#AN: I came into this chapter with a plan, but it turns out SOME characters had other ideas. And then a bit of connective tissue turned into an entire scene and inspired the chapter title in a roundabout way. The scene with Tabitha and Kirche was the nineteenth snippet I ever wrote for this story, meaning it's been... nearly seven years in the making? Is that right?! Cripes. Some other early snippets were integrated in here, too. That's right, the whole arc has been incubating this whole time! (And I still don't know exactly how it'll all play out, of course.)

Also, happy MHRise-mas!


Chapter 28: Three Times is Enemy Action

Siesta - and calling her by name was completely natural by now, As damn well it should be with how easily she gets through my guard... - eventually realised she was slowly dying of embarrassment-induced suffocation and helpfully explained that the untoward things Louise was certainly not imagining had happened had, in fact, not happened. (Unless those things were first aid, a bath, and a dozen hours of sleep.) (Which they were, of course.)

She managed to dress, devour a very rich breakfast, and attend lectures without further mortification. Tabitha would appreciate the notes on somatic effect shaping and there were some interesting points about variation in structural weaknesses depending on the casting medium of air-aligned spellwork if one read between the lines. But she was truly champing at the bit to get back to her own practice.

It was... cathartic.

And since she was no longer setting herself up for disappointment by expecting typical elemental effects, well, could she really be blamed for finding the breadth of temperaments her explosions voiced rather fascinating? She hoped Siesta would come through with a new set of targets. But until then...

I hope Tabitha is okay...

...she endeavoured to distract herself.


Though she had accepted Kirche's help in this mission, Tabitha was at her wit's end. Even accounting for Kirche's proclivity to seduce anything that moves, being constantly hit-on did nothing for her ability to focus.

"Why are you doing this," she finally snapped.

"Hmmmmm? Why, I have no idea what you're talking about!" Kirche's feigned innocence wasn't especially convincing when their efforts to navigate the thick wood were hampered by the way she hugged Tabitha's arm into her cleavage.

"This." Tabitha wiggled the captured arm in indication, but it merely allowed Kirche to shrink the already-miniscule gap between them even further. She bit back a sigh.

"Oooooh, that! Well, I wouldn't want you to fall and mess up your pretty face."

This coming right after they'd nearly teetered over navigating a tall root, Tabitha leveled an unimpressed look at her. "Try again."

"I don't want the cute but bony Tabitha to catch a chill so I'm graciously sharing my insulation!" She did, undeniably, have a... a lot of that. However...

"It's a warm spring day." She redoubled her efforts to extract the information with her sharpest glare, but Kirche just pouted at another terrible excuse shot full of holes. Tabitha evidently lacked Louise's talent for it.

Unfortunate.

"Maaaaaaybe it's because I want to?" Finally, an answer that felt like progress.

"Explain." The word was out of her mouth before she quite realised she probably didn't really want to know.

"Oh, caught your attention, have I?" Kirche pulled them to a halt and released the arm with a light push on Tabitha's shoulder that left them standing face to face. The glib, half-lidded confidence written on her face was slightly unnerving. "Why, little blueberry, do you suppose I would be affectionate with someone?" Kirche moved closer, and Tabitha reflexively stepped back, their dance stopping only when the trunk of a large tree trapped her between wood and a soft place. Pinning her prey gently, the buxom Germanian caressed Tabitha's face. "Maybe it's because I really like you," she purred, making Tabitha's unreasonable heart race even though her rational mind screamed at her to drop the Air Hammer and lay down indiscriminate slut justice.

Instead, she croaked out, "Why?"

"Why, indeed." Kirche huffed a tiny sigh and shook her head. "Because you're a dear friend and I want you to have good things in your life. Because I want to take away your pain and the heartbreak you bear up inside of you where you think no one can see. Or maybe it's just self gratification of a sort, because I feel like making you happy might help make me happy too."

That... that was... just, wow. How should one react to a bomb like that? A phantom touch of impatience brought her short. Louise...

"What about Louise?" Tabitha's question was quiet, but she knew...

"Oh, no no no, don't misunderstand! The same applies to her, too. Fortunately for the three of us..." Kirche closed the distance between them slowly, Tabitha could have turned away or spoken up at any point. At a breath's breadth, she felt the smirk more than saw it as Kirche whispered, "...a master and familiar technically share the same identity." So stated, she closed the final gap.

Caught up in the moment, not even really understanding why, Tabitha looked Kirche right in the eyes and turned her head to meet the kiss that would have landed at the corner of her mouth head-on. Kirche's eyes widened in momentary shock, but gave way to joy before they drifted closed. Tabitha could feel her smiling into the kiss that was probably originally intended to be a little teasing smack and nothing more. She raised her hand up to tangle it loosely in Kirche's hair, extending it further.

It was nice.

Different from Louise, but not lesser for it.

When they finally parted, by some unspoken agreement, the subject was dropped and they continued picking their way through the dense forest. Kirche was no longer attached to her side, but the ember of something had planted itself anyway (growing alongside that feeling about Louise she daren't name).

Later, Tabitha would reflect that the unreserved smiles of warm comfort she received whenever their eyes met after were the most unusual of the many expressions Kirche had ever shown her.

And if they later happened to cuddle up together in one bedroll for the night? Well, warm spring days are offset by chill spring nights. And besides, it was clear from the contentment leaching into her from their bond that Louise had gotten over their leaving very quickly. It was fine. It would be fine. It would have to be.


KRA-KOW!

The smoke cleared, revealing an empty stump. The bright green pitcher was no more.

"Foremost," she whispered to herself in wonder, "a noble only fails when she stops trying to succeed..."

She looked down at her wand wide-eyed, then over to the beaming Siesta, who was clapping politely.

"Aww right!" she whooped, "That's ten! in! a row!"

"Very impressive, Miss Vallière! If I might ask, did you do something different from yesterday?" Siesta was a good girl (and very warm), but she was still just a commoner. She'd need it spelled (snrk) out.

"Heh heh heh, of course! I practiced!"

The bemused expression Siesta tried to hide was too funny, she burst out onto hearty laughter.

"Ahaha, the look!" she wheezed. "The look on your face!" Siesta's befuddlement had gradually darkened and she was looking a bit put out now. Really, how had she not been eaten alive by the thugs in Louise's so-called peer group if this was as good as she could hide her thoughts?

"Now, now, none of that; I was just having a bit of fun!" It was a blink-and-you-miss it affair, but Siesta pouted at that. Pouted! "That said, it wasn't entirely a joke either. Image, stance, and form all have a lot of impact on precision and mine was atrocious!" She sauntered over to the cart and accepted a glass of water then turned and looked back down range, eyeing it critically. "I had... a lot... yes, a lot to process yesterday, you might have noticed." Louise grimaced as though she'd eaten something foul. "I'm working on it. Managing my emotions, I mean. It's something every mage has to deal with in one way or another." She glanced to her side and found Siesta was listening with rapt attention. "Magic," she lectured, "comes from our willpower, you understand. And our willpower, coming from within us, is always coloured by things we feel. There's an emotional component that's reflected in how every spell ultimately manifests. We are shaped by its nature through our affinities and it, in turn, is expressed through what we invest in it."

"Is that so." Siesta seemed to be digesting this information with a furrowed brow. She was smart for a commoner; even if she'd never be using magic, she was reaching the right conclusions. "Then why-" She cut herself off, looking fearfully at Louise, who frowned.

That won't do at all.

"Go on, I won't get mad for you not knowing something you'd never have been taught, you know..."

She looked dubious, but evidently found the courage and finally got it out. "Why are all your explosions different sizes?

Louise dramatically raised a finger, "That-!"

Oh.

"..."

Huh.

"..."

Sheepishly, she lowered her finger and tapped her cheek, "...now that you mention it, I'm not sure. I'd gotten so used to it that... no, no, that's no excuse... but maybe..." She was muttering, now, more to herself than anyone, then, "Siesta!" she called out.

"Milady?"

"Would you say my performance today has been more consistent than yesterday as regards the size?"

"I... I believe so?"

"And you're not just saying... no, you're not. I see. Are there more targets available? It's fine if there aren't. But I have more work to do!


At the rate things were going, Marceau really might run out of "targets" far sooner than Miss Louise's appetite for destruction had run its course. It was Siesta's third cartload that day and large as the previous two combined! On the other hand, she was clearly in a much better state of mind than... perhaps any time since she'd started paying attention to the youngest Vallière?

Goodness, what a depressing thought.

Were she not on the receiving end of a long impromptu lecture on the principles of magic - a subject on which Louise was clearly well-studied and passionate, using simple, relatable terms and cheerfully answering any question without missing a beat - Siesta would have thought her a different person entirely.

And to think, all it took was a smidgen of kindness...

Her musings were cut short by a figure stepping into her path. Neither tall nor young, he was still imposing for the way he held himself and the bronze key pinned to his immaculate lapel, the symbol not of her boss but her boss' boss.

"Ah, Siesta," the majordomo of the academy smiled thinly, "it's good to see you in good health."

"Thank you, sir." She managed a small curtsey and mechanically returned the smile as best she could, but internally she was panicking. After all, she had largely ignored her other responsibilities to dote- serve- attend- lavish-

"I can't help but notice you've been nearly constantly with the young Miss Vallière for... the last two days? Perhaps a bit longer?" Ouch. At least he cut to the chase.

But she's so cute, though!

"Y-yes, sir. She has been demanding my time specifically." That was about her only saving grace, and it was still possible for Miss Louise to throw her under the proverbial carriage if she denied the connection.

I have no regrets, though. It was the right thing to do!

"I see, I see..." he stroked his greying beard thoughtfully, but then leaned in to examine her more closely. "Are you okay, dear?"

What?

"Are you okay, Siesta?" He repeated more forcefully. "Are your mind and body in good health?"

"I... begging your pardon, sir, but I don't really understand why I wouldn't? Academy work is quite agreeable." Maybe telling him what he wanted to hear would get her out of this situation?

"You're sure?" She was fixed in place by his searching, almost knowing stare. "You're not being coerced? You're not being threatened? She isn't abusing you? Blink three times if your life is in danger. Whatever you've done to rouse her ire, please don't feel that you must bear it alone!"

"Oh!" Her hand flew up to cover her mouth as the insinuation finally sunk in. "Goodness, no, it's nothing of the sort, sir! She's just lonely and misunderstood. Anyone could get along with her if they tried."

My, but this is awkward...

He shifted to study her from more angles. "So you're saying she's dragging you around like this because she likes you?" His concern was touching. It really drove home why the magic academy was such a good place to work.

"That is correct." Her grandboss' dubious look spoke volumes but she met it with unwavering confidence.

"Well... okay, as long as nothing is wrong. But remember, you can talk to me about anything. She may be daughter of a Duke but I'll be consigned to the Elflands before I let my staff suffer terrorism."

"Truly, I thank you for your concern, sir, but there really is nothing untoward between Miss Vallière and I. Rather, I think she sees me as a stand-in for her sister."

"All right, Siesta, as long as you're okay. In fact..." He pulled a ledger from somewhere and flipped through it, mumbling. "In fact, this might work out for the better. If you can keep the tantrums and explosions outside, you would be doing both myself and the chamberlain a substantial service. Yes, if it is as you say...?" She nodded agreement. "Then I'll make it official, even..." Ignoring her quizzical look, he turned away in clear dismissal, talking to himself about "...Valleire-related disaster control ...frees up three people..."

Meanwhile, Siesta seized up suddenly in very belated realisation, a blush creeping up her face.

'Nothing untoward' my foot! I'm just fondling an underage noble in the bath and sleeping with her! Shaking her head, she tried to convince herself it was innocent skinship. As if. I'm a pervert, she quailed. But suppose... suppose a princess were to sweep me off my feet? That would... that would be fine too... A throat clearing brought her back to earth: she had stopped in the middle of the hallway and her charge was probably starting to get impatient. She scurried back to her new duty.

(It would still be some time before her idle fantasies of a dashing grown Louise on a white horse were shattered by Kirche pointing out that she was already seventeen.)


It had been a good day. She had finally managed to get her very intentional explosions flying true and even made inroads in modulating their size and intensity. It was almost like she was a normal mage! Well, a mage in remedial training, but still, not a complete failure!

"And it's not even Tyrstag."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Just very pleased with how today went. I feel like a student again and it's nice. Things have been too crazy since Fouquet and I'm glad things are getting back to normal."

She sighed, leaning back into Siesta's warmth and playfully poked a foot above the surface of the bath before withdrawing it. The tiny yelp that echoed in the cavernous room definitely didn't come from her. She felt more than heard Siesta's covert chuckle and relished it.

Seriously, she mused fondly as deft hands massaged her body into blissful mush, this maid is entirely unsuited for this academy. I suppose I'll need to protect her.

"Also, I'm awake enough to enjoy the bath tonight. Has anyone ever told you you're very talented?" Siesta's breathing hitched.

"I-I, uhm, th-that is, thank you for your kind words Miss Vallière. I merely have a lot of experience helping raise my siblings and cousins."

Louise hummed acknowledgement.

"Sister, huh? I can see it..."

I wonder how Cattleya fares?/ She stiffened. Aww hells, we still haven't visited home! She nearly panicked, but for Siesta's warmth, the calming hand stroking her hair, and the words of comforting nonsense.

"That may be enough soaking, Miss Louise. Shall we get you dried off and tucked in?"

Like most of Siesta's ideas it was a fine one. Right up to the point that Louise realised a) she still really didn't want to sleep alone (the idea immediately filled her with dread) and b) Siesta had no nightwear to her name and normally went without. But unlike before, she was awake enough to not just go with the flow.

Bathing is one thing, but this...

"Okay, hang on, I'll be right back!"

She threw on the bathrobe, boldly strode downstairs into Kirche's room, and threw the wardrobe wide. Surely the brown cow has some-

And gaped.

That's a lot of... does this even count as underwear? Some of this is just strings! She shook her head violently to fling away the (tantalising) images that were forming unbidden, and cracked one eye slightly. There! Something normal! Well, normal as Kirche would ever have. But it was an emergency, so any solid piece of fabric would work and black was a sensible colour.

Hurriedly, she stole back upstairs blushing all the way and thrust the stolen goods into Siesta's confused hands.

"H-here, put this on. It's Kirche's, but it should fit you I think." She turned away, trying to calm her throbbing... heart.

Rustling.

Siesta gasped. "A-are you s-sure about this, Miss Louise?"

"Yeah, don't worry, I'll handle Kirche if she gets uppity."

"I... see. Th-then... as milady wishes."

Her voice went weird there, I didn't think she'd be so worried...

After another couple minutes of rustling, Louise's patience was nearly gone.

"I'm ready for... bed..." Siesta's voice was shy and airy. Something was definitely off and Louise was determined to fix it. She whipped around, ready to solve- "...mistress."

Eh!?

Siesta lay seductively on the bed with smoky eyes and a gentle beckon, showing off the nightwear Louise had selected. She gulped. It had a lot of fabric, sure, and wasn't completely sheer, yes.

It also didn't cover the breasts at all, instead ending just below them for a subtle lift that was terribly, unfairly erotic.

So Siesta probably thought... but wore it... and...

I believe I have made a grave miscalculation.

It took nearly ten minutes for Siesta to coax her out of a distressed ball in the corner.