Chapter 3


5 days ago:

"Admiral Harlaown...Lindy...It's me. I don't know when you'll get this message, but I can't risk contacting you the usual way. I don't know whether or not you think I did it. I don't know what anyone thinks right now, but this is important: whatever you believe, do NOT try to help me. I think this whole mess is much more complicated than any of us realized. If the investigators come to you, cooperate with them. Tell them about this message, even; it's not like it would change things much. Just don't try to protect me. Because you can't, and I don't want to see you—or anyone else—hurt." *BEEP*

"That's all I've heard from her."

"I see. Thank you, Admiral. Though I wonder if you're sharing this with us because you believe her, or because you believe she needs to be brought in."

"Because I believe her. I've known her since she was nine years old, Investigator Agera, and I firmly believe—and you can put this on the record—that she is not only unwilling but psychologically incapable of taking an innocent life."

"That may well be. But from her point of view, the victim might not have been entirely innocent, wouldn't you say?"

Lindy had no response to that.


Now:

I was flying.

Stars and stones, I was flying.

Well, if you want to get technical, it was actually the young woman holding my hand that was doing the flying, in a way that made me feel uncomfortably like the Lois Lane to her Superman. At least, she looked like a young woman. I couldn't be sure now. I don't care how differently you learned to do things, twenty-year-old wizards just do not do the things I had just seen her do. I couldn't project force as neatly and cleanly as she had, at least not without my staff as a focus. She had done it with nothing but her bare hands. And this was after she had instantly performed a spell it had taken me years to get right on her first try. Oh, and she could fly.

Human wizards don't generally do a lot of flying. It takes ridiculously tight force control, and the results if you screw it up range from "highly embarrassing" to "spectacularly fatal". The most anyone usually does is a kind of float-hover-thing to look impressive; anything more isn't considered worth the effort.

Of course, that was probably because most wizards didn't have the kind of control necessary to hit transonic speeds, which Nanoha was doing with apparently minimal effort. And she was keeping me in the air as well, holding onto me with only one hand (which physics said should've felt like she was yanking my arm out of its socket, but it only felt like she was gently pulling me along). And I only felt the barest hint of a breeze on my face.

Nanoha Takamachi, I decided at that moment, was officially really fucking scary.

After our abrupt exit from the dingy apartment, she had taken us up in an uncomfortably vertical climb, then blasted northeast for a few minutes before finally slowing down to a stop over Lake Michigan. She summoned another of those bizarre laser-circles below our feet and landed on it as if it was solid ground. I experimentally tested it with one foot, making sure it was solid before I finally released the death grip I had on her hand.

Floating several hundred feet above Lake Michigan, I sort of half sat down, half fell on my ass on top of what was apparently solid air, and after a couple seconds of catching my breath, I asked the young woman in front of me point-blank: "What the fuck was that?"

She gave me a tired-looking grin. "A lot more magic than my doctor said I should be using right now."

I just shook my head in disbelief, not even bothering to think about the implications of that response. "What are you?"

Apparently that question deserved careful consideration, as she frowned thoughtfully for a few moments. Finally, she answered. "I'm human, if that's what you're wondering."

"Yeah, because human wizards break the sound barrier all the time."

"We didn't break it, just sort of edged up against it. You'd know if we broke it."

"Not helping your case."

She sighed in annoyance. "Don't take my word for it, then. Don't you have some kind of way to confirm it?"

I did, now that she mentioned it. The Sight. It was a way for a wizard to see the world as it really was—seeing the true form of everything around him, with the lines of force and energy—magical and otherwise—that bound the whole world together. It would indeed instantly confirm her humanity if I used it. Problem is, using the Sight is a pretty intense experience. It's generally pretty beautiful, but if you Look too hard at something you're not ready for...well, it can be very bad for your mental health.

And once you See something, you can't ever, ever forget it. It'll be with you for the rest of your days. So, if she was encouraging me to use my Sight, that meant one of two things: either she was telling the truth, and was simply a human being...

Or she was some kind of unimaginable eldritch horror banking on me going completely batshit upon getting one good Look at her, which seemed more likely by the moment. So it probably wasn't a good idea to bet my sanity on it.

There was another option, actually: a soulgaze. The reason Nanoha had avoided looking directly into my eyes when we first met was that making eye contact with a wizard was usually something to be avoided. Doing so would allow each person to use the Sight to look directly upon the other's soul (even if only one of them had the Sight normally), and to see, in a sense, who they really were. Not only would it only work if she was human (or near-human—it would work on changelings and White Court vampires, but I seriously doubted she was either), it might give me an idea of whether she was worth trusting.

Assuming you're already prepared to look into the deepest, darkest corners of another person's soul, there's a couple other disadvantages: First, it's a form of the Sight, so whatever you see stays with you forever. Second, wizard or not, the other person gets a look into your soul as well.

I don't know what people see when they look into my soul. I do know that they usually get very pale, and occasionally faint.

I asked her if she knew what a soulgaze was; she swallowed and responded in the positive. I asked if she was willing to go through with one. She nodded, and whispered something to her necklace jewel. Our eyes met.


The funny thing was, she was still a child at the core.

Well, technically she wasn't far removed from being a child on the outside, either, but it went deeper than that. Inside the depths of Nanoha Takamachi's eyes, I saw a little nine-year-old dressed up like Sailor Moon, striking a pose like she was about to deliver a speech condemning some dark creature's acts of evil. When I looked closer at that child, though, I saw some things I didn't expect. Like how the ridiculous outfit was actually battle-scarred steel armor. Or how the magic wand in her hands was a gun, a sword, a weapon of some kind.

She had made it her job to fight evil, and she mostly knew what that job would require. At the same time, though, she looked...clean. Unmarred by the guilt that would stain the soul of a soldier, or anyone who had taken a life.

Somehow, I got the feeling that though she knew what the job might require, it had yet to actually ask it of her. That though she had seen battle, death was still something largely beyond her experience. And she had never grown up because her nine-year-old worldview, her basic belief in the dichotomy between good and evil (and that most human beings were the former), hadn't yet failed her. God, how I envied her.

There were lines extending out from the core of her soul, too: lines connecting her to any number of others. I couldn't see any faces, but I got the sense of friends, family, students, and...a daughter? Her daughter? Huh. If her armor was cold steel, those lines were solid adamantium: she was bound tightly to those she cared for, and would defend any of them to the death.

A new image passed through, though, centered around the line between her core and the image of the girl that might have been her daughter. Now the little girl in the Sailor Moon outfit was a mother, defending her own little girl with the rage of a bear protecting her cub. But there was...confusion there, radiating out from that moment of defense. Something to do with her daughter had finally forced her to take another look at her black-and-white view of the world, and she was starting to see the cracks in it. Another crack opened up at that very moment, and somehow I knew it was because of what she was seeing in my soul.

I broke the soulgaze. She stared at me for a moment, visibly shaken. Before I could say anything, she whispered to me. "How do you do it? How do you see all that...do all of that and keep going?"

"The same way you would," I replied. "Friends." I paused and thought for a second. "Well, beer helps. Friends and beer."

She chuckled. "Friends and beer. I'll keep that in mind. Are you satisfied?"

"Yeah." I didn't know what some of what I had seen meant, but I knew two things for sure: she was human, and she definitely hadn't killed anybody. Ever.

"Good. And I'm sure you have more questions, Mr. Dresden, but we're still out in the open, and I'd be surprised if our friends from the apartment didn't have a couple fliers along with their backup."

I shook myself out of the post-soulgaze daze. "More? More people who can fly?"

"Yep. It's not that rare a skill." I opened my mouth to respond, but she held up a finger. "Run now, questions later. Any ideas where to run to?"

I racked my brain for any solution besides the obvious one. When none came to mind, I sighed and reluctantly said "My apartment. It doesn't have much in the way of hiding wards, but it's probably one of the safest places in the city right now. And I have...resources there."

"Okay. What's the address?" I told her, and she nodded and grasped her necklace jewel again. "Calculate location and flight path...Okay. Grab on." She offered her hand. Once again, I took it and braced myself.


My home still appeared to be safe, thankfully. Granted, it had only been about twenty minutes since we blasted out of Nanoha's apartment, but I had no idea what methods the Unnameable Pursuers—what had she called them? Bloodhounds?—might have had access to. For all I knew, they could've looked up my face and found my name and address by it already. Or done a locating spell based on floating specks of DNA. Who knows? I'd believe anything right now.

Nanoha took us down in an alley not too far away from the old boardinghouse my apartment was located in, and I let go of a breath I hadn't realized I was holding when we touched ground.

I noticed as we walked the short distance to my front door that Nanoha looked extremely tired—more so with every step. By the time we walked down the concrete stairs to the door and disabled the wards, I was practically carrying her. So, even she couldn't keep up the insane, sanity-defying feats of magic without a little nap time. That was good to know. I forced opened my heavy, permanently-stuck front door and walked her inside.

My apartment isn't exactly luxurious, but all things considered I'd say it's pretty nice. It's got a tiny-but-livable living room with a cozy fireplace, an alcove with far-off dreams of kitchenhood, a bedroom, and a fair-sized subbasement I use as my lab. It also has two permanent residents besides me, both of whom rushed up to greet me as usual. Mister, my somewhat oversize cat, gave Nanoha a brief once-over, then rubbed past both our legs disdainfully. Mouse, my very oversize dog, gave her a similar look, then cocked his head and looked at me questioningly.

"It's okay, boy. She's a client." I paused for a second. "At least, I think she's okay. Nanoha, this is Mouse. He's smarter than he looks. Probably smarter than me." Mouse made a very familiar expression that I strongly suspected was a doggy smirk.

"Mmm. Good doggy." She sleepily reached down and scratched him behind the ears. "Your familiar?"

"No. Just a really smart dog." It was a bit more complicated than that, but I somehow got the feeling she wouldn't appreciate a lecture on the wonders of temple dog genetics at the moment.

A voice came from the stairs down to the lab as we walked into the living room. "Is that you, Harry? Hey, do you know if a potion with radioactive ingredients is going to stay radioactive once you brew it?"

"My apprentice," I said to Nanoha, who nodded vaguely. "Molly, didn't I explicitly forbid you from using the depleted uranium?" I called downstairs.

"Well, yeah, but did you know that there's this radioactive stuff in smoke detectors called americium?" Footsteps accompanied her words. "So I figured it might be useful as a potion ingredient for..." She trailed off as she reached the top of the stairs and spotted Nanoha. "Oh. Hi there." The look she gave me said 'and who the hell is this?'.

"Hi, Molly," I said. Molly Carpenter was my apprentice, a 19-year-old girl with perpetually changing hair color and a rebellious streak a mile wide. (Though said streak was considerably narrower than it used to be, mostly because she knew the White Council would gladly chop her head off at the first sign of her slipping back into a black magic habit.) She had also expressed...interest in me not so long ago, and since her age was one of the primary reasons I had refused...Yeah, I could see how me bringing Nanoha in would look a little suspicious. "This is Nanoha Takamachi. She's a client. Nanoha, this is Molly Carpenter, my apprentice."

"Mm. Pleeztameechu," Nanoha said with a half-hearted bow, her tone making the words sound more like 'I need sleep, where's a pillow?' than their actual meaning.

Molly did not immediately respond, instead continuing to stare suspiciously. Nanoha, meanwhile, detached herself from my support and sort of stumble-wandered towards the couch.

"She needs a place to hide out, and right now, this is pretty much the safest place in the city for her."

"Really." She somehow managed to keep that word from sounding entirely sarcastic.

"Yes, really."

"Hmph." She put on a rather impressive reproduction of her mother's disapproving glare.

"Look, her own apartment's not safe, and she says she was framed, and she gave me an advance-" Before I continued my stream of embarrassed justifications, and indeed before I had time to wonder why I was putting up with my apprentice giving me the third degree, we were rather rudely interrupted by the sound of a hive of angry hornets being torn asunder with a chainsaw, all to the chorus of a thousand vuvuzelas. I looked over Molly's shoulder to see that Nanoha had passed out on the couch.

Wow, that girl could snore.

"Wow, that girl can snore," Molly said, a hint of a smile cracking through her glare. "So what's her story?"

"I'll be sure to let you know when she tells me some of it," I said. "She's apparently wanted for murder. She came to me-"

"For help clearing her name?"

"No," I said. It finally struck me how odd it was that she had said absolutely nothing to that effect. "All she wanted me to do was help her hide out." I told her about everything that had happened so far, including Nanoha's impossible feats of magic. I left out what exactly I had seen in the soulgaze, of course—that isn't the type of thing you go around telling everybody.

"Um, Boss," she said when I had finished, "you sure you're not hitting the booze a little hard?"

"I know how insane it all sounds. And I don't understand it much better than you do. All I know right now is that this girl needs help, and she's paying me to provide it."

Molly just shook her head, then frowned. "What she said about the pursuers...they're feds...but they're not from any government on Earth. What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

"What it means," I responded, trying to make it sound as if I had already thought about that, "is that she's lying about something, even though she does really need my help. Which wouldn't surprise me much." I didn't even stop to consider the alternative—that she was telling the truth, and that there were no inconsistencies in her story. That would just be ridiculous.

But it would explain quite a bit...

"So what are you going to do? Just let her crash here until something happens?"

"No, I'm going to let her get some rest. And when she wakes up, I'm going to see about getting some answers."