A/N: When I first published this I said something about Astrid not having siblings. Guess I need to check my facts better next time. Thanks to Sotsumi for the catch; I believe I've fixed it now.
"Good day, sir."
Makalov wasn't often addressed as "sir." For the most part, he got called things like "clambake," "sponge-brain," "chowderhead," and, very occasionally, "Makalov." Naturally his first impulse was to look around and reassure himself that whoever-it-was was looking for someone else. People only went looking for knights when they needed someone to be stiff, honorable, and violent, and he really couldn't be bothered with any of that today. Sadly, he was the only one there. He wasn't going to have to explain what he was doing picking flowers out here, was he? He'd hate that.
He kept looking, but now for anything he might use as an excuse. Finally his eyes lighted on the woman who must have spoken – a slim girl in blue and white with dark hair and large, serious brown eyes. She just oozed class, which meant money, which meant she would've been a good person to know even if she hadn't been cute. Time to turn on the charm. "Huh?" Well, drat. That wasn't what he'd had in mind. "Are you talking to me?" He hid the flowers behind his back, and on second thought, dropped them. They were a stupid idea, anyway. Marcia was harder to bribe than that.
The girl looked around, too, as though even she wasn't sure she really wanted anything to do with him. "Yes, sir," she said finally. Her voice was almost too quiet to hear. He stepped closer, and she looked a little flustered. "My name is Astrid. May I ask your name, good sir?"
"I'm not really a knight," he said. It was important to establish that as soon as possible so she didn't ask him to go beat someone. But it didn't look like that was what she had in mind anyway. "So you can drop the whole 'sir' thing." After congratulating himself effusively on the nice save, he extended a hand to her. "I'm Makalov. Nice to meet you."
Astrid smiled warmly and shook his hand. "The feeling is mutual, Makalov." This, he decided, was going very well. A bit more work and he wouldn't need to butter Marcia up anymore – he could just borrow money from his new best friend Astrid. "By the way, you dropped these flowers."
She was pretty observant, wasn't she? Wait, no, it didn't make any sense to start talking to someone about something he hadn't done yet, and she was holding some flowers of the sort he'd been gathering. It seemed he'd dropped some before. "Ah! I didn't even notice."
Astrid looked down into the small bouquet she held – and it really was a bouquet. She'd gone to the trouble of arranging the flowers and everything. She smiled shyly. "They are so pretty!"
Well, this could turn out all kinds of awkward. Makalov tried to discourage people from thinking too highly of him, especially since Marcia had showed up and dragged him into the army and insisted he live up to their expectations. It was fine if people liked him (although for some reason that didn't happen as often as he thought it should), but admiration was right out. "Not bad for some wildflowers growing in a ditch, right?"
"You picked them yourself? That's very sweet, Makalov."
"Oh, um, well, yeah." It was too much. This was getting surreal. He'd known her for two minutes and she hadn't even threatened him yet; odder still, it seemed like she liked him better every time he opened his mouth. "They're for my dearest sister." He paused. "Well, for her grave," he said, looking away. "She… she always liked… flowers…"
"Oh," said Astrid. Her reaction was perfect: sympathetic and at a total loss. Through careful and concerted effort – more than he'd applied to anything in quite some time, to be perfectly honest – Makalov did not smile. "That's so sad." She looked down at the flowers again, biting her lip. "I'm sorry, Makalov. Here, take them back."
Why did she keep saying his name like that? Oh, well. He waved a hand sadly and dismissively. "Aw, it's all right. Take one if you want. My sister, she would've –"
The next thing he heard turned his insides to ice. "Makalov! Is this where you've been skulking the whole time? You good-for-nothing dungheel!" His sister apparently had a very different idea of what she would do under the circumstances – it was Marcia, a very angry Marcia, and she was right behind him.
Makalov turned around, stumbled back, and barely caught himself before he bumped into Astrid. "My dearest sister!" He scooped up some of the flowers he'd dropped earlier and held them out to Marcia. "Flowers? They match your –" She grabbed his ear and pulled savagely. He whimpered, first in pain and then in mortification that Astrid might have heard such an unimpressive sound escaping him. First impressions were ever so important, and here he was being manhandled by his little sister.
"All my life I've been following you around cleaning up after your messes. I'm so sick of it! I'd kill you myself if I didn't know how much it would upset Mother." She wasn't using any of her usual weird insults. She must be really mad. "'Makalov's running away from his debts, Makalov's running away from battle, Makalov's running away from some pretty girl's parents, now go fix it, Marcia.' So I did. Every time. I've saved your skin more times than I can count, the Great Demon wants to take it out of mine, and I got General Ike to take you on even though he knows how useless you are. After all that, could you possibly find it within yourself not to run out on kitchen detail?"
Astrid cleared her throat. "Excuse me." Marcia pushed Makalov to one side and looked at her skeptically. "This man has recently lost his beloved sister, and was out here gathering flowers to pay his respects. You oughtn't to speak to him so roughly."
Oh, no. This wasn't how it was supposed to go at all. He looked at Astrid and made frantic silencing gestures, then changed his mind and made the same gestures at Marcia. Astrid believed in him, after all. Suddenly inspired, he straightened, looked Marcia in the eye, and said, "…Meep." It wasn't the rousing speech he'd intended, but come on, it was Marcia, and Marcia was –
"Madam knight," said Astrid, "whatever Makalov has done to you, I'm sure this violence is inappropriate. He is a gentle soul, and the ways of the grieving heart are often strange. Please, try to find the compassion to forgive him."
That was the nicest, most impassioned speech anyone had ever given in his defense, and she'd just met him. Not that he had a lot of other nice, impassioned speeches to compare it to, but the girl was a real catch, and Marcia was going to ruin everything. "Yes," he said hurriedly, "the grieving heart and all that. I only act out because I'm tragically misunderstood." Her eyes narrowed. "Um, as you can see, Marcia, I'm actually pretty busy right now, so could you come back some other time? I-I mean, if it's not too much troub – oh goddess don't hurt me please please don't do that I like my head fine in the shape it's in Marcia please you're my favorite sister ever don't hurt me."
"All right, Mister 'Gentle Soul,'" said Marcia, finally letting go of his ear. Why was she smiling? And secondly, what kind of smile was that? She didn't look happy at all.
"You're a saint," he said, in case it would help.
"Why don't you try telling me that again after you've explained everything to your girlfriend here?" Marcia said ominously.
"'Girlfriend?'" Astrid squeaked, turning red.
"I'm sure it'll be a very interesting story. You know, I think I'll listen in."
"Oh," said Makalov. Had she been planning that? It would definitely explain that terrifying look on her face. He'd better think fast. "Oh." That wasn't it. "Um, Astrid. Have you met my sister?"
"No, I can't say I have," said Astrid, still a little flushed.
"Well, in that case, Astrid, this is Marcia. Marcia, this is Astrid," said Makalov, with a nervous little chuckle. "Now we're all introduced –"
Marcia smiled wider and the process involved far too many teeth. "Enough stalling, dear brother. We're dying to hear your story."
No, Makalov thought, he was definitely the one doing all the dying here. "Well. Yes. And no wonder. It's a very good story, Marcia, maybe you should – wait, no, no, don't do that, only I can really do it justice, sorry I asked."
"How many sisters do you have, exactly?" Astrid asked.
"Just one," said Makalov, and then belatedly saw his opening. "Just one who's alive, anyway," he said in a lower voice, looking down. "I used to have two. The one whose grave I was picking flowers for was actually my second-dearest sister, um, Ma – Marie. Za. Marieza." Marcia snorted loudly.
"What a lovely name," said Astrid, clasping her hands at her throat. "Oh, Makalov, I'm so sorry to have revived these memories for you. It must be terribly painful. You, too, Marcia." Makalov could've married her right there – Marcia's face was that priceless. "I can't begin to imagine your suffering. If any of my siblings were to die, I – But of course, you still have each other. That must be… some comfort, at least."
"Oh, it's wonderful," Marcia said sarcastically.
"Wonderful," said Makalov. "At least my very dearest sister is still with me. Knowing that she's still alive, I'm able to keep going. But some days…"
"Please," said Astrid, apparently profoundly moved, "don't make yourself speak of it on my behalf."
"No, don't worry about me."
"I don't know why anyone would," Marcia muttered.
"These must be such trying times for you as a family," said Astrid. "Your parents, are they…?"
"They're fine," said Marcia.
"Murdered," Makalov said, just a moment too late.
Marcia smacked him. "They're fine, Astrid, really. You shouldn't believe everything my brother tells you. He's quite the, uh…" She eyed Astrid critically. "You probably shouldn't believe anything he tells you. You look like his type."
"I have a type?" Makalov muttered, gently probing for any grievous head injuries his sister might have given him this time.
"Oh, no," said Astrid, "our interaction was perfectly innocent. Your brother is – well, I've never felt quite so safe in a gentleman's company before."
"You weasel! What did you do to her?" Marcia demanded, raising a hand to hit him again.
"Nothing!" He shielded his head with his arms. This was just not fair at all. She wasn't going to believe anything he said – which was probably only reasonable, because come on, he did sort of lie about everything, and just now he'd tried to fake her death, but – the one time he actually got a third party to vouch for him instead of chucking him into the ocean or making all kinds of nasty threats about his fingers (and he liked his fingers), Marcia didn't believe her, either! Life was so unspeakably cruel sometimes. Was it any wonder he could never stay in one place? There was nothing but persecution and skepticism everywhere he –
She hadn't touched him, and he was still standing in an awkward and undignified stance bleating, "Nothing! Really! I swear!" while she just stared at him.
"That's enough," Astrid said firmly, stepping between Marcia and Makalov. "Makalov is a trained fighter. If you strike him again, he may not be able to control his response. Can't you see he doesn't want to hurt you? Please, Marcia, don't make him hurt his only surviving sister."
Makalov lowered his arms and coughed and tried to look respectable. He considered backing up Astrid's story, but Marcia knew he'd never gone to a day of training in his life, except on those holidays when all the taverns were closed. And then he'd just griped about having to pick up a sword on a holiday.
"In such trying times" – Astrid was still talking? Huh – "with the war and your sister's death and so much to worry about, you must try to put your differences aside and stand together as brother and sister."
Marcia stared blankly at Astrid for a while after she'd stopped talking. Then she leaned to the side, looking around her at Makalov. "Great work with this one."
Makalov threw up his hands. "She was like this when I found her," he said. "Cross my heart." Marcia snorted. "And the flowers really were for you. A-Astrid, back me up."
Marcia sighed. "You know, you wouldn't have to give me flowers if you didn't skip out on your duties to pick flowers to give me to apologize for skipping out on your duties. It doesn't even make sense! Since when have flowers worked on me, anyway?"
She actually sort of had a point. Not that she usually didn't, but for some reason he was almost paying attention today. "Uh, the grieving heart," he said finally.
Marcia scowled at him.
He chuckled uneasily. "Well, I mean, how important are potatoes, anyway?"
"This isn't about potatoes."
"It isn't? But I thought you came after me because –"
"You idiot! You cake-swiping stoat! It's about appreciating the opportunity you were given. I put my career on the line for you!"
"Wait, how did you know that was me who took that cake?" Wait, that wasn't smart. "I mean. If it was. Not that it was. You really need to stop jumping to conclusions like that, hahaha… ha."
"I give up," said Marcia. "You… ugh. You moldy… breadbasket." She spun on her heel and stalked off, muttering some unfavorable comparison between her older brother and a pickled trout. He would've pointed out that, hey, he did a much better job with the three potatoes he'd peeled before escaping than any dead fish would have, but he didn't have a death wish.
Astrid was still here.
He rubbed at the back of his neck. "I, uh, I'm sorry you had to see that."
"Oh, Makalov," Astrid said, feelingly and apparently at random, "you'll forgive her, won't you? I know she didn't mean to be so harsh with you."
"Nah, I'm pretty sure she did."
"You mustn't –"
He waved a hand dismissively. "No, it's all right." He really should have put a dramatic pause in there somewhere, he thought, to give the impression that it wasn't all right but he was soldiering nobly on anyhow – girls liked that sort of thing, he'd heard. Of course, it never had worked too well for him.
"I'm sure she's just worried about you," said Astrid.
This girl was just too much. "Heh. You think so?"
She nodded. "I'm sure of it. You disappeared without a word to anyone, didn't you?"
"Well." He'd never thought of it like that before. "Yeah."
"How could she know you'd gone out to pay your respects to poor Marieza? She must be so afraid of losing you, as well." She shook her head slowly. "I can understand your feelings, but maybe you should have more consideration for hers. I – I'm not blaming you, of course!" she added, blushing. "But perhaps, as Marcia's brother, you ought to… take responsibility." Her eyes, shining and serious, met his.
Makalov developed a sudden and acute stomach cramp.
She looked away. "Although I'm sure I don't know what I'm talking about. Forgive me. It's not my place."
"No," he said. "I, uh, maybe you're on to something." He scuffed at the ground with one foot. There wasn't really any "maybe" about it. He should get his act together. Neglecting to peel potatoes was one thing; having a cute rich girl go crazy over you when all you'd done was lie to her was another. "Listen," he said miserably, "I think there's been a misunderstanding."
"I know," said Astrid. "Marcia's got a mistaken impression of our – I wouldn't say relationship – but I promise you I'll go talk to her straightaway and get everything straightened out. I'll make sure she knows you were the perfect gentleman. I can't stand to see a family quarrelling like this."
"No, what I really meant was –" On second thought, anyone who was willing to go into the lion's den and talk to Marcia so he wouldn't have to was good to have around. And among all her other assets, she was also pretty cute. And rich. Probably really rich. And ever so understanding –
"What is it?" she asked, her face the picture of concern.
"These flowers. They're all for you."