Durward Brantley V gripped Lutecia's hand with surprising strength. Though his features were easily recognizable from the case file despite the three-year age gap, the change was immense. There were no signs of the pampered, cosseted darling of wealth and privilege who had been raken from the Olympic. This child was thin, wiry, hard; he'd been toughened by privation and by the trials he'd undergone.

He reminded Lutecia of herself when she'd been a couple of years younger than he was, except that where she'd buried her emotions beneath an unnaturally dissonant calm, he wore his on his face, a desperation that was nearly feral.

She pulled, and he half-fell, half-sprang out of the car towards her. Garyuu had sent the Night Breaker reaching for the boy sprawling. The man didn't get up; without a Barrier Jacket to protect him from the insect knight's blades one blow had been more than sufficient. One man fired at him, while another, huge, rushed in close, some sort of magical blast gauntlet on his fist glowing with an armed charge. Lutecia recognized the weapon type; it allowed Belkan-type magically-enhanced physical strikes so long as its ammunition held out.

Lutecia couldn't sit and watch her summon's fight, though, because she had her own problems. The other two gang members, the woman and the tattooed bald man, came at her on the side away from Garyuu. They leveled their mass drivers and she swung Ward behind her. The impulse to protect him bodily cost her; she didn't get a shield spell up until the first shot hit her in the abdomen. She winced in pain, but luckily the weapon wasn't a military-grade linear rifle that could penetrate a low-end Barrier Jacket; she'd get a bruise out of it but no worse. Three further shots were stopped by her Panzerschild.

"Schattenstechen," her Boost Device, Asclepius, said his jewels flashing. Three missiles like elongated diamonds streaked from her palm and homed in on the two Night Breakers, cutting them down. She whipped back around, but Garyuu's armored shell and fighting skills had been more than enough to leave his two opponents sprawled in the dust. He tipped his head to one side, multiple rows of eyes gazing at her in an almost chiding fashion, as if he were saying, "And you doubted me?"

"All right, then. Let's get going. We need to move fast."

"Why?" the boy asked. "If you're with the Bureau, then aren't I safe now?" He glanced around. "You took care of those guys."

There was an almost plaintive note in his voice, which Lutecia understood at once. After all his experiences, his time in Conall's custody as well as his flight through the streets, he wanted more than anything to be told that it was over, that it was safe.

She wanted to give him that reassurance. Wanted to but couldn't.

"Those Night Breakers were just street-level punks. You're attracting attention from people bigger than that. Your family's company is pan-dimensional, dealing with multiple Administered Worlds, which makes you big business to them until you're safely at home. The TSAB isn't the only party that's after you."

He gulped and nodded.

"Like Angharad," he said. "They'll be hunting me to get me back." His eyes widened and he added, "I...I could be a witness against them! They have to find me!"

Lutecia didn't answer him at once. How could she respond when a child looked at her and announced that he'd realized he was under a death sentence?

She then shook her head. It was time for action, not sentiment.

"Don't worry. I won't let them get to you. But for now we need to get out of the city." She started looking over the parked cars, seeking one that would suit her needs.

"Why?"

"I'm a long-range teleporter, so I can take you directly where we need to go, but the background 'noise' created by all the magical technology in the city, from communications to magical barriers, makes teleportation magic difficult and unreliable," she explained.

Ah, that one will do, she thought, spotting a car that suited her.

She dismissed Garyuu, then opened a summoning gate and called upon a half-dozen of her wasp-like Insect summons. She aimed them at the car she'd picked and watched as they dashed in, merging with its computer systems and taking them over. Most of the cars in the lot were junkers or just old, with mechanical systems her summons couldn't possess, but this one was new enough for her to take over utterly, ignoring things like theft-control systems, locked doors, the need for an ignition code, and other pesky impediments to grand theft auto. The front doors of the sand-hued sedan popped open.

"That's our ride; let's go."

She flicked a magical shot towards the gate to blast off the chain, since she had neither the time nor the inclination to hunt through the dead guard's pockets for the padlock key. Lutecia and Ward got into the car, she had her summons start it, and they moved smoothly out into the street.

"Ms. Alphine?" Ward asked while she used the car's nav system to combine with Asclepius's map of the mana-field patterns in Kyas to plot the quickest route for an exit strategy. "How did you find me?"

"We know that Conall had custody of you, so we traced the activity of his operators. He's a pretty well-known name here on Lucence, but his business is based on high mobility with a small work force so we didn't have to worry about global operations with multiple facilities. We tracked his people from there." She flicked a glance at the boy, then smiled at them. "Now honestly, did you follow any of that?"

"A little..."

"If we'd been a little faster, it'd have been me coming through the flophouse room door instead of those Night Breakers. I'm sorry."

"Why? You saved me from them."

"You shouldn't have had to see the guard killed, or had to get away from those thugs in the first place." She shook her head. "It's not fair that you had to go through all of that."

He stared at her as if he didn't quite know what to say. That was fair enough. She couldn't say that she really knew, either. Concepts like "fair" didn't seem to apply to a child who was victimized by criminals, anyway. Talk wouldn't change that.

She was expecting something to go wrong all the way through the city, but it didn't. No cars full of armed criminals, no hostile mages descending from the skies. She pulled to a stop, leaving the car in a parking slot and not bothering to find the meter. After all, if the police towed it, they'd at least be able to get it back to its owner and she really preferred to cause as little hard as possible.

"Almost there. It's just this way."

She led Ward to a staircase in the sidewalk about two blocks away from where she'd parked, surrounded by a wrought-iron frame and blocked off by a chain and a sign reading, "Danger." They didn't even bother removing the chain, but just ducked under it, leaving tracks in the dust.

"What is this place?" Ward asked.

"It's an abandoned metro-rail station," Lutecia explained. "This area of the city must once have been mixed in type, but now residential and commercial buildings have been torn down and there's just industrial parks."

"And you can teleport from here?"

"Uh-huh. It'll take time for me to set it up instead of working right away, but less time than it would take to drive anywhere where it would be easier."

They descended the stairs and entered the dim cavern of tile and concrete, illuminated only by a minor light spell Lutecia conjured. The summoner would have expected to see signs of human habitation, where the homeless might have taken advantage of the shelter, but there were none. Maybe Lucence, or just the city of Kyas, took their charitable obligations more seriously than most worlds.

Lutecia raised her hands and the pale violet rune of Belkan magic swelled into being beneath her, not the four-pointed version of her summoning but the more usual Belkan triangle associated with her other magic. She hadn't been exaggerating; she had to concentrate hard to make the teleportation spell begin to form. It took nearly ten minutes for the link to be made and she'd burned as much mana as if she'd been in a reasonably strenuous mock battle. It was almost with a sigh of relief that she dropped her hand to Ward's shoulder.

"Finally! Next step, our ship."

"It's really happening, isn't it? I'm finally going home."

Lutecia nodded.

"Yeah. You're going...to what you were born for."

She pressed the tips of her index and middle fingers to the back of his neck.

"Schattenstechen."

The sudden jerk his body gave was no more than a reflex of electrical impulses and muscle failures. Ward could have had no idea what had happened; the spell had snuffed out his brain functions before he was even aware it had been cast, which was the advantage of a contact shot.

His body was already starting to glow as it toppled forward, a dead weight crumpling.

The violet light of the teleport spell surged up, and a moment later Lutecia was alone in the stillness and silence of the abandoned terminal.

~X X X~

Eight hundred miles away from Kyas, had a lizard or small mammal chosen to lift its head towards the sky over the Kaku Desert, it would have seen the blast sphere of golden light, a raging storm of magical power a hundred yards across, so that its lower edge just brushed the ground and cut a perfectly-shaped curve out of the sand and rock.

Then it was gone, and the day continued much as before.

~X X X~

Lutecia leaned back against the bulkhead, watching through the port as Lucence receded beneath them. Soon, the cargo hauler would make the shift from physical to dimensional space.

"Would it be too much to ask for the powers that be to get us a nice comfy ride on a TSAB vessel instead of shipping on one of these rustbuckets?" Victor Stormhawk asked.

"It'd have raised too many questions," Lutecia told her fellow Naval Special Intelligence Service agent. "The Enforcers are only a day behind us, and when they find Conall and his outfit dead and the boy missing, they might start asking questions."

"I suppose," Victor agreed with a shrug. "Still, operational security won't stop me from a little recreational complaining. Plus, my shoulder's going to hurt for a week; Conall's bodyguard tagged me a good one. Ah, well, Celica likes my scars. Says they make me look manly."

He waited a beat.

"Come on, Alphine, this is the part where you say 'well, something has to,' and I wince like my ego notices such things. It's all scripted out."

Lutecia just sighed, and the smile vanished from the face of her fellow Shadow.

"Is this because you had to kill those gang members? I know you hate having to eliminate anyone besides the target, but you know as well as I do that the Enforcers will be all over this, and that they'll probably trace Conall's goon to the slums like we did. If they found and questioned those Night Breakers...well, there aren't as many hot purple-haired female mages with giant bug friends as you'd expect. And let's be honest, those guys were dirt. They were fresh off a murder—two, with that parking-lot guy—and in the middle of a kidnapping when you caught them. They're not worth losing sleep over."

"That's part of it, but...honestly, not that big a part."

Victor looked measuringly at her.

"Alphine, you aren't talking about the target, are you?"

A little smile, one which had nothing to do with humor or happiness, played around her lips.

"The 'target.' Operational jargon certainly makes it easy to talk about murdering a twelve-year-old boy."

Victor slammed his palm against the bulkhead. "Dammit, Alphine, you did not murder a twelve-year-old boy. You disposed of a three-month-old tasked biological killing machine."

"He didn't know that. He thought he'd been held captive for years and had managed to finally get out to go home to his family. He didn't know that he was a clone of a boy who'd died three years ago, subliminally programmed to be a suicide bomber. I wonder, was the target his father, or one of the dignitaries that he'd naturally encounter in his family's social circle?"

Victor glared at her.

"They aren't his family. They're Durward Brantley the Fifth's family."

"He didn't know that!" Lutecia shot back. "He didn't know what he was programmed to do. How does that deserve death as a punishment? We could have taken him into custody, kept him isolated from the target, maybe even found a way to remove the conditioning."

"I'm sure we could," Victor agreed. "And then what?"

Lutecia blinked.

"And then he could live a normal life!"

"By giving his parents an exact copy of their son and passing him off?"

"How about by telling him the truth and letting him live his own life, like my friend Erio?"

"So he lives a nice, peaceful life, with proper counseling to help him cope with the fact that most of his memories are somebody else's. And then he gets hit by a car. Or knifed in a street crime. Or gets sick. Or lives to eighty-four and dies of old age. And takes how many innocent people with him? The 'suicide' part was just how the bomb was to be triggered: a corrupted Linker Core that, upon death, would link and discharge its maximum possible mana load all at once. You know, the whole reason you had to be the one to dispose of the target so that you could teleport the body somewhere where the explosion wouldn't kill anyone?"

"But—"

Victor sighed and laid a hand on her shoulder.

"No, Alphine. It was ugly, but we did the only thing that could be done. What you're saying is exactly why we had to act. You and I both know the NSIS was running an observation operation on this, trying to get to uncover the people behind this attack as well as what they hoped to accomplish, but when the Enforcers got ahold of the information that 'Ward' had been found, we had to act. There's no way the Enforcers would fail to rescue him from Conall, and you know that they'd never execute him. They'd do just what you suggested: take him into custody, try to deprogram him, try to 'defuse' the Linker Core corruption, and put who knows how many people at risk. One slip and whatever facility they were using would be wiped off the map together with every one of that staff."

"It didn't have to be that way."

"How? How could you save him without having to risk the lives of many innocent people who had no idea what was happening here? And we don't know that they didn't have a secondary trigger besides the boy's death as well, from a code word to seeing a face to a telepathic command. You can't blame yourself, Alphine. We didn't create this situation; we just had better information as to what was happening and had to be the ones stuck doing the dirty work to solve the problems. They're the ones who are the monsters, making a weapon that could think and feel, but in the end that's what they made: a weapon, created by magical science gone mad for the purposes of destruction and given a personality because having one made it more likely to accomplish its maker's goals."

Lutecia brushed away his hand.

"That sounds like you're describing my girlfriend," she snapped fiercely, then spun on her heel and stalked away from him.

Victor shook his head sadly.

"It's not the same thing at all."

He wondered how long it would take before she could admit it.

~X X X~

TSAB Bureau HQ, One Week Later

"I just...I feel so helpless, Val."

Admiral Chrono Harlaown paused in his march down the corridor. It was the sound of his sister Fate's voice, and from years of experience he was aware that the ace Enforcer was seriously upset.

"I know the feeling," Valentine Yaris answered the other woman. "I read your field report, of course, and I can understand why you'd feel that way."

The two women were sitting in a little atrium at the bend in the hall up ahead, a small, circular area with couches, potted plants, and a nice view of the ships coming and going outside the massive colony. Chrono paused, waiting quietly instead of marching forward and announcing himself.

After all, as the director of the NSIS, he was the Bureau's chief spy. Eavesdropping was almost an obligation.

Fate let out a heavy sigh.

"It's just...we went into the mission, my team and I, with a primary goal of protecting the boy. If that meant launching a rescue, we were ready for that. If it meant sitting back and letting the deal go down between the family and Conall Viper, then we were prepared for that as well. We knew—I knew—that we might have to make some hard choices and let criminals get away for the child's sake. I'd accepted that."

Chrono couldn't see Yaris's face at the angle he was at, but saw the head of gray-streaked blue hair bob up and down slowly.

"But you didn't even get the chance to make those choices," the Enforcer Captain said carefully.

"Before we even reached the site, we found that Conall's operation had been torn apart. He and his men were dead, and his data files had all been purged by programs created by a very skilled hacker. Our computer specialists gave it up as a lost cause after three days. We found traces of a boy accompanied by one of Conall's men in the slum district of Kyas, but the man was apparently caught up in gang violence and killed, and the boy vanished without a trace." Fate sighed, her shoulders sagging. "Val..."

"I know. Heaven knows that even after all my time in the service, this is a lesson I've had trouble learning, but sometimes there's nothing that we can do. It hurts, I know, to realize that there are some situations we're utterly powerless to affect."

"It just seems that there should be something. If we'd arrived at Lucence even one day sooner, we might have done something to save the boy."

"Fate, I know that there's nothing worse than this kind of situation. It's even worse in some ways than trying and failing, because at least if there was the chance to succeed then there was hope, and hopelessness is worse than regrets. But you have to learn to accept it, that some things just aren't in our power to change. Now, I know you'll never accept that going into a case—even if you are nearly thirty, you're still that kid I remember from way back—but after it's done, you should be able to tell the difference. Regretting your failures is one thing, but guilt over what you never had the power to control will kill you."

Fate smiled wanly at the older woman.

"I guess..."

"Tell you what; I know you're not supposed to go off HQ shift for two more days, but I'll pull some strings. Go home and see that wife and daughter of yours. Being with family's the best way to clear your head I know of."

"Thanks, Val."

"No problem. Us moms have to stick together."

The women stood, shared a quick hug, and Yaris walked off, thankfully away from Chrono instead of towards him. The admiral hesitated, but then kept on going forward.

Fate was his sister, after all.

"She's right, you know," he said, entering the atrium.

"Oh! Niisan...you heard?"

"Yeah." Chrono nodded. "There was really nothing you could have done."

"I know," Fate said softly. "I know. It just takes a while to get my heart to accept it."

"If it helps, you weren't a day late. It was three years."

"What?" Her burgundy-red eyes went wide.

Chrono nodded.

"Durward Brantley V really did die when the kidnappers' shuttle crashed three years ago. I know the family still holds out hope and conspiracy theorists really love this case, but...honestly, that's all there is to it."

"Then what was going on on Lucence?" Fate asked sharply.

"Someone was running a game. Like I said, the Brantleys want to believe. It makes them vulnerable."

Fate didn't ask how the NSIS was involved in the business or on what side. She knew Chrono wouldn't tell her; he was breaking enough rules just by saying what he had. And truthfully, she probably didn't want to know the full details.

So she asked only the one question that most concerned her, personally.

"What about the boy?"

Chrono met her searching gaze directly and told her something that, although certainly deceptive in its way, was also at the heart of it, the truth.

"There was no boy."

~X X X~

A/N: Credit for the linear rifle type of small arms that the Night Breakers aren't using, much to Lutecia's happiness, goes to synaesthetic (aka .stuff) from her Shadowverse story, false light. General credit for inspiring me to write the story, though, goes to Fuyu no Sora, for an ongoing discussion on the morality of the NSIS's existence and operations. Fun stuff, these gray areas. Additional credit must be given to the usual suspects at the AnimeSuki Nanoha Fanfiction Thread for commentary and pointers; while I couldn't address all their concerns without adding several whole chapters to the story, I did flesh out Victor and Lutecia's conversation in response to some of the things raised there, especially by JimmyC.

Valentine Yaris is, yes, the same OC as in my fic "Echoes of the Past." It will be noted that Yaris's daughter is featured in Stahlkonigin, in my "Steel Queen Chronicle" continuity. Thus we can assume that "Echoes" is part of the backstory of both the Chronicle and the Shadowverse alive.

One of the nice things about writing Nanoha fanfiction is that when using child characters, I can err on the side of understanding and maturity, since they all tend to be wise beyond their years. Ward in this story tends to be a bit quick on the uptake for twelve, but given the setting (and other obvious factors) I'm hoping that it didn't jar.

The reason why Lutecia can't teleport away directly is totally fanon; mostly it's an internal justification for me why RF6 doesn't go teleporting people into battle in StrikerS, but instead deploys by helicopter and personal flight (and even Lulu doesn't teleport directly away after the first RF6/Numbers engagement, but has to make her escape later, after the battle).

The Night Breakers are named after motorcycle models, Conall Viper after the Dodge Viper, and Durward Brantley the Fifth after the Aston Martin DBV. Bonus points if you can identify the source of the place names!