I ended up taking the gym outfit—there hadn't been time to get a change of clothes in our flight from my apartment—but I threw on my duster over it, and loaded myself up with what few tools I had. I remembered Nanoha's words about her approach to training, and I wasn't about to undergo her 'evaluations' without being decently prepared. Nanoha took Molly and I down to the ship's training center, which turned out to be a combination gym/shooting range that was, like many of the facilities on the ship, far bigger than it had any right to be. After retrieving a couple of staff-looking things from a locker, she turned around to Molly and I and put on a Teacher Voice.

"The Caledfwlch S2M Storage Device has practically no AI to speak of, a very limited amount of storage for preprogrammed spells, and an only partially-undeserved reputation for being a low-quality knockoff of a weapon that's so widespread throughout Dimensional Space that the TSAB shouldn't have even needed to knock it off." Nanoha tossed one of the metallic staffs to me, and I caught it and turned it over in my hands a few times. It was basically a four-foot-long metal pole tipped in a two-pronged, bronze-colored assembly. It looked a hell of a lot like a big cattle prod, to be honest. "This is not an S2M. This is an S2T, a training version of it designed to only channel low-power spells."

"So it's a Kalashnikov popgun. Got it."

She nodded. "That's a good comparison, actually. Now, part of the reason the design it's based on, the S2M, is considered so, well, cruddy, is that it's basically the old Belkan L20 design with a staff form-factor and some extra hacked-together code to make it work exclusively with the Mid-Childan magic system, regardless of the problems it can cause. Ah, right you're probably not familiar with the concept of magic systems."

I started to open my mouth to tell her that I had gotten the gist of it from the encyclopedia binge last night, but she was already going again.

"Sorry, I keep forgetting you're not one of my recruits. Okay, so, magic systems are basically...paradigms for magic. They're sets of basic rules, syntax, and predetermined functions you can use to build your spells. From what my dad's taught me, Earth doesn't really have anything that the TSAB would consider a formalized 'magic system', although there are a few things that kind of approach it, like North European rune magic or Japanese onmyoudou. That means, from a TSAB mage's perspective, every Earth wizard is basically working from scratch when they learn magic."

"Not really," Molly said. "It's personalized for everyone, yeah, but Harry's been passing on a lot of what he's learned to me."

Nanoha nodded. "Which is why I said 'from a TSAB mage's perspective'. It's not that there's nothing systematic or repeatable in Earth's magic—actually, most traditions have a system of elements, which is a feature of any good magic system—it's just that there's very little. Anyhow. The Mid-Childan magic system is one of the most commonly used in the TSAB, since it's highly specialized for ranged combat, has anti-lethality safeties built in by default, and can put out a wide range of effects, including force projection, light projection—both offensively and for illusions—gravity control, binds, and various elemental conversions. It's easy to learn, easy to use, and—yes, Mr. Dresden?"

I had my hand raised. "Uh, thanks for the information and everything, but I thought you wanted to 'evaluate my combat skills'. Not just teach me about how my magic sucks and your magic is wonderful."

Nanoha sighed. "Well, I wanted to do that, too, and I figured you wouldn't be too receptive if I just said I was going to give you a lecture. The thing is, though, I do want to make sure you know what you're up against, and if at all possible I'd like to be able to tell you before having to show you."

"I've already seen what I'm up against. I seem to remember doing pretty well against them, too."

She raised an eyebrow at me. "We just barely escaped them, three times over. And only because we managed to surprise them each time. You call that 'doing pretty well'? "

I made a show of looking myself over. "Still alive, still free, no injuries except minimal cuts and bruises, and I don't think I've started a war. Yeah, that was actually a pretty good day for me."

Her expression hardened. "For you, maybe. I think my father's take on it might be a little less positive."

Oh, hell. "Sorry, I didn't...How is he?"

"He's mostly fine; a couple cracked ribs is the worst of it. Conscious. He says the pain's not too bad, but, well, he'd say that."

"I know the type. Did they tell you how it happened?"

"Most of it. Which brings me back to my point: more-or-less clean getaways like that aren't always going to be an option. If things ever turn into a fair fight, you won't even know what hit you."

"I doubt that." Some part of me recognized that I wasn't even trying to be rational now, that I was just reflexively trying to defend my ego. The rest of me told that part to shut up. "Honestly, give me enough time to prepare, and they wouldn't know what hit them."

She shrugged. "All right. I've found you can't often teach someone if you don't show them they need to learn. Follow me."

Okay. I might have mouthed off a bit, but I wasn't just going to let something like that go.

I followed her into a large, boxy room. Each white, plastic-looking wall had some kind of device I couldn't begin to fathom the purpose of on the walls, with some kind of blue-tinted circuitry fanning out from it. "This room is for mock combat exercises," she said. "Normally it's only for use while the ship's docked, since the generators take so much power, but with the engines running quiet and almost all the comm gear turned off, we should be able to get away with using it."

"Uh...mock combat?" I said.

Nanoha smiled. I've seen Winter Court fae with smiles less terrifying than that one. "This room is going to generate a randomized urban environment. I'm going to stay on the ground. You two can use whatever tools, spells, or foci you like to try and get a good hit on me. Sound fair to you?"

Molly spoke up. "I'm not...uh, I'm not really..."

"She doesn't really have a whole lot of combat magic; she's still an apprentice," I finished for her. "Maybe she can sit this out?" Truth be told, combat magic isn't really my specialty, either. I'm a lot more confident in my skills with thaumaturgy. Though I guess that isn't much comfort to the various vampires, demons, and other such things-what-go-bump-in-the-night that I've set on fire.

"Oh! I'm sorry, Miss Carpenter," Nanoha replied, sounding genuinely embarrassed. "I assumed your talents were in the same fields as your teacher's. What are your specialties?"

"Illusions, mostly. Veils and stuff. Also some mind...stuff."

Nanoha nodded. "All useful skills, even in combat. Especially mind magic; it's rather rare out here. But you can sit this one out if you want; there's an observation terminal right outside."

For a minute Molly looked like she was going to refuse, but she eventually said "Gotcha" and left the room.

Nanoha looked back at me. "Are you ready?"

"Sure. Wait, how do we decide if you've won?"

The smile widened. "When you give up. Simulation start."

She disappeared, and the room darkened, then exploded into a dizzying array of lights.

When the glare faded from my eyes, I was in the middle of a deserted city. But for the weird, vaguely Arabic-looking writing I'd seen on the Elesia being all over the place, it could've been any city on Earth. Chicago, even. Abandoned cars, not of any make I'd ever seen but still recognizably cars, filled the streets. Empty restaurants advertising various bits of unrecognizable food (plus what was obviously pizza, weirdly enough) and supermarkets with signs that I assumed said "33% OFF" lined the sidewalks. The whole thing gave off a vaguely post-apocalyptic feeling, especially with the clear, sunny blue sky overhead. A clear, sunny blue sky with two rather large moons visible, I couldn't help but notice.

I let out a low whistle. Hell's bells, this was a holodeck. And I'd bet my left ear that it was using shaped ectoplasm to accomplish the effect. It was like a little artificial Nevernever right in the middle of the ship.

Something whizzed by my ear and crashed into a storefront behind me, and I instinctively ducked down between two of the nearby cars. Contrary to what Hollywood wants us to think, cars don't generally explode on contact with a bullet, and can actually make for pretty decent cover in a pinch.

"So you know how to get your head down," came Nanoha's telepathic voice. "Good, we can skip Lesson One."

It took me a second to get my mind in the right state to use TSAB telepathy. "Yeah," I belatedly shot back. "Comes in handy sometimes. Like when you're facing people with actual guns instead of pewpew magic stun lasers." There was no response to that, except for the thump of something hitting the car I was leaning against.

I considered my options. I had one slightly cheesed-off supermage attempting to prove her point to me by blasting me with it. She knew exactly where I was, while I had no idea where she was firing from. Well, that wasn't technically true—knowing which car had been hit narrowed down her range of possible directions from a full circle to half of one. (Still not very helpful.) She'd promised not to death-from-above me, but I had no idea what other tricks she could pull out.

My own bag of tricks was rather limited at the moment; I had my standard loadout of duster, staff, pentacle amulet, and blasting rod, plus the piece of chalk I keep around for emergency thaumaturgy.


"Lesson Two: Even grounded, mages can move fast. Don't stand in one place if you don't have your flanks covered."

I wildly looked to my left as Nanoha's voice came through again. Then my right.

Nanoha waved to me from across the street. She'd once again summoned her frilly-skirt outfit, and was holding what was obviously Raising Heart. I say "what was obviously" because it looked very different from the last time I'd seen it—the tip had reconfigured itself from a sphere in a broken circle to a two-pronged configuration that looked a lot like the training staff she'd shown me earlier.

Oh, and it was pointed straight at me. Shit.

To my credit, I might have managed to either activate my shield bracelet or successfully dive for cover if I hadn't panicked and tried to do both at once. I ended up falling flat on my face instead, which was just as well, since a burst of pink light flew directly over my head.

That had me thinking I had lucked out just long enough for the next shot to hit me directly in the ass.

It didn't hurt much, especially through my duster; it felt more or less like someone had nailed me with a not-particularly-vicious fastball. Really, it bruised my dignity more than anything. And if there's one thing you don't do, it's bruising a wizard's dignity.

I crawled behind another car, then, after thinking a moment, kept moving, staying on my hands and knees so that she wouldn't spot me. I couldn't put together a veil at a moment's notice like Molly could, so hiding wasn't really an option. I wasn't really fond of the idea of trying to go head-to-head with Nanoha, either.

"Lesson Three: Line of sight only matters so much." Nanoha's voice came again, this time accompanied by a burst of about a bajillion pink sparks that exploded out from somewhere to my right. The sparks spread through the urban wasteland, and to my dismay, the ones nearest me decided to start attaching themselves to me. It didn't seem to be an attack in itself, but combined with what Nanoha had just said...I focused my will into my shield bracelet, just in time for a couple of pink spheres of force to come arcing over the nearest car and slam into the protective dome it created. I frantically tried to brush off the little pink sparks—target markers, I guess?—with my free hand, but they resolutely stuck to my duster. So much for the obvious method.

I got another idea, and closed my eyes, stretching out with the magical sense any practitioner worth his salt has. I could feel the tiny pinpricks of light surrounding me, and, more importantly, the tendrils of power linking them back to Nanoha, guide-rails for the next magic fastball. Clever, yeah, but if my guess was right, easy enough to deal with. I waited for the next salvo to come in—they stung a bit more; she was probably going to keep raising the intensity until I surrendered. Heh, me. Surrendering. There's a funny thought. After a second or two passed without any more coming my way, I dug a piece of chalk out of the pocket of my duster and scrawled a quick, messy circle around myself, then visualized an impenetrable wall going up from it as I poured my will into it.

I opened my eyes.

The pink sparks had vanished, and the next couple of force spheres hurtled off into the sky, cheerfully ignoring my current location.

Well, that worked. I broke the circle, and Nanoha's voice immediately popped into my head. "—ting locks before. Next lesson, I guess." She no longer sounded quite so confident, which was a major victory in my book. But now that I had her off balance, I wasn't about to let her regain the advantage. I had an idea, and I needed a minute to pull it off. And for that, I needed a distraction.

There is a very specific kind of distraction that I have a great deal of skill at. And though a single bullet wouldn't necessarily ignite a gas tank, an eldritch blast of fire might just do the job.

I pulled out my blasting rod, picked a car which was far from me and sort-of-close to where I estimated Nanoha to be, and shouted "Fuego!" A lance of fire flew out and impacted the car, right about where the gas tank should have been...

And nothing happened. Oh, there was a great deal of charred, twisted metal where the fire blast had hit, but there was a distinct lack of the epic pyrotechnics I had been hoping for. Hm. Maybe the gas tank is on the other side. I tried another car. "Fuego!" No dice. "Fuego! Fuego!" Nothing on the third or fourth tries, either.

"Eh...Mr. Dresden..." Nanoha's telepathic voice came through, sounding slightly apologetic. "Cars here run on mana-electric converters. Not gasoline."

Oh. Well. Better run, then.

While I had no hope of getting away from Nanoha out in the open, I found that running into the nearest supermarket provided enough temporary cover for me to try my next Brilliant Idea.

You see, there's a reason Nanoha didn't give me her name back when we first met. Names have power. Everything has its true Name, and if you have that Name, you can exert control over it, without needing any of the more physical props and focuses you'd normally need for thaumaturgy. Of course, a Name is more than just words—it's the precise way those words are pronounced and inflected when spoken, and as a result, the only way to get someone's true Name is to hear it from them, in person.

Nanoha had introduced herself fully later, but as 'Nanoha Takamachi'. I knew a thing or two about how Japanese names worked, and she'd sounded just the slightest bit awkward saying it in that order. My suspicions had been confirmed when I heard the intercom on the Elesia calling for 'Captain Takamachi Nanoha'. So what she'd given me wasn't much better than if she'd just given me her first or last name.

That said, it didn't matter much, because outside of location spells, there wasn't much you could do with a human being's True Name that didn't go deep into black-magic territory. I had no intention of turning myself into Sir Cackles von Babyeater over what was essentially a sparring match, and so The Name that was of interest to me right now was that of the presumably sentient, but definitely nonhuman being that had introduced itself to me as 'Raising Heart Exelion'.

To that end, I had found a cherry tomato in the produce section, run into the employees-only section in the back, and scrawled another quick chalk circle around myself. Then I stared really, really intently at the tomato, and, trying to replicate the robotic inflection of the words exactly the way I had heard them, said "Raising Heart Exelion. Shut down." I put my will into the words, and felt something click.

And then, out loud, I heard a shocked "Eh?!" from right around the corner from me. Shield bracelet and staff at the ready, I peeked around that corner. Nanoha was back in her T-shirt and sweatpants, and staring confusedly at the red orb in her hand. Wearing what I admit was a slightly self-satisfied smirk, I walked out, keeping the staff trained on her.

"Lesson One," I said, relishing the reversal. "Names. Have. Power." I hadn't quite worked out what Lesson Two was going to be, but for now—

She looked up at me, panic on her face, and shrieked, "What did you—you killed her!"

I had just enough time to think "oh, shit" before she yelled something and the world went pink. Then it went pain. And then, finally, black.

The first thing I saw when I opened my eyes was white. The white resolved itself into a well-lit room full of beds and equipment and—oh. I was in the hospital. No, the medical bay, I reminded myself as the memories started coming back. Because...oh.

Nanoha was sitting next to me, alongside Molly and Mouse, and as she noticed I had woken up, her face went bright red with fury. Wait...that didn't really look like fury...

"Uh...Harry?" Molly asked tentatively. "Are you awake?"

"...Yeah. Yeah, I'm up." I sat up and turned to look at her. "Ugh. How long was I out?"

"About three hours, I think. Yeah, three hours," she said after a glance at the clock.

Nanoha spoke up. "Ah. Um. Sorry." Yep, that was definitely embarrassment on her face, mixed with a little worry.

I blinked at her. "Shouldn't I be saying that?"

"Ah, no! Well, maybe...but I might have overreacted a little bit. Raising Heart is fine, but, well, you see, she'd never hard-crashed in the middle of combat before, and, so...I panicked. Are you all right? I wasn't really...thinking very well when I hit you, and...so..."

I felt a little woozy, but mostly fine other than that—there wasn't any of the soreness I'd have expected from being hit like that. "I'm fine. I think I'm fine, anyway."

"You're fine," said someone from behind me. I turned to see a lab-coated, blue-haired man standing behind me. "Hey," he said, with a little wave. "Kemmen Mersic, ship's doctor. But yeah, you're all good. No sign of a concussion or anything." He nodded toward the foot of my bed; I followed his gaze to see my duster folded there. "That coat of yours is really something. Nothing but leather and outworld wand-waving, and it took nearly as much of the impact shock for you as a decent barrier jacket would've. Could've been a lot worse; I mean, she really blasted you across the room."

Nanoha went even redder at that, but I frowned. "Outworld wand-waving?"

"Yeah, you know, the ritual woo-woo stuff all of you outworlders use for magic. Don't know how any of it actually works."

Before I could say anything, Nanoha cut in. "It works quite well, Dr. Mersic. And I'll remind you that everyone here besides you is an 'outworlder'."

"Sorry!" Mersic held up his hands. "Sorry, didn't mean to offend anyone. Anyway, Mr., uh, Dresden, unless you're noticing any problems I didn't, you're free to go."

"Sorry about him, too," Nanoha said, walking Molly and I back to our quarters. "The TSAB's supposed to be an interplanetary organization, but there are a few closed-minded people out there. More than a few, really."

"Jerks will be jerks," I said. "So...do you want to talk about what happened?"

She nodded, but instead of the apologetic tone she'd taken earlier, immediately launched into Professional Mode. "What you said to me, right before. 'Names have power.' I've heard it's a bad idea, on Earth, to give a wizard your name—that's why I introduced myself with an alias—but is that how you shut down Raising Heart?"

"Yeah. Someone's, or something's, true name, given in their own words...to someone who knows how to use it, it's one of the most powerful sympathetic connections you can get. There aren't many who can, of course, and most of the ones who can, well, aren't exactly human. Still, it's something to watch out for. Raising Heart introduced itself, uh, herself when you first gave her to me, and I used it to call to her and shut her down."

"Right, right." Nanoha nodded, looking a little worried but mostly interested. "Right before it happened, she started saying 'unauthorized access', like something was hacking into her. But that you can do that with just a name..." She shuddered. "It is a little...creepy."

"It is, yeah. Though again, you usually have to hear the Name direct from the person it belongs to, and you have to be listening carefully and remember it perfectly. And, well, don't worry, I'd never do anything like that to a human being."

"Hm." Nanoha went quiet for a moment, frowning. "You have to understand, Mr. Dresden. Intelligent Devices like Raising Heart...they're not human, not quite, but they're intelligent. They can think, consider, plan...whether they can feel or not is something nobody's ever going to agree on, but many, many mages consider their Device to be a partner, not just a tool." She shook her head. "While no harm was done, and I understand that you didn't realize all this, it might be best to refrain from messing around with Intelligent Devices like that without permission, in the future."

"I...see." Hell's bells, I hadn't even thought about it that way. What would I think if someone had used a slip of a Name to take over Bob like that? Or Toot-toot? Or, hell, Mouse? "You have my word. I won't try anything like that again."

She nodded. "Right. Just so that's understood. Now..." She sighed. "You probably want to talk to me about the murder."

The murder in question—the entire reason I was here in the first place—had, in actuality, completely slipped my mind. Hurriedly, I dredged up the name Nanoha had given me from the depths of my memory. "Yes, actually. So. Callia Kinari. Who was she?" I asked as we passed out of earshot of a couple off-duty crew.

Nanoha frowned, looked over at Molly, then back to me. "Wait. Can she hear all of this?"

"I'm right here, you know."

I shook my head. "I'd say it's your call. Molly's hotheaded, but she's trustworthy and she mostly knows what she's doing. For the most part, anything you can say in front of her, you can say in front of me."

"For the most part?" If anything, Molly sounded even more indignant.

"Later, kid."

"Hm. It doesn't really matter much at this point, anyway." Nanoha held out the red jewel I now knew as Raising Heart. I silently whispered an apology to it. (Her?) A holographic screen popped out from it, showing a picture of a bespectacled woman with slightly frizzy brown hair and ID information next to it. "Callia Kinari. Age 28. Occupation..." Nanoha paused for a moment, clearly gathering her strength. "Agent with Cranagan County Child Services."

"Oh. Oh, shit."

Nanoha nodded grimly. "Exactly." She swept the ID screen to the side with one hand, then brought up a picture of what had to be one of the most adorable kids I'd ever seen. About ten by my estimate, with long, dark-blonde hair, big eyes (one green, one red, I noticed), and that mischievous smile kids that age can't help but have. "I adopted my daughter Vivio four years ago, in the aftermath of...well, it's a long story, but basically, I was there for her when she really, really needed a mother. I was only nineteen at the time, but...the way things went, it wouldn't have gone well if I'd tried to get her set up with a foster family. Fate helped me take care of her; she'd already... " She trailed off. "But I'm dodging the point. About six months ago, several bits of footage from the incident that led to me adopting Vivio was leaked to the public. Footage that, out of context, did not speak well of my fitness as a parent."

"What kind of footage?"

Nanoha winced. "I'd rather not talk about it, lest you jump to the same conclusions the public did."

"Miss...Captain Takamachi, I can't help you without all the facts. Especially if they pertain to your guilt or innocence." And I wasn't fond of the idea of helping out a child abuser, regardless of whether or not she was guilty of the murder part.

She sighed. "Fine. But not without some context, first."

And with that, she told me everything. She told me that Vivio's parents weren't around because she didn't have parents, that she was a clone. And not just any clone; oh no. She was a clone of Olivie Segbrecht, the last Belkan Saint King. She told me that Vivio had been created by a madman, for her genes held the key to controlling the most powerful warship in known dimensional space. She'd escaped and ended up in TSAB hands, and had almost immediately taken to Nanoha.

And then the madman had taken Vivio back. Tortured her, magically brainwashed her, forcibly bent a six-year-old child to his will and used her as a battery for a weapon of mass destruction. And at the end of it, when he was on the edge of victory, Nanoha had boarded that weapon, and quite literally blasted the brainwashing out of her.

And that was the recording that had gone out to the public; the one Nanoha showed me. Now granted, Vivio had started the battle in some kind of time-accelerated adult mode (with a body that made me extremely uncomfortable to look at, knowing a terrified six-year-old's mind was inside), but when the dust cleared, it was pretty obvious what happened: Nanoha had basically nuked the little girl she later adopted. Of course, when Nanoha showed me her version of the recording, with sound fully restored, it was pretty obvious she hadn't had a choice. But without that context, patched together with a few videos of training sessions Nanoha had led that demonstrated what just might be some anger issues, and I could see why the public could get the wrong idea.

"I released the unedited video myself, but...it was too little, too late. The public had made up their minds already. Callia showed up at my apartment a week later." The words were rushing out of Nanoha now, like she was trying to get over talking about it as quickly as she could. "She wanted to talk to Vivio and I...separately." She forced a smile. "She was really friendly, you know? She said she didn't want to make any assumptions, just wanted to get the facts as best as she could. Vivio didn't understand; why would she? I'd, I'd never..." She closed her eyes. "She came a few more times over the next few weeks. Came with a smile, left with a smile. Except the last time.

"The last time she came, she said she was starting to get worried. That she'd done nothing but report back that there was no evidence of neglect, or, or a-abuse, but th-they'd, her superiors had pressed her. Told her to keep looking. She said she was going to do some looking around, f-find out who exactly had called for the investigation." Nanoha took a deep breath. "The next day, I found an envelope in my inbox at work. Just a note in Hayate's, one of my friend's handwriting, saying 'Social worker m-murdered. They're going to arrest you. Vivio's safe with the Church. Don't go home. Get out while you can.' It was in Japanese, translation-blocked, we almost never write in Japanese any more. And an identicloak—high-powered illusion, v-veil, can fool any civilian scanner, totally illegal, it was in there too, two credit cards—one TSAB, one from Earth!—and a single ticket on a high-power teleporter out to a planet I'd never heard of. Expensive, twenty, thirty times what a spaceship ticket would cost."

"So you ran?" I asked. It wasn't supposed to be hostile, just the investigator in me trying to get the facts out. Still, it probably wasn't the best comment, in retrospect. And by 'in retrospect', I mean 'I realized it half a second after it was out of my mouth.'

"I HAD NO CHOICE!" she screamed at me, tears streaming from her eyes. "My face was on the news half an hour later! And—and Hayate—do you know what it takes to get your hands on an identicloak?! Something like that—Hayate's so much part of the system—if she said I had to run, I'm damn well going to run!"

"Easy! Easy, I'm not—I'm not trying to accuse you," I said. We'd drawn the attention of a couple of nearby crew; I wondered how much of this they'd already heard. Probably very little.

Nanoha didn't seem to hear me, though her shouts quieted to sobs. "And—and Vivio. There was one ticket, and Hayate, damn her, Hayate knew Vivio, picking her up, taking her on the run with me, she knew she'd slow me down, that I'd never make it out. One ticket, one identicloak, it was her telling me, 'Nanoha, do the smart thing, not the mother thing. Not the Nanoha thing.' And she w-was right. She is safe with the Saint Church. Safer than she'd be with me, safer than anywhere in the whole damned universe." Nanoha stopped for a moment, and took another deep breath. "I saw the police arriving at the teleport just before it went out. I already had the cloak on. I bounced from world to world for a few days, finally made it back to Earth, teleported myself a few times to throw off the trail. Battery on the cloak ran out pretty soon after that, and, well, I was in Chicago."

"And you just looked up "Wizards" in the phone book?"

She was calm enough to manage a little chuckle. "I knew there wasn't much help I could get from mundane sources. So I took a wild shot; my dad had always sort of hinted that there's a lot more magic on Earth than the TSAB thinks there is, and so I asked a few questions in some promising, and, uh, not-so-promising places, and I ended up in a little tavern called, uh, McAnally's, I think. Most amazing beer I've ever tasted, and I don't like beer. And I asked the bartender there if he knew someone who could hide me, magically, and, well, he didn't say anything, he just gave me your card." She frowned. "...Wait, you're not actually in the phone book, are you?"

"Well, uh..."

"Yep!" Molly cut in. "Under 'Wizard' and everything."

"Heh. Haha." Nanoha actually laughed for a second. "Heh, that would have been much easier. But...yeah. That's why I'm here, and...and..." Her smile faded.

"And Vivio isn't?" Molly supplied.

"Yes. But. I'm going to get her back." Her face hardened. "We're going to get her back, and then we're going to figure who did this, and why. Me, Fate, and whoever else I can get to help me. Even you two, if you're willing. Are you willing?"

"Hell yes!" Molly's response was disconcertingly fast.

"Hang on a second, Molly," I said. "You're still my apprentice. You don't breathe without my say-so, let alone enter into agreements with strange alien women." She glared at me, but I shrugged it off and looked Nanoha straight in the eye (and stars and stones, it was great to be able to do that again). "I don't work for free, you know."

"Then what's your fee for this kind of thing?" Nanoha said, faux-suspiciously.

"Hm..." I shrugged. "We can work it out after the job's done. We're in."

A/N: I actually completed this a month ago and then completely forgot to upload it to FFN. Derp. Questions? Comments? Nerdrage? (If you've got a question, please send it in a PM or signed review; I can't reply to an anonymous review!)