A/N: This is a direct follow-up to Chapter 2 of RadiantBeam's ViCia/Shadowverse fic, "Long Distance Goodbye" (done, indeed, at her request) and basically won't make any sense at all unless you've read that one first. Don't worry, I'll wait!
Speaking of Lutecia, man, it's amazing what not getting drafted into covert operations can do to a girl's character. She really went in a different direction in ViVid!
~X X X~
There was very little to be said in the wake of Vivio's departure. The blonde teenager had half-marched, half-carried Lutecia Alphine out of the hospital, leaving her mothers, her uncle, and NSIS Agent Victor Stormhawk alone looking nervously at one another.
Stormhawk, Fate T. Harlaown decided, was the most nervous of the four. That made sense; she and her wife didn't know the man at all, only that he was one of Lutecia's friends and one of Chrono Harlaown's Shadows. The Naval Special Intelligence Service wasn't on either Fate or Nanoha's list of favorite groups just then. It was bad enough that the NSIS earned their nickname by being the Bureau's dirty-tricks section, the covert-operations group that routinely crossed lines to handle the blackest of black ops in the name of a nebulous "greater good" that Fate didn't trust and Nanoha outright rejected could be achieved by Shadow methods. But there were more personal reasons as well. Lutecia had turned out to be a Shadow, which meant that Fate and Nanoha's innocent daughter had been plunged by proxy into the Shadows' world, brought there by Lutecia's lies about who she was (reasonable enough lies, mind you, but not to a mother facing the realization that her daughter was in love with a woman whose career profile included "blackmailer," "thief," and "assassin").
And if that wasn't bad enough, the sheer strain of being a Shadow had proved too much for Lutecia. So Vivio wasn't just dating a girl who was a black-ops specialist, but one having a complete emotional breakdown over the fact.
Idly, Fate wondered if that spoke well or badly for Lutecia. What was the better choice—heartless killer or psychological wreck?
No, Victor Stormhawk was a nervous young man.
Frankly, Fate thought he didn't have anything to worry about. The Harlaowns and Takamachis had arrived early, while Lutecia was busy breaking down, letting loose a torrent of pain and suffering, emptying her soul in a way that was hard to listen to, let alone stand and wait through. Fate's maternal instincts had almost overcome her, made her want to charge through the door and fling her arms around the young woman, but Vivio had stopped her, holding up an arm to bar her path.
So instead they'd seen Stormhawk be the one to offer comfort to Lutecia, and on Fate's part had won more goodwill in those moments than an entire career of "decent" work could have brought him.
He himself, however, didn't seem to realize that, and Nanoha's frustrated glower didn't do anything to help matters. Fate glanced at Chrono, prompting him with a sharp look and a flicker of her eyes at Stormhawk.
"I think you have somewhere to be, Agent?" Chrono said. "The Section Chief isn't going to like it if his people are missing right when he's trying to reassemble his team."
"Section Chief—? I report to—"
"This matter is being transferred above the supervisory agent level, and I want you as a part of it." The NSIS Director smiled at his agent. "Besides, you've already got Iris-Lynnfield peeking at the ops reports for you for Alphine's sake. I might as well make it official and save myself the trouble of reprimanding you."
He grinned at Chrono.
"Don't mention it. Just get moving."
Stormhawk dashed past the three of them, staying on the side away from the Ace of Aces, Fate noticed.
"Well, that went about as well as I could expect," Chrono said, his voice more than a bit bitter. Probably, Fate realized, because he isn't being ironic.
"Chrono-kun, Vivio just walked out of here with a girl who's practically suicidal," Nanoha found her voice at last. "How is that possibly a good thing? She already had to deal with Lutecia-chan's first breakdown, with the revelation that Lutecia-chan is one of your Shadows, that everything important about her girlfriend she thought she knew was basically a cover story? She's barely coping with her own feelings right now, and Lutecia-chan is in her hands too!"
"You know? What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means something like this doesn't happen overnight. You heard her, Nanoha; this has been building for years. Which means she's been lying through her teeth to the psychological staff, training herself to beat the system, keep the red alerts from going up so she can skate by—and her supervisors have been letting her because she's so valuable in the field. But if I ordered her into counseling, do you think it'd do any good? Therapy's useless if a person refuses to help herself, and she's not going to open up to someone she has no reason to trust."
He fixed his gaze on Nanoha's.
"The fact is, Vivio's the only one I think has a chance to get through to her, to maybe put her onto the path where she'll want help."
"You did it on purpose, didn't you?"
"You called us about Lutecia. You didn't do it to talk to us or because you wanted to vent about the problems in your command that led to her being back out in the field against your orders. That was all window dressing, to cover what you were really doing. You were telling Vivio that Lutecia was in trouble so she'd insist on coming down to the hospital for her."
"Sometimes," he said slowly, "I forget that my little sister is a detective."
"Why didn't you just ask her directly?" Nanoha asked. "or has all the Shadow business just got you so twisted up that you have to play these games all the time?"
He shook his head.
"I did it because of you."
Nanoha pointed to herself.
"If I'd asked Vivio directly, you'd have objected to her running errands on behalf of the NSIS. I'm sure I'd have won you over, or she would, sooner or later, but as you saw we didn't have 'sooner or later' to wait. I had to get Vivio to Lutecia as soon as possible and that meant that I didn't have time for asking it as my favor and having to deal with your suspicions of my motives. Was I wrong?"
"...No," Nanoha admitted.
"I didn't think so. Blast it all, Nanoha, don't you see that your distrust of Lutecia is the last thing any of us need, especially Vivio?"
"She's a Shadow, Chrono-kun. There's no way around that. You can pretty it up all you like and it won't change a thing. I will never agree that the things you people do are necessary or right, and I hate the fact that my daughter has been dragged into that world, having to see it from the inside out through Lutecia-chan's eyes!"
"Damn it, Nanoha, I don't run a division of monsters and psychopaths! These are good people who have to sacrifice a piece of themselves every time they go into the field to do the things which yes, every government of every world in history has needed to do to protect its people! You just had a taste of that for yourself, what kind of people they are!"
"Being a good person doesn't change the things they do," Nanoha shot back. "Killing doesn't become okay, somehow, just because the murderer regrets it. Their victims are still dead!"
"And if Lutecia didn't agree with you, she wouldn't be tearing herself apart right now, so forgive me if I find it hard to approve of your attitude! For Heaven's sake, I'd think you of all people would understand!"
He spun on his heel and marched towards the door, storming through it.
"What did he mean by that?" Nanoha said.
"I think he meant me," Fate mused.
"Well, you certainly didn't have any problem forgiving one 'good person who did bad things' and letting her be an important part of your life."
"It's not the same."
"We had this talk already, dearest."
Nanoha shook her head.
"No. I don't mean you and Lutecia-chan. I mean me. It's not the same because you're someone I let into my life, took the risk for myself to believe in you, trust you, love you. But this isn't about me any more, it's about Vivio, about our daughter. I can't look at it the same way."
Nanoha glanced around herself.
"Can we get out of here, Fate-chan? This isn't a conversation I want to be having in a hospital."
They took the elevator down to the parking garage, where Fate's car was waiting. She'd had a number of sports cars over the years; this one was a convertible with retro muscle-car styling, with gold racing strips along its jet-black exterior. The two women got in and Fate started it up. Ordinarily she loved the throaty roar of the engine's activation, but this time she barely noticed it.
They emerged from the shadows of the underground parking lot into the light, something Fate wished they could do as easily with their family problems.
"She's in love, you know. Vivio, I mean."
"I know," Fate agreed.
"No, I mean she's in love for real. Not a crush, not an infatuation, not puppy love."
"Nanoha, she's loved Lutecia since she was...what, thirteen? Twelve?"
Nanoha shook her head. Fate steered them out of the medical center complex out into the streets.
"When a twelve-year-old falls for a girl, that's a crush. And what they had these past couple of years, that was just kids dating. It's more about the feeling of being in love than about actually loving, if you see what I mean?"
"Maybe. I'm not sure."
"Well, Vivio is a teenager, and Lutecia-chan never let her see her real self all these years, so it's not like there could be anything deep and genuine there. Lutecia-chan was older, and you know how I worried about that, but really, from how they acted Lutecia-chan might as well have been Vivio's age."
Fate shifted gears as she cut from lane to lane, seeking an opening to access the highway.
"Well, given what we knew of her history, that's probably not too far off. We knew she didn't have a chance to properly grow and develop emotionally under Jail, and working with the Shadows would make her grow up too fast in some ways but not at all in others." She accelerated, feeling the throb of the engine pulse through the vehicle, and hit her turning. "You're right about their romance being like kids dating. I think that might have been part of the whole point from Lutecia's side. To have something decent, clean, and innocent in her life."
"No wonder she never made a move on Vivio," Nanoha said. "When I think of the headaches I got over that situation and how pointless it all was..." She shook her head.
"But you think it's changed now? That it's love? The real thing?"
Fate flicked a glance in her wife's direction.
"Waited? Who? And for what? I don't see what you mean."
"Vivio waited for Lutecia-chan and Agent Stormhawk to stop talking to each other before going in. She even stopped you so they could finish, remember?"
"I do, but...honestly, Nanoha, I don't see why that shows that she loves Lutecia."
"It wasn't the superficial thing to do."
Nanoha's answers were starting to give Fate a matching headache, but then again given the amount of grief Nanoha had taken ever since it had come out what Lutecia's job was, it wasn't hard to forgive.
A grin flickered across Nanoha's face for an instant as she saw Fate's frustration.
"Sorry, sweetheart, I don't mean to be so opaque. It's...well, when you saw Lutecia-chan breaking apart like she did, didn't you just want to rush in there and hug her?"
"I would have, if it hadn't been for Vivio."
"Exactly. And that's what Vivio herself would have done a month ago. But it wouldn't solve anything, not really. It'd make Lutecia-chan feel a little better in the short run, but it wouldn't fix what was wrong. Vivio...she wanted to know the truth of Lutecia-chan's pain, the depth of her suffering, and that was more important to her than soothing her for now."
A little smile, devoid of good feeling, played around Nanoha's lips. It really wasn't, Fate thought, a very Nanoha-like smile at all.
"Yeah. Oh. It means that our little girl is planning for the long-term, about the future, how Lutecia-chan is going to deal with all this if she wants to survive and somehow get her life back on track. Just like when she looked me in the eye and took Lutecia-chan out of there by herself. She was staking a claim, then, that Lutecia-chan was her responsibility first and foremost and the rest of us—friends, family, co-workers—can form a line and wait. She wasn't a kid pleading, but a grown woman in capital-L Love making a statement."
"So that's why you're so glum."
"Yeah. It's bad enough for a long-term high-school romance to go off the rails or break up under the strain. But how hard would it be for Vivio now if Lutecia-chan snaps, or kills herself? What will it do to her?" She sighed heavily, then leaned back against the headrest and turned her head so that she was looking at her wife. "I can't even decide if Lutecia-chan pulling it together or the two of them breaking up would be the worse outcome for Vivio."
"It's a question," Fate thought out loud.
"So why are you smiling?"
She was, wasn't she?
"Our daughter's in love, I'm happy for her."
"But how can you be, Fate-chan, knowing what Vivio is facing?"
"Because someone raised her to be the kind of person who never gives up, never stops fighting for what—whom—she believes in. Because I believe that, like her mother, Vivio simply won't let herself be beat."
Her smile grew warmer, and she directed it at Nanoha as best she could while still keeping an eye on the road. Nanoha reached out and covered the hand Fate kept on the gearshift with her own; even through her glove Fate could feel the warmth.
"After all, shadows look deep and scary, but the truth is, they're not really there. Shine a little light on them and they vanish."
Nanoha's groan wasn't exactly what Fate was expecting.
"Mou, Fate-chan, that was an awful metaphor. Unless you were trying to make a bad joke on purpose?"
Fate didn't need to answer the question; her red face said clearly enough that she hadn't meant it to be funny. At least hearing Nanoha's giggle made her feel good, though, that she'd managed to raise her wife's spirits for a moment.
"I love you, Fate-chan. You know that, don't you?"
"Of course I do."
"I love you, too."
"That's even better!"
Nanoha was quiet for a while.
"Would you mind going a little faster? I'd really like to feel the wind in my face, like I'm flying."
"I'd be glad to," she said, eyes twinkling, and slammed down the accelerator.