Devil in the Details
One thing about being a special forces team: There's a lot more downtime than might be expected. They exist for equally special problems, after all. That suited for now, with training to do. Still...
Signum rolled her neck. Though constructs, the Wolkenritter were better copies of humans than most, which came with its downsides. Familiars didn't get cramps, but Signum was developing one somewhere between her shoulder blades. This was her third training exercise of the day and the Bureau was apparently quite serious about establishing a regimen that would test even her limits.
Levantine came up and she took a step back, moving with the blow and absorbing its force before she'd even realized she was under attack. Reverse, left cut, backhand with her armored vambrace. Lights out. Though technically far more practiced at killing people than subduing them alive, she still had plenty of practice judging the exact amount of force and where to best apply it to knock out a human being.
She heard a sigh, then Chrono's voice. "Standard simulator opponents aren't a match for them, let's not spend another two hours proving it. Again. Rapier: Knock it off. We're not doing it over."
Signum was almost disappointed; testing skills she still regarded as rusty held a lot of appeal for her. But they would be working again tomorrow.
Chrono walked them through the debrief. He was not generous in his praise as Hayate was, though he did praise them by making a point to note their performance was superior in many ways to anyone else he'd ever worked with. He also criticized them; fairly, about the things they had genuinely not yet learned to do as well as they needed. That surprised them. Fair criticism was something that had been in short supply during their lives, even with Hayate.
Then, almost beyond their ability to comprehend, he asked them for their own criticism of how he'd handled the first two exercises. That never happened, even with Hayate.
"If you're going to go all stuffed-fish on me every time I do this," Chrono began, then sighed. "Look. This training isn't about just you. To be an effective commander I need to know what my people can do, how they think, how they react under stress, how they work together. I need to know this so that I can employ them to best effect in the field." It was standard, right out of his OCS courses, but that didn't make it not true. "I need them to think I'm using their skills properly. Or things don't get done the way they should be and bad things happen."
Zafira's lips twitched into a grin. "They can't demote you from owning the Book, Chrono, no matter how much we might disobey you."
Chrono nodded. "No. And you all won't let me die. But that doesn't mean much to people outside this team that we might be called upon to defend. So start talking."
The Wolkenritter looked at each other again. It almost made Chrono laugh at how reluctant they were to go first. But eventually Signum stepped up to do it.
Shamal sighed. She'd hoped to speak to Chrono alone, before lights out that night, but Zafira was lounging against his bunk already, while Chrono did some paperwork; lying on his back in his bunk to do it, a sight Shamal found bizarre but something that most Navy mages learned to do early due to lack of personal working spaces. "Zafira, if you-"
"It is my job," the wolfman rumbled, "to protect him from everyone. Including you." Shamal sighed again and stepped out of the compartment, going to her own room.
"I'm not being told something here. Even by you." Chrono said, giving Zafira a look that outlined exactly how unacceptable Chrono found that.
Zafira winced. "You remember Vita's 'incomprehensibly Belkan Knight' statement? Shamal was about to be incomprehensibly Belkan Knight. And also uncomfortably so."
Chrono banished his paperwork to wherever completed paperwork went and rolled onto his side, then sat up. "You know that's not enough of an explanation."
Zafira's head fell, chin resting against his collarbone. "You're not married, or attached. She's a Knight of the opposite sex and you are her master. She is at your service." He didn't add any emphasis or otherwise go further along spelling it out.
The sharp intake of breath indicated Chrono'd figured it out regardless. "She has to make that offer, doesn't she? To everyone. You would have had to make it to Hayate, too."
"I did." Zafira replied. "But she was too young to understand it, and we have had much practice at being oblique. I was lucky, I suppose. Hayate could be a little handsy."
Chrono winced, his eyes shutting. "Nobody's perfect," he whispered, to himself rather than Zafira if the wolfman was any judge. Chrono's eyes opened again. "Shamal will try again. She has to. What about Signum? Vita? Do you have to?"
"I suspect Signum already did and you didn't notice." Was that a grin or grimace on Chrono's face? Zafira wasn't sure. He didn't ask, just continued. "Vita's apparent age means she would not be expected to. And as I said, only the opposite sex. I won't."
Chrono held his head in his hands briefly. "This is all kinds of fucked up." The statement wasn't delivered in the tone Zafira had expected. Not resigned, or angry, or even upset. Chrono instead was stating a fact. His head came up again. "I'll go deal with it, then."
"You're sure?" Zafira also stood up. Door-to-door escort was a part of being master of the Book. Assuming he didn't get an escort beyond the doors.
"Can't make it go away by wishing." Chrono replied, using a aphorism learned from his mother in her more military guise. He stepped across the hall, then one door up, and lightly rapped on it.
Vita answered the door. No Barrier Jacket, but Graf Eisen in hand. The Wolkenritter had not taken the news of Hayate's probable assassination well and were back into paranoia mode when it came to Chrono's safety and their own safety. "What's up?"
"I need to talk to Shamal." Chrono said softly.
Vita stepped aside, with a nod to Zafira, who decided to stand his watch outside the door. Chrono stepped past Vita and paused. "Can I borrow a bit of your bunk?"
"Sure." Vita said, nonplussed, watching as Chrono sat down across from a sitting Shamal. It wasn't very comfortable, you had to lean forward on the bunks, but...he was bringing himself down to her literal level. Not a deep interpersonal trick, but one apparently done from heartfelt feeling rather than manipulation. "Should I be here for this conversation?"
"You're not as young as you look." Chrono replied. "Go or stay, your choice. Shamal, you had something to say to me?"
Vita shut the door and remained while Shamal appeared to weigh her options. Chrono had clearly been told something by Zafira, or he wouldn't have come. So...just say it straight, she guessed. "Will you be requiring companionship tonight?"
"When you put it that way," Chrono's gaze was briefly unfocused, not seeing Shamal herself, "it sounds so much better." He focused again. "No, Knight of the Lake. I will not. You need not ask again. Not because I disdain you, but...you offer yourself as a plaything. And I fear my reaction to treating someone as such..." Chrono trailed off a moment. "You are graceful, beautiful, lethal, no one's toy. Were I to treat you as such, then death would be the least of what I deserved for my arrogance."
Chrono bowed his head briefly. "By your leave, Knight."
"Yes," Shamal said faintly, watching with something between reverence and confusion as Chrono left the compartment again.
"That," Vita observed softly, "was a lot more classy than I expected."
"You didn't sleep." Zafira said. "Chrono, you know this can't happen again."
Chrono smiled faintly. "Sometimes there are not enough hours in the day." His eyes closed briefly, tight, and he shook his head. "Relax, Zafira. I'm fine. It won't happen again."
Zafira didn't appear convinced. "Why?"
"Reading, writing. Letters." Chrono sighed. "You know of course what Belka thought of you."
"Demons. Monsters. The only genuine strategic threat to the existence of the Empire." Zafira replied, sounding genuinely amused. "It wasn't completely inaccurate."
"When the Empire killed itself, the Bureau saved what little it could. You were remembered, even blamed occasionally. Still are. So considering the ethnic breakdown today is about fifty-fifty between Belkan and Midchildan, Belkan cultural tradition of making you into villains is part and parcel of Bureau culture too." Chrono smiled slightly. "It's a little gentler about these things than Belka was. Some of the older combat reports are declassified information. People know you didn't have a choice. So a villain, an awe-inspiringly powerful and destructive villain, but in your own way as much a victim as everyone else."
He gestured to the hologram in front of him, showing a written page. "When people talk about the corrupting power of the fear of death, or the terrible ends of a lust for power, mentioning the Book of Darkness is almost mandatory. There are a lot of stories in a lot of mediums out there that mention the Wolkenritter. I grew up with some of them. There's just one minor issue." Chrono started grinning for some reason.
Zafira eyed Chrono curiously. "And that would be?"
"When I worked out the transfer papers and you were all enlisted or commissioned in the Navy, you became naturalized citizens of the Time-Space Administrative Bureau. The use of a Bureau citizen's likeness in fiction without their permission is a crime and entitles them to punitive damages." Chrono's grin turned malicious. "There are, by my count, two current holo series airing or still buyable, two movies one of which is in development and one still available for purchase, four novel series currently in print, and two individual novels in print, that feature the Wolkenritter. The producers and distributors of which now owe you money. The Wolkenritter could become quite wealthy in the near future."
The wolfman turned to look at the door, where Signum, Shamal, and Vita had appeared since they were aware of the conversation from the Wolkenritter's mental link to each other. "You're serious," Zafira said to Chrono, despite not looking at him.
"Why do you think I was up all night reading and writing letters? I've been sent several offering me payoffs to use whatever influence I have over you, several others asking for permission to use my likeness, and a few that wanted to know about terms of settlement." Chrono replied, still grinning maliciously. "I bothered to note who wanted what and sent the lists to you. You may want to pay special attention to the ones who offered me payoffs. "