MGLN: Through a Mirror, Darkly

Chapter 6: Masks

Xx~~*~~xX

The folder of papers smacked the oak table, and the speaker let the sound from that impact echo throughout the chamber. In turn, he defiantly met each council member's eyes, letting them see the anger smoldering just behind. And then he glanced up into the general assembly, running a gloved hand through his short, yet thick black hair.

"48 confirmed dead," General Atrai stated evenly, letting his voice carry the weight of his emotions. "Over 150 still missing, and presumed buried in the rubble... or simply vaporized. Not one survivor from the attack nearly a week ago at our northern base."

"We are aware of the casualties," Auris began to say. She really hadn't been looking forward to this meeting, and Atrai's performance was a large reason why.

"Then give me my authorization!" he nearly snapped at her.

"My constituents are angry and demanding action, and rightfully so," Councilman Garin, one of the civilian positions, added. Of all the members on the council, he had been the only one who had yet to pick any sides, preferring to stay in the middle and arbitrate. "But we don't have proof that anyone in the Saint Church was behind this. Taking this action may cause more harm than good."

"Our base was on the outskirts of the autonomous Saint Church zone," the General reminded her, as if to point out who was responsible. "And I'm not asking to invade; only to send our Enforcers in to investigate! None of the other towns outside the zone had any information on how this could have happened. There is only one logical conclusion: the perpetrators come from within the zone. And I'm not saying the Saint Church had any official involvement in this; merely that their territory is being used to shelter terrorists!"

"It's a peaceful religion-" Auris began to say, but once again, Atrai instantly countered.

"Maybe some of them are," he conceded, nodding slightly. "Maybe most of them are. But some aren't, and the rest are complicit by sheltering them, and not strongly denouncing this violence."

Auris visibly and audibly sighed. "And then what would you do when you found out? Send our troops into sovereign territory? How would you like it if I unilaterally invaded your house, and dragged out one of your family members? Or perhaps we'd just conduct secret targeted killings, heedless of the collateral damage?"

Genya coughed politely to forestall Atrai's rebuttal. "Ms. Gaiz is asking, is what you plan to do if and when you discover those responsible. The Saint Church has its own laws, and we do have an extradition treaty with them."

"I would let justice run its course," Atrai stated. "But make no mistake: we have been attacked here. To not respond, would simply invite more attacks. I have dedicated my life to protecting the people under the Bureau's watch, and I would be negligent in my duty, were I to retreat from that now."

"I have to agree with the General," Councilwoman Telli conceded. "We need action, and the people want to know they will be protected. I can hardly tell them that we plan to sit around and do nothing."

The current elected council head, a woman in her late forties by the name of Kiala, rose and struck the gavel on her podium. "We have heard your... eloquent argument, General Atrai, and the council thanks you for your input."

He shot her a look, as if daring her to silence him instead of reminding him his time was up. But then, as if on second thought, he acquiesced by giving her a short bow before sitting back down.

Kiala cleared her throat. "Now then, we have heard the arguments over the past week, and the matter before us is grave indeed. I must admit, my own constituents are clamoring for action. Two major attacks in two weeks, and they are right to wonder why we can't protect them. No one wants to be next. But what we consider, revoking the Saint Church's autonomous status which has been in effect since the founding of the Bureau, is no less grave. Disregarding the civil rights we may violate, we'd also be risking war... a prospect I do not think any here would enjoin with relish."

She gave Atrai a pointed look, but he shot one right back as if to say "Of course we don't, but we can't ignore the danger, either!" Kiala let it pass, not rising to the bait; General Atrai had been given his say already.

The current council chair lifted her gaze to the 50-odd seats arrayed beyond the council table. "Does the general assembly have an opinion?"

Auris shifted her gaze as well, while the appointed General Assembly spokesperson made his way to the podium. The assembly, as a grouping of representatives from several dozen worlds, technically held no real power. But the Bureau had to keep their attitudes and thoughts in mind when creating policy. It was a compromise settled upon, in the wake of the Al-Hazard incident, since events on Mid-Childa led to the temporary removal of magic on several different worlds.

"Madam chairperson, honored members of the council,"Fyun, the General Assembly voice, addressed them. "As always, we remain divided, with many different opinions, but one thing is clear: This is currently an internal matter to Mid-Childa. We would prefer to see it resolved before it spreads to other planets. As long as that is accomplished, we do not hold a common opinion as to the methods involved."

And there it was, Auris realized. The other planets could hardly agree on much, other than hoping it didn't drop onto their doorstep. They bickered and fought and disagreed on almost every little thing, but the one thing they could agree on, was that they wanted the benefits the Administration Bureau provided. Even if it meant the loss of the Church's civil rights, they would turn a blind eye if the problem was resolved.

"Very well," Kiala acknowledged as Fyun stepped back. "We will schedule a vote on Atrai's proposal two weeks from now. I will adjourn this meeting, so that you all may begin your private deliberations. At stake is whether we should allow the military to set aside the Saint Church's autonomy, and conduct unilateral investigations and raids into its territory. This meeting is adjourned."

As everyone began to stand, Auris shot a dark look at Atrai, but he and the other General on the council, had already risen and turned to leave.

x~~*~~x

"Maybe we should look at the map again," Subaru suggested with a small frustrated sigh to the three other women in the small, yet cosy meeting room.

"We've looked at it several times already," Teana pointed out with an annoyed breath, gesturing to the flat, holographic Mid-Childa map on the wide table which took up most of the room's center. "We only have two data points, which are the two attack locations. Maybe with a third we could triangulate, but even then, that might not mean anything."

She looked up to gauge the expressions of her companions, Ginga, Subaru, and Cinque, but they all appeared as puzzled and tired as she did. She hated suspecting them, but until she knew more about who the possible leak might be, she had to keep her cards close to her chest. And besides, she reminded herself, they might not even be aware they were a leak.

Ginga pursed her lips and tapped several keys on her screen, changing the view of the map. "Maybe, but I have to agree with my sister; I still think we're missing something. Let's go over what we do know: The first attack was the town of Cantor, here, several hundred kilometers to the southeast of the Saint Church autonomous area. The second attack was directly south of the zone near the border. They hit a Bureau base usually reserved for the purpose of joint-training exercises with the Church Knights. In both cases, there were no survivors, except for the two small children that were recovered from the first. However, they have been mute since then, unable or unwilling to speak."

"We still do not know why these two locations were targeted," Cinque added, her one good eye flicking between the map and a screen of data. "I can fathom no reason as to why an individual or group would destroy a small town in the middle of nowhere, and then a base dedicated to working with the Church. The only result has been heightened tensions of the public on both sides."

Teana shifted in her seat, and then stood up, circling the table as she tried to pin down that idea niggling just at the outskirts of her consciousness. "And at higher levels, it's increased distrust between the Bureau and the Church. But what would someone have to gain by doing that? Unless..."

Subaru perked up. "Tea? I know that look. You're thinking of something."

Teana held up her hand and ticked off her fingers. "Three possibilities come to mind. One: Someone is trying to undermine the public's faith in the Bureau. Two: someone is trying to start a civil war between the Bureau and the Church. Three: Based on what I've been hearing about the council, these events have led to a proposal to grant the Bureau some degree of control over the Church. Also, the targets hit so far aren't very strong. The civilian town is obviously a soft target, but you'd normally think the base would be hardened target. However, it was currently undermanned with only a few standard Enforcer squads for protection; all of the normal aces and military members were currently deployed elsewhere, or on vacation. The support personnel and their families were the only other ones that were left."

"What are you saying, then?" Ginga questioned, eyebrows furrowing. "Someone knew when it was at its weakest, and chose to hit it then? Sacrifice our own weak troops to justify a reason to take control of the Saint Church?"

"That does seem to be one of the theories," Teana admitted, before opening a few holographic windows containing various data. "But there was no one person involved in the transfers of military personnel here, and there is no evidence any of them were working together, or that one person controlled all of it. It's just routine maneuvers. Maybe...

She paused, then tapped a few keys and more locations sprung up on the map around the northern Saint Church areas. "These are all the towns and notable spots with people around the Saint Church zone. Cantor is the closest town to the southeast, and if we consider the military strength of the targets and their tactics, the base and the town are obvious targets. Which means whoever did this, has only a limited military capacity. If we cross off the larger targets which would be more difficult targets..." She tapped a few more keys, and several of the larger locations disappeared.

Cinque's unpatched eye narrowed. "You think you can predict where they will strike next." It wasn't a question.

"That still leaves four possibilities," Ginga noted, studying Teana's map deductions. "Two towns, a detention center, and a power plant. But those are all within the range of the Saint Church zone, assuming Cantor is at the edge. But that still leaves a lot to chance."

"However, it still gives us a chance," Subaru pointed out, breaking into a grim smile. "Nice, Tea!"

Cinque nodded. "We can split up and cover each location, subtly, so as to not give away the fact we are setting a trap. I will handle the detention facility, if Ginga and Nove can cover the correction facility. I'll have Dieci and Wendi cover the town of Gorge Lake."

"Then Tea and I can take the town of Jasper," Subaru finished, earning a nod from her orange-haired partner.

Ginga closed her screens. "Even if we are right about the next attack, we don't know when it will happen. We could be there for weeks."

"If it will happen, it should happen in the next week or two," Teana stated. "No more than a month. That would fit a timetable for either of the two theories. We can at least spend a couple of weeks quietly building knowledge of the terrain and making contacts, and rotate agents. Our main goal is primarily recon, but also defense. We need only sound the alarm and delay any force long enough for reinforcements. And if we're wrong, we can figure something else out, but for now, this gives us a plan that I feel is worth trying" The door took that moment to chime and Teana, being the closest, turned and opened it.

The short-haired blonde woman in the black uniform on the other side, promptly saluted. "Runessa Magnus reporting. My apologies, but when I didn't hear from you, I decided to come meet you."

Teana slapped her forehead. "Crap... Sorry about that, I completely forgot. You're the one they assigned as my new aide, correct?"

"Yes, ma'am," Runessa answered promptly.

"At ease," Teana instructed, and then turned back to the other three women as the screens and map were closed. "I'll have to meet up with you later. I need to show Runessa around a bit first." As the three women waved, Teana returned her attention to her new aide and smiled. "Well then, shall we get started?"

Runessa seemed to finally relax a little, showcasing the barest hints of controlled enthusiasm. "Yes, ma'am!"

x~~*~~x

The double doors were slammed open to admit the determined young woman into the spacious office suite, but with a flustered female secretary trailing right after.

"I said you can't go in there!" the desperate secretary reiterated, trying to grab a hold of the intruder's arm.

Fate paused and met the eyes of the CEO on the other side of the large desk, who offered a warm, friendly smile. Inwardly, Fate wasn't too surprised to see him here; a part of her had deeply hoped that he wasn't. It would have made things easier.

"It's okay, Deira," Michi Baleno said, addressing his secretary. "Enforcer Fate Takamachi must have urgent business to want to see me on such short notice. I suppose I can take 5 or 10 minutes out of my busy schedule to assist her."

"Understood, sir," Deira returned, offering a short bow before backing out of the room.

Fate waited until the doors fully closed, before she finally spoke. "How did you get off the planet?"

He looked genuinely perplexed. "I'm sorry?"

"You, and the other members of the Orion syndicate met on unadministered world #104," Fate accused, opening a holographic picture taken from Cross Mirage that clearly showed him disembarking his ship. "Are you telling me this isn't you?"

He shook his head sadly. "How can it be? I'm sure you're aware of how easily it is for one person to pretend to be another, whether through magical means or otherwise. I'm not sure when this picture was taken, but I'm sure my secretary can provide information as to where I actually was during that time frame."

[That would be too easy,] Fate decided, closing the screen and casually walking over to a variety of trophies in a case on the wall. After a week of searching the planet, she had finally determined that the Orion syndicate members had either fled, or had hidden themselves too well. And with her meager squad, she could admit to herself that she stood little chance of finding them. With Galiboni dead, the picture Teana took was her only lead.

Fate refocused on her current meeting, and tried a different tact upon turning back to face the CEO. "Your company, Baleno Pharmaceuticals, manufactures chemicals and medicines and delivers them to several planets under Bureau administration. If I were to look into your financials, would I find anything that might cause the Bureau to revoke your corporate charter?"

"You are welcome to look, Enforcer Takamachi, but I believe you'll find everything in order," Michi answered neutrally. "I can have my secretary make our records available to you, if you like. But I think you'll find our business above board. Our products help millions of people."

Fate found she was having trouble reading him, although she did note how carefully he had phrased his reply. His responses could be read a couple of different ways, and thus didn't quite come across as real lies. She went for her last trick, crossing the floor to his desk and placing her hands on it while leaning forward. Most people became unnerved when another person violated too far into their personal space, and thus this tactic had allowed her to trip up more than a few suspects.

"Your company manufactures P4XF, a potent explosive compound, which could be disastrous in the wrong hands," she stated evenly. "There have been quite a few incidents where an explosive with those properties was used."

He met her eyes with the same cool, unshaken demeanor. "And the Bureau carefully regulates my companies production and sale of that compound. If any groups did obtain it, they may very well have taken it from the Bureau-approved buyers we sell to."

Again with the subtle statements that weren't quite lies, Fate realized. He was good; when most people lied, there were usually small physiological indicators that could give them away: an increased pulse, increased sweat gland activity, subtle eye and cheekbone muscle movement. But Fate, trained as she was, saw none of that here, which made sense. He probably wasn't lying, and Fate could dance here all day if she wasn't going to get the straight answers she wanted.

And apparently, Baleno wasn't going to allow her to. "As much fun as this was, I'm afraid you'll have to excuse me; I have an important meeting to attend. I will be happy to answer anymore questions you have, if you would do me the favor if scheduling an appointment with my secretary this time."

Fate knew when she had overstayed her welcome, and straightened up. "Very well. But I'll be keeping an eye on you. For both our sakes, I hope you are telling the truth."

She turned to walk back to the doors, and had almost reached them, when she heard Michi's voice once more. "Oh, and you might want to disable those listening spells you left. I am not sure you have a warrant for them, and thus any information you might obtain that way, wouldn't be admissible in a court of law." She nearly spun on her heel, leveling a gaze at him, only to see him smile slightly. "In my line of work, I'm extra-sensitive to attempts at corporate espionage, you see."

Only years of training made her able to hide most of her grimace, trying her best to internalize her disheartened feelings She paused for a moment before waving her hand, dispelling the small listening spells on the desk and trophy case. She then waited for his "Thank you," before continuing her trip out the door.

x~~*~~x

"Processing is proceeding as scheduled, finally," Lance reported from the screen. "Thanks to Dagger's little servant, we have plenty of material for now. We should be ready on schedule."

Sword glanced at the other three members hooked into this video conference, and ruefully realized that video was all but pointless; each was wearing the featureless mask that hid identities. It was probably overkill, but Sword knew very well that secrecy was their greatest weapon, and the slightest lapse could doom them all.

"I trust you are satisfied, then?" Dagger queried, barely glancing at the screen. He appeared to be working on something else while the small group had their meeting, as if he couldn't be bothered for such small things.

"For now," Lance replied, her voice indicating that it was just barely acceptable. "We will probably need another load before we have an acceptable number, however. As before, we weren't able to do a full recovery."

"We may not have that chance," Axe's gruff voice interjected. "The Bureau may not be caught by surprise so easily again. Already they are running their facilities at high alert, and even the Naval branch is considering sending additional enforcers to reinforce the ground branch."

"It is of no consequence," Dagger told them, swiveling in his chair to fully face the camera. "Where is your faith? Let the Bureau run around, helpless and confused. We shall be victorious."

"I would not underestimate the Bureau," Axe stated with the thin veneer of a threat. "Their people grow restless, and that will force the council to act. There are already measures before the council that would do that."

Dagger shrugged. "Let them. They won't find what they're looking for, and Carim Gracia would never let them try. And the chaos that would ensue, would merely make the fulfillment of our duty that much easier. But we've been over this before, and it is part of the plan. Right, my dear Axe?"

Axe was silent, declining to respond, and Sword wondered if something was passing between them. Their true identities were known only to the five of them; not even their closest followers knew of the other members of the secret alliance. Thus, she knew Axe was part of the Bureau, along with herself, and they were the main source of Bureau intel. Dagger and Lance were part of the Church, although in different areas. And as for Bow...

Lance coughed politely. "Be that as it may, with the plan proceeding apace, it is time for us to lay low for now. The Bureau and the Church will tear each other apart, leaving them unable to counter us when the time comes. If there is nothing else, I adjourn this meeting. For the Light."

"For the Light," they all intoned in unison, and then one by one, the holoscreens disappeared in front of Sword, until only Bow was left. For a moment, the two looked at each other through the small eyeslits in their masks, and then Bow removed his mask.

"What did you want to talk about?" Michi Baleano asked. "I presume that's why you remained after the others signed off."

Sword removed hers as well, revealing the face of Sephia Chevelle. "I heard you had some trouble. I'm sorry, I couldn't stop Fate from going to see you. Why did you not tell the others?"

Baleno waved it off. "It's nothing to worry about. She still doesn't have anything concrete, and by the time she does, it will be too late. With the Orion syndicate in disarray, the Bureau won't let this chance pass to deal a serious blow against it, thus tying up their forces for months; time enough for us to do what we must." His gaze changed slightly, as he focused in on her facial expression. "But that's not all, is it? You're still having doubts?"

"I will do my part to ensure the success of this plan," Sephia stated firmly, albeit with a slight waver in her tone that almost everyone else would have missed; but Baleno didn't. "Although I do feel there should be another way."

Michi sighed and nodded. "It's not that I don't know how you feel... I don't agree with everything Dagger has said, but he does have a point; the stakes are too high to consider anything else. Especially now that we have started down this path." He eyed her. "How is your daughter?"

"I... have not seen her in some time, but I hear she is doing well with her dojo," Sephia replied. "I do regret that I cannot be with her as much as I would like, but I am pleased she is able to stand on her own." Her expression became firm. "And I know, in order to give her a future, I will do what I must. Even if it means I must stain my hands."

x~~*~~x

The soft beeps recording the heart rate and other vitals, and the breaths assisted by the ventilation machines, were the only sounds in the hospital room as the young girl entered. Her eyes drifted over the three beds, and the still occupants within, and grit her teeth. The sound of the door softly closing must have woken up one, however.

Gwen blinked her eyes open and inhaled sharply. "Buster Head..."

The visitor with the dark red hair and twin pony tails, paused and glared in Gwen's direction. "I don't go by that name anymore."

"I-I'm sorry, Hari!" Gwen sputtered, her pulse quickening.

Hari Tribeca sighed, and then glanced at the other two. "What happened to you guys? Did Quinn do something stupid again?"

"We were attacked," Gwen stated softly, her eyes casting downwards.

Hari's own eyes narrowed. "By who?"

Gwen paused, biting her lip, and then spoke the name. "A girl named Rio Wesley who attends the Saint Church school. She threatened us with more if we ever crossed her again."

"One girl versus all three of you?!" Hari exclaimed, incredulous.

Gwen cringed. "She's stronger than she looks!"

"Sorry," Hari demured, and then sighed again as her eyes fell upon the still two forms in the other beds. Gwen was just barely able to see Hari's hands clench into fists. "When Quinn and Kaena awaken from their comas, tell them to stay out of things. I'll handle this."

"But-" Gwen started to say, convinced that Hari had to know that there was no telling when Quinn and Kaena would awake, if ever.

The former gang leader's eyes flashed in anger. "I said I'll handle this!"

Gwen cringed again, but didn't respond. Instead, she just watched the girl she used to call Buster Head, turn and walk back towards the door. As Hari's hand fell upon the doorknob, Gwen's need finally bubbled up and spilled over, compelling her to voice the question on her mind.

"Why did you break up the gang?" she questioned, her voice soft and timid. "For many of us, including Quinn, it was all we had. Tossed out by our families, or orphaned and disowned by society... the gang was our family."

Hari's fist tightened on the doorknob, and it took her several moments before she responded. When she did, her voice was equally quiet. "As I said back then, it was getting out of control. I meant it was a place for girls to be safe and gain strength. But people like Quinn began to abuse and flaunt the power they obtained, bringing down the rest of the group. I wasn't going to let something I created become something like that, so I ended it. Tell Quinn and Kaena that, and also tell them..."

She paused, as if something had caught in her throat. And it could have been Gwen's imagination, but Hari's voice seemed to have started to tremble slightly. However, when she spoke again, it was back to normal.

"Tell them, I'm sorry."

And then she was gone, and Gwen was once again alone with her two closest friends. She tried to tell herself that she had done what she had to, in order to protect them. She hadn't really lied, per se, just didn't tell the full truth. She wasn't quite sure what Heidi intended to gain by forcing Gwen to say what she did, nor did she know how Hari found out about them. Gwen suspected Heidi had a role in that as well.

But whatever it was, she told herself it was none of her business. She just had to protect Quinn and Kaena the only way she could; they were her family now.

x~~*~~x

"Yuuno..." came the low growl.

The archeologist-turned-librarian-turned-husband to not one, but two Bureau aces, groaned and turned over in his sleep. His mind and body, slightly roused, sought a return to the deep, dreamless sleep that they craved. Somehow, they knew what was coming.

"Yuuno!" came the low call again, this time accompanied by a rough shake, to which the young man blearily blinked his eyes open and spied the clock.

"Nanoha, it's 3am," he groused, pulling the blankets tighter and closing his eyes again.

Of course, that wasn't too much of a complaint, given how the last few days had gone. Nanoha seemed much happier now, although she had never revealed to him what her problem was, despite him gently prodding her. And so, he resolved to just be the supporting husband, to be what she needed right now, even though he had a sneaking suspicion her reason for rousing him was the same as the last three times.

"I'm hungry," she pouted.

He froze, but attempted a misdirection gambit. "There's food in the fridge downstairs."

She frowned. "We're out of cookie dough ice cream."

"I'll pick up some more later today," came his attempt to mollify her, hoping against hope it would work, but a part of him realized he probably wasn't going to be that lucky.

"I really, really wanted some right now," Nanoha pouted, laying a hand on her bulging tummy. "Shamal told me I should eat when I feel like it, since it's for the baby. And we both agreed that we'd do anything for him."

"Or her," Yuuno corrected, and then sighed, as the guilt trip began to hit home. He had promised to be supporting.

"It's a boy, I know it," Nanoha countered bluntly, crossing her arms under her chest. "Please? It won't take long. I know you want to be a good husband and father."

"Danger level has passed minimum safety threshold," Alicia chirped from the bracelet on the nightstand. "Odds of survival are 63.2% at best."

"Very cute," Yuuno grumbled.

Nanoha grinned. "See? Even Alicia agrees it's the right thing to do."

Yuuno pulled the pillow over his head.

The pregnant woman sighed. "Very well, I didn't want to do this, but you left me no choice. Raging Heart, please."

"Barrier Jacket Setup," the red jewel declared from the nightstand as well. "Pregnancy Mode."

"Odds of survival have decreased to 18.6%!" Alicia intoned urgently, but with a hint of amusement in her voice. "Recommend immediate action!"

"Alright, alright!" the poor man announced, pulling his head out from under the pillow and throwing back the covers to sit up. "I'll go pick up your cookie dough ice cream. That 24-hour convenience store should be open, and they should have it."

"Thank you, Yuuno!" Nanoha replied happily, scooting over in the bed to hug him from behind, and then to give him a gentle push off the bed.

Yuuno grumbled something unintelligible as he went to put on some clothes, something to the effect of the things he went through. But although he put on the act, he knew that she was aware he was mostly teasing her; he WAS glad to do it, even if it felt like a hardship at the time. And she did seem better recently; he remembered that night a few days ago, where she had seemed so out of sorts and confused. She never did elaborate on what might have been bothering her, but it seemed that just his presence seemed to soothe whatever trouble he was facing.

So, despite their troubles, he was glad to do it. Bertween her, Fate, his friends, and his job, there wasn't much else he could possibly ask for.

Except for a full night's sleep, that is.

x~~*~~x

"I see, thanks, Yuuno," Fate addressed to the holoscreen, leaning back in her chair aboard the Bureau cruiser Lanthera."Are you sure she'll be alright, then?"

Yuuno pursed his lips thoughtfully as he walked, and then nodded hesitantly. "I think so. She seems better now, even though she's still holding something in. I didn't want to press her on it. I think she'll tell us eventually. I know she doesn't want us to worry." He held up the bag and smiled ruefully. "And I just got her ice cream, so that should help."

Fate couldn't help but smile, but also let out a small sigh. "She's always been like that, preferring to hold things inside, despite us telling her not to." Her mind flashed back to Nanoha's horrible accident years ago, and she had to shake her mind to drive it from her mind. "Should I come back, then? I know your work at the library must be piling up."

The Infinity Librarian grimaced. "Els is doing her best, with the occasional assistance of Vivio and Corona, but there is only so much they can do. I think a week is the most I can stay away for now, at least until things slow down. But you coming back, even for a day or two, could help."

"I should be able to arrange something in about a week, so I'll see what I can do," Fate stated with a nod. "I see your work is keeping you as heavily occupied as mine is. Most of the Bureau seems to be busy currently. I wish the timing were better." She tilted her head in thought. "Have you noticed anything unusual in the past month or two?"

He seemed to think for a moment. "I can't recall anything at the moment. Ah, I just arrived at the house, and Nanoha is calling. I'll let you know if I think of anything."

She smiled. "Alright, take care, I love you."

He responded in kind before signing off, and despite the sentiment, Fate was troubled. She couldn't get the feeling out of her mind that something was wrong. It wasn't just what she had talked about with Shari, Teana, and Sephia; her detective instincts told her there was a bigger pattern in play, however she couldn't quite bring it into focus. It was she was seeing pieces of a puzzle out of the corner of her eyes, but she couldn't see how the pieces all fit.

Sighing, she leaned back in her chair and stretched. Perhaps if she did something to relax, the answer would come to her. Maybe by spending some off time with Nanoha would help. That brought a smile to her face, and for a moment, she indulged in the sweet memories of her long-time friend and marriage partner.

Then she snapped out of it and got back to work on her reports.

x~~*~~x

Elsewhere, someone else leaned leaned back in his own chair, and addressed the woman in the monitor. "I see, very interesting, thank you. You may return to your duties."

Runessa nodded and her image disappeared as the floating window closed.

"Surely you don't trust her?" Grenada questioned, incredulous, from where she leaned casually against the wall. "You can tell that she's... got issues."

"You mean she's focused on vengeance, instead of faith?" Dagger inquired, a note of amusement in his voice. "It is true that she has certain... negative traits, but that also makes her predictable. And useable. I suspected the Bureau might attempt a trap."

Grenada raised an eyebrow. "Shouldn't we be staying out of it, then?"

He paused, a slow grin widening across his face. "The best way to handle a trap, is to trigger it."

Xx~~*~~xX

Author's notes:

Hopefully, I've tied a few things together here, which should make the plotlines easier to follow. If you are familiar with the characters in Vividand Sound Stage X, then you should be able to start drawing connections. It should be a bit obvious by now, but I'm basically combining those two stories into mine, but with my own twists and changes.

Anyway, stay tuned for chapter 7: "Betrayal"