Quirks and Jerks

"The one who designed this was obviously some kind of fiendish genius, intent only on the frustration of random passers-by," Shamal muttered.

Chrono looked amused. "It's a vending machine, Shamal."

"With a flaw in its operation that is not only easily predicted from observation but so regular I can only assume it is intentional. Every fifth time you try to get something, it does not work." The sheer level of annoyance Shamal managed to put into those words was impressive. "Someone thought this would be funny." Klarer Wind abruptly manifested on her fingers, and a small portal materialized over her hand. She caught the packet of snack food that fell into it. "I am not amused."

Chrono raised an eyebrow at her. "Did you just use Klarer Wind rather than hit a button twice? Isn't that just a tiny bit overkill?"

"I have hit the button twice over a dozen times in the last four weeks and I am not doing so again." Shamal's statement contained more than a little anger. Chrono shook his head. There was something vaguely comforting about seeing one of his knights acting so normal.

Chrono came up short when, four paces later, he realized he'd thought of the Wolkenritter as his knights. Unacceptable; he was not doing that again. Knights, yes. Belonging to him? Never. People did not belong.

It was a sleep cycle, 2140 Cranagan Time and the station ran on that. Chrono started rolling out of bed three seconds before the PA announced a deployment request. Zafira, head coming up at the same time, gave him a long look. "How did you know?"

Chrono spared him a quick grin while struggling into his uniform. "I heard the announcer come on. You'll learn." One thing he'd discovered about the Wolkenritter was that they had an innovative solution to the problem of clothing. Rather than merely storing it in an extradimensional pocket when they wore their Barrier Jackets, they actually had about a half-dozen outfits in there they could change in and out instantly.

Chrono was vaguely envious at the ease with which they could get inspection-ready. It seemed like an awful lot of effort to him, but...well, maybe if was inspected more he'd have seen the point. Being able to get inspection-ready instantly rather than taking a couple of hours would be nice. As it was, though, his team didn't stand to inspection very much at all. He and Zafira met the others in the hall, and made their way to where the duty officer, one of the combat controllers, was. Others were also coming in."

"Where to?" Chrono asked.

"Quagmire. Welfare check on a facility that's late on checkin."

"I did not expect the name to be so...literal." Signum muttered softly.

There was swamp, or trees and swamp, literally as far as the eye could see. It wasn't the tropical kind of swamp either, but the cold-weather doesn't-manage-to-quite-freeze kind. Equally as far as the eye could see, overcast. Chrono shrugged at Signum. "Now you know why it's a hardship posting."

"The whole planet." Signum's tone suggested she didn't want to believe.

Chrono's grin was not quite malicious. "There are a couple of small seas, some good-sized mountain ranges...but anything that's remotely flat is swamp." He sobered up. "The cloud cover is actually the bad part. Lack of natural light or suitable alternatives causes depression over time. Building lighting is designed for cheap illumination and doesn't cut it. Nobody wants to sit in front of the light box because it sounds stupid, then six months later half your work force is depressed enough to be serious. Don't get that problem on ships or stations because their internal lighting is designed to simulate sunlight."

Signum recalled an anecdote about ship crews in the late days of the Belkan Empire and shook her head. The Bureau was not as advanced as Belka had been, but they were in some ways more sophisticated.

Chrono tapped his earpiece. "Quag Control, this is Rapier Lead. Request individual flight clearance and a vector."

"Clearance granted Rapier. Vector two three seven at four thousand."

Chrono cautiously accelerated, once they'd reached altitude. In the corner of his eye, Durandel was showing him an airspeed and an artificial horizon. The airspeed kept climbing. He'd used to top out around Mach 2.1. Now it was three...now four... In unison with Rein, Mach 7.8. Chrono thought he could probably go faster, he simply didn't dare try. And the Wolkenritter kept up.

Hypersonic. Dead center in the hypersonic speed range in fact. He could see the cloud cover ruffled by his passage well below and behind him. Clearance for five thousand and this made climbing ridiculously easy.

Oh, but this tempted. To fly simply for the sake of flying, to assault the maneuver limits of his body for the sake of trying. But he had a job to be doing. "Thirty seconds." He didn't need to say things anymore, technically, but the habit died hard. And the Wolkenritter continued to humor him, which he found annoying.

Chrono Harlaown would probably weep for joy the day one of the Wolkenritter finally called him out on something. They'd done it so readily, that screwed-up Christmas on Earth. Now they didn't dare.

He descended through the cloud layer, slowing to subsonic velocities. The facility really ought to have challenged an inbound flight already...

There was a work party of some kind around the electronics masts, who saw him and the Wolkenritter, and then all hell broke loose. The work party scattered, and a defensive ward snapped into place over the facility. The bright-blue translucent but not really transparent light of a Bureau warship's defenses was hard to mistake for anything else. That took Chrono by surprise.

"Is that...normal?" Vita asked. She seemed slightly shaken as they veered and orbited away from the blue dome over the facility.

"No. It's not." Chrono said softly. Space stations would have wards like this, but that was to protect them against collisions or debris. The only ground-based ward he knew of was the one that had been installed for Ground Forces Headquarters on Midchilda and never actually used. What the hell are they doing here?

"Unknown flight." The voice was scratchy, and Chrono frowned. No Device transmission would be this bad. It sounded like a handheld set. No mages down there? "Identify and authenticate."

"Rapier, flight of five. Zwei Ten C Two." A rebuke of sorts, Signum answering rather than Chrono. One she felt was merited. Chrono shot her a look and she shot one back; he shrugged, indicating his assent. They'd play it out.


Chrono grimaced. Signum had announced them as the right hand of Admiral Lowran with that authentication. Somebody had a serious attitude problem or a serious security protocol to follow. Signum's reply didn't display any annoyance. Yet. "Welfare check. You missed reporting schedule."

"We're fine. Shoo."

Chrono broke in. "Rapier Lead here. Your turn to authenticate. Now." The "asshole" was firmly implied from his tone. He waved a holowindow into existence so he could talk to the support crew. If they didn't authenticate in the next thirty seconds someone was going to be very sorry about the stink that would result from all this. "Jenkins. What's the nearest starship to my location?"

"Morrigan is actually in orbit, but she's on her shakedown cruise. The nearest combat-ready starship is Caph, one hour out. Are you making a formal request, sir?"

"No, but I will in about a minute." Chrono replied grimly. "They have a starship ward for the facility." Maybe, if they'd had the original Reinforce with them, they could have cracked a starship ward. It was pretty big maybe though.

"Rapier. Drei Three A."

"We'll be clearing your air, then." Chrono said. "Jenkins. Belay my last." They climbed through the cloud layer to five thousand again but the Wolkenritter noted Chrono didn't immediately reply. "I want you to contact Admiral Lowran and inform her on what happened. They could have very tight security not inviting us down or this could all be a put-up job."

"Admiral Lowran confirms withdrawal, sir."

Chrono sighed. "Let's go home."

Coming home, however, found him with a different thing that was sometimes annoying. "Fate!" Just not very often. He laughed and swept her up in hug, which always made Fate blush.

"Chrono!" Fate protested. Chrono laughed again. He was her older brother. He was supposed to give her a hard time, just a little.

The Wolkenritter were busy looking mortified. It was point of pride with them, nobody got to Chrono without going through them first. They'd tried to prevent both Fate and Chrono from getting close by subtle positioning, but the two had breezed past them like they weren't even there. The existence of a family for their master, beyond themselves, was still too new to them to realize how futile it would have been trying to keep brother and sister apart without physically restraining them.

Chrono set Fate down again. "So what brings you?"

He hadn't expected Fate to start blushing worse at that. "I, uh, I."

Chrono placed a finger against Fate's lips. "Nanoha?" he asked, before pulling it away. Fate's blush was more than enough of an answer. "You're taking on a lot with that, Fate. More courage than I have, sister."

Fate looked confused. "You're not upset." Also confused, for that matter, were Shamal, Vita, and Rein. Signum's expression was unreadable, and Zafira seemed to be just rolling with it.

"Did this family ever encourage you to be like the average person?" Chrono asked, with a grin and a gesture at the Wolkenritter. "Have we ever said that being Harlaown is being anything less than exceptional? Nanoha as part of the family is a lot easier than trying to get Ferretboy to do enough combat duty he'll be presentable to the grandparents."

Fate gave her brother a gentle push. "Chrono, be serious."

"I am serious." Chrono replied. "Mom met dad on the bridge of his ship. Grandmom met granddad on the battlefield. It's tradition, Fate. Dating a Harlaown is only permissible if you've partnered with them in combat. Nanoha meets that criteria, and nothing else will matter to us as long as she treats you well."

"If she doesn't?" Fate asked cautiously.

"Then I'm going to be very upset with her." Fate had visions of Nanoha and Chrono and the Wolkenritter having a battle on a rainswept cliff somewhere from the tone her brother used. "And so is mom." Now that battle included the Arthra. "And grandmother will probably come out of retirement just to express her displeasure." And a decent-sized horde of black-longcoat Navy mages.

With a tentativeness that surprised brother and sister both, Signum stepped forward. She looked...pensive, which wasn't something Chrono thought he would ever see. "I think," Signum began, "that we could help."

"How...?" Fate asked, curious. Shamal had moved up too.

Signum smiled softly. "We have a little experience with this sort of thing," she offered.

Signum, Chrono sent over the link, two things. If they end up intimate now, my mother will flay you and me both, and then get Shamal to fix us so she can do it again. And I will let her. Second...help her, but don't engineer things for her. They have to make choices. Let them make real choices.

Signum's reply was tentative. You really think I could?

I don't think I would stand a chance. Chrono raised his eyebrows at her. And I am noticeably older than they, plus I not only understand concept of subtlety but sometimes practice it.

Signum frowned a moment. The worst part of having an intelligent master was they would resist being maneuvered. The worst part of having an honest one was that they resisted maneuvering others. I know you think they would be good for each other.

I do. Fate will keep Nanoha from self-destructing. Nanoha will provide the sense of security Fate requires. But we are not gods, and if we were, we'd be bad ones. Chrono returned, with a touch of steel this time. I would welcome you testing me on any matter that does not involve robbing others of their chance to chose their fate, Signum.

Signum nodded her assent, and Shamal's eyes flicked up from the conversation she was having with Fate and met Chrono's gaze as well. After a moment Shamal also gave a tiny nod of agreement, and the whole group decamped for the mess.

What followed did not frighten Chrono as much as it might have, but it did confirm for him that he was swimming amidst a group of very intelligent sharks. And Zafira, watching him, reached out and put a hand on his shoulder briefly. "You have to trust us, you know."

Only one side of Chrono's lips moved in the grin. "I know I do. Not least because I'm already screwed if I can't. Sitting on a bomb in the knowledge that the timer hit zero and it hasn't gone off yet is not a comfortable position, you understand?"

Zafira's reply was simple. "My job is to protect you from everyone. Even them."

Chrono closed his eyes a moment and nodded. "Thanks, Zafs."