Hospitals were scary places.
Yes, Vivio knew that Lutecia's injuries weren't life-threatening. The primary reason that she needed medical treatment was to deal with the concussion, to correct the injuries she'd suffered so that there wouldn't be any long-term effects. Magical healing technology was needed for that, in the controlled conditions of a hospital setting.
It didn't matter. It was still scary. Doctors and nurses milling about in their crisp white coats and uniforms, worried faces every so often breaking through the controlled expressions of the medical profession. Families, loved ones in the waiting rooms and the visiting areas, many of them fearful that their news would be all bad. Despite the fact that this place was dedicated to the battle against death and disease, in essence a fortress of men and women fighting those enemies as hard as any mage-soldier fought crime and violence, the atmosphere that pervaded everywhere was one of pain and fear. It infected Vivio, making her worry about her girlfriend when there was no real reason to do so.
She probably ought to have been more worried about herself.
Takamachi Nanoha had shown up within an hour of Vivio's call. Vivio had only called her to report their change in plans, but in classic worried-mother fashion Nanoha had insisted on coming in person—and gotten there fast enough that Vivio suspected she'd received permission for personal flight instead of taking ordinary transport. She'd listened patiently as Vivio spilled out the whole story, offering hugs when the aftereffects of the girl's first real battle had threatened to spill over into hysterics, but the frowns that kept sneaking through now and again told her daughter that something was wrong.
"Nanoha-mama? What is it? Did I do something wrong?"
Nanoha glanced around the small waiting room. They were alone but for a young man seated at the far side of the room, a cup of coffee cradled between his hands, and the man's child, who looked to be about five and was engrossed in a video game. The man was out of earshot of low speaking voices and beyond that was clearly too caught up in his own worries to care overmuch. Nanoha never believed in publicly humiliating her daughter with a lecture better kept private, which made her checking the room a warning sign for that daughter.
"You're mad at me, aren't you?" Vivio concluded.
Nanoha shook her head, smiling gamely.
"No, not mad. Just a little disappointed, that's all."
That was almost worse. Mad tended to be a personal or philosophical debate—something that pushed Nanoha's emotional buttons. Disappointment meant the failure to live up to some standard that was so firmly established that there was nothing to fight over, like when Vivio had been twelve and she and Rio had gone to the movies and forgotten to pick up Fate-mama's dress uniform at the cleaners when she needed it for a reception that night.
"What did I do?"
"Well, I know that this is the first time that you've been in a real battle, not a training exam or a cadet mission, and that you were very emotional because you wanted to protect your girlfriend, but you made a lot of tactical mistakes that you were very lucky didn't turn out very badly for you and for Lutecia-chan, too."
Vivio blinked in surprise. She hadn't been quite sure why Nanoha was upset with her, but she hadn't expected that!
"Wait, Mama, are you saying that you're disappointed in me because of my performance in the battle?"
"Yes, exactly. You certainly didn't do anything wrong as a daughter." She actually looked a little confused, as if she couldn't imagine how anyone could thing it was something else that could have bothered her.
Vivio swallowed. That made things a little easier to take.
"All right, Nanoha-mama. What did I do wrong?"
"Now remember, I'm just going off the way you told me the story, so there may be details I'm not quite right about. Actually, if you'll have Burning Glory copy a record of the battle to Raising Heart, I can break things down more specifically."
"I don't think I'm going to like hearing it much, but I do want to improve any way I can. I guess if the Bureau's top combat instructor is offering to audit my performance, I'd be foolish to refuse. Go ahead and transfer the data, Burning Glory."
"Glad to help, mistress."
"I'll look it over in detail later," Nanoha promised. "For now, though, I'll start with my initial impressions."
Vivio nodded, and Nanoha began.
"You made most of your mistakes right away when Lutecia was shot. Now, that's understandable—it was the first time since you were six that you'd come unexpectedly under enemy fire, and besides that your girlfriend had been hurt. That's scary and surprising both and it put you off-guard. Still, as a combat mage, those are exactly the kind of situations where you need to keep your head if you're going to be able to help people."
"In a situation like that, you have three basic objectives: protect yourself—including Lutecia-chan; 'yourself' means your team, not just you individually—against immediate threats, ascertain the situation, and report the attack. You ignored all three."
Her plain speaking made Vivio wince.
"You should have set up your Barrier Jacket at once, the instant you knew you were in a fire zone. There could have been a second shot, ground support, any number of hazards. You did the right thing by having Burning Glory trace the trajectory of the shot to locate the sniper, but you didn't finish the job by checking the rest of the area, but only assumed that there was a single enemy and went after him. You said that Lutecia-chan told you that there were others—what if she'd been too injured to defend herself?"
Vivio gasped, realizing just how badly she'd messed things up. If she'd—If Cia hadn't been—
I could have lost her.
"You were very lucky things worked out as they did. Your reasoning—that the best way to protect Lutecia-chan was to fight the enemy—wasn't necessarily wrong, but what was wrong was that you did it without knowing the size, strength, or location of the enemy force. Most of all, you absolutely should have reported the incident, either to the local police or to the military, but in any case to someone who could have brought in support if you needed it in the fight, contained the area to prevent enemy escape, and gotten medical assistance to Lutecia-chan. Apparently, she was the one who made the report, after the battle was over, and you can't rely on that kind of luck, not if it turns out that your injured allies need treatment as soon as possible."
"Yes, Mama," Vivio said, chastened. She'd had no idea just how badly she had performed, but she should have. She'd been trained as a cadet, after all, and much of what Nanoha was saying were things her instructors had already taught her in class and on the training field in mock battle. She should know these things! And instead, because of her, Cia could have been killed. She could barely imagine a world without Cia in it, and it would have been her fault!
"Vivio," Nanoha said, her voice suddenly gentler than her matter-of-fact teaching tone. "Vivio, look at me."
She looked up. Through the tears that stung at her eyes, she could see that her mother had a kind smile on her face. Nanoha laid a comforting hand on her shoulder.
"This isn't something to cry or feel bad about, Vivio. It was your first time in battle, and you were forced to try and protect your girlfriend at the same time. It's only natural that your emotions would be overwhelming."
"But I did so badly, and I could have let Cia die!"
Nanoha shook her head.
"You didn't, though. Lutecia-chan is going to be fine. I was just as bad in my first fight, you know. I had to have Yuuno-kun tell me every move I needed to make, and Raising Heart had to help me actually do them, and I wasn't even trying to protect anyone at the time."
"Mama, you were only nine, and you didn't even know about magic!"
"Nine or ninety, it doesn't matter. Nobody is at ease in their first fight. You can ask Fate-chan or Chrono-kun or Lutecia-chan or Nove-san if you don't believe me."
"No, Mama, I believe you, only--"
"There aren't any 'if onlys,'" Nanoha told her firmly. "Next time, you'll remember the things that went wrong, and you'll learn from them and do better. It all turned out all right, so you can move forward without regrets." She pulled Vivio into a tight hug. "Understand, Vivio, honey?"
"Good, now where was I?"
"Um, that I didn't call for backup and report the incident?"
"That's right. Now, before we move on to your battle performance, let's talk about what you should have done in those first few moments..."
~X X X~
"It was a lucky break that your date got all hotheaded and didn't report the fight to the police or the Enforcers," the doctor told Lutecia. She was a severe-faced but warm-voiced woman of fifty or so, who had bright green hair and wore spectacles with narrow oval lenses. She was also a fellow agent, who'd been able to be waiting at the hospital with the claim of being Lutecia's personal specialist by the time the summoner had arrived. "We were able to get our team in as first responders, instead of having to deal with the locals."
"Do you know who they were and why they were after me?"
Dr. Forte nodded.
"They were a team of mercenaries called the Black Raptors, specialists that hired out to corporate clients, underworld groups, local governments, and similar clients for black-ops work. All of them were A or AA-ranked mages, with a good reputation for skill and professionalism."
Lutecia nodded. It didn't hurt at all now; Dr. Forte actually was a skilled doctor and healing mage. The debriefing had taken considerably more time than the actual medical procedures, and the summoner hoped that Vivio wasn't getting too worried for her over the delay.
"I wasn't cleared to receive full details on the operation, but apparently you encountered them six months ago during a mission centered on a man named Steuben. It appears that you killed the leader of the Black Raptors, one Dan Avalon, at that time. Your sniper from today was his brother, Jim."
"So it was revenge for his brother's death?"
Dr. Forte made a face.
"Clearly, their professionalism was overstated."
Lutecia shook her head.
"No matter how cold you are, a loved one's life can always get to you."
"I've never been a field op," the doctor admitted, "so I don't know how I'd react."
"Believe me, it matters." She remembered the terror, the rage that had hit her when she'd watched Vivio plummeting to the ground, and how in the grip of that rage she had nearly ordered Garyuu to kill the two Raptors pursuing her instead of taking them down alive.
It was ironic, because it was her own lack of ruthless lethality that had led to the situation. The Steuben job had been an assassination. He'd been a scientist dabbling in matters that were deemed too risky that let endure, banned bioweapons research that had set off a bidding war for his services. In one of life's little coincidences, the night she'd picked to infiltrate his corporate employer's lab and eliminate Dr. Steuben and his research was the same night a rival corporation had sent in a team to "extract"—what civilians would call "kidnap"—him. Lutecia had been forced to kill one of that team, who'd all but caught her in the act. The other team members hadn't had any proof of her involvement nor posed a threat to her escape, so she'd let them go.
She'd been roundly criticized for that decision by the supervisory agent acting as mission admin, but Lutecia had stuck to her guns. She accepted that sometimes her operation as a Shadow demanded the taking of human life, but unlike many of her co-workers she utterly refused to accept murder as "collateral damage."
It was days like today that made her question that resolve. Did that park guard have a family? A grief-wracked spouse? Children wondering why their father wouldn't come home? That was, ultimately, the entire reason why she was willing to be what she was, because sometimes waiting for legal proof or adhering to standards of justice and decency meant that innocents died, and because she knew that she was capable of crossing those lines that the Takamachi Nanohas and Fate T. Harlaowns of the world could not cross.
But not that line. Not to commit murder for the sake of expediency.
"What happened to the Raptors?" she asked, breaking the vicious circle of her thoughts by returning to facts.
"Cinnamon Altima, Willy Vespa, and Jim Avalon were taken into custody alive; they'll be interrogated for any useful information. Among other things, we're very interested in finding out how they learned that we were responsible for the Steuben matter and that you were the agent in the field; there was a breach in security there that will have to be closed. Afterwards..." She shrugged. Lutecia knew what she meant; it was eminently obvious that the Black Raptors weren't going to stand trial when they had knowledge of NSIS operations and personnel.
"More killing in cold blood."
"It isn't your decision, or mine either for that matter. And they have dangerous knowledge about your identity and the service, as well as a murderous vendetta against you."
Dr. Forte had a point, Lutecia admitted to herself.
"There's a fourth member, Rollin Windom, who apparently had been responsible for taking over the security system. He bolted and evaded capture. If it means anything, he subdued two guards non-lethally when he did that, in contrast to the others."
"It does, actually," Lutecia told her.
Dr. Forte nodded, then, and closed out the screen displaying the case report.
"All right, then. We're done here, and I think you have somebody waiting for you."
"Thank you, Doctor."
They left the treatment room and went down the hall to the waiting area.
"But I thought that 'Maximum Power' was your personal motto, Nanoha-mama," Vivio was saying. Neither woman looked up; intent on their discussion, they hadn't seen Lutecia and Dr. Forte. "To go all-out, because if you don't give it your best, anything might go wrong, especially against an unknown enemy."
"That's true, but what I learned the hard way is that if you always go all-out, pushing yourself to your limit, sooner or later you will crash, and find yourself without any energy left when you need it. That's what happened when I was eleven; I pushed myself and pushed myself until I was very nearly killed by an enemy that I should have had no trouble with, just because I had nothing left. Vita-chan saved my life then. Yes, you won the fight, but you were very nearly beaten by an inferior opponent because you were controlled by your emotions. If he had been just a bit stronger, you'd have lost. Plus, you'd used up all your cartridges and burned through the localized mana saturation with Starlight Judgment, so you couldn't repeat that fighting style if Lutecia-chan hadn't already beaten the sniper's backup mages."
"I'm sorry, Mama."
Nanoha shook her head.
"Don't apologize, just take it as an opportunity to learn and improve. After all, Fate-chan, er, beat me like a drum in our first few fights, and that motivated me to train and improve so I could make her stop and talk with me."
"By knocking her unconscious?" Vivio knew the story, of course, plus she'd even seen the movie with Lutecia.
"Your Fate-mama is a stubborn person. You should have seen her during our wedding planning!"
"Funny; I find Fate-san to be the easygoing one of the two of you."
"Cia!" Vivio's face lit up at the sound of the summoner's voice. She all but bounced out of her seat and rushed over to her. Nanoha's eyebrow twitched at Lutecia's joke before she gave up and chuckled.
"I hope you didn't get too worried, waiting."
"Are you all right? Is there anything I can do?"
"She's fine," Dr. Forte cut in. "A couple of days of bed rest to recover from the lingering drain on her system from the healing magic, but that will be all. I'm sorry for the delay, but I insisted on running several extra tests just in case." Lutecia was impressed at the way concern and care had replaced cold efficiency on the woman's face as she dealt with her patient's waiting visitors.
"Really? You don't hurt at all?"
Lutecia shook her head.
"I'm really okay, Vivio."
"Thank goodness! I was...I was so scared that I'd messed up and gotten you really hurt," Vivio just blurted out in front of Nanoha and Dr. Forte. Shy and retiring she wasn't.
"Vivio, I was the target of that attack. I'm the one who should be apologizing to you for dragging you into this!" I don't know what I'd do without you. Just the thought of losing you terrifies me.
"How about this?" Nanoha suggested. "You could just be happy that you stood up for each other the way that people who care for each other are supposed to." Lutecia and Vivio just blinked at her. "What? I can give nice, motherly advice, too." Still no response. "Mou, Lutecia-chan I understand, but my own daughter?"
"Is it safe to laugh?" Lutecia asked Vivio.
"Oh, sure. Fate-mama does it all the time."
Which may explain those halfway-across-the-universe deployments she goes on, Lutecia thought, but didn't say. Instead, she looked at Vivio and said, "I'm sorry that our date got ruined."
"It didn't get ruined. Nanoha-mama is right. And I'm going to study hard so that next time you can count on my fighting skills, not just my feelings, to protect you properly."
"Sure! In my family, a side-by-side battle against overwhelming odds qualifies as a romantic night on the town!" With that, she stood on tiptoe and pressed her lips to Lutecia's.
You shouldn't worry, Vivio, Lutecia thought. You already protect something a lot more important than just my life.
~X X X~
A/N: For those still wondering about the Black Raptor names, while their last names are the usual random allotment of automobiles, their first names are all taken from the original cast of characters of Mission: Impossible, Jim Phelps, Rollin Hand, Cinnamon Carter, and Willy Armitage. The dead brother was named after Dan Briggs, who was the team leader for Season One before Phelps replaced him. Apologies to any Barney Collier fans out there, but he got left out because I didn't want to name a character Barney. Mostly it's a giant purple dinosaur imagery thing.
~X X X~
Vivio's Magical Omake Theater!
"So that's the full story, Zaffy," Vivio finished confessing the embarrassing details. "Do you think that you can help?"
Zafira looked at her thoughtfully, if a large blue wolf can be said to have such an expression.
"Hm, I agree that your battle performance was not ideal. But I think there is a training exercise that can assist." He shifted into human form and began to program the practice ground's settings. "Your objective will be to pursue and capture this target." A screen popped up, showing an image of a bright red orb. "It is programmed to have a randomized level of defensive barrier protection and damage absorption capacity, so that you cannot choose your strategy in multiple repetitions of the exercise based upon a known factor you would not have in real life."
"In addition, there will be enemy support units." Standard gray attack drones were displayed. "If you are hit three times by them, the exercise ends. You may defeat them outright, block with defensive magic, or simply dodge attacks as you see fit; part of the exercise is to build your judgment when you have many options available. Finally, there are bystanders." These were represented by yellow drones. "Do not let them be injured by enemy fire or environmental damage."
"Are you ready?"
Vivio launched herself off in pursuit of the red drone, and Zafira turned back into wolf form, which was more comfortable for him. While he was watching the status of the practice run scroll by on the displays, a red-haired child in an instructor's uniform walked into the control booth.
"Oi, Zafira, I didn't expect to find you here," Vita greeted her fellow Wolkenritter.
"Vivio requested special training in light of her poor performance in a recent battle."
"Good for her. Nice to see her working on the problems instead of moping. So what have you got her doing?" She looked up at the screens.
"The urban chase-and-capture scenario Nanoha designed."
"Oh, yeah, that's a good one." Vita glanced at Zafira for a second, then back at the screens, and grinned. "Gotta admit, though, it's the first time I've seen a human fetching a ball for a dog."