Celica Iris-Lynnfield opened her gray eyes and blinked several times, trying to force her mind into functionality. It had been a rough week—ever since the end of the Renegade Incident, as it was called within NSIS, the admiral had been sending her on more and more field missions.
The events of the incident had apparently quadrupled her value to the Bureau and the Shadows, Celica knew—as the only living practitioner of the Al'hazred magic system, there were things she could do that nobody else alive was capable of doing.
And with the destruction of the derelict science vessel known as the Factory, nobody else can replicate what I've done, she mused thoughtfully. The red-haired mage tossed back her blankets and sheets, standing up on the richly-carpeted floor of her bedroom.
"Sometimes," Celica began, "I wish things would have just returned to the way they were. Especially when those things hurt this much..."
"Admiral Harlaown's actions are sound considering your new assignment," a mechanical-sounding masculine voice replied unnecessarily. Celica whirled around and glared sharply at the shard of blue-white crystal sitting on her nightstand table.
"Nobody asked you," she snorted, picking up the Interface Device and fitting it onto her ear. "Are you ready for this? It's going to be a lot more physically-demanding than anything else we've ever done before."
"I am certain," Tizona replied, his artificial voice sounding miffed. "Dr. Finenio has reinforced my frame and redesigned my combat forms per your requests and my adjusted performance requirements."
"It's going to be weird being reassigned as an independent," Celica muttered in a low tone. "It'll take some getting used to, not having NSIS's resources at my fingertips."
"You will manage," Tizona said sardonically.
"Oh, shut up," the mage snapped good-naturedly. "We're supposed to meet General Yagami in two hours. Think we can go pick up Alphine and Vic before then?"
"Official City Defense traffic reports are showing only mild congestion through the downtown corridor," Tizona responded after checking the network.
"If only I wasn't completely useless with movement magic," Celica muttered, walking into the bathroom and turning the shower on full-force. Hot water cascaded down from the shower head as the young woman stepped inside.
The near-scalding water pounded against her bare skin, massaging away the aches and pains so unfamiliar to her. She closed her eyes for a long moment, enjoying the sensation, when Tizona emitted a triple beep.
"Incoming communications link," Tizona announced.
"Connect, audio only," Celica said absently. "Hello?"
"Iris-Lynnfield, I apologize for catching you in the shower," the voice of Admiral Chrono Harlaown said over the audio link.
"Don't worry about it," she replied. "I overslept a little."
"In any case," Chrono continued, clearing his throat self-consciously, "I just wanted to tell you that I wish you the best on your new assignment. You won't be reporting to me until the mission is complete, and I wanted to let you know that if you ever need anything, don't hesitate to ask."
"If I need anything from you on this mission, we're all essentially fucked," Celica deadpanned.
"I'm well aware," the admiral replied soberly. "Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that even though you are ostensibly an independent organization, you can still count on us to help you if things fall apart."
"Thank you, Admiral. I'd appreciate it if you'd let me finish bathing."
"Understood," Chrono said, chuckling. "Good luck out there, Celica."
The communications link was closed. Celica sighed and ducked her head under the stream of water, washing her hair before cutting off the shower and stepping out of the stall.
Secure Briefing Room #A74
Ground Forces Headquarters
"Looks like you two beat me here," Celica said lamely, waving to the two Shadows who stood behind their chairs, waiting for the rest of the assembled Bureau personnel to arrive.
"You overslept," Tizona put in snidely.
"Another late-night bender, eh, Celica?" Victor Stormhawk asked, snickering slightly. Lutecia Alphine glared at the blond man and jabbed him in the kidney with an elbow. "Ow! What?"
"The admiral wants to turn me into some kind of ninja computer nerd," Celica said dryly. "This was the seventh field deployment I've been sent on since the Incident! And it was only two days after he sent me to the Ground Forces' Three-Day Supplementary Course!"
"He just wants you to get a bit more combat experience," Lutecia pointed out truthfully. "Granted, you have been named commander of the operation, but considering the nature of this mission, there's no telling what you'll have to do. It only makes sense to have every member in tip-top shape."
"He threatened to give Instructor Takamachi my contact info and a little note saying that she ought to have me run through basic again," Celica complained.
"You almost died during the Renegade Incident," a new voice said from behind, soft yet simultaneously rough. "The admiral merely wants to increase your chances of survival, as this mission will be considerably more dangerous."
"Cinque," Celica said with interest. "I didn't know the admiral was going to assign you to the task force, too."
"We are the only four NSIS agents assigned," the silver-haired woman explained, standing behind the chair on Celica's right side. "The rest of the team will be drawn from other divisions of the Bureau."
"Do we know who?" Victor inquired.
"The admiral did not inform me," Cinque said. "As far as I know, we will find out who else we will be working with when General Yagami arrives to start the briefing."
"The briefing itself is supposed to last two days," Lutecia noted. "This is going to be a tough mission."
"You mean I'm stuck in this stupid conference room for two days?" Victor bitched loudly. Lutecia scowled at the blond man and again jabbed him none-too-gently in the kidney with her elbow, eliciting a yelp of pain.
"Yes, you're stuck in this stupid conference room for two days," a familiar female voice said from the door. As the figure walked in, Celica easily recognized her as General Hayate Yagami, the Supreme Commander of the City Defense Force and an important general officer within the Bureau.
The Mid government probably thought it would be politically expedient to assign a Bureau officer to the post after Regius died, rather than just promoting another Ground Forces colonel, Celica mused idly.
"General Yagami," Celica said respectfully, saluting. "Where are the remaining task force members?"
"They are behind me in the hallway," Hayate said, entering the conference room and taking her seat at the head of the long table. More people filed into the room, some of whom Celica recognized, others she did not.
"Allow me to make the introductions and then we'll get started," Hayate said in a ringing voice of command, getting right to the point. "The five individuals who arrived early are Commander Celica Iris-Lynnfield, Lieutenants Lutecia Alphine and Victor Stormhawk and Warrant Officer Cinque Nakajima. They are with NSIS."
Celica detected some distorted muttering through thoughtspeech, but she didn't care to decrypt the stream and listen in during an important briefing. In any case, she already knew what the muttering was about.
"I'm sure most of you will recognize the rest. Before we get into the briefing proper, I'll hand the floor over to Commander Iris-Lynnfield to outline each member's role."
Celica stood up and surveyed the gathered individuals. This was going to be one hell of a tough mission, but at least the general had given her some of the best personnel available within the Bureau's purview.
"As you all know, my name is Commander Celica Iris-Lynnfield. I don't really care what you call me, as long as you follow operational security procedures during sorties. I'll be outlining the roles for every member of the task force—officially known as the Joint-Organizational Operational Squad, Vanguard.
"For the duration of the mission, all of you who are on active duty will be temporarily transferred to NSIS within the Independent Division, reserved for agents who pursue unusual and difficult missions. Those of you who are not Bureau officers will be attached as temporary civilian consultants."
Celica paused for a moment, critically examining the faces of the various individuals who would be under her command for the duration of this mission. It wasn't her first command operation by far—she didn't attain a rank of Commander for nothing, after all—but this would be one of the most complex. Many of the people working under her were heroes of the Bureau, people who had been involved in the highest-priority incidents.
She did notice that none of the high-powered "Aces," as they were called, had been added to the team's roster. Outside of the four Shadows, the majority of the Bureau personnel were specialists in areas other than combat. Celica understood the logic behind this decision.
"Combat operations will be handled by Lieutenants Alphine, Stormhawk and Warrant Officer Nakajima. Assisting them for scouting and recon operations: Master Sergeant Vice Granscenic and Church Knight Sein. Transport and logistics: Warrant Officer Alto Krauetta. The base command staff will consist of Lieutenant-Commander Griffith Lowran, Dr. Yuuno Scrya and Dr. Shario Finenio.
"I have been assigned by General Yagami and Admiral Harlaown as the mission's commander. I will command the field operations and share cyberwarfare and data security duties with Dr. Finenio."
The individuals named all stood and saluted as Celica went through the roster. The team was small, she was sure all of them were thinking, but it was made up of an immense amount of combined experience and magical power.
"I'll turn the briefing back over to General Yagami," Celica said, taking her seat once more. Hayate nodded and stood back up, waving her hand and summoning a half-dozen large holographic displays, the glowing data suspended above the briefing table.
"I will now outline the complete mission profile of Vanguard."
Six hours later:
"Ugh, I don't know if I can stand another day of this," Victor complained, stretching his arms high above his head, eliciting a loud pop from his shoulders.
"Don't bitch," Lutecia said smugly. "You volunteered for this mission, same as the rest of us."
"I'm starting to regret that decision," Victor deadpanned, causing both Celica and Lutecia to laugh. Cinque, stoic and taciturn as ever, merely cracked a small smile at the comment.
"Can it, you two," Celica warned. "The break room isn't secure, and the admiral would have all of our heads on a platter if any of this managed to somehow leak out to the Administrative Council."
"Still angling for our asses, aren't they?" Victor asked laconically.
"Of course," Celica replied. "Our organization is essentially their worst nightmare. I still don't believe they were completely deflected by Administrator Harlaown's announcement at the Council meeting. They've just switched over to silent running—you know as well as I do that the Council won't stop pushing until the Bureau is under its complete control."
"So the Bureau can become filled with a pack of political cronies at the upper echelons, rife with corruption and graft?" Victor demanded cynically.
"Blunt, but accurate," Cinque said softly, closing her eyes as she sipped at her steaming coffee. "The Administration is a government like any other—and politicians have an inherent desire to exert control."
"The briefing's over for the evening," Celica told the other Shadows. "Go home, get some rest and be back here at 0800 tomorrow."
"Do you know when we will be deployed?" Cinque wanted to know.
"I do, but I'm not authorized to release that information until the end of tomorrow's briefing," Celica replied, her mouth twitching into a slight frown. "It won't be long, don't worry."
"If that will be all, then I believe I will visit my sisters before we are deployed," Cinque said, her face neutral, yet Celica could detect a wistful gleam in her eyes. The young woman often did not get a chance to see her "sisters"—Subaru and Ginga were often busy on assignment, and many of the other combat cyborgs "adopted" by Major General Nakajima were busy with their various lives and duties, as well.
"I'm going to go to bed," Lutecia announced exhaustedly, prompting Victor to grin wickedly.
"Your bed... or Vivio's?"
"Shut up, Storm. Just shut the hell up."
Victor and Celica glanced at each other for a long moment before the two of them both burst out laughing. Lutecia's cheeks began to flush slightly, but she smiled as well.
"I'm too keyed up to go back and crash. I'm going to go get a drink in town somewhere, relax a bit," Victor began. "Do you want to come, Celica?"
"I'd love to," Celica said warmly.
Lutecia was scarcely through the door when her Device let out a triple beep, informing her of an incoming communications link. This one was on her personal channel, and only a handful of individuals actually contacted her through it.
"Vi?" Lutecia asked, smiling broadly as an image of her long-time girlfriend and lover, Vivio Takamachi, appeared on the suspended holographic display.
"Cia, can I come over?" Vivio asked abruptly. "I know you're going to be going away for a while, so I want to see you before you leave."
Lutecia blinked, momentarily taken aback. How did Vivio know she was being assigned to a long mission, far away from Midchilda?
It must've been Dr. Scrya, Lutecia thought amusedly. It was well-known that he was a very close and very old friend of Vivio's adoptive mothers, Nanoha Takamachi and Fate Harlaown.
"Of course," Lutecia said after a moment. "I have to be at work at eight o'clock in the morning, but... it's as you say. We'll talk more in person."
"Okay, Cia," Vivio replied, smiling brightly. "I'll see you soon."
"This isn't a Bureau hangout," Celica noted as she walked into the dimly-lit bar, wrinkling her nose at the smell of various types of mild intoxicant smoke. It was certainly a dive—and absolutely the sort of place Victor would frequent, she thought.
"No, and that's why I like it," Victor said with a grin. "I try to avoid the people I knew during my stint in the regular Navy."
"You were terribly unpopular there, too, if I remember correctly," Celica shot back, sitting down at the bar and knocking the heel of her hand against the weathered wood, scarred with countless cigarette burns and wood stains.
"What'll it be, little lady?"
"Red Tempest on the rocks. No crushed ice," Celica said immediately. Victor's eyes widened at the drink Celica ordered, and he simply ordered a whisky with a beer chaser.
"How the hell do you drink those things?"
"With my mouth," Celica replied matter-of-factly, picking up the tumbler of blood-red liquid and taking a long draw off the glass. She gasped loudly and let out a deep, contented sigh. "That'll get your neurons firing!"
"Yeah, mis-firing, you mean," Victor said, chuckling. He picked up the shot glass of whisky and tossed it back in one gulp. "You sure look good in a uniform, you know."
"Oh come on, that was such a lame pickup line," Celica groaned aloud. "In any case, last time I checked, we were already sleeping together."
"Not for a while, though," Victor said, his voice subdued. "Celica, I'm wondering... just where is this going?"
"Going? What do you mean?"
"I want to know if you have any concrete plans for this relationship, or are you just... having fun with me, but don't want to... fucking hell, Celica, don't make me say it. It'll damage my manly feelings—all one of them!"
Celica smiled slightly and took a sip from her ridiculously strong drink.
"Victor, I care about you a lot," Celica said after a long while, "but I don't know if the life of a Shadow really makes room for any sort of committed relationship."
"I'm well aware of that," Victor said dryly. "Don't get me wrong; I'm not complaining. I just wanted to know if you see anything in the future... after all of this... for us."
"I don't know," Celica admitted, and she was no longer smiling. "I still... I still see her, Vic. In my dreams at night, sometimes when I'm on a Bureau warship... I don't know what I want right now, but I do care about you. Trust me on that one."
Victor said nothing, sipping at his beer, deep in thought. He knew exactly what Celica referred to—the Shiva incident, in which her actions had netted her a recommendation for transfer to NSIS. During the incident, an attempted hijacking of a Bureau cruise patrol warship by a powerful criminal organization, Celica's best friend—and first love—had been killed.
Victor knew all of this and had known for quite some time. He had also known that the older woman had long since struggled with her own sexuality. What came as a surprise, however, was Celica's bald admission that she was still haunted by the ghost of Fiore.
"I didn't know it was still that bad, Celica," Victor said, clasping his hands around Celica's. "I hate it that you're still going through hell because of that. I wish I could help, somehow."
"I know, Vic, I know," said Celica softly, her eyes glittering with unshed tears. "Look, I don't want this to be weird. I like you, but I don't know if I'm... ready for anything serious."
"I understand," Victor said firmly as Celica leaned forward and fell into his arms, sniffling softly on his shoulder. "Shh. Don't cry, just relax."
"I'm sorry," Celica murmured, sniffling, hugging the blond man tightly. "I should be better than this. You deserve better than this broken little girl—"
"You aren't broken, Celica," Victor said warmly. "I care a lot about you. So does Alphine. And even if she doesn't ever say it, so does Nakajima. We're all here for you. You can't always be a tough, dangerous bitch; you're just as human as the rest of us."
Celica said nothing, simply sniffling as she wiped tears away. Victor held her tightly, gently running his long-fingered hand across her red hair.
"If you want to take a step back, I'm perfectly okay with it," Victor continued. "I won't lie to you and say I'm not bummed out, because I am. But I care about you and I don't want you to go into something if you aren't ready."
"Thanks for understanding, Vic," Celica said, smiling slightly.
"That's what friends are for," Victor said, grinning broadly as he ordered another round of drinks.
Admiral Chrono Harlaown looked up in pure shock as the door to his office opened, revealing his secretary and a short, blue-eyed brunette dressed in the brown uniform of the Midchildan Ground Forces.
"You actually used the door," Chrono said, astonished.
"I figured the joke has run its course," Hayate said with an impish smile. "Is your office secure?"
"No. Give me a moment."
Chrono pressed a button on his desk, causing a deep-blue Midchildan magical circle to blaze into existence on the floor of the desk. The magical seal set, preventing any sort of communications eavesdropping.
"The first stages of Vanguard are proceeding according to plan," Hayate said without preamble, launching directly into it after the office was safely warded. "I will complete the initial briefing tomorrow, and then the operation will be left entirely in Commander Iris-Lynnfield's hands."
"She's more than ready for her own independent command," Chrono said. "After Vanguard completes its mission, depending on the operational logs and the resolution of the mission, I plan to restructure the organization and make Vanguard a permanent unit. Colonel Davidson has done an exemplary job, and I've been strongly considering him as a replacement for Hayes. Davidson's aide, Lieutenant-Commander Accela Norris, will be promoted to head of EAID."
"I wasn't arguing with your choices, nor am I telling you how to run your organization," Hayate replied, not terribly surprised Chrono planned to restructure NSIS. "I, too, believe that Celica will be an ideal commander for Vanguard. I am merely concerned—she has never operated without extensive support and backing from NSIS."
"Why be concerned? The Renegade Incident clearly illustrated what she's capable of on her own, without any form of support or even squadmates. Had Celica not acted the way she did, we could be neck-deep in a full-blown coup d'etat."
"I know, but it's my job to worry about these things," Hayate continued. "The Vanguard project is perhaps our greatest chance to ensure a smooth transition of Earth to an administrated world."
"If things go wrong, they go really wrong," Chrono agreed.
"Well then, we'll just have to make sure everything goes right," Hayate said grimly. "You know that I will likely be handling the military aspect. TSAB Command has already arranged it with the Midchildan local government."
"City Defense was a little too tame for you, anyway," the admiral mused. "It'll be good to see you back in the blue uniform again."
Hayate giggled softly, reminding Chrono that underneath the official, hardened exterior of a general officer in the Midchildan Ground Forces and the TSAB, she was still essentially the same girl he had met years ago during the Book of Darkness Incident.
"It'll work, Chrono," Hayate said firmly. "We've got the best possible people in on this, and we'll make it work. Go home, spend some time with your kids. Take a few days off, in fact."
"Back during the incident, Mother and I were talking about taking Amy, Fate and the kids off to an uninhabited garden world for a little vacation. It'll be nice to be Dad instead of Admiral for a week or so."
"They'll only be kids for a little while," Hayate agreed. "I plan to take a weekend with Rossa and the little monster before it gets busy."
"Thanks, Hayate," Chrono said, smiling warmly. "Life's short; we should make the best of it while we can."
Ah, the end! With this epilogue chapter, false light is over!
This little fic, shorter than my other chapters, serves as an interquel between false light and the next fic I have planned, the truth. As this is still false light, most of what we see here is related to the Shadow arc—which continues the adventures of Lutecia, Celica, Victor and Cinque.
The other two arcs, Light—which centers on Hayate, the Wolkenritter and Vivio plus mamas; and Homeworld—which focuses on the villains and an important OC antagonist opposed to all the groups arrayed within.
I have no idea when I'll actually start on the truth, but expect the Light arc to be the first completed, as I'd like a bit of a break from writing about the same characters from false light.
I will probably finish Altered Course, a non-Shadowsverse AU fanfic I started writing over a year ago and never finished, before I start on the truth.
So, stay tuned. :)