A/N: I'd like to thank deathcurse and Shigan for allowing me to play around in their alternate continuity and have fun with their OCs and expanded universe creations (those of you who know my "Steel Queen Chronicle" stories should be aware of how much I love Shigan's version of Vivio's career as a badass special forces op!), and for their help and commentary on the draft of this story and in ironing out some of the rougher patches!
~X X X~
The hissing sound of water on tile coming from the showers greeted Rhen as he entered the locker room. It was after midnight, ship time, and the Hounds' second-in-command wasn't sure that he ought to be awake at this hour, but...he knew his men. Which was why he was here in the locker room and not out on the observation deck or anywhere else where a person might seek solitude.
The lockers themselves weren't exactly "lockers," just cubbyholes to stash clothes and possessions while showering. Theft wasn't a particular issue on a naval warship, which sometimes surprised Rhen and sometimes made complete sense. He glanced through the piled clothes, the card-like plaque that was a Device in standby mode, and then there, under a corner of a uniform jacket, he saw what he was looking for. His memory had been right.
The sound of the shower stopped. A few minutes later, a tall, blue-haired man in his mid-twenties walked out of the shower room, vigorously toweling his lean, muscled body. The bright pink of new scars stood out on his right leg and side against skin the color of a latte. He started a little in surprise.
"Hey, Rhen, what are you doing here?" Luke Century asked.
The older man shrugged.
"Everybody's got something they do when they're having trouble sorting things out. Me, I pace. Gives my wife fits if she's trying to sleep and I'm stomping up and down the next room. Kvick goes and looks at the sky; I think it's the only time you ever see her awake and not moving. Harley finds someone to screw or reads porn. 'Course, it's hard to tell that from what he does when he's perfectly happy, but still. Carver tends to drink too much. I don't know about the kid yet, but I'm sure there's something. And you, when your brain won't let you sleep in the middle of the night 'cause something's eating at you, you get up and boil yourself in the shower."
Century let a couple of seconds go by before he answered.
"How'd you know something was bothering me, though?"
"After all this time, you think I don't know my own guys?" Rhen was, after all, the senior NCO of their TSAB Ground Forces Special Task Group unit. He'd been at this a long time. Maybe too long, he sometimes thought, but hey, a man did what he was good at, if he was lucky enough to find out what that was. And he wasn't going to back out on teammates who needed him. Hounds...they stuck together.
He held out what he'd found in Century's locker.
"It's not just about getting hurt, is it?"
The younger man shook his head.
"I've been wounded before. Hell, I had worse than this on Vaizen two years back." He brushed his thumb over the puckered scar just below his left nipple where a sniper's shot had punched through him from behind.
"I've seen it happen before. Guy who's shrugged off a couple incidents fine takes one and it just hits him differently for some reason. But I didn't think that was it."
"No, it isn't. You were right the first time."
"You want to talk about it?"
Rhen said it with a shrug, everything about his posture, his tone, suggesting that this was a casual offer, a buddy showing that he was there for his comrade. Of course, it was nothing of the sort, not when the team's well-being was on the line, and Luke knew it too if he had any brains.
Easier on everybody's pride, though, not to hardball it.
"Yeah. Yeah, maybe that'd be good."
"OK. But seriously, put some clothes on. Someone walks in, finds me having a heart-to-heart with a naked guy and my wife'll give me hell for weeks. Or ask for pictures, which might be worse," he grinned, thinking of the plump lady with her saucy sense of humor who was waiting for him back home.
Luke blushed. Rhen pitched him his clothes, and the younger man tugged on his briefs while he began to talk.
~X X X~
There was a difference, Luke thought, between a battle fought with magic and one fought with mass weapons. A five-year veteran with the STG, he'd seen worse than his share of both, on Administered and Unadministered Worlds alike. It wasn't the level of violence or brutality; when the STG got involved in something, it was a pretty good bet the other side wasn't following Bureau protocol in using spells that inflicted non-lethal magic damage. And it wasn't the age or expertise of the soldiers; for every child-prodigy mage the Bureau adopted into its armed forces for the sake of training and disciplining their immense talents, there was a kid from an economically or culturally devastated region who had taken up a gun and gone to war because they, or their people, had been given no other choice. Luke had stared into the eyes of twelve-year olds with more combat experience than he had.
No, the thing that was different? It was the smell. With magic, there was none of the stench of burnt cordite, the smoke from ignited propellant or triggered explosives, none of the acid bitterness of hot metal. The violence of magic was quick and clean in its application, savage only in its results.
It made it all the more easy to smell the stink of burnt flesh, or the coppery-iron tang of his own blood.
Both of which he was quite capable of smelling at that moment.
He hunkered down in the corner between two walls. The shell of blown-out buildings at least provided cover so (barring some kind of Area Search magic) his pursuers wouldn't be able to pinpoint his location. The damaged walls, though, stood as a mute testament to the fact that his safety was mostly illusory.
A bright flash came from above, and streaks of green light descended, multiple shots separating from one mortar-like projectile. They arrowed down in Luke's general vicinity, not even really centered on him, but one hit twenty feet away and another no more than fifteen, bursting on impact. The shockwaves washed across him, the majority of their force stopped by his compromised Barrier Jacket, but still making him grunt in pain as it felt like someone had delivered two quick punches to his broken ribs. He pulled himself up closer to the wall, reducing his target profile.
Sprays of shooting magic arced over the wall, other bullets crashing into it. They were guided-type spells, Shoot Barret or something similar, but a homing bullet wasn't all that useful if the shooter didn't know at where to home it. The fire wasn't really meant to hit him, though; its purpose was to keep him pinned down, so that he could be taken.
Maybe even taken alive. Magic's ability to be lethal or non-lethal made it vastly better than mass weapons in one area: taking prisoners. Luke had no desire to be killed, but being turned over to the experts in "articulated interrogation," to maybe be forced to betray the Bureau, or worse yet, even his own unit?
He gripped the spear-shaft handle of his Armed Device more firmly.
"I don't suppose there's an open communications channel yet?"
"Negative. Jamming is still in place."
"That's what I thought," he sighed.
Whatever came, he was down to only one choice he could still make under his own power. Anything beyond that would be in the hands of another to decide for him. He could only pray that the outcome would turn his way.
It was times like these when the old clichés were right.
~X X X~
"Just once," Vivio Takamachi growled, "I'd like to get a mission where the briefing intel didn't leave something important out!"
Rhen laughed at that.
"Keep at this long enough, kid, and you'll realize that these are the lucky ones."
"Yeah," Corporal Kvick chimed in. "Incomplete's about the best it gets. At least what we got about the location of the weapon stores was true, so we were in the right location doing the right thing. More often, the intel is obsolete, or it's just dead wrong."
"And those are the ones where if you go in innocently believing what you're told, we're the ones who end up dead wrong," Rhen added. Vivio didn't actually roll her eyes, but she wanted to, at the gallows humor.
She was glad that the others weren't treating the mission—and her—like some kind of epic failure, though. This was only her third mission since she'd made her transfer from a GFDC Strike Team to the STG and she knew that magical power or not, fancy officer training or no, she was still The Newbie in their eyes. There was a world of difference between a law-enforcement tactical unit operating primarily in and around the city of Cranagan and a full-fledged military squad regularly put on offworld operations. To the veteran Hounds, as the STG operators were informally known, her previous experience didn't mean squat. Not even her experience actually commanding a Strike Team (hotshot officer or not, they weren't going to put someone in charge of an STG unit without either previous Special Task Group or field command experience) counted in the eyes of someone like Sergeant Major Rhen, with his nearly twenty years in the STG behind him.
"You're serious about this?" she asked. "We infil, only to find that not only has security been doubled, but backed up with new technology, and you call it normal?"
"There's a reason the N in 'snafu' stands for 'normal,' right?"
Vivio found she couldn't argue with that kind of analysis. Given that she existed because a mad scientist had needed a clone of the last (well, really any, but DNA was available of the last) Sankt Kaiser to run an ancient Lost Logia in his plan for world domination, well, she was pretty familiar with snafus. Or when proper resolution of that situation had involved a mother nuking her six-year-old daughter with five, count 'em, five of the strongest known bombardment spells...
Yeah, First Lieutenant Vivio Takamachi-Harlaown was pretty familiar with the concept of Situation Normal, All Fucked Up.
"Sacred Heart," she ordered her Intelligent Device, "can you raise the others yet?"
He emitted a two-note beep, high then low. She kind of missed the days where Kris would have answered that query by mutely shaking his head, but somehow she'd figured that keeping her Device inside his bunny plushie exoframe didn't really suit the whole 'badass special forces officer' image. Hell, Harley would probably find some excuse to use him for target practice training, and then she'd have had to beat the sniper's ass bloody, and that kind of thing was hard on unit cohesion.
She'd have given a lot, though, to have Corporal Harley there mouthing off at the moment, because it would have meant that he was there. He and Corporal Century and Sergeant Carver, all of whom were supposed to be at this location two minutes and thirty-eight seconds ago.
Did I make the plan too complicated? she castigated herself. On paper (or at least on holographic display) it hadn't looked that way. Carver and Century had each been deployed to take out the perimeter security pickets, on opposite sides of the rebel camp, drawing off a majority of the forces in opposite directions. Then, Vivio had led Rhen and Kvick to infiltrate the camp, with Harley on overwatch. Kvick would bypass security on the munitions storage, and Rhen would use his explosives expertise to turn the supplies that the rebels were using to air petty grievances three hundred years out of date into slag. Simple and perfect, right?
Except for little things like the communications jamming field cutting off any transmissions, including telepathy, but those specially tuned to match, which immediately screwed up the Hounds' force coordination. Or the number of rebels in camp being nearly double that expected. Or the increased amount of active security devices backing them up.
Vivio had made the call to push on, though. This wasn't scientific research; failure was not an option. And they'd pulled it off, too, even if it had involved fighting through a squad of a half-dozen mages in the B, B+, maybe even A-rank range while Harley sniped attack drones out of the air around them. Now, unfortunately, the exfiltration was going as off-model as the rest of the plan had.
"Kvick, isn't there anything you can do to hack through this interference?"
The lean, short-haired Hound shook her head.
"Nothing to hack. If we were back in their camp in front of their jamming device, sure. I could get in and shut it down, no problem. But I can't even access it from here. It's like..." She fished for a simile. "It's like trying to punch out an opponent who stayed home."
"...I do understand analogies that don't involve hand-to-hand combat," Vivio told her wryly.
"Maybe, but why risk it?" Kvick shot back with a grin.
A moment later, there was a rustling in the brush, and all three Hounds spun, Devices at the ready. What emerged, though, wasn't the enemy or a false alarm, but Carver and Harley. The two men could have been twins: tall, broad-shouldered, and muscular, almost like the male edition of Vivio's body type. Even their faces were similar to each other's, with square jaws and sharply angular features. The main difference was hair: DeSoto Milias Carver IV kept his scalp shaved smooth, while Buell Harley had a shock of blond locks that women who were not his teammates seemed to like.
Their approaches to combat couldn't be more different, though; Harley was a gunman, everything from long-range sniping to close-quarters "spray and pray," while Carver's Device took the forms of a battle axe, two hand axes, or a giant honking pole-axe, all with bright yellow energy blades. Vivio had a suspicion Carver was a fanboy for her mother.
Both of them looked like they'd been dunked in a mud bath, being coated with a layer of green slime, algae, and bits of moss.
"What happened to you?" Vivio asked.
"Frickin' robots chased me into a bog," Carver growled.
"Drones ran me off my overwatch position into the same bog," Harley growled. "So we cleaned up each other's mess."
"You're okay, though?"
"Nothing worth mentioning."
Vivio took that as gospel. While the Hounds were as given to macho badassery as any Bureau outfit, they only downplayed the extent of injuries when bullshitting about work over drinks, never on-mission. That kind of stuff got people killed—usually teammates who relied on the liar to be capable of keeping their end up.
"Time display," Vivio ordered. Helpfully, Sacred Heart caused a holoprojection of the numbers to pop up. "Damn, three-forty-six over time. That's less than twelve minutes for us to get to the pickup. Where the hell is Century? You two didn't see him?"
They both shook their heads.
"Nah, he was on the other side of the camp from us."
"Damn it," Vivio repeated. "They're going to reform and be on us if we keep sitting around." And if they didn't make the dropship in time, they were in trouble. Their position here was dicey; the Bureau wasn't exactly well-loved by the citizens of this particular world regardless of political affiliation, which was why the STG unit was allegedly mercenaries working for the government. As part of that cover, their transport was a local smuggler, fast in, fast out, and unlike a TSAB pilot not inclined to wait around in a fire zone for a team that was late to the pickup. Miss the pickup and they'd be dodging a couple of thousand rebels in this province on the way to the nearest government-controlled city. To say nothing of the political Epic Fail if any of them got exposed as TSAB Ground Forces.
She gave a sharp exhalation of breath.
"I'm going after him."
"What?" more than one voice chorused.
"There's only one reason that he'd be late: he's in trouble, and unlike Carver and Harley, he doesn't have someone watching his back. Sacred Heart can track down Grünlanze and lead me right to him with an Area Search spell."
"You're sticking your own neck out," Rhen said.
Carver started to say something, but Rhen flicked his gaze towards him and he shut up. Hunh. That's weird, Vivio thought.
"I'm not leaving him behind," Vivio said. "We went out as six, we go back as six."
"And if he's dead?"
"Then I'm still not leaving him behind. Look, I'm the commander; it's my responsibility. You four continue on to the pickup site. If everything goes right, I'll catch up to you with Luke."
"What if it doesn't go right?" Harley chimed in. "We don't want to lose you, too."
"I can handle myself," she said. "Now get going; that's an order. If we miss evac, we're all screwed, and it's likely to end just one way." She glanced at the four of them in turn. "Any other arguments? Good." She spun on her heel. "Sacred Heart, Area Search. Find Luke for me."
~X X X~
They were getting closer.
They'd pinpointed his position at last by the simple expedient of sending in a couple of drones. The hovering, egg-shaped war machines weren't a serious threat to a combat mage of any magic style, armed as they were with a weapon that fired a single unguided magic bullet at a time. But they'd done a very good job of flying in and locating him, forcing him to destroy them with some of his dwindling mana supply. To say nothing of sending camera images back to their human operators, that would show Luke's injured leg, unable to support him and grossly restricting his movement.
Then they were there.
Four of them, all mages, carrying staff-type Devices, two from his left and two from his right.
"You've given us a lot of trouble," said one of the left-side ones, a man with a thick, black beard and graying temples. "You'd better make it easier on yourself by surrendering now."
The crested tips of four staves were pointed directly at him, each glowing a different shade to match its wielder's magic.
Luke shot back a sharklike grin while he ran through his next course of action. A barrier covering the area in front of him would hold back their initial attack, and then...
He knew what his duty was, to the team and the Bureau both, at that point. He couldn't afford, at any cost, to be taken alive.
This time, his prayer was simply that he wouldn't give away what he intended to the four rebels. Curling his lip, he looked up at the apparent leader.
Then it came, the explosion of sudden violence he was expecting—but in no way how he'd expected it.
To Luke's right, Vivio's fist crashed into the jaw of one of the two people on that side, sending him sprawling forward. She whirled, her foot hammering into the belly of his female companion. Meanwhile, the bearded man and his own partner fired on Luke.
"Panzerschild!" Vivio snapped simultaneously, and the searing green bolt and spray of violet bullet orbs crashed into the rotating triangle of a rainbow-hued Belkan rune that had sprung up between Luke and his enemies. The woman Vivio had kicked used the moment to come back and blast her in the back with a quick shooting spell, but this appeared to do little more than catch her attention. Even so, the sight galvanized Luke to action. He wasn't going to just sit around while she covered his behind and fought four rebels besides! He'd already been building mana for the barrier and the backflow that would follow, so he put it to more positive use.
Luke hurled Grünlanze skyward; it seemed to rocket upwards, then, when it was but a speck in the sky, turned and descended like a thunderbolt. The spear vanished as it struck the earth, reappearing in its caster's hand, while an explosion burst from the impact point, knocking over the bearded man and his companion.
The woman Vivio was fighting had swung her staff at the young Hound like a club. This was a bad mistake against an expert at Strike Arts; she caught the Device, locked it under one arm, and used it as a lever to spin the woman up off the ground and down again, very hard, and worse yet enhancing the throw with mana so despite her Barrier Jacket the rebel was knocked unconscious. She then hammered the male back down with a cluster of Sonic Shooter projectiles. In the next instant, she had flown to Luke's side, grinning down at the older man.
"Well, are you going to just sit there, or are we going to get out of here already?"
~X X X~
He was staring up at her with a really weird expression on his face. Geez, Vivio thought, I was just trying to lighten the mood a little; I didn't think it was that stupid a thing to say.
She was still finding her way with her unit, though, and didn't know them all that well yet. And Luke was the most straightlaced of the bunch.
Or it could be something else—shock, maybe! she belatedly realized.
"Luke, we've got to get going. Those guys are just stunned and there's more on the way. How badly are you hurt?"
"I...my right leg is seriously messed up; it won't hold me, and I think I've got a couple of cracked ribs. Nothing life-threatening. I'm running really low on mana, though. That last spell nearly tapped me out."
"Okay. Come on; we're going to move fast." She bent and scooped him up over her shoulders in a fireman's carry, distributing the weight to put the minimum stress on her muscles. Sacred Heart helped, too, automatically working on augmenting her strength and endurance; it wasn't easy to heft and shoulder a two-hundred-pound man for an extended period of time, regardless of how fit she herself was.
As soon as her grip was secure, she sprang into the air.
Flying in a forest, particularly while carrying an injured man, was nothing like flying in open sky. Of course, she could have gone straight up into that open sky, but that would have been like waving a giant "Here we are! Please shoot us!" flag to every rebel unit in the region. If they had half a brain or any security consciousness—which she already knew that they did because of how the rest of the mission had gone—they'd have drones, remote sensors, something up there to watch for government helicopters, air mages, or any other hostile.
So, instead, she was left to dive and dart between the tree-trunks, limited in her ability to maintain a high speed by her need to see and avoid obstacles. Still, she was making much better time than she would have had she been running. Not only was flying capable of going at the maximum rate her awareness would allow, but she could simply go over the underbrush instead of having to force a way through it, and she didn't have to worry about slopes or uncertain footing or protruding roots and holes that might trip her up.
Unfortunately, others also didn't have to worry about those things, and they didn't have to be careful of an injured man that they were carrying, either. "Others" like light aerial combat drones, and at least three mages, all of them firing at her. Vivio dodged as best she could, but the limited space made that difficult, so while a fair number of shots, particularly from the drones, detonated against the ground or overhead in the trees, Vivio had to block several with her own shielding spells.
It was times like these that she was happy Kris was an Intelligent Device, capable of casting basic defensive magic on his own. It was hard to fly forward at high speeds, dodging obstacles, and be aware of when attacks were coming at her back at the same time. It was utterly impossible to do that and at the same time launch any kind of coherent counterattack. She did fire off a couple of Sonic Shooters, but guiding the shots at multiple enemies while flying and dodging was beyond her. Even her Nanoha-mama, Vivio thought, would have found it difficult although not truly impossible.
But then, that's her specialty: aerial combat and shooting magic. Vivio was a completely different kind of fighter, one who got up close and personal with her enemies in hand-to-hand combat, focusing on the Ancient Belkan roots of her magic. Not the best style of magic for a dogfight while evacuating a wounded comrade!
Vivio flung herself to one side as the searing green bolt of the bearded rebel's cannon spell exploded past her. He was the only one of the four who'd been going after Luke that had gotten back up to continue pursuit; the other followers were yet more rebels who had joined up along the way. Obviously the enemy's jamming didn't cut off their own communications.
The buster may have missed Vivio, but it took out another target: the four-foot-thick trunk of a massive tree just ahead. Gravity was a harsh mistress, immediately hauling the tree-top down, pulling what had been part of the canopy right into the flight path. Vivio veered hard right, only to be nearly hit in a detonating blast fired by one of the other mages that did little damage but sent her spinning away, out of control. She barely had a chance to shift Luke around from across her shoulders to in her arms in front of her before her back slammed hard into another tree-trunk, and she dropped ten feet to the ground, sending a hard jolt up her tailbone.
Thanks to her Barrier Jacket, Vivio was only momentarily stunned by the impacts, not seriously hurt, and her own body had served to cushion the blows for Luke. He grunted in pain, but seemed to have taken no worse than she had.
Sacred Heart got the shield spell up just in time to block a quad-cluster of shooting orbs, these about the size of a cannonball rather than a bullet and impacting with considerable force. The rebels were obviously expecting the shield to go down, since another mage was already arrowing in, the end of her staff having sprouted a ten-inch energy spike like a bayonet, and her eyes widened when it rammed into the center of the shield, stopping her charge. She boosted her efforts, pressing forward, driving her weapon harder against the shield.
Crap, I know this one! Vivio realized as the bayonet-point started to dig into her shield. By focusing on a single spot, the blade could create a tiny breach in the shield, thrust itself into the gap to keep the shield from repairing, and then use the blade as a pathway to fire a spell inside the defense. The spell wasn't likely to be an Excelion Buster or anything else on the level Nanoha used when she'd use that trick, but it didn't have to be, either, not given the badly compromised state of Luke's Barrier Jacket. In desperation, Vivio did the only thing she could thing of.
Her variant of the Barrier Burst spell pumped excess mana into the shield and then detonated that energy outwards in a concussive blast. The attacking woman was hurled away, crashing into the undergrowth and disappearing from view.
Which was when the drones came in on a strafing run. Vivio took hits to the shoulder, the leg, and the side of the head, making her glad a Barrier Jacket's defenses covered the whole body, not just the parts they appeared to reinforce. Luke was hit, too, thankfully only once, but then the bearded men and three more rebels were coming in at her, and Vivio didn't see how she could possibly fight her way out of this position while still protecting Luke.
Then, she didn't have to.
A scarlet bolt took one of the rebels in the chest, piercing her Barrier Jacket cleanly and putting her on the ground. The drones exploded as pale blue fire hammered them down. Two spinning yellow crescents, as if axe-blades made of energy had been flung off their hafts, crashed into another of the mages with devastating effect.
The look of smug satisfaction on the bearded man's face turned to stunned fear as three more STG troopers emerged from the forest cover: Harley with his multiple-form Device in mid-ranged cannon mode, Rhen's golden spear wreathed in blue flames, the axe-blades already reforming at the end of Carver's Device.
He took a step back.
Vivio set Luke down. She pushed to her feet, continuing the motion into a springing leap. Using a classic Strike Arts technique, she channeled mana to her clenching fist. Wordlessly, she had Sacred Heart shift its assist effect from defense and agility to full offense.
Then she cast.
She felt the rush of mana through her Linker Core as the Belkan spell turned her already-enhanced fist into as much of a weapon as Signum's Shiden Issen or Vita's Raketenhammer. Her hand thrust forward in a straight punch; she barely felt it crash against—through—the mage's hastily-cast Protection barrier and continue on to make very firm contact with his face. Bones snapped. Blood and teeth flew.
"Nice one, kid," Rhen applauded.
Vivio whirled on the three Hounds.
"You were supposed to be on your way to the evac point!" she exclaimed. "Our ride's not going to want to stick around."
"That's why we did send Kvick there," Carver said.
"Her specialty's not quite as good for running back and rescuing people," Rhen elaborated, "but we figured if our ride got a little eager to leave, she might be able to persuade him to stay. Y'know, by pointing one of those mass weapons she keeps insisting on spending the time to maintain her license for at the back of his head and explaining how no less than four of us are rated to pilot a VTOL transport, even if the exit wound gets blood on the console?"
Vivio couldn't help but shake her head and laugh.
"Okay, that'd probably encourage him to be cooperative."
"And besides," Rhen said, "weren't you the one who said, 'we went out as six, we go back as six?' Hounds don't leave our own behind. That goes for you, same as the rest of us."
"Hell, especially for you; a rack that fine shouldn't be left for those pigs," Harley tried his best to ruin the moment just by being himself, but somehow he found himself unable to drive the feeling of warmth and pride from the young lieutenant's heart.
~X X X~
Vivio had wanted to speak privately with Rhen for some time after the mission, but the circumstances kept getting in the way: the dropship was cramped with the entire crew in the bay, then the team had stuck together while the doctors on the Bureau ship Julia treated Luke's injuries and patched up the rest of the nicks and cuts, then the men and women had split up for showers and clean-up, followed by getting all back together for dinner in the ship's cafeteria. It was starting to remind her of the time she'd tried to ask Hayate out for the first time, until finally she got her shot when they went their separate ways after the meal and Rhen wandered over to the AutoVend machines. She followed after him.
"Hey, Takamachi. Since you've got the fancy education, maybe you can explain how it is the Navy can arrange for perfectly cooked steaks in a warship galley but can't get one of these things to put out a decent cup of coffee?" The kitchen had closed for the night a half hour ago while the Hounds were still eating (denying Kvick a second piece of strawberry pie in the process), leaving them stuck with automated drink options until breakfast.
"Don't ask me; I'm lucky if I can get one of the things that serves caramel milk at all, quality be damned."
"In that case, it looks like it's your lucky day all over again." He pointed at one of the selections, and Vivio's spirits lifted. She decided to take it as an omen for the rest of the conversation.
"I guess so. I wanted to talk to you, Rhen."
He extracted his coffee from the machine, popped the tab, took a drink, and grimaced.
"I didn't know lukewarm congealed mud was considered a food product," he muttered.
"What you said to me at the rendezvous point, before I went off after Luke. I'm guessing that was a test?"
He didn't answer right away. Vivio had Sacred Heart link to the AutoVend so the correct pay could be transferred from her account, then pushed the button for her caramel milk.
"'Hounds don't leave our own behind,' you put it? You were going back for Luke no matter what I said. But you argued the opposite. Which explains why Carver was going to speak up and you had him stuff it."
Rhen didn't bother to deny it.
"Yeah, we were."
"So, like I said, a test? To see if I'd want to go back for him?"
"If we're going to take your orders, put our lives in your hands, better to know now."
"Except that you didn't take my orders. You brought Carver and Harley with you after me."
"A retrieval like that calls for at least two people. You can't carry a guy and fight off pursuit at the same time."
She shook her head.
"That's not the point. I gave you a direct order and you didn't follow it. You're the senior NCO of this unit; you've got experience with the men and in the field that I don't, so I'm counting on you to be there to give me advice if you see a hole in my plans. But you were too busy testing me to give me advice. I don't know if you didn't think of it at the time or just figured I'd think you were just trying to talk me out of going back in a different way, but either way, you didn't raise the point. Rhen, I'm counting on you and everyone to tell me if you see something wrong with any plan I make so I can get it right, but I need to know you're going to follow my orders when I give them, not treat me like I'm a superior officer in name only. That's why I'm writing you up for insubordination when I file the report on this assignment."
She took a drink of her caramel milk while she let that sink in. Really, it wasn't bad, she thought. It didn't compare to Nanoha's homemade, of course, but it was tastier than she had any right to expect.
"On the other hand, you probably saved my ass and definitely saved Luke's, since if I'd been able to fight free I wouldn't have been able to protect him while doing it. That's going in the report, too."
"So you're writing me up for not following orders, but basically saying that it was a foolish and badly planned order in the first place?"
"That's the truth, isn't it?"
She leaned back against the vending machine and crossed her legs at the ankle.
"You know who my parents are, right?"
"I think pretty much everybody does."
"Yeah, well...I think, sometimes, it's hard for me to remind myself that I'm not a hero. STG work...that's kind of like the opposite of hero, even more than the Strike Team was." She grinned, a little sheepishly. "But once in a while, I'm probably going to backslide."
"Ah." Rhen sipped coffee again, pulled another face. "Yeah, well, having our commander play hero on this job's a good way to leave us with an open slot for commander...presuming that the rest of us get back in one piece without one."
"Neither one of us much respected the process. You wanted to test me and I wanted to prove myself to the rest of you, when we should have just made a plan and gotten Luke out as a team."
"So you're writing us both up."
"So I'm writing us both up. I was definitely raised to take responsibility for my actions. I figure that's something heroes and soldiers have in common."
Rhen looked at her for a couple of seconds, then broke into a broad smile.
"Damn straight." He raised his coffee to her. "Here's to us both doing better next time."
She tapped her own drink against his, and they both drank. Once again, Rhen winced at the taste.
"One thing, though, kid."
"Next time you want a heart-to-heart talk? We're getting ourself a couple of beers."
~X X X~
Luke took a deep breath when they got to the end of the story.
"That's pretty much it," he said. "Pretty straightforward and stuff, right? Heck, it's part of our motto. No Hound leaves their own behind, right? Even when it's the tactically stupid thing to do, we've got each other's backs. We'd have done the same for you or Harley or any of the team."
"But you can't quite convince yourself of that, can you?" he asked.
He held out the item he'd picked up from the locker, letting the chain of plain steel links, tough enough for rugged handling, dangle from his fingertip. At the end, the ten-karat gold of the Belka Kreuz threw back the light.
Rhen handed it over; Luke put the pendant around his neck, then tucked it inside his shirt, where he wore the holy symbol up against his skin.
"Everybody does it," he said. "A spot like that, shells falling all around you, you have the Lady whispering in your ear and you start praying to whatever it is you believe in to keep you from listening to her call. I bet even Kvick starts reminding herself of how she doesn't believe and that fate and destiny are all superstition that can't hurt her, or however it goes. It's only natural, right?"
Rhen nodded again.
"True enough. Kind of makes you want to know where you stand in the universe."
"Yeah, exactly. And look, I know Lieutenant Takamachi isn't Olivie Sedgbrecht, that she's a clone and that makes her her own person. But that also means that she's a descendant of holy blood. The Cradle acknowledged her before it fell. She is the Sankt Kaiser, the living vessel of the divine, whether she wants to claim the authority of the position or not."
He ran his hand over his hair, smoothing it down.
"Look, I don't expect you to get it, but...dammit, Rhen, when I was lying there hurt and those bastards were closing in, I prayed. I wasn't getting out on my own, you guys were all supposed to be heading for the rendezvous point, and it was going to take a miracle to save me.
"And I got one. Not what people usually mean when they say that, a wildly lucky break where something no one could have predicted bails them out, like the enemy getting ordered back for no good reason or a sudden fog screwing up their targeting. No, I prayed to the Sankt Kaiser for my salvation and she showed up in person and saved my life. Can...can you possibly imagine how that felt?"
"No, no I can't say as I can," Rhen admitted.
"The problem is, I...I'm not sure either."
The senior Hound gave him a look, but so far as he could tell, Luke sounded sincere. He had an expression that couldn't quite be pinned down, a kind of...bewildered awe.
"What am I supposed to feel right now? It's all mixed up in my head: escaping death, the squad pulling together for me, and...her. Trying to make sense of it all. I mean, there's a part of me that's just saying it's an accident. The fortunes of war that I was assigned to this unit, that I was the one to get caught out and need help, right? But...Rhen, that's here on the ship. After the fact, with Harley cracking jokes and Carver trying to get a card game going. When it was actually happening, when it was real, out there..." He waved a hand towards the nearest wall. "It was different. And the next time we go out, I don't know what I'm going to think."
Rhen folded his arms over his chest.
"You mean, next time Takamachi gives an order, you don't know if you're going to hear the lieutenant's instructions or a commandment from On High?"
"I know it sounds stupid, saying it like that, Rhen, but...honestly, yeah. I do wonder about that. It was hard enough serving under her before, but now..."
The older Hound nodded slowly.
"And there's a pretty big difference between a TSAB STG field operative and a knight of the Belkan Saint Church."
"That's right," Luke agreed.
There wasn't a whole lot Rhen could say to that. He wasn't really sure he got it, himself—his own faith wasn't all that strong, and even if it was he didn't have to deal with the kind of problem the Belkan did. Rhen's incarnation of divinity wasn't running around the dimensional sea, after all, let alone acting as his unit commander.
He wondered how he'd feel, in Luke's shoes, but found it hard. Part of the nature of faith was that it was faith: belief without hard evidence that could be documented, tested, analyzed. Belief that spoke to the soul, came from the heart.
What did it do to a man to receive proof, or something so close to it?
"I suppose there wouldn't be much point in talking this over with Takamachi herself," Rhen said. It wasn't a suggestion and he didn't phrase it as one; he knew the answer.
So did Luke.
"I..." He shook his head. "No way, Rhen. I mean, she doesn't think of herself like that, or at least doesn't act that way. All her talk at the time was about the squad. And, well, she's a Hound. She could have joined the Church, after all; she even went to the school at St. Hilde's so she could have followed that career arc without trouble."
Rhen raised an eyebrow.
"You know where she went to school?"
"Her Majesty is...I guess you could think of her as a celebrity for us. The public aspects of her life are well-known."
He supposed that made sense. When the divine walked among them, people were liable to pay attention.
"Anyway, I don't think there's anything she could say that could change anything, and it'd just make her uncomfortable. I don't want to do that. That'd be a piss-poor way to pay her back for pulling my backside out of the fire. The plain truth is, I just don't see how I can go on serving here, under her command. I don't know if I could keep my head on straight to do what she expects of me as one of her unit, not to mention what you and everyone else need at your backs when the chips are down. I don't want to screw up and blow a mission or worse yet get myself or one of you killed."
There wasn't much Rhen could say to that. He'd worked side-by-side with Luke for years, had taken the time to know the man as a teammate and friend, but...the truth was, the man was right. Unless he could sort everything out in his head, he couldn't function under Takamachi's command, and, well, life-changing experiences were called that for a reason.
"I'll be sorry to see you go," he said sincerely.
"I'll be sorry to go. I'm going to file my transfer request once we get back to Midchilda. I'd appreciate it if you didn't tell anyone until then?"
"No problem. But I'm warning you, try and slip off without a proper goodbye and I'll kick your ass so hard you'll wish the kid had left you back in that hole."
"Deal," he said, grinning. He started for the locker room door, then stopped and turned back. "Hey, Rhen?"
"Thanks. I don't think I'd have figured any of this out without you."
"Ain't just on the battlefield we're there for each other, right?" Rhen said casually, but inside, it still stung. Right or wrong, the kid's actions had gone and brought back one of the Hounds, only for Rhen to turn around and lose him.
The right choice? Yeah, it was that. But still and all, Rhen was glad he'd had the conversation on the ship and not planetside.
At least his pacing wouldn't keep Mihva awake tonight.
~X X X~
Vivio's Magical Omake Theater!
"And in any case, that's what we were hoping to arrange with regard to shared defensive operations before..." General Yagami Hayate was summing up when she noticed the grin on her old friend's face. "What are you smiling at, Carim?"
"I was just wondering how your love life is going," said the Knight-Commander of the Belkan Saint Church.
"So the news made it to you?"
"Deed overheard Vivio talking to Ixpellia about it during her last visit to the hospital."
"I see." Hayate paused, thinking something more was required. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you, Carim. We've been trying to keep it as quiet as possible because of Vivio's age and and the various circumstances..."
The blonde churchwoman shook her head.
"No, no, I understand completely. It's hard enough making a romance work ordinarily, and the two of you have the age gap, the family concerns, and that kind of thing to work through. I certainly appreciate why you wouldn't want to force yourselves to deal with the added problems that come with romancing an important public figure." She lifted her delicate china teacup to her lips.
"I'm glad. I'd appreciate if you could keep this quiet, though. I don't mind Deed and Otto knowing, but if Sein hears about it it'll be all over Mid by the end of the day. Vivio's been doing really well at dealing with the problems and political concerns my work—"
Carim cut her off by spewing tea all over the antique rosewood desk.
"Vivio's doing well!" she laughed. "Hayate, I was talking about the pressure on you. I mean, I know you have important duties as a high-ranking military officer, but really, you're Her Majesty's consort." She started blotting up spilled tea with a napkin. "After all, it's not like playing soldier compares with being the living vessel of the Will of Heaven."