It's been a long time, and I apologize for leaving you all in the wasteland of fluff that this section turned into when I wasn't looking. In The Service is nearing its end, though we still have at least a few more chapters to go. I'll try not to take this long for everything else.
The Consequence of Lies
"How bad?" Tre's voice was surprisingly soft. She didn't actually like the Unison Device, didn't know Agito well enough to feel comfortable stating something like that yet. Tre was long used to the idea of monsters hidden under the skin.
"Not very. Maybe." Samuel's tone reflected a very human frustration, and for only the second time in Tre's memory she saw him as a genuine human being rather than an idealized officer. "On the one hand, there's no sign she's hurt. On the other, Unison Devices aren't supposed to be able to faint." There was a frustrated sigh. "Again, maybe. Too little is known. Agito belongs to the class of technology that died with the first Belka and hasn't been recovered."
Tre was surprised at how much it appeared to bother him. He had not been this worried when Carolyn had been in the medical bay on the way back from Iorgu. "She'll be fine." Like many who had grown up with Bureau medical technology, experience had taught her that almost anything could be survived if you made it to a doctor, and most of it could be fixed. That she was a Combat Cyborg only made such a belief stronger. Anything which did not kill Tre immediately was something she would make a full recovery from.
"If this were anyone else, I would believe that." Samuel replied.
Wherever the Wolkenritter went, they were not short of things to do. There were plenty of people who wanted to borrow one of them for training purposes; live experience against the real thing. None of them had ever really thought of the Bureau as...effete, perhaps, but it was a civilized organization and generally fought by civilized rules. There were lengths to which Bureau warriors were not prepared to go.
It had come as something of a shock to Signum to see how many of them were willing, now, to prove her wrong on that. There had been a novelty to seeing Vita fight Faddil and his willingness to do anything, after a decade or so of otherwise principled fighters. Now it had worn off. Now it was the same as it had forever been; she was the monster and they fought against her with everything they had.
Refreshing, in a way. A return to the normal of her life, but carrying none of the old hate and fear. They were glad to see her, glad to learn from her, in a way she did not entirely understand. Signum was the absolute image of their worst enemies, and she knew enough of the behavior of people to know that this should color their attitudes. But it did not.
Belkans would never have handled it so well. Signum's past was so unlike her future, and she was not sure she could come to terms with some of the new realities. Even seeing Zafira voluntarily assume his human form was new, different, bizarre. And he did it with increasing regularity now.
It wasn't surprising, perhaps, that Zafira would have commented instead on the way Signum was significantly more comfortable with drawing her blade now. Levantine was her life, and she'd forgotten, for a long time, the simple pleasures of it. They were knights of Belka, their purpose and their craft was killing, but it had worn them down. There was only so much refuge to be had in duty and the unique inability of a Wolkenritter to snap. The nature of who they served and who they fought had not helped.
Now she could remember the simple joys of being skilled. The whistle of the blade in the air, the incredulous expression on an opponent's face as she moved faster than they thought possible, blocked or cut in ways they didn't believe she could have. Her victories were not tinged with shame, now. And neither were her defeats tinged with that sense that she allowed them, subconsciously perhaps, to beat her because she hated what she had become. She had lost fairly, putting her best effort forth without doubt.
If it had taken the Wolkenritter better than a decade to get there, well, it had taken them ten thousand years to get to the state before it. They were bouncing back quite well once everything was considered. And Hayate was glad of it, though she didn't like to let on.
It didn't occur to Hayate that the real problems with that were only just beginning.
Tre watched her superior pace. It was a mannerism that she wasn't used to. None of the Combat Cyborgs had ever had it during the bad old days with the Doctor. They had been...conditioned, to express agitation with violence. It was a reluctant conclusion for Tre. She had enough guilt issues already without exploring the many ways she'd been subtly molded into an engine of destruction.
She didn't notice she had an audience to her being the audience, though Samuel did and most of the non-Cyborgs in the room actually did as well.
"He was right not to allow me to discuss the nature of being the monster with Tre." Signum observed softly to Hayate, standing near the entrance. "I know that look."
Samuel looked at her. Dame Signum. His concern, or rather the depth of it, surprised Signum. He hadn't known Agito long. And it shamed her. She wasn't nearly as worried as he seemed to be.
Shame. Over another being more concerned about the safety of a third party. Signum felt momentarily disoriented, as though someone had reversed the gravity. This was something that hadn't happened in a very long time.
"Signum?" Hayate asked, concerned by what she felt over her link to the senior Wolkenritter.
Tre finally looked up and seemed to flinch at the sight of her. Signum nodded to the Cyborg. "Tre. Commander." Careful to address him properly: he was senior to her, it was a public setting, even if not one in which standing to attention and saluting were required.
He acknowledged her with a nod, but did not speak, resuming his pacing. Then he paused. "Tre. Keep an eye on Agito." And with that, he moved off.
Hayate was already speaking to a doctor, so Signum followed Samuel instead.
He was staring out a window, and he heard her approaching, even recognized her precise click-click footsteps when she was in uniform. "I am tired, I am angry, and while I may not manage to actually hurt you I think trying might be cathartic. Do not tempt me, Dame Signum."
She wasn't quiet about the way she moved closer instead. "And why not?"
"Section One, Lines One to Three. Section Two, Line One. Section Five, Line Thirty."
It took Signum a moment to place the reference, and even then she wasn't sure what Section Five and Line Thirty actually was. The first one, Section One, Lines One to Three, was easy: the commissioning contract that every Bureau commissioned officer had to recite at least once from memory. You are expected to at all times conduct yourself in a manner appropriate and fitting for an officer of the Time-Space Administrative Bureau, to at all times bear in mind the duties and responsibilities placed upon you as an officer of the Time-Space Administrative Bureau... "You give yourself too little credit."
"And you would know enough to make that judgment?" There was a hint of scorn. "I will do many things for the Bureau. I would willingly embrace damnation, and depending on who you ask I perhaps already have by becoming a cyborg. But I am human and you are not. I must struggle with my fears, my despair, my rage. You suffer no such indignities. Pity me or scorn me, but do not pretend to me that you know me well enough to understand."
Signum visibly flinched. She did not consider him a friend, not quite, but Vita did, and that counted for rather a lot among the members of the last Belkan knightly order. But Samuel had remembered what she was, as he often did, and turned it against Signum, forced her to remember that she was never entirely the woman, that she would always be the monster. It would have hurt less if Samuel had stabbed her in the chest.
But she could be stubborn too. "Then take a swing, sir. I am not moving unless you do."
He pressed a hand over his eyes, eventually running it back across his hair, slow. "You are betting that I am in a sufficiently uncooperative mood to not take a swing at you, because you dared me to." His voice was far too even. It took Signum a fraction of a second too long to realize why.
It was a solid hit, a left that would have shattered the jaw of a human and still hurt quite a bit as it snapped her head around. Even to hit her, he remembered what she was. It took considerable self-control not to respond or move to defend herself. Levantine on the other hand didn't react at all, when it was normally the first to leap to the defense of its mistress. No more blows were forthcoming. She turned her head back and gingerly touched her cheek. "Cathartic?"
"Not enough," was the answer. His expression was blanked out. He might not be able to control his emotions, but he was a Combat Cyborg; he could control if they got out.
"Again." Signum replied.
Then his expression contorted with grief and rage, and he turned away again. "Yes. Abuse the woman who has suffered abuse her whole life. It'll make you feel better."
He was right. She didn't understand him at all. She'd never seen so much emotion from him before, so much raw anger. It reminded her of the behavior of a Belkan knight, just a little. Belka's protectors had been honed to a sharp edge of ferocity, to the point they sometimes had to fight it when it tried to manifest in places and times it wasn't appropriate.
But his issue was different. His rage and his despair, he'd said. Familiar, too familiar, to Signum, but not things she had ever been forced to struggle with. Being a Wolkenritter, bound to obey, all emotions cast aside the moment they got in the way of her ability to execute her orders, she understood only those things which she had seen in masters and mistresses over the years.
And while she had seen them rage and despair, by the time they did it in front of her, they were no longer trying to fight it. It was not that they had all been evil, though the vast majority of them probably fit that description. But if not that, they had been desperate beyond reason to take up the Book, so deep in their anger or their despair that they could see no other method but the superweapon thrust into their hands. And to hell with the doom it would bring upon everything and everyone.
No. Nothing useful to compare to there. Nothing useful in his other behavior; the leader's mask, if mask it was. Nor the willingness to do anything. This was not the man who had accepted Tre's killing of a child Cyborg during their apprehension of Jail with a shrug. Not the man who had killed one of her clones, the first one, stood up, dusted himself off, and wondered aloud how he'd explain this to the Admiral.
Though this new side lended him a hint of tragedy, familiar almost-Signum's train of thought came to a screeching halt. He is not Kalb. This is not Alphard. Things are different. "You do not want to share this. As part of being an officer." Her voice dropped to a softer level and tone. "You must understand, I do not think less of you for this. If anything, I would envy you. It is something I will never be able to do." Her eyes flicked to the deck. "Which I fear reflects poorly on me as an intelligent creature."
"Believe me, it does not. The fact you can avoid this and yet remain a decent person is deeply to your credit." A long sigh. His hands relaxed out of the fists they'd been since before she'd entered the room. "Your life has been hard enough. Take the mercy it offers you and be glad."
"Mercy without justices creates monsters. Justice without mercy makes a monster out the deliverer." Signum replied, softly. An old Belkan aphorism, nearly as old as she was. "I will never know for sure which side of that divide I'm on."
A sigh. "Assumes you're not in the middle. Hit me."
She wasn't sure she'd heard him correctly. "What?"
"I should not have struck you. It was undeserved. The simplest form of reparations, a blow for a blow." He turned around, and his incongruously Belkan blue eyes were very bright, this close. "Hit me."
He was a little taller than her. And if he wanted to it would not be completely impossible to stop her. His Cyborg poker face gave away very little. Did he mean it? Only one way to find out.
She telegraphed the wind-up, giving him a last chance to change his mind, and hit him across the jaw. It actually hurt, and she wondered if he'd hurt himself hitting her. His head didn't rotate easily with the blow, but it did turn. As a Cyborg it would not have been hard for him to roll with it, but he had refused to lessen his own suffering.
He touched his jaw and winced. "Good right."
"No one is a knight of Belka who is helpless without a weapon." Signum paused. "They taught us that three months before we were given our first practice weapons, and reinforced it regularly. I do not know if that childhood was real, of course. All evidence is long gone, all witnesses long dead."
"But you think it was." His tone was surprisingly soft, and there was...sympathy? No. Something warm, something related to sympathy, but not it exactly. There was a distance to it. "Because in admitting a fall from grace, you are admitting that grace is something you were once capable of, and hence could be capable of again."
Signum managed, just barely, to restrain her reaction. It helped she didn't have a sufficiently strong curse to open with. That was perceptive of him, and cut deeply. Now she discovered that even if someone did understand her, she only appreciated it to a point. She took several steps back, and noted the twitch of a grin from him. "Some things are not meant to be shared, are they Dame Signum?"
"No," she agreed reluctantly. "They are not. But it is too late, now, to take them back."
He made a noise that was almost a laugh, but strangled. "Not so easily sent away. I respect you, and for that reason alone I would not willingly have you deal with me when I'm like this. There are others, of course. I will leave if you do not, so the choice is yours."
Reluctantly, Signum nodded and withdrew from the room.
Agito woke to find herself well-attended. Her new partner and Tre both were present, along with several Bureau sciencey types. "Welcome back." Samuel's tone was concerned, slightly. "Have a good nap?"
Agito swore softly. "Damn it. I'm sorry about that, Sammy. It shouldn't-"
"Relax. You're good to go and it wasn't more than temporarily awkward." Samuel said. "And you may have inadvertently answered an important question."
Agito's hands balled into fists and she rose from her lying position into the air. "Has somebody talked to Scaligetti?"
"Down, girl." Samuel sounded vaguely amused. "My report was filed while I was standing by your bed. I also spoke to my father, personally, because it seemed important he learn quickly. Naval Counterintelligence has had branding irons applied to Scaligetti's testicles for a couple days at least."
"I've been out that long?" Agito was clearly disturbed.
"The Commander has been counting." Tre replied. "Two days, six hours, thirty-nine minutes."
"Seventeen seconds." The addition was almost automatic, and Agito wondered if they'd done this routine before. "We're partners." Samuel said. "I take your safety, and Tre's, very seriously." In the background, Tre blushed faintly before she managed to get it under control. Yes, it was like Jail in a way; but Jail did not stand vigils as Samuel had done, nor did he demand that others do so if he was not able.
Agito nodded, a little bit abashed, but not much. "You...didn't meant the branding iron thing literally, did you?"
Samuel shook his head. "Aside from the fact that it would never be authorized, I once asked my father about the subject. Physical torture, he said, is an ineffective means of interrogation. People will say what they think you want to hear to make you stop, which is not necessarily the truth. If for some reason the Bureau Council told him 'no rules', he'd keep them awake for a couple days and doped to the eyebrows. Then he'd start asking questions."
Agito stared for a couple of moments, as did Tre, before Agito spoke for both of them. "I'm kind of sorry I asked."
Samuel grinned faintly, but it wasn't a happy expression. "So was I. I was afraid to ask if the Council had ever told him there were no rules. Never have." Tre was reminded of something her father had once said to her regarding an infiltration mission, about taking care when asking questions of those who were both intelligent and thorough. Just in case they really know the answer. Samuel nodded to Agito and held out a hand. "Ready to go?"
Agito touched his hand. "Unison in."
Nanoha was on a holo with Hayate, reporting on the aftermath of the scuffle Uno had gotten into. "Hayate...they're both rather attached to Yuuno and getting moreso the more he attempts to take responsibility. I can see this ending only a small number of ways, most of them messy. With your permission, I will handle it."
Hayate frowned heavily. "Nanoha, that's hardly appropriate."
Nanoha took a long moment to collect her thoughts, which surprised Hayate. "I made a choice, a long time ago, to save a life. Yuuno was a mature, capable person who could clearly deal with anything life might throw at him. Fate was a timid wreck who shivered when touched and bore incredible guilt over the death of her actual mother Precia and her emotional mother Linith. Someone who could easily be destroyed by a careless crush or errant friend. I took responsibility. I saved a life. I did the greatest good possible. But that did a disservice to Yuuno. I love Fate dearly and do not regret my choice, but I am still aware it was a choice and that I could have been happy with either of them. Yuuno suffered for this choice, not as badly as Fate might have, but he did. I am not inclined to allow him to suffer further in this manner."
Hayate's eyebrows went up. That was actually the first time she'd heard Nanoha acknowledge Yuuno's crush aloud. Ever. "You've know that long?"
"I have. But it was important, at least at the beginning, that Fate have no reason to feel threatened. And after that..." Nanoha sighed. "After that, it was easier to maintain my obliviousness than to explain. Not anymore."
Hayate briefly closed her eyes and considered options. She could not come down hard on her subordinates; it was not her style and would have consequences for the future were she to do it for something like this. Her authority, or at least how she exercised it now, would be permanently damaged.
Nanoha, on the other hand, was known for being forceful. And occasionally vengeful. If she made threats, they would be treated with the utmost seriousness. "All right." Hayate said softly. "Do what you need to do."
"Thank you, Hayate. I will be in touch."
She closed the holowindow and looked up, locating Signum, who was...Hayate paused. Signum looked troubled. "Signum, is everything all right?"
"Yes." Signum sounded like she meant it, but her face didn't seem like it. Hayate was both surprised Signum would lie to her, and in a bizarre way, proud. Her knights continued to grow up, to grow out of being her knights and into their own people.
Still, this might be an issue in time. Hayate would have to keep an eye on it.
Uno rubbed at her temples. Father had made a mess of this. There was now good reason to believe that he'd actually started the war with the New Belkans. Even knowing him as well as she did, she was mystified as to why he would have done something like this, send Zest and Lutecia to steal Agito like this...
There was a certain conceptual brilliance to stealing from a government that had no way of knowing you existed. There was also a deep and abiding stupidity to taking an action that would have pitted Jail's glorious scientific revolution against the New Belkans, assuming he'd won. How had he even known? It bothered her immensely that Jail could have kept such a secret from her of all people.
"Uno?" That was Takamachi's voice. Uno looked up, standing and coming to attention slowly from her tiredness, but her salute was still a quick snap. "Major Takamachi."
"We need to talk." Nanoha said.