Though the TSAB central office was not known for consistent architecture, the spire containing the detention blocks was particularly unusual. It was separated from the main station by fifty metres of hard vacuum, a maze of support struts and armour-plated bridges all that kept it from drifting off into space. A forest of automated turrets covered both sides of the divide, and the power conduits within the struts that supplied magical energy to the spire were designed so that if said energy-flow were manipulated in just the right way, it would generate a series of explosions that would send the entire structure drifting away from the office and into the firing arcs of no less than twenty-eight defence batteries.
The Bureau prided itself on its humane treatment of prisoners, but when said prisoners varied in ability from mere human field artillery to being able to flatten continents when in a bad mood, a few precautions were only sensible.
It took even longer to get into the spire than it had to leave the headquarters, and at the end of the security checks Nanoha was very relieved that many of the more invasive search methods employed in such situations had been rendered obsolete by the development of technosorcery. Five combat mages escorted her down the access tunnel, big, burly men and women whose Belka-type Devices were well-suited to combat in those close quarters.
As was its habit when there was nothing better to do, Raising Heart ran a series of hypothetical combat simulations based on the environment and the estimated abilities of their escort, and only found three potential courses of action that would result in greater than a fifty per cent chance of victory. It relayed the results of the exercise to its master, presumably as an attempt to take her mind off things, and Nanoha politely ignored it. Her Intelligent Device meant well – it always did – but it was sometimes alarmingly single-minded in its choice of interests.
Chief Warder Nadezhda Niva was waiting for them on the other side. A short, middle-aged woman with the build of a weight-lifter and the personality of everyone's favourite aunt, she had endeared herself to Nanoha when they had worked together in previous cases due to her hard-line stance on prisoner abuse. It was, she suspected, the reason Niva had been put in charge of overseeing the POWs after the attack – the iron-clad security was not just intended to keep out potential moles with an eye on freeing them, but also the innumerable angry, frustrated citizens who would be less than averse to taking it all out on someone helpless and maybe-responsible. Even the Ace of Aces had had some difficulty organising a visit – the warder had made it quite clear that the only reason she was getting in was as thanks for services rendered in helping rehabilitate some of the younger inmates in the past.
Nevertheless, Niva was smiling as the detention block door opened, and Nanoha knew that it was not a facade. The older woman was just the sort of person who, once resigned to something like this, would simply see it as the chance to spend some time with a good friend who she didn't see nearly as often as she would have liked. Not that that would make it any easier to find the body if her guest hurt one of her charges.
"Right on time, Nanoha," the warder said, as cheerfully as if her homeworld had not just been reduced to smoking rubble. "She's on Deck Eight. I told her you were coming, but I'm not sure she listened. She's... well, you'll see when you get there. Just follow me, all right? Don't worry – I can deal with her on my own."
This last sentence was addressed to the escort squad, who withdrew with disciplined efficiency without saying a word. Niva gestured with her arm and the captain fell into step behind her, idly scratching at the bandages underneath her shirt when she was sure her guide wasn't looking. Shamal had told her not to and Nanoha had promised herself she wouldn't, but right now it was the least harmful form of stress-relief she could manage.
The spire had a certain atmosphere to it – internally, it much resembled the rest of the central office only with thicker doors and armed patrols, but the true differences were more subtle. There were no flashes of colour amongst the endless grey, no casual, friendly conversations between employees – in short, no life. Even the lights seemed a little dimmer, the corridors a little narrower. It was painfully obvious that the only reason for one to take up residence here was that one had been a Very Bad Person.
None of this seemed to affect Niva, though. She had popped her Barrier Jacket at the start of the journey but seemed eminently relaxed, whistling tunelessly and tossing her Intelligent Device, a stubby mace she called Lawmaker, between her hands like a juggler's baton. Prisoners seemed to settle in their cells as she walked past, and some even called out semi-friendly greetings which she responded to with unfeigned cheer. Nanoha had met a lot of warders who command the fear of their charges, but rarely the respect, and even more rarely something even remotely approaching liking. It was hard to reconcile this Nadezhda Niva with the one who had faced down a thousand-strong prison riot, mace in hand and a handful of terrified, inexperienced combat mages at her back... including a certain Lieutenant Takamachi, the gleaming epaulettes fresh on her uniform.
Even her good cheer, though, was insufficient once they reached the blocks that contained the Chaos troops captured during the battle on the station. Underneath their helmets and bodysuits, the Hellhounds were absolutely identical, cell after cell containing an occupant with the same bald head, the same lean, muscled form, and the same flat, grey-green eyes. They gazed incuriously at the two mages as they passed, not a single one moving from where they stood.
"We had to surgically remove their blades, as well as several other augmentations," the warder explained. "It wasn't just in the interests of security – I don't think these boys were designed for long-term usage. Their bodies were already starting to reject the cybernetics. They've been ideal guests, really, in their own way. All you have to do is convince them that they have no chance of escape, and they'll obey you without causing any trouble. Honestly, they're almost like robots."
They stopped outside one door that was quite different from the others, inscribed with what Nanoha dimly recognised as runes of warding. A faint magical aura pulsed from inside it – not the one she recalled from the fight in the security centre, though that was there as well, suppressed by the familiar pattern of a restraint collar.
"Still, it could be worse," Niva continued. "They could all be like this lady. It's not that she's tried to escape or anything like that – the only times she resists are when we try to offer her food or medical assistance. She seems single-mindedly determined to kill herself. That's why we had to use the chains – I know, I know, they're medieval and barbaric, but it was that or have her claw her own throat out. I keep requesting a proper bed with restraints from the hospitals, but there never seems to be one available. Guess they've got better things to worry about than the wellbeing of our highest-ranking and most lucid captive."
"We didn't get any others?" Nanoha asked, surprised.
"Not as far as I know. The snipers each had a false tooth containing a cyanide capsule as well as a few other failsafe systems – trust me, you don't want to know the details – the berserkers simply exploded, and the anti-magic specialists... well, the Humanoid Interfaces had to deal with them, and they don't make a habit of leaving much behind. As for the shapeshifters, all they had to do was transform their internals into something incapable of sustaining itself. Chief Librarian Scrya only came up with a countermeasure in time to save this last one, and even that was a close-run thing. If you'd hit her with something less powerful, we'd be clean out of leads."
"Oh? Why was Yuuno involved?"
"I'm not sure myself, really. He said something about 'atonement', of all things, but I don't see what he had to atone for. That info the Library supplied during the invasion saved all our tails. You ask me, he did all he could and then some."
The sounds of the medical gurneys' wheels and of Fate's agonised, disbelieving sobs came back to her as they had so many times since the attack. I think I know. "Go on."
"It was really quite clever, his idea. You know there are specific forms of dispel magic that can interrupt transformations, right? The kind you use when you get into a fight with a familiar, for instance. Well, he took the basic principles of that and combined it with an aspect of shielding magic – specifically, the way shields can be tailored to be stronger against specific threats, like heat, cold, or magic. End result – a spell that suppresses physical shapeshifting rather than the magical kind. That's what all the runes are for, you see. It wasn't perfect, mind – I'm just surprised he got it to work as well as he did, to be honest. It's one of the reasons I'm not convinced by the fact she's eating of her own volition; it's pretty easy to avoid the nutritive aspects when you can reconfigure your own digestive system. Think she's tried to do the same with her respiratory – luckily, the trachea's a bit tougher than the intestines, and she doesn't seem to have taken enough biology classes to try something more creative. Yet, anyway."
"Sounds like we don't have much time," the captain observed.
"I'm afraid you're right. That's one of the reasons I let you visit – she asked for you specifically, and if there's even a chance that someone can get through to her before..." She trailed off.
"Fair enough. Best not keep her waiting any longer, then."
"My thoughts exactly." Niva keyed in the entry code, and the door slid open.
The assassin's true form was remarkably unintimidating – a thin, wiry girl with close-cropped blonde hair and a pointed, almost elfin face. Nanoha distinctly remembered her being rather curvier during their prior confrontation – evidently, superhuman shapeshifters had some measure of vanity as well. She wore clean, functional prison clothing and sat cross-legged in the centre of the room, studying the runes on the walls. Chains enclosed her wrists and ankles, attached to weights that Nanoha was sure only a Belkan melee specialist could have lifted.
She walked into the small room, stopping a metre or so away from its occupant, and heard the door close behind her. On the other side of the armoured glass window, Niva gave her a thumbs-up and withdrew to the side.
"Um... hello?" she began, feeling intensely awkward.
The assassin didn't respond for a moment. When she did, her voice was as dry and reedy as if she had not drunk anything for days. Maybe she hasn't.
"Takamachi. Glad you turned up. At least you can get something right. Just what does a girl have to do to get killed... around... here... oh."
She turned around, her brown eyes boring into Nanoha like diamond-tipped drills. "They're dead, aren't they? The children. Well, I'm screwed then. Nice knowing you, Takamachi."
"How did you know?" The girl seemed to Nanoha to have deflated somehow, her carefully-cultivated poise vanishing as if it had never existed.
"Studying body language is something we get a lot of training in – wouldn't be able to do our job otherwise. That, and I'm a low-level empath, so I can read surface emotions. Can't pluck the thoughts out of your head, mind, but it's the next-best thing. I know they're dead just like I know they were yours, just like I know you've got a couple of busted ribs under that uniform, though I must say you've done a very good job of concealing that last fact. Magical healing's fascinating, isn't it? Can deal with flesh wounds just fine, poisons aren't a problem, but break one little bone and you're pretty much stumped."
The captain felt, not unreasonably, that she was losing control of the conversation. "You said that before – that you're doomed, that Eri-the hostages' fate was somehow tied to yours. You're not just talking about our reaction, are you?"
A parched chuckle. "You lot? Don't make me laugh. It's the gods. They have this thing about children getting hurt – can't say I blame them – and I was in command of the mission. The Hellhounds are animals, creatures designed only for killing. I was the one with a fully-functioning brain. I was the one who was supposed to keep them under control. I was the one who fucked up. My fault."
"So you think they're coming for you?"
"Takamachi, I know they're coming for me. They're coming, and they're going to make me suffer as I never have before."
She tugged on her trouser leg distractedly, her face contorting as she tried to find a way to express herself.
"Let me put it into perspective for you. The Divine Assassin training course lasted four years. Four years subjective, sure, but that's beside the point and kind of a long story. During that time, we were subjected to the most brutal training the gods could conjure. We were forced to run until we dropped, used as test subjects for experimental mutations and cybernetics, and tortured for days just to see if we could take it. At the end of it, we were given one final test."
The assassin paused a moment, cold horror creeping over her face as she remembered.
"We were put into the care of a Keeper of Secrets for a week. A greater daemon of the Old Gods, a creature that reduced Lady Mislaato to catatonic insanity before her resurrection and ascension. It had been given orders to break us, and for the next seven days that is exactly what it did. We were raped, Takamachi. We were raped in mind, body and soul. Everything that made us human, everything that made us us, was taken apart with tender, loving care and then put back together so that monster could do it all over again. Those who succumbed were granted swift, merciful deaths. The survivors became Divine Assassins. It worked, you know. There is no torment, no humiliation you can inflict that has not been visited on me three times over already. In fact, I could probably give you tips."
She saw the expression her guest wore, and smiled a wintry smile.
"That was a greater daemon, Takamachi. A powerful servant, but a servant nonetheless. Now imagine what the gods can do if they are given reason."
"They don't have to, though," Nanoha replied, trying to keep her voice level. "We can stop them. We can keep you safe."
Another bitter laugh. "Safe? You're kidding, right? In case you hadn't figured it out by now, you're dealing with gods. As in, G-O-D. Omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent. You've already had a small taste of their power – which branch did we do the most damage to? Army? Navy? Air Force?"
The captain knew that disclosing any more information than was necessary was a very, very bad idea, but after all she'd seen, her tongue didn't wait for permission.
"Mostly, it was the civilians." The assassin wasn't the only bitter one in that room – far from it.
"Civilians?" The girl looked honestly nonplussed. "Why?"
"I was hoping you could tell me that," Nanoha replied acidly. "Or did massacring non-combatants not serve any greater strategic purpose? Inquiring minds want to know."
"No... no, this is bad, really bad." The assassin was rocking back and forth agitatedly, obviously distressed. "Was it all of them? Were they all doing that?"
"A lot of them, yes." It was well past time to end the interview – there was nothing helpful or constructive about what was happening here – but some grim compulsion kept the captain where she was.
"Oh no. Oh no no no no no. We failed them. All of us. They'll... I don't know what they'll do." She looked back at Nanoha, raw panic in her eyes. "How could we let this happen?"
"Generally, a systematic failure of an operation like that is due to inadequacies in planning and equipment, not the fault of the troops on the ground," her guest pointed out, speaking the words in precisely the manner that Admiral Lindy Harlaown had imparted them to her so very long ago. The fatigue was creeping up on her again, making her mind drift to strange and distant places.
"That... that can't be right. They're the gods, they wouldn't... everything that happened, everything you say happened is anathema to them, but they're the gods, they know everything, they must have known, they must have suspected... that's it! They knew our weaknesses, they knew our flaws, but they expected us to rise above them, to surpass them, I'm sorry, I'm so, so sorry..." She was weeping openly, and at that moment Nanoha wanted nothing more than to sit beside her and give her a hug.
Instead, she kept asking, kept digging, peeling away the layers of the assassin's fragile psyche. Tact was gone, followed shortly by sensitivity, flaking away like the collapsed wall they had found the dead family behind, three generations united at the very end, vanishing like the screams in that twin bedroom as her spell detonated inside, condemning three souls to captivity and two to death.
"If you believe it's your fault, that you deserve this... why are you trying to kill yourself? Why not just wait for their judgment?"
The girl looked up, blinking tears away. "Because... because I'm weak. Because I'm a failure. I'm scared, Takamachi. I don't want to die, but I know... I know I have to. I don't want them to take me away, not to that."
Her back straightened, and a trace of iron entered her voice. "I'm not going to betray them, though. I've done enough already. No sense in compounding it."
Nanoha shook her head. "Why? Why do they command such loyalty after all they've done?"
The shame and the sadness were gone, replaced with anger. "What they have done is to protect us, Takamachi. They saved us from the Angels. They saved us from Third Impact. They unified us in our darkest hour and transformed us into something far greater than we had been before. A few pretty words, a few energy blasts – they can never change that."
"And now they are still protecting us from threats both external and internal, and it was a privilege to fight at their side! Do you know what the Divine Assassins originally did, during our trial missions before we were deployed? We were hunters, Takamachi, hunters of the scum of society. I've read your file – you were in law-enforcement too, weren't you? Remember the first time you took down a big bad? A serial rapist, a human trafficker, or the like. Remember how good it felt to know that they wouldn't hurt anyone ever again, like you were the hand of divine justice?" She smiled at the memory. "Of course, in our case, we actually were..."
"And in our case," Nanoha commented drily, "they actually survived long enough to be taken into custody."
The only sign that the assassin had heard her was a derisive snort. "Then there's you lot. The folks back home are really hungry for revenge, you know – the opening salvo of the war being a twelve-year-old girl getting shot in the back will do that."
This time, it was the captain's turn to look nonplussed – she honestly hadn't even considered how her actions on Bloodhaven might have looked to others.
"I was trying to rescue her!" she protested.
"Right, sure, 'rescue'. What was the matter? Was she saying nice things about the gods? Were her table manners not perfect? Honestly, you Bureau saps are all the same. Think you can make someone better, and if they've already got a loving family, well, who gives a fuck? They clearly aren't good enough for her because you say so, right? She was the gods' own beloved daughter, did you know that? Or are 'deities who actually give a damn about their worshippers' not an acceptable category in the Mid-Childan Prospective Parents roster?"
"When I met her," Nanoha said, struggling to keep her voice level, "Alicia was in the middle of the battlefield, torturing enemies and eating their souls. I've been privy to a few child-abuse cases in my time, assassin, and I think I know black pedagogy when I see it. Did your side's after-action reports not mention what her oh-so-loving parents were using her for?"
The assassin stared at her a moment, and then broke her gaze.
"Damn it," she muttered. "I hate knowing when they're telling the truth. Can't say I heard that, no."
"What do you remember of the time before you were recruited?" the mage asked gently, deciding to change tack.
"Not much. Not anything, really. The mind-wipes were all part of our preparation. We were assassins – that was enough. We knew we'd be making sacrifices when we volunteered – well, I think we did, anyway. I can't remember."
"And you spent most of your time between then and now training in relative isolation, yes?"
"Yeah," the assassin said reluctantly. "Yeah, we did. Look, if you're casting doubts on the validity of the information I received about the outside world, forget it. I'm an empath, remember? I can tell when someone's feeding me bullshit. When they're talking to me, anyway. Not when I'm, say, reading something. Or when they're downloading straight into my brain. Gods, I hated that."
There was a brief, contemplative pause.
"That wasn't why the war started, you know," Nanoha continued. "Command was prepared to offer amends, pass it off as the actions of an emotionally-compromised agent operating without orders – and I suppose they were right, really. She was family, assassin. Not mine, not directly, but close enough to count. I expect you didn't know that either. I couldn't let them keep turning her into a monster, not without a fight."
"So why did it?" the girl asked, her face unreadable.
"Because of what you did to those other universes. The galaxy of the Praxis, torn apart in a civil war worse than anything that bloody-handed regime could muster. The galaxy of the Federation, subjected to the same with even less justification. The Suzumiyaverse, brought under the heel of an insane tyrant and turned into a living nightmare. The home of your daemon-world, the place with those Stargate constructs, manipulated into providing you with weapons and fighting at your side only to be abandoned to implacable invaders, their forces decimated and their greatest advantage stolen from them. Those last two were why we didn't try to negotiate, didn't warn you that we would be coming. They did that, they tried to play fair, and all you did in turn was take advantage of and destroy them. Why was that, assassin? What were you protecting then?"
"Everyone. The C'tan... they'll come someday. We need to be ready for them. The other universes, their powers, their technologies... we can use them to arm ourselves, to destroy the threat before it ever comes to fruition. It's not pretty, but it's necessary, and after it's done... we can start the healing. That's what the gods do. They break things... and put them back together, better than before." A cracked, mad smile lit up her face. "Like me. Just like me."
"And in the meantime, more people will die. How many more? How many sacrifices before you're done? If you believe this is the best way to save the multiverse from these C'tan, whoever they are, then I'm afraid I must consider you gravely mistaken."
The girl tried to snigger, but it soon turned into a bout of dry, pained coughing. "'Gravely mistaken', huh? Ooh, I felt the venom in that one. That's some sort of ultimate insult for you, isn't it? Everything you say we've done, and all you can call me is 'gravely mistaken'? Mislaato's tits, Takamachi, but you're repressed. Explains why you don't give a flying crap about those kids of yours, anyway."
A flash of pink light illuminated the cell, and Raising Heart was in Nanoha's hand, its blunt tip pointed at the assassin's throat. There was no aura around it, no build-up of energy for an attack spell – it was just a big, heavy metal stick. Its target grinned, looking up at the Ace of Aces invitingly.
"Go ahead. Take it out on me. Gods know I deserve it."
There was a long, pregnant silence, and then she lowered her weapon, her hands suddenly shaking. "That's another difference between the Bureau and Chaos, assassin. We don't torture helpless captives."
"More like you don't deliver justice where it's needed. What're your lot planning to do to the Hellhounds, then? The ones who took your kids?"
"They'll be confined to an orbital facility with full psychiatric support," Nanoha explained levelly, "and that's where they'll remain until the day they're rehabilitated or the day they die. They won't be hurting anyone else."
"And... you're absolutely fine with this, aren't you?" the girl asked incredulously. "Whoa. Not to tell you how to do your job, Takamachi, but if it were me, I'd have headed on down to wherever they're keeping them, and they'd still be trying to pick up the bits and pieces I left behind."
The captain crossed the remaining distance between them in moments, her ribs shrieking out in pain. Her hand shot out, dragging the assassin upright until their faces were scant inches apart.
"The day before yesterday was the first time I killed," she growled. "Six of them were valued employees, men and women with loving families and excellent career prospects who I had nothing but the utmost personal and professional respect for. The last two were my own adoptive children. Erio and Caro came from backgrounds that would have broken any lesser individual, and they came out happy, caring, and the finest recruits I have ever had the privilege of training. They battled against monsters and criminals, protected the innocent, and saved the life of the woman I love most in the world. Your animals, your killing machines? They do not deserve it."
Her captive was stock-still, the only signs of life the movements of her eyes.
"Here is what I am going to do, assassin. I am going to make sure the Hellhounds get the help they need, that they are given the chance to become productive members of society. I am going to stand against your gods' forces, no matter what strange powers or arcane technologies they might wield, and I am going to cleanse their masters' taint from their hearts, their minds, and their souls. Then, once all else is done, once the war is over and the universe is at peace once more, I shall go to your gods and I shall forgive them, for they have strayed far from their path and know not what they do. I shall forgive them, and I shall grant them what healing and redemption I can muster. People die in war. I can accept that. I am only one amongst billions. I can accept that. But even if this is impossible, even if I fail, this is the path I shall strive to walk. This is the will of Nanoha Takamachi. DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?"
The last words were a scream, delivered full-force into the assassin's face. Nanoha let go, and she slumped to the floor bonelessly. The captain walked to the door, not looking back, and rapped on it three times. It slid open, revealing Niva's squat form on the other side.
She strode down the corridor, the Chief Warder in tow. "Nadezhda, see if you can up the security on her cell. I'll talk to Shamal, see if she can get her a proper bed. I want her safe, and I want her comfortable."
"Fine," the older woman replied, an edge to her voice. "First, though, we have to talk."
Nanoha deflated, almost collapsing against the nearest wall.
"Why didn't you stop me?" she asked in a small voice. "I..."
"The runes weren't the only things Scrya added," Niva informed her coolly. "There are four pop-up turrets in that cell. I had them trained on you for most of the interview. Nanoha, I don't think you should visit the detention sector any more."
"I... understand," the captain replied at last. "Let's go."
The rest of the walk passed in silence.
Fate was waiting for her when she arrived back at her room – or, at least, she had tried to. Fatigue had won out, and her partner was curled up, fully-clothed, on their bed, her eyes red and her hair still streaked with dirt from the clean-up operation. Nanoha studied her affectionately for a moment, before climbing next to her and holding her tight.
"Vivio's all right," she whispered in her ear, and then the tears came, all the grief, the stress, the rage, and the gnawing despair bottled up since the attack pouring out at once.
At last sleep took her as well, delivering her to a quiet, dark place where there was no war, no death... only peace.
Author's Notes: Anyone who has been keeping count will notice that this is the chapter where we cross the one hundred thousand-word milestone. Whew.
The employment of the Keeper of Secrets from Thousand Shinji was yet another of the Open Door's eyebrow-raisers for me. Using the creature that basically destroyed your mind to do the exact same thing to a bunch of teenagers (and, in the original, one centuries-old, brainwashed POW)? I don't know about you, but for me, that's about on par with the victim of a child molester cheerfully giving him directions to the nearest primary school. Then again, consistency has never been the gods' strong suit. Why'd you think I felt the need to explore it in this fic?
The more observant readers may have noticed that where the Nanoha-verse is concerned, I've continued the original series's tradition of giving names based off various models of automobile to those characters without Earthborn ancestry. The Chief Warder was one I was particularly proud of, seeing as not only is 'Nadezhda' a perfectly acceptable first name in real life, but it and 'Niva' are also vehicles produced by the Russian car brand Lada (a minivan and SUV, respectively). A pleasing coincidence, no?