called the Shadows because that is how we operate, in secrecy and darkness. The best operation is one in which no one even knows any official action was involved. Going around letting other people know you're a black-ops specialist is not the best way to facilitate that."
By this point, Lutecia knew what it was he was angry about.
"Sir, Vivio would never betray--"
He held up his hand, and she at once lapsed into silence.
"I'm not saying that she would. The problem is, when you choose to trust someone, you are by implication also choosing to trust everyone that they trust, and so on. Sooner or later, there's going to be someone in that chain who could end up blowing your cover, making your mission a failure and getting you or your associates killed."
"Yes, sir, but--"
"Or in this particular case, their mother may take other, unproductive action."
He gestured with his right hand--the one that wasn't in a cast--at the foot-deep, Chrono-shaped indentation in the wall.