THIS FANFIC IS DEAD. It sucks, honestly. Please read instead the rewrite: Surrogate of Zero.
Points of Familiarity
A ZnT/NGE crossover fanfic
I have, indeed, no abhorrence of danger, except in its absolute effect - in terror.
Edgar Allan Poe
A boy lay face-up in a beach, among waters red as blood. Other than the steady roll of the waves, there was only a bleak and blissful silence. He was so used to the everpresent scent of rotting meat that his mind tuned it out. In the darkness behind his eyes, time ceased.
With a body that could not die, a soul slowly starved unto to death.
And then, suddenly, his blank peace was broken by a weird sensation. He was falling. There was a bright flash in the dark. Pain. How familiar. His eyes hurt. It was bright.
He wanted to cry. He wanted to scream, he wanted to shout, to throw a tantrum like a little child. His eyes remained dry and his heart felt hollow. 'Is this it, then? All right. I don't have any choice in anything.'
He rubbed at the back of his head, and very slowly opened his eyes.
The world unfolded before him. Slowly his senses returned. The feel of the warm sun upon his skin, the rustle of wind through trees, and the beauty of life all around him was more painful than any wound.
"Who are you?" asked the girl, intently examining his face, the clear blue sky behind her. She looked just as confused as he was. She had prayed for anything to appear in her summoning circle, but certainly not a lanky teenager dressed in a plain set of a white shirt over black pants.
She did not seem out of her teenage years yet, with wide curious eyes and long wavy pink her. Underneath a black cloak, she wore a white blouse and a gray pleated skirt. She knelt down and looked at his face more closely.
The strange boy had an otherwise nondescript face, but with slanting eyes that she had never seen before. A foreigner, certainly. Behind her she could her mocking laughter. She firmly repeated her query. "Who are you?"
The boy blinked."Huh? Oh." The confusion in his dark brown eyes began to clear. "I... I am. I am Ikari Shinji."
He shivered, and a dark cloud passed over the sun for a few moments.
"Hmf. Weird name. And where are you from, commoner?"
Shinji blinked. "Commoner?" He winced and clutched at his head. Looking around,he saw others dressed in the same style as the girl disturbingly close to him (though he had to admit, any human being in the same planet counts as far too close). 'It's a uniform of some sort?' He stared at his palm, thin but otherwise the same. He looked up and asked in a dead tone "What do you mean, commoner?"
"Can you do magic? You don't look wealthy, your clothes are too bland. So, you're a commoner. I couldn't have summoned a noble, it doesn't work like that."
A crowd of black-clad people were examining him. Out in the distance was a large stone castle, like in those old European paintings. 'Huh. I never expected hell to be so... bright.' Must be irony. He sighed. 'I'm prepared. Let's get this over with.'
"Louise, what were you thinking, calling a commoner with 'Summon Servant'?" someone asked, and everyone but the girl who was looking at his face started to laugh.
"I... I just made a little mistake!" the girl in front of Shinji shouted in a very insistent voice, melodious like a bell to his ears for its earnest embarassment.
"What mistake are you talking about? Nothing unusual happened."
"Of course! After all, she's Louise the Zero!" someone else said, and the crowd burst into laughter again.
'So her name is Louise.' thought Shinji. Whatever place he was in, it was far too warm and comfortable, like a fantasy. It was repulsive. He wanted to dig into the ground, and let cold silence embrace him again. Being scrutinized was nothing, and it was the girl who seemed to be the focus of this emotional torment. Puzzling.
Perhaps, as unlikely as it may sound, it really did not center around him or his sins. He still felt too weak to get up.
"Mr. Colbert!" the girl shouted desperately.
The crowd parted, revealing a balding middle-aged man garbed in a long black robe and carrying a gnarled wooden staff. He looked ridiculous, but something else was starting to intrude upon Shinji's senses. It was like an itching at the back of his head, an insistent presence. It came from the people around him, bouncing off as a bat's echo, and while the man had a strong presence, he felt very little of that mild annoyance from the girl right beside him.
He still did not understand, but a bit of curiosity made him decide to stay quiet and let the scenario play out. The girl named Louise seemed to be in a panic, begging to redo something and gesticulating frantically. He felt somewhat sorry for her, recognizing how mortifying it was to be put on the spot.
"What is it that you want from me, Miss Vallière?" asked the robed man.
"Please! Let me try the summoning one more time!"
'Summoning? They mentioned it earlier.'
Mr. Colbert, the man wearing the black robe, shook his head. "I cannot allow that, Miss Vallière."
"It is strictly forbidden. When you are promoted to a second year student, you must summon a familiar, which is what you just did."
'A familiar? What's that?' Shinji blinked. 'Hey. This isn't Japanese they're speaking.' Mentally, he shrugged. Being able to understand any and all languages every spoken, sung, or written by a human being was an unexpected but not surprising sudden gift. 'Familiar. Hmm. Something that's been encountered before? Something common or easily recognized?'
"Your elemental specialty is decided by the familiar that you summon." the teacher, apparently, continued. "It enables you to advance to the appropriate courses for that element. You cannot change the familiar once you have summoned it, because the Springtime Familiar Summoning is a sacred rite. Whether you like it or not, you have no choice but to take him."
"But... I've never heard of having a commoner as a familiar!"
Everyone around laughed. Louise scowled at them, but the laughter didn't stop. If anything, seeing her so angry would only fuel their amusement. Shinji knew that apathy took all the fun out of it. The girl was so open with her emotions, that even in his reduced state Shinji felt it was a shame to break that. 'How long has it been?' A few minutes, and the signs were already clear. Peer pressure was such a trifling pain, but it was not too different from how he had been broken.
That train of thought was digging up things best left buried. He forced his brain back into the present with 'Springtime Familiar Summoning?' How would that bring me here?' It was clear that wherever he was, he'd not gone there of his own power or volition. However, anything that could take rip him loose from the death of everything could only be pretty damn powerful.
"This is a tradition, Miss Vallière. I cannot allow any exceptions; he," the middle-aged wizard cosplayer pointed at Shinji, "may be a commoner, but as long as he was summoned by you, he must be your familiar. Never in history has a human been summoned as a familiar, but the Springtime Familiar Summoning takes precedence over every rule. In other words, there is no other way around it: he must become your familiar."
"You have got to be joking..." Louise drooped her shoulders in disappointment.
'You have got to be joking.' Shinji added, his sleepy face not betraying his internal indignation. 'You seriously can't expect me to believe... her? This is all just an accident?' On one hand, it meant that fate or some arbitrary power was still more powerful than beings that could weave a new pattern into the fabric of the universe. Something more powerful than him. On the other hand, it meant that he was once again its buttmonkey. On the gripping hand, his protective shell of apathy was starting to crack. He started to raise a hand. "Um, excuse me..."
"Well then, continue with the ceremony."
"Yes, with him." Mr. Colbert replied with an exasperated sigh. "Hurry. The next class will begin any minute. How much more time is this summoning going to take? After mistake upon mistake, you have finally managed to summon him. Hurry and form a contract." Everyone voiced their agreement and began jeering.
Louse stared at his face, clearly trouble.
"A-no..." Shinji ventured to ask 'excuse me, but what the hell?'
"Hey," Louise addressed him, her chin up in the air.
"You should count yourself lucky. Normally you'd go your whole life without a noble doing this to you."
'Noble?' He blinked again. He was born middle-class, and egalitarian to the end. A part of him took dark amusement in that death comes to all people, rich or poor, weak and the mighty.
Louise closed her eyes with an air of resignation. She waved around the wooden stick in her hand.
"My name is Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière. Pentagon of the Five Elemental Powers; bless this humble being, and make him my familiar." She chanted those words over and over, clearly a magic spell what with the glowing motes of light forming around them both, and touched Shinji's forehead with the stick. Her lips then slowly drew closer.
"Wa-what are you doing?"
Bad memories assailed the boy. Surely it couldn't be... His face twisted in panic.
"Ah, geez! I told you to stay still!" Louise grabbed Shinji's face roughly with both hands. Exactly like what he had experienced before. As their faces grew closer fear hammered into the boy's chest. 'No, no! Not this again!' he screamed inside. It was the key to some of his worst memories, and the festering reservoir of his weakness.
She kissed him, just a touch, but she blushed as she pulled away. The boy looked at her with sheer horror. She frowned at that.
"Hey! A commoner like you should feel grateful that I even dared to go that far. If it wasn't so necessary, I'd... bah!" It was even her first kiss! She got up and flicked at her hair. "You're my familiar now, understand?"
Shinji was still trying to recover from a panic attack. "Not really, no."
"You have failed 'Summon Servant' many times, but you have managed to succeed with 'Contract Servant' in one try," Colbert said happily.
"It's just because he's only a commoner." someone from the crowd jeered.
"If he was a powerful magical beast, she wouldn't have been able to make a contract." Some of the students laughed.
Louise scowled at them. "Don't make fun of me! Even I do things right once in a while!"
"Truly 'once in a while', Louise the Zero," laughed a girl with gorgeous curly hair and freckles on her face.
'Servant.' The word echoed in Shinji's mind. 'Fine. I deserve this.' It was not something outside his meager set of skills. He had no pride that would be wounded from just something like that.
The voice of a certain red-headed girl whispered 'Deserve? Someone as worthless as you doesn't deserve -anything-. Not even death. You've been denied that escape, moron.'
'You're right. Sorry. I know I'm pathetic.'
'You're just going to screw this up. Mess up everyone's chance to live a normal and happy life. How many worlds will you destroy before you're satisfied?'
"Um. Excuse me? This is a bad idea. A really bad idea. Can we just- ah!" Pain! He clutched at his arm. Burning green marks glowed out from the back of his right palm. "Rrrrghh...!"
Had her familiar been ruder or more outspoken, Louise would have dismissed any discomfort he felt. "Don't worry, it's just the Familiar's Runes being inscribed." Her impatience was tinged with some concern. "It should be over quickly."
It burned, so much he wanted to roll around in pain like a worm on damp soil. Shinji pressed his palm to the ground and and put his left palm over afflicted hand. Green light streamed out from under his fingers. The pain was just about unbearable, but after a few more seconds, it faded. Even the memory of it receded. Shinji stood up and looked at the new tattoo at the back of his hand. "Huh." He turned to Louise. "What does this do?"
Mr. Colbert approached and grabbed at the hand. "That was quick. Hmm... these are some very unusual runes."
'You've been branded, baka.' a voice laughed at the edge of the boy's hearing. 'Like a cow. Like a meat animal for the slaughter! How fitting.'
"Is this permament, sir?"
The wizard nodded. "Sadly, yes. But don't worry too much, young man. It's not all bad." He turned back to the gathered crowd. "Well, that's it. Back to class everyone."
That said, he turned on his heel and floated upward. The rest of the students likewise rose into the air. Shinji watched them go, still rubbing at the back of his hand. Some of the departing students jeered about Louise not even managing levitation. Shinji turned to see the pink-haired girl quivering, with rage or just about to cry, he didn't know. He sighed. "I'm not much good at this." he muttered.
Left by themselves in the courtyard, Louise turned to look up at her summon and churlishly asked "What are you?"
Shinji smiled weakly. "Um... a human?"
"Yes, well... what sort of human? What can you do? Do you have any special powers? Who are you, really?"
Shinji hesitated. "I... don't know. I'm no one special really."
Louise threw her hands into the air. "Whyy? I wanted to have something wicked like a dragon or a griffin or a manticore. At least an eagle or an owl. Why does my familiar have to be so useless?"
"Um... sorry, but what does being a familiar mean? I was... somewhere else, and now I'm here, so why?"
Louise turned and gazed flatly at him. "At least you're not that dense. Aren't you at all concerned about being summoned?"
Shinji shrugged. "There wasn't really anything left for me back... over there. How did you do it? And, um, why me?"
"It wasn't supposed to be you! It's supposed to be ANYTHING but you!"
"Um okay, so this sort of thing isn't the usual then?"
"I've never heard of anyone else summoning a commoner as a familiar. Animal familiars get special abilities or add to the talent of their masters, but you don't even have any magic! How's that supposed to help me?" She groaned and palmed her face. "An animal familiar should also be easier to carry. I only have to worry about feeding it!" Louise, due to her middle sister's animal-loving influence, was at least good with getting along with dumb animals.
'So it isn't deliberate human slavery, at least.' "Can't you just try again?"
"No! The contract has been confirmed! The Summoning is a sacred rite for mages. The only way for me to get a new familiar is if my old familiar is destroyed." She squinted beadily at him. "And I know you don't want that."
Shinji raised his hand in surrender. "So. Magic, huh?" He looked around at the lavish, sculpted grounds reminiscent of medieval paintings. "This is something of a school, then?"
"All right, I don't know what backwoods you came from, but it's fine. I will explain it to you." Louise gestured around. "This is Tristain! And this is the renowned Tristain Academy of Magic!" She pointed to herself. ""I'm a second year student, Louise de La Vallière. I am your master from now on. Remember that!"
Shinji raised his hand. "Valiey-ru.. veli... Louise-san, a question?"
"Okay, I'll accept that this is a magic school." There was no rule that said the afterlife or his purgatory or whatever new hellish reality was pulled into had to make any sort of sense. "But, second year? How old are you?"
Louise sputtered. "How- how rude! But I'll have you know that I, Louise de la Vallière, am seventeen years of age."
Shinji nodded. "Ah."
"You... you insolent dog! You were thinking -things-, weren't you?"
"I was actually impressed, thinking you were a prodigy or something."
"Silence!" As she had expected, she was again being dismissed for her physical stature. It hurt, even though he could not have known abour her lack of magical ability and how much that reduced her stature even more among her peers.
"My apologies, Louise-dono."
"Don't call me directly by name. It's improper. And it's Louise, not Louise-Sann or Louise-Donno."
"Um, it's hard for me to say Vallye... your family name. And in my country, it's a mark of respect to add those things at the end of every name. It's impolite to just say the name, it implies familiarity. Louise-san means something like the honorable Louise, and Louise-dono means the noble Louise."
"So you people put honorifics at the back of the name?" the pink-haired girl scoffed. "How... backwards."
Shinji shrugged. "That's how I was raised."
"Well, at least you're not trying to be impolite. Okay, I guess I can tolerate this situation for a while. Follow me." That said, Louise turned around sharpy and began walking towards the castle.
Shinji followed a few steps behind. He touched at his lips. 'She reminds me of you.' he whispered aside. 'A little of... Ayanami, I think.' The crushing loneliness was familiar, but unlike Shinji, Louise did not take the option of apathy. She had too much pride for that. 'My own free will is the least of things I can give up, clearly I can't be trusted to decide things on my own.'
'A pathetic little girl.' whispered his own red-headed angel. 'I almost pity her, having you around to crush what little remains of her sanity.'
Shinji smiled slightly. 'Too much like you. But you know what, it's kind of nice not being met by violence for a change.'
For her part as she shuffled through the hall and absolutely refusing to look back, Louise was dizzy with emotions. All right, so the results was not as she had expected, but it was nonetheless a success. She had a familiar! She had done real, uncontestable magic. For years she had dreamed of getting her own familiar, from it finding out her own sphere of talent in magic, and bringing honor to her name. For so long, it seemed like she had no talent at all.
In a world where nobility was defined as the capacity to perform magic, being so weak was a frightening thing indeed. Wealth or her family's reputation alone could not protect her forever; and to lack ability meant her own prospects for the future would be similarly limited. She shivered.
Louise's room was large and very ornately decorated. To someone who never had much in the way of personal possessions, such opulence was unfortable. Shinji felt itchy. He sat at the foot of Louise's very large bed, while the pink-haired girl sat crosslegged and scowling at him. She looked like she wanted to rewrite reality and substitute her own, but fortunately her last name was Vallière, not Suzumiya.
It was night, and after letting the Academy staff know of her summon, and having him stay in a room while she finished the rest of her classes, Louise was itching with curiosity. "So, why don't you tell me about yourself? Where did you come from?" A commoner he may be, but obviously from nowhere near.
"Someplace very far away." Shinji answered. "It's not important."
"Are you a criminal?" she asked with narrowed eyes.
'Yes, probably. Guilty in every court of man.' "What, no!"
"This secretive routine of yours is getting tiresome, servant."
Shinji blinked. "About that..."
"You summoned me to become a familiar. I think... I'm remember something about that now. A familiar is supposed to be some sort of animal helper, right? I can't do that. I'm a human."
"I know that!" Louise sighed. "But we're stuck like this."
"What does a familiar actually do?" Faint memories trickled into the back of his mind, but they all boiled down to animals sitting on shoulders and really doing nothing useful. More like pets, if only that some of them could talk.
"A familiar is of vital aid to a magician. Firstly, a familiar is able to grant its master an enhancement in vision and hearing."
"Excuse me, but how does that work? Will a cat familiar allow you to see in the dark, while a dog familiar improves your sense of smell?"
"Don't interrupt!" Louise touched her chin. "Though that would be an interesting effect. But what I means is that what the familiar sees, the master can also see."
"Oh." He looked around. "Does it work?"
"No, I can't see anything."
Shinji let out a held breath. He had few personal qualms left, but that was something that could get... disturbing.
"Also, a familiar will retrieve items that its master desires. For instance, reagents."
"Catalyst to be used when casting certain spells. Something like sulfur, or moss..."
"Hm..." Shinji looked down at his hands. "I suppose I can do that, though probably just buying it from the market."
"Anybody can do that! It's supposed to be that a familiar can get reagents fresh and from the wilderness. You don't even know what kind of reagants there are!"
"I'll try to learn, Louise-san."
Louise huffed. "All right. Not that it matters anyway." She pointed at him. "And this is most important of all... A familiar exists to protect its master! The task of protecting them from any and all enemies is a duty of the highest priority! But that might be a little bit problematic for you..."
"Since I'm human...?"
"...A powerful magical beast would almost always defeat its enemies, but I don't think you could even beat a raven."
Shinji Ikari looked down. "I don't think I've ever really managed to protect -anything- in my life." Behind him, a red-haired girl in a red plug suit cackled loudly.
Louise sneered. He looked so thin and helpless, putting her life in his hands was out of the question."This is why I will be having you do things like laundry, cleaning, other miscellaneous tasks that I'm sure even you can do."
Shinji actually laughed. "Actually, I can handle that, Louise-san. I'm used to it. If that's all you need then we shouldn't have any problems."
For the first time, Louise smiled. The boy thought she looked quite pretty, vibrant in a way that made him seem so pale and without definition. Fragile, too. Thin as he may be, it also looked as if Louise never had to do anything too strenuous for any extended period of time. "A magical creature would be useful in doing magic, so the least you can do is not to get in the way of my studies."
"Well, it's not like I don't understand how this is a trouble for you. If there's any way I can help, then I'll do it. But... um... do I get paid?"
"What? You're a familiar! Familiars don't get paid! That's not how it works!"
"Um, sorry. Please don't get mad. I might not have magic powers, but... I do have opposable thumbs." He held up his hand to demonstrate. "I can do things that a cat can't, for example. If you need something fetched, or carried, or I can copy things. Sorry, but if I'm going to be your servant then I'm going to need to eat and a place to sleep."
"You're very presumptous you know that! How dare you dictate terms to a noble."
"Sorry, sorry. It's not really dictating terms... I mean, you do need me to be in a state to effectively carry out your orders, right? I'll try not to be burden."
Louise scowled and crossed her arms over her chest. It was not too unreasonable a request, and it was not like she did not have the resources for it. "You will be provided for. But you will not be paid. This is not no mere transaction! I am your master, you're the familiar! It's not transferrable! There's nowhere else you can go!"
Shinji nodded. So he was going to be a slave in all but name. He supposed he could fight it, but there was no point. There was nothing he wanted, and there was nothing that he wanted to avoid. "Understood, Louise-san."
The girl blinked. She was prepared to go off into a tirade over her advantages over him, and how if he was stuck alone in a foreign land then obeying her orders was his only way to remain safe and comfortable. As a familiar no one would hire him, and if he fled she would have to hunt him down. It would be embarrassing for her though, and she felt relieved that her familiar, strange as he might be, was not being a hassle.
"Don't you want to return to where you came from?" she asked suspiciously. "What you mean there's nothing there for you? You say you're not a criminal... so what?"
Shinji sighed. "This place... you people have magic, right? But you people still have different nations and wars, right?"
"We are at peace, but you're correct. Clashes between kingdoms do happen."
"Back... home. We don't have magic. But we do have wars anyway. We fought against these monsters, giant things we called Angels, and we lost. When I say nothing, I mean... there's nothing there. Everything I've ever loved is dead. I don't want to go back there."
"But Angels are good! What, are you demon-worshippers?"
Shinji blinked. "Huh. I suppose it could be thought that way. Um, there's something wrong with the magic that translates my language to yours, I think. The name is 'Shito'... messengers. Their race calls themselves that, maybe. To themselves, they are Angels. To us, they just appeared out of nowhere to kill us all and make our lands their own."
"How big are these Shito?"
"Oh, big. Very big. Some of them as tall as this castle."
Louise moved her head closer. "You're lying. We should have heard something about that by now. How can you fight something like that without magic?"
"I'm not lying. We didn't really fight them, not really. There were these... things... they're like children of the monsters, that we used and trained to fight against the others."
"You know, something like that, it could be why they're attacking. I mean, even animals tend to get angry about their young being stolen and used against them."
Shinji shrugged. "Maybe. All I know is that if we didn't we'd die."
"But you said you lost! How did YOU survive?"
Shinji's gaze was hollow and his voice betrayed no emotion. "I ran. I hid. I closed my eyes and pretended it would go away on its own. In the end all I could do was to watch it all fall apart."
"So you're a coward."
Shinji shrugged again. "I'm not going to deny that."
"I don't think I want you as my familiar."
"I'm sorry. But you did say we're stuck like this." He looked out the window, at the clear blue sky, then back to Louise's eyes. "You could kill me and try for a better familiar. I won't blame you."
Louise shoved him back and off the bed. "What kind of girl do you think I am! No way I would do that!" And besides, she thought, there's no guarantee that it would actually work a second time.
"Thank you, Louise-dono. Your kindness, I'll do my best to repay it."
Louise sighed. She could trust an animal. But a human? Commoners were such a vicious conniving lot. "All this talk has made me sleepy."
"Um... okay. Sorry to be a bother, I'll leave you alone to- wait. Where do I sleep?"
Louise pointed to the floor.
"But there's nowhere else. And there's only one bed."
"But... that's improper! Servants don't sleep in the same room as their masters!" Shinji frantically thought of an excuse. "I mean, what would people think?"
Louise smirked, though pleased. "At least you do have some sense of decorum. But it doesn't matter. You're not a servant. You're a familiar, don't you understand? A FAMILIAR. This is what's proper." Louise began to unbutton her blouse until she was down to her underwear.
"Wa- what are you doing?"
Louise looked at him blandly. "I'm going to sleep, so I'm getting changed."
"E-excuse me." Shinji turned around sharply and went for the door.
"If you go out there, you better get used to sleeping under the stars!"
"Ergh." Slowly he turned around. Her bare flesh seemed to glow before his eyes. A cruel whisper drifted from ear to ear 'You're enjoying this.' He snarled. 'No! I don't!' "What the hell am I supposed to do? Is this normal for a mage?"
"I don't need to think of anything about being watched by my familiar."
'What the hell. Am I just like a dog or a cat or something?' "Seriously, Louise-san, this is really awkward for me." He turned around and kept his eyes on the wall.
For her part, though her face did not show it, Louise felt both thrilled and offended. Though he looked terrified, as indeed a commoner should, she had no idea if her body was appealing to him at all. Sure, she did not have a figure like many of her classmates, but surely she should be able to provoke a reaction.
She decided to go one further. She pulled off her underwear and threw it over her shoulder. "Oh, and these- wash them for me tomorrow."
There was some sort of strange gurgling sound, and a weak "Hai." She turned around to see him all but throw away the offending garments to over the dresser. Shinji took a wooly blanket and all but burrowed into it.
Nothing but a commoner after all. No fun. She supposed there was no point in any further teasing. She yawned and very quickly fell asleep.
Shinji remained awake for a long time. He was in position with so many potential horrible consequences. He supposed any normal person in his position would be afraid, or trying to make the best of a bad situation. He just didn't know what to do. Trying to resist and raise hell, it might make the situation worse, but he was cowardly enough not to go looking for trouble on his own.
Morning brought with it an surprised gasp. Shinji poked his head out of his blanket cocoon to see the door hurriedly being closed. 'What.' The sunlight streamed right into his face and stung his eyes. 'Oh. Right. It wasn't a dream.' Daystar, his old nemesis.
A bright flash of white brought his attention back to undergarments. He groaned. "It's like Misato-san all over again!" He turned towards the bed. 'She's a student. Shouldn't someone be here to.. oh.' He turned to the door. "I guess it's my job now."
Sleeeping, Louise looked almost cherubic. Unfortunately, any and all angelic connotations for Shinji was sparked only atavistic fear instincts. He searched for something he could use as a poking stick, but found none. Sighing again, he had to go over and pull the blankets out. "Um... Louise-san? It's morning."
"Wha- what's going on? Who are you?"
"I'm Ikari Shinji, remember?"
"Oh, right. The familiar. I summoned you yesterday, didn't I?" Her face was blank and her voice woozy. "So it wasn't a dream after all."
Louise rubbed at her face. "Clothes." she ordered, holding out her left arm.
Shinji looked around, and at the discarded uniform from last night. He turned to the drawers instead, and opening it was relieved to find several other fresh uniforms. He had been around women enough to know that while he might be fine with wearing the same shirt for days on end, wrinkled clothes reflected badly upon the wearer. Nobles would get prissy about things like that.
Louise was already starting to slip off her sleeping clothes. "Underwear." she ordered again, in the same disinterested tone.
"I don't... gah."
"It's over there by the bottom drawer."
Somewhat panicking, Shinji obeyed, closing his eyes as he handed it over. A part of him recognized that it was a very good opportunity to get a good look, it was not like she cared about it, but even if he had already been the lowest of the low, Shinji did not consciously want to become a pervert. The sight of bare female flesh was terrifying for a variety of other reasons.
"Clothes." Louise mumbled again.
"You already have them."
'Oh come on!' "Um... sorry, but I don't think that's a good idea."
Louise pouted. "You must not know because you're a commoner, but nobles will not dress themselves if a servant is available."
Still with his back turned "Yes, I know that, but even then usually it's only female servants that dress female nobles, right? Even if it's not improper for you to say it, I... I don't know how! Can't I just call for someone else?"
"Nope, you're my familiar. You're going to have to get used to this." Louise raised her finger triumphantly. "You're a servant, if you don't work, you don't eat."
Shinji sighed and turned around. She was still dressed only in her undergarments. Very reluctantly he picked up her blouse. "This still feels so very improper."
"Why? You're just a familiar after all."
"Even so, I'm a guy and you're very pretty. If I tried this back home, I'd get kicked in the face."
Louise actually blushed. "W-well, just make sure you control yourself then! The punishment for any improper behaviour... it's bad! Really bad!"
Shinji sighed. "I know. But I don't even know what -improper- here even means." Her carefully kept his gaze on his fingers as he buttoned her blouse. "I'm dependent on your protection, Louise-san, but I can't be frightened all the time about offending you or something if I accidentally touch something I shouldn't." He bent down to pick up her skirt.
"I can dress myself just fine from here on." Louise's voice pitched up. "Get out and wait."
"Hai, hai." Shinji replied, just as relieved.
Leaving Louise's room, Shinji faced three identical wooden doors along the wall. One of them opened, and a tall girl with flaming red hair stepped out. She was taller than him by a head, for Shinji was not really that much taller than Louise. She gave off a strongly flirtatious aura, with her attractive face and melon-sized breasts proudly displayed with two top buttons of her blouse left undone.
She looked oddly him, who sat by the door. When it opened and Louise came out, she grinned broadly. "Good morning, Louise."
Louise returned the greeting with a frown. "Good morning... Kirche."
"That... is your familiar?" Kirche asked somewhat mockingly, pointing at Shinji.
"Ahaha! So it really is a human! That's amazing!"
Shinji shrugged. He closed his eyes and rubbed at the bridge of his nose, as if fighting a headache. It was either that or stare at those breasts, and while they were nice to look at they also brought traumatic memories. He'd seen larger breasts. Perfectly-shaped and the size of mountains.
'A particularly beautiful woman is a source of terror.' He was not sure why, but he pretty sure that Carl Jung said that.
"It's just like you to summon a commoner with 'Summon Servant.' What else to expect from Louise the Zero?" Kirche was saying, to Louise's increasing anger. "I summoned a familiar yesterday, too. Unlike a certain somebody, I was successful on my first try."
"And, if you're going to have a familiar, it should be a good one, like this. Flame!" Kirche called her familiar triumphantly. From her room, a large, dark-red lizard slithered out. A wave of heat hit Shinji.
'Huh'. "Charmander?" He squinted. It was about the size of a tiger, and its head was broad like a cobra's.
"It's a salamander. Is this your first time seeing a fire lizard?"
"Are there any yellow rodents that throw lightning and speak only 'pika-chu'?"
Kirche laughed. "I don't think so, boy."
The two familiars stared at each other. The salamander hissed and turned away with its head pridefully high.
"That's right! A fire lizard! See, look at the tail. A flame this vivid and large means it's without a doubt a salamander from the Fire Dragon Mountains! It's like a brand! Collectors can't even put a price on these!"
"That's nice," Louise said, her voice bitter.
"Isn't it? It matches my affinity perfectly!" Kirche puffed her chest out proudly. "Of course, I am Kirche the Ardent after all. The ardent of gently smoldering passion, wherever I go, I have boys falling for me, unlike, say, someone named 'the Zero'."
Louise glared at Kirche. It looked as if she really hated losing. "I don't have the time to go around flirting with everything I see, unlike you."
Kirche only smiled calmly. Then, she turned to Shinji.
"And what's your name?"
Shinji got to his feet and bowed. "Ikari Shinji."
"Ikarishinji? What a strange name."
"It's just Shinji, actuall-"
"Well then, I'll be off now." She stroked her flaming red hair back and dashed off. The salamander followed her, waddling cutely for such a large and dangerous creature.
As she disappeared, Louise shook a fist in her direction. "Ooh, that girl gets on my nerves! Just because she summoned a salamander from the Fire Dragon Mountains! Argh!"
"Please calm down, it's just a summoning."
"No, it's not! You can determine a mage's true power just by looking at her familiar! Why did that idiot get a salamander, while I got you?"
'The fact that you get me means either you're stupidly powerful, or someone with that much power really likes you or hates me.' "Sorry. But what's wrong with being a human? You're a human."
"Comparing mages and commoners is like comparing wolves and dogs." she replied haughtily.
Shinji just sighed again. She was starting to get predictable in taking what her ego would allow. "I mean, I might not have any magical power, but I am larger than a cat or toad, and trust me when I say you summoned me from really far away. Does the ritual take a mage's own power or is it magic itself that decides?"
"Obviously it takes a mage's own power, how else can a familiar show a mage's own sphere? Flame mages get familiars that suit their affinity. Why -you- showed up..." her voice dropped. "I don't know what that says about me."
"I don't have any idea, sorry." 'Is there an affinity for 'Death' magic?'
Louise stomped off. Following, Shinji pondered how Kirche was known as the "Ardent" while Louise was the "Zero." After watching her get insulted by very nearly everybody yesterday, and the mocking way the Kirche added the title, he was quite sure it was not a good thing.
It was a strange experience, watching from the outside seeing someone get bullied so thoroughly for a change. It was still a strange puzzle. He could feel the master-familiar bond at the edge of his soul. He could break it, but not without tearing apart Louise's own soul in the process. His stride faltered for a moment. He was alive, obviously, but it was doubtful if what he had could even be called a 'soul' anymore. 'Did you have anything to do with this?'
'Don't be even more of a moron. I don't have the ability to do this. -You- don't have the ability to do this. There's something weird going on.'
The Academy of Magic's dining hall was the tallest and centermost building on the premises. Inside, three extremely long tables were arranged parallel to each other. Each one looked like it could easily seat a hundred people. The table at which Louise and all the second years sat was the middle table. It appeared that students could be identified by the color of their cloaks. Viewed from the entrance, everyone sitting on the left-hand table looked a little older and wore purple cloaks — third students sitting on the right-hand table wore brown cloaks — first years.
'Hmm. So there's only three year levels in this school. Or... I might be wrong.' A part of him mentioned that since these are nobility, maybe the advanced years were allowed to take breakfast in bed, or there are special elite dining halls where they could dine away from the younger, noisier generation.
On an upper level, he could see teachers enjoying pleasant chatter. All the tables were magnificently decorated. Numerous candles, bunches of flowers, baskets full of fruit... he was amazed at the grandeur of the place. Shinji could take some pride in being able to cook well some recipes, but this was a place of glory. Louise raised her head imperiously and began to explain. Her hazel eyes twinkled with mischief.
"Tristain's Academy of Magic doesn't teach just magic, you know."
"Almost all mages are nobles. The saying 'nobles achieve nobility through the use of magic' is a foundation for the education we receive as nobles. Thus, our dining halls must also be fitting of a noble's status."
"Ah... I understand." Apparently Louise was not that unusual, her magical talent aside. Ostentation was the order of things.
"Understand? Normally, a commoner like you would never set foot inside the Alvíss Dining Hall. Be grateful." She pointed out the rows of elaborate sculptures of small people lining the walls. Even Shinji had heard of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. These little people were tiny, and much too thin to be dwarves.
"Fairies?" Through osmosis he did know of fairies, though more Navi than Tinkerbell.
"What? No, listen, fairies are different. They're Alvii. They come to life at night and help humans."
Louise shook her head at his sad ignorance. "No, elves are totally different! Were you raised up in the mountains, or something?" She paused at the table.
Shinji pulled out one of the dining chairs for Louise to sit. She did so with smooth casualness. "Okay. What now?"
"What else? We eat, obviously."
There were many seats, at least a hundred, and the dishes were laid out buffet style. In fact, there were so many that he wondered just how the students were expected to pick and reach for their meals at all. Then, he remembered, magic. It was not worth thinking about. He sat down next to Louise and fidgeted. Now he could add a sumptous banquet to his list of phobias.
"What do you think you're doing?" the girl asked archly.
Shinji looked down at the empty plate then back up to Louise's face. "Um, preparing to eat?"
"This is a table for nobles. Are you a noble? It's enough of an honor that you get to eat in the same hall."
'What? Then why the did you bring me here in the first place? To show off? To humiliate me?' As fast as his indignation surged, it receded back into his pool of morose reality. Louise wanted to impress her familiar with her own status and the gulf between the two of them. "So where am I supposed to eat?"
A maid with neck-length black hair approached. She carried a tray and was very obviously embarrassed. Mumbling some unintellegible apology she laid the tray on the floor and all but fled from the scene. Louise pointed down.
"I have to eat off the floor?"
"You're a familiar, not a noble, and commoners can't eat here. Understand?" Dark challenge glittered in Louise's eyes.
Behind him, Shinji heard racuous laughter. 'Oh this is just rich. She's trying to break you... like a horse! Like a pony! Clearly someone doesn't realize you can't break something -twice-.'
The boy got up and bowed. "Thank you, Louise-san." He meant it, oddly enough, hus gentle smile told her that. Shinji sat cross-legged on the tiled floor and considered his breakfast. It was some sort of clear soup and a crumbly croissant. The bread was still warm, and smelled creamy. It could be worse, he supposed. He did not deserve even that little bit of kindness.
A portion of him knew that if he were louder and more demanding, Louise would probably retaliate by making his situation even more uncomfortable. While he thought he deserved any and all punishment, sadly he recognized he was still too much of a coward to deliberately seek unpredictability. While objectively he was suffering, it would not really be for what he had done -before-, and as such even present tortures would not count. He could only leave it up to fate, which he trusted to be a most cruel mistress at least.
To Louise, it was like a child while out exploring the back yard being confronted by something utterly new and alien to her experience. The first thing to do would be to get a stick and poke the thing to see how it reacts. Louise did not know how to deal with people, it was also obvious. She would just keep on poking and prodding until she got an emotional reaction. She would not rest until she knew of a trigger. Shinji was resigned to that fate. Asuka was like that, too.
As he munched on his bread, he wondered if he should fake some sort of angry outburst. His difficulty lay with feeling -anything- at all. Insults and spite for his inadequacy was actually quite comforting, bringing up memories of a simpler, more innocent time. He felt more like puking. His body had to remember what it meant to require sustenance.
Shinji Ikari had very little to compare against for a magic school, but he did have certain expectations. He was quite surprised by how -normal- it looked, other than being set in a castle. The classrooms were very similar to a lecture hall, though like almost everything else in the castle made out of stone. The wooden seats and desk facings were for the sake of 'decorative heat', not only to make it more comfortable for study but because the aesthetic 'living heat' of wood tended to accentuate the 'cold hardness' of stone.
Shinji rubbed at his chin. Apparently pointless trivia was the limit of what Post-Impact's sacrifice was willing to grant. When he and Louise entered, every student in the room simultaneously turned their heads towards them. It was like a bunch of owls.
There was distinctly unkind snickering. Kirche was there as well, surrounded by a group of boys. Shinji was not surprised. Had he been less of a traumatized wreck, he supposed he would be drawn to that figure like a moth to a flame. He far preferred to avoid any notice. Far more interesting were the varied bunch of familiars that everyone else had brought along. Kirche's salamander was curled asleep under her chair. There were students with owls resting on their shoulders. From a window, a gigantic snake peered into the class. One boy whistled, and the snake withdrew its head. Other than those, there were also ravens and cats.
What drew his eyes were the fantastic beasts that never existed except in stories in his Earth. He spotted a lizard with six legs, with a tail ending in flat, feathery fin. There was also a huge eyeball floating gently in midair. He decided to ask Louise. "What's that eye monster?" he pointed discreetly.
"Huh." A memory bubbled up. "The bugbears I know are more like larger, hairy, goblin-like creatures. Um, you do have goblins?"
"They're a pest. Then they're nothing like bugs OR bears?"
"Floating eye, Louise-san." Shinji pointed. What was bear-like at all about that?
"Yes, that's always bothered me too. No one could ever really explain it well."
"Then what about that octopus thing?"
"That's a Skua, and I'm not here to explain such useless things to you." Louise answered him in a sullen voice and sat down. The snickering had yet to subside. She knew what it was about.
Shinji remained standing. He could see the other students glancing and contemptously dismissing his presence. He sat down on the floor, but there was not enough room to stretch out his legs. He could it from the other angle, but that would stick his legs out to full view on the space between the desks. He wanted to hide.
"Um, Louise-san, can I wait outside?"
"No." she hissed. "Do you see any other familiar so disrespectful as to abandon its master?" If she had to endure it, then so should he! She considered making him sit down on the floor, but he would likely just lie down to go to sleep. He had that look of laziness that made it difficult to trust in his competence at anything. "Sit down and be quiet." she gestured to the chair next to her.
The door opened, and the teacher entered. She was a middle-aged woman dressed in a voluminous purple robe and wearing a hat. She had a plump, round face with a friendly expression on woman looked around the classroom and spoke with a satisfied smile.
"Well, everyone, it seems that the Springtime Familiar Summoning was a great success. I, Chevreuse, always enjoy seeing the new familiars that are summoned each spring."
Louise looked down. She put a palm of ever her face.
"My, my. You've summoned quite a... peculiar familiar, Miss Vallière," she remarked as she looked at Shinji. The comment was fairly innocent, but the classroom exploded with laughter.
"Louise the Zero! Don't go around grabbing random commoners off the street just because you can't summon anything!"
"No! I did everything properly! He was all that appeared!"
"Don't lie! I bet you couldn't even cast 'Summon Servant' properly, right?" The other students chuckled.
"Mrs. Chevreuse! I've been insulted! Malicorne the 'Common Cold' just insulted me!" Louise banged her fist against the desktop in protest.
"Common cold? I'm Malicorne the Windward! I haven't caught any cold!"
"Well, your hoarse voice sounds exactly like you've caught one!"
The boy called Malicorne stood up and glared at Louise. Chevreuse pointed at them with the wand in her hand. The two suddenly jerked about like puppets on a string and rigidly sat back down.
Shinji blinked. It was his first time seeing real magic. No incantation, no flash of light, just a flick and swish and people were being forced to act. Telekinesis?
"Miss Vallière, Mister Malicorne. Please stop this unnecessary argument. Calling friends 'Zero' or 'Common Cold' is not acceptable. Do you understand?"
The boy, Malicorne, snootily replied that he was called that as a joke, but for Louise, it was the truth. A few giggles broke out from somewhere.
Chevreuse looked around the classroom with a severe expression. She pointed her wand again, and, as if from nowhere, the mouths of the students who'd giggled were suddenly filled with lumps of red clay. This effectively stopped any further outbursts.
"Now then, let's begin the lesson." Chevreuse coughed heavily and waved her wand. A few pebbles materialized on her desktop.
"My Runic name is 'Red Clay.' Chevreuse the Red Clay. This year, I will be teaching you all the magic of the Earth element. Do you know the four great elements of magic, Mister Malicorne?"
His mouth was not filled with clay, and the noble looked around to see the others trying to spit out the gummy wads in their mouths without much success. It was undignified. "Y-Yes, Mrs. Chevreuse. They are Fire, Water, Earth and Wind."
Chevreuse nodded. Shinji blinked again. That sounded... familiar.
"And combined with the now-lost element of 'Void,' there are five elements in total - as everyone should already know. Of the five elements, I believe Earth holds an extremely important position. This isn't just because my affinity is Earth, nor is it simply a personal preference."
Once again, Chevreuse coughed pointedly. "The magic of Earth is very important magic that governs the creation of all matter. If it wasn't for Earth magic, we wouldn't be able to produce or process necessary metals. Raising buildings from large boulders and harvesting crops would also involve much more work. In this manner, the magic of the Earth element is intimately related to everyone's life."
'I wonder if science works in the same way here? Science is a method, not a product, so... it should. It just takes the form of magical theory and experimentation.'
Shinji did not turn around. He felt hands on the back of his chair and red hair touching the back of his neck. 'You're interested in this?'
'It's better than watching you go around being a lapdog. Sheesh, you just don't stop being so boring. Of course, when you're not boring you're killing everything. Heh heh heh.'
'I guess you better be content with just watching students learn to do something you can't.' Shinji smiled thinly.
'You know, I just realized, this is probably the closest thing to a college education you're ever going to get. How do you like them apples, Third Child?'
Shinji decided those were some very sour apples. The teacher was now explaining something about Earth magic and transmutation. Small pebbles became shiny yellow metal, which prompted wondrous exclamations. It was not gold, just brass. "Only Square-class mages are able to transmute to gold. I'm just..." Chevreuse gave a self-important cough. "A Triangle mage..."
'Hey, listen. I want to know more about this. Ask that girl.'
Shinji sighed. "Excuse me, Louise-san."
"What now? Don't be a bother during lessons!"
"What is this about triangle and squares?"
"It's the number of elements that they can add to a spell, which also determines the level of a mage."
"I... don't understand."
"See, for example, you can use an Earth spell on its own. But if you add Fire magic to it, the overall power or effect of the spell increases greatly," Louise added in a whisper.
"Those who can stack two elements like Fire and Earth together are called Line mages. Mrs. Chevreuse, being able to combine three elements, Earth-Earth-Fire, is a Triangle mage."
"Earth and Earth? What happens when you add an element to itself?"
"It reinforces that element and makes it stronger."
'Wait, what? Why don't you just put more power into it, then? Come on, clarify!' Shinji winced slightly at the pulling at the back of his head. "Sorry, but a spell a discrete 'block' of potential, so a Triangle mage can use three spells at once? Or does this mean combining elements make a new spell?"
"No, weren't you listening? Transfiguration is an Earth element spell. But if you add other elements, you can vary the transfiguration. Our teacher can only turn stone into brass, it takes more to turn it into gold." While her practice may be lacking, Louise could take legitimate pride in knowing the theory forwards and back. "The spell remains the same, it's the effect that changes."
"I see. Thank you."
'So each element is represented as a vertex? One is a point, two is a line, et cetera. There are four known elements, so a Square or being able to use four elements at once is a good goal. But since you can add an element to itself, do they stay polygons or branch into other polytopes? Add the fifth, and that's what? Pyramid? Ah, pentagon. Meh. A pentagon keeps it to a plane, while a pyramid should imply something -whole-. Anything above that just sounds redundant. Hey, baka, verify.
"Um, could you therefore say that the teacher over there is a fairly powerful mage, because she's a Triangle?" A teacher should be a good reference point for magical power.
"Oh. How many can you add, Louise-san?" His own meager pride refused to entertain the notion that his being dragged away from his own private purgatory could be an accident. She would -have- to be that powerful. Nothing else makes sense. "Someone like you who obviously has so much talent as to skip right into the advanced class... two? Maybe even three?"
"Just what are you implying?"
"What? You look about my age and ohh shit." He just remembered that she had proclaimed she was seventeen years of age.
'You just don't ever stop being an idiot, do you?'
'Aaagh! It's not my fault!'
"You insolent familiar! I'm not some jumped-up brat! I'm here because it's the proper time for me to learn! If you've got something to say, speak plainly!"
The teacher had noticed her talking, as Louise was conspicously leaning from her seat to hiss angrily at her familiar. "Since you have the time to chatter, perhaps I should have you demonstrate for me?"
"Yes. Try changing these pebbles here into a metal of your choice."
She looked troubled, fidgeting in her seat, absolutely unwilling to stand up. Shinji knew the feeling. He wondered if it was a complicated spell. At the back of his mind Asuka was cursing about 'elemental subatomic structural transformation' and 'fuck these fuckers have the Philosopher's Stone as a basic lesson. Equivalent exchange my ass!'
"Miss Vallière! Is something the matter?"
Kirche raised her hand in concern. "Umm... I think it would be better if you didn't let her..."
"And why is that?"
"It's dangerous," Kirche answered plainly. The majority of the class nodded in agreement.
"Dangerous? How so?"
"This is your first time teaching Louise, right?"
"It is, but I hear she's a hard worker. Now, Miss Vallière. Don't you worry, just try it. You won't be able to do anything if you dread making mistakes."
"Don't, Louise!" Kirche cried, her face pale.
Louise stood up. Her lips were thin and tense. She walked briskly up to the front of the room.
It was said that combat veterans developed such a thing as a danger sense. Much of Shinji Ikari's training was learning how to ignore the natural rising panic of being a squishy human and letting the Evangelion's own power tear through any and all obstacles in its way. Unfortunately this meant all he had left was an acute sense of potential physical harm and an instinct to turn his body TOWARDS danger rather than the opposite (and sane) response. He was all but anchored to his seat.
"Miss Vallière, you have to visualize vividly the metal that you wish to transmute them into."
'Hey, wait a second. Any metal? Don't you have to add Elements or something? Changing the atomic number, is that straight energy to matter conversion or are you disassembling the atoms and mixing it with ambient hydrogen from the air?'
'Asuka, you CAN'T do magic. Why are you even so interested in this?'
'You know, just because it's going to make your life harder, I can ignore this elitist noble shit. But if you can turn element into another element, why the hell does it look like they still have an economy? This offends me!'
It was moments like this that reminded him that she was probably more than she appeared. He turned his attention back to the teacher's table. There, Louise was chanting something, while holding her wand over the pebbles. Soft light pulsed from the little rocks. Concentration was clear on her face, her diction precise and controlled. She looked every inch the magician. Yet, Shinji noticed that all other students were crouching down to hide behind their desks.
Closing her eyes, and taking a deep breath, Louise uttered a short final phrase and flicked her wand down.
The pebbles on the desk promptly exploded in a bright flash of multicolored light.
Louise and Chevreuse caught the blast full-on and were thrown against the blackboard. The desk itself crumpled under the force of the explosion. People screamed, and responding to their distress the familiars began to panic, adding to the chaos.
Shakily, Kirche stood up and pointed a finger at Louise, who lay kneeling and clutching at her head.
"That's why I told you not to let her do it!"
"Jeez, Vallière! Save us some grief and just quit school already!" someone else screeched.
Shinji just stared. 'That was completely unexpected.' He remained in the same position as before, completely unscathed. Even his desk was free of dust.
Mrs. Chevreuse lay on the floor; judging by her occasional twitching, she wasn't dead. A soot-blackened Louise rose slowly. She was a miserable sight to behold. Her torn blouse revealed a slender shoulder, and her panties could be seen beneath her ripped skirt. Still, she seemed unfazed by the pandemonium. She smiled sheepishly.
"Looks like I messed up a little..." she said, in a weak voice.
Of course, that elicited a vehement response from the other students. "That wasn't 'a little!', Louise the Zero!"
"Your success rate is always ZERO!"
'I see... so that's what, not a reference point, but in not showing up at all in the grid?' murmured Asuka, placing both elbows on Shinji's head. 'So she can't manipulate any of the elements? This begs the question if the Summoning could be considered a spell of any elements at all.'
'That was rather devastating.' Louise looked devastated. With the class still in chaos and the other teachers coming to inspect the damage, she stood in front of the class, corpse-rigid with clenched fists. 'I'm starting to understand why she's able to summon me.'
'Really now? After that dismal performance?'
'Yeah, I mean, what else can you expect from someone who apparently makes even the most basic spells almost -lethal-?' An odd joy blossomed in his heart. Maybe, if he was really lucky, this meant that Louise the Zero, of all mages, could actually be capable of -killing- him.
It was just before lunch when they managed to finally finish up tidying up the classroom that Louise's accidental magic made such a mess of, and as punishment magic was forbidden in cleaning it up. Since it was the first class of the day, the task took considerable time. It was not as if Louise could have made any use of the cleaning spells that she knew, so it did not faze either of the two.
Mrs. Chevreuse had regained consciousness two hours after she'd been caught in the explosion, and while she did return to class, she didn't give any more lectures on Transmutation for that entire day. Louise, stuck cleaning, was not able to offer her apologies, but she was already familiar with the process. For once, she had hoped for a class where she did not traumatize a teacher; and the woman's kind and confident look from when she asked Louise to step up to the front of the class... that would now be mixed with fear and dismissal. Nobody believed in her. She was just a joke, a walking jinx, for the rest of the academy.
She quietly seethed. 'It's all his fault!' she cursed inwardly. 'If only he hadn't been so noisy, that jerk! Just because I'm...' She bit her lip. She had not been embarrassed so thoroughly like that in a while. And here she had thought things were finally going to turn around! 'No, he just has no ability to discern. I don't really look like a little girl, do I? Even so, he shouldn't have been so crass as to point it out in class!'
"Um.. Louise-san, I'm sorry about earlier."
Her fingers tightened on a chair's back. 'This chair this chair this chair.' She visualized herself picking it up and hammering the fool. "I swear, if you don't SHUT UP RIGHT NOW..."
"Um... okay... sorry."
It was Shinji who had to move the desks and wipe down the soot from the blackboard and walls. Now and then he would pause from his work and looked puzzled at Louise. She was getting irritated, more than the usual at least. 'Is he judging me now too?' She tried so very hard, she made sure it was all like the books said, but still... nothing goes right. It was as if fate hated her. She grit her teeth. Fate, her classmates, anyone, she'd show them. She could hate just as strongly right back into their faces.
"Louise-san." Shinji approched, his shoulders slightly bowed in contrition. "I'm really sorry. I didn't mean to be insulting. I was trying to be appreciative. I'm sure you have plenty of talent..."
Louise grabbed him by the collars of his shirt and dragged his face down to her eye level. "What, are you dense? Are you retarded or something? Why are you bringing up this obvious subject that I don't like?"
"I'm sorry. You know, in a way it's a good thing. It's an advantage- ten years down the road, while others have to fear it's all going downhill you'll still look in the prime of your-... " 'What the hell am I saying someone please shut me up! Why can't I stop talking?'
"RARGH!" Louise roared and punched him in the face.
Shinji's instinct was to lean into the blow. Unfortunately, while this meant that it hurt more, the force of that punch hitting his cheek rebounded back into Louise's thin wrist. She yelped in pain.
"Oh crap! Louise-san! I'm sorry. Are you all right?"
She began kicking as she cradled her injured hand. "What the hell is your problem?" She opened and clenched her fist, until satisfied there was no permanent damage.
Shinji looked down at the soot-blackened rag in his hand. "Well, I don't know magic, but think it was pretty impressive."
"Are you mocking me?"
"No, no... honest. How can a big explosion come from a few little pebbles? You'd have to turn the pebbles into volatile air, then explode that air... where I come from, that takes a lot of power or some sophisticated machinery." Shinji nodded. "If you could do that to pebbles, how about a rock? A boulder? A mountain? You'd be very dangerous, Louise-san. I can think of a few times where that would have been useful."
Louise stopped in her meager attempt to help out. She squinted at him. "You, you said you thought I was about your age. How old are you really?"
"Me? Um... I'm still fifteen, I think." Or sixteen? It was rather hard to tell, Impact did strange things to spacetime.
Louise frowned. He was not much taller than her, but she had really thought he was much older than that. His eyes were -old-. Looking carefully now, what she had thought was the thinness of an ill-fed commoner was the lankiness of person still in the growing stage. She sighed. So not only did she get an ignorant familiar, but a young AND ignorant familiar.
Still... he looked so non-threatening. He cringed. He mumbled. He slouched, trying to look smaller and ignorable. He acted in every way like a dog expecting as much a kick as a bone. In short, he behaved exactly the way a common peasant should in the presence of a more powerful noble, knowing he was defenseless in the face of any of the noble's whims. "Did you really fight in a war?"
Shinji stared back darkly. "I don't have a reason to lie. Even if I'm useless right now."
"Shut up. Stop whining. I won't have a familiar that's useless... there must be something you can do."
'Getting angry yet?' Asuka's voice drifted through the breeze. 'If you're sticking around with this arrogant bitch, don't blame anyone but yourself. Don't go moaning about it to anyone.'
"I sort of lack the tools for that. I don't know how to kill human-sized enemies."
Louise paused. "You said -kill-."
She opened and closed her fist again. He also has an aura of the unpertubable about him, a sort of indifference about all fear and pain that Louise tried to cultivate. "Saay. Do you think you can take on Kirche's familiar?"
"Louise-san, I don't think that's a good idea." 'If it can't fly, then crossbows. Lots of crossbows. Its neck is too thick, but stabbing works against most things. No beastie is all that terrible when it's blind.' It was a different voice this time, with a gritty British accent to it.
"I'm not saying anything. So you were some sort of monster hunter, were you? Can you do it? It's smaller than what you say you fought. Even if you..." her voice trailed off. "Lost. All right, forget I said anything." Louise tended to react to tension with escalation, as proven by how she never backed down to any taunt. However, as he was trying to keep on her good side, Louise had very little incentive to distrust or alienate the only person in the castle that seemed to firmly be her ally. If one cannot trust one's own familiar, then who can you trust?
"Have you ever killed anyone, Louise-san?"
"What are you talking about? Of course not!"
"Sorry, but... trust me. It's not a good feeling. I don't like doing it, even against animals. It wouldn't be right against another familiar. Summoned creatures, are they smarter than regular animals?"
That just added to the creepiness of the whole thing. Louise was setting off all manners of sociopathy alarms in his head, but since those same measures also tended to go off when examining himself, Shinji was oddly comfortable with being under the heel of a potential psycho. "Can we talk about something else instead?"
"Why don't you just shut up and do your job." Louise went over to the other end of the room to shove some tables into place. Ridiculous. Every word out of his mouth was so... outrageous. He was clearly delusional.
Meanwhile elsewhere in the academy, Mr. Colbert, the teacher that supervised the Spring Summoning, was running after a hunch. He had devoted twenty years of his life to Tristain Academy, and his bustling about was familiar to the school. For several nights now he had all but slept in the library, consumed again in a line of research. Now he was concerned about the runes of summoning that appeared on the boy's left hand. A -human- summoning should be impossible, but the summoning runes confirmed it was possible. His problem was that if it could be done once, then why can't the event happen a second time? Or a third? Of all the mages that summoned in the spring, there had to be some condition that made the impossible possible. It if happened to Louise in the present, then it should have happened before, he just had to dig deep for it.
The runes were very strange, but they were familiar to Colbert -because- they were rare runes. Old runes, in fact. It was one of his areas of expertise. The library held almost all the history since the creation of the new world in Halgekenia by the Founder Brimir, and in an old book about His familiars those same runes appeared. Mr. Colbert nearly lost control of his levitation in surprise. Clutching the book he hurried to the Headmaster's office.
Louise was sensible enough to recognize that the simplest, most likely explanation was that her familiar was lying. A commoner, trying to puff up his own importance through the most outrageous of tales. The knot in that was the lack of motivation. Why else would someone do that, and yet not try to lever his way into better treatment or living conditions? Her familiar was so listless, so lacking in initiative, but his eyes showed her the emptiness of someone who had lost everything.
Even if it was a lie, she wanted to believe. In a life spent straining uphill for any favorable recognition, it was soothing to her self-esteem if at least she managed to summon no ordinary commoner. Louise sneaked a look. He was still following a few steps behind her, hands in his pockets and subdued wonder in his gaze.
Outlandish as it may be, for a girl steeped in magical culture it still made more sense than flatly declaring a world completely devoid of magic. Giant creatures (though as big as the castle an obvious exaggerration) were always rumored in the wild, unexplored regions, and a society of monster-hunters seemed not only plausible, but reinforcing her belief in the superiority of mages and magic. She was wildly filling in her imagination the skeleton of a scenario as presented to her. If a lie, she wanted to see just how broad and detailed it could get, and there was fun enough in trying to poke holes into the story. In her school years marked by failure after failure after failure, it was the first truly interesting thing to happen to her.
Lunch was unremarkable. The meal for Shinji was the same as that of breakfast, which he ate with no complaint. Louise ate slowly. A side-effect of wanting to hear his story was that she had to think of him as a person. She could not pass some plates down, for that would be too rude, and she was starting to regret the obvious insult of having him eat off the floor. However, she could not simply have him take a seat either. It would be a serious breach of propriety. The seats on either side and in front of her were empty. No one was willing to sit with Louise the Zero, who though lacking in magical ability, the only sure pointer of the rights and powers of nobility, was still all too ready to talk smack back to her detractors. Her grip on her steak knife tightened. It would almost be worth the new round of vicious rumors. It was not as if anyone ever said anything good about her, anyway.
In the end, she ate with careful disinterest, as always trying to look unbothered by everything. She dimly heard a girlish giggle at the back of her mind, and a whisper 'So at the root, a coward too. What do -you- deserve?'
The Headmaster of the school was Sir Osmond, an elderly mage with long white hair that covered all other distinguishing features of his face. Tristain Academy was the finest institute of magical education in Halgekenia, a finely functioning machine that had trained nobles in their culture for many, many generations. A side-effect of such a deep tradition was that the Academy fairly run itself. This left him very bored most days. Idly plucking out nose hairs, he slowly murmured "hrm" and pulled open a desk drawer. From inside he procured a smoking pipe. Miss Longueville, the secretary who had been writing something at the other desk placed to the side of the room, waved her feather quill.
The pipe floated into the air and landed in Miss Longueville's palm. Sir Osmond muttered dejectedly, "Is it fun taking away an old man's little pleasures? Miss, um..." Some days he pretended to senility, and some days he tended to forget he was just pretending.
"Managing your health is also part of my job, Old Osmond."
His secretary was beauty, with her hair pulled back into a proper bun, leaving two shanks to frame her calm and serious face. Thin square spectacles only added to the impression of an intelligent, competent assistant. Sir Osmond stood up from his chair and walked up to the cool and collected Miss Longueville. His back was bent with age and his magic staff tapped on the floor.
Stopping behind the seated lady, he closed his eyes, his expression grave. "If the days keep passing by so peacefully, figuring out how to spend the time I have left is going to become a rather big problem."
The wrinkles etched deeply on Osmond's face were only hints to the history of his life. People guessed him to be a hundred years old, even three hundred. But his true age no one really knew. It was possible even he no longer remembered either.
"Old Osmond," Miss Longueville spoke up without taking her eyes off the feather quill that was scribbling away on the parchment.
"What is it? Miss..."
For a woman with such an important job, she had very little respect for her employer, calling him 'Old Osmond' with nary a hint of mockery nor any gentle teasing. It was a more cutting that way. "Please stop saying you have nothing to do as an excuse to touch my bottom."
Sir Osmond opened his mouth slightly and began walking around in tottering steps.
"Please also refrain from pretending to be senile whenever a situation goes bad," Longueville added calmly. Sir Osmond sighed deeply. It was the sight of a man bearing the weight of many troubles.
"Where do you think the ultimate truth may be? Haven't you ever wondered that? Miss..."
"Wherever it is, I assure you, it's not underneath my skirt, so please stop sneaking your mouse under the desk." Miss Longueville was not a noble.
Sir Osmond's face fell, and he murmured sadly, "Mótsognir." From under Miss Longueville's desk scurried out a little mouse. It dashed up Osmond's leg and perched on his shoulder, twitching its tiny head. He fished out some nuts from a pocket and held one out to the mouse. "You're my only truly trustworthy friend, Mótsognir."
The mouse began nibbling on the nut. It disappeared quickly, and the mouse chittered "chuchu" once more.
"Ah, yes, yes. You want more? Very well, I shall give you more. But first, I would ask that you report back, Mótsognir." The mouse chittered unintellegibly again. "I see. White and plain white too, hrm. But Miss Longueville should really stick to black stockings. Wouldn't you agree, my cute Mótsognir?"
Miss Longueville's eyebrows twitched. "Old Osmond."
"What is it?"
"The next time you do that, I'm reporting it to the palace."
"Kah! Do you think I could be Headmaster of this Academy if I was scared of the palace all the time?" yelled angrily, his eyes bulging out, showing under his exceptionally bushy eyebrows. It was an impressive display, completely unexpected of a frail-looking old man. "Don't get all prissy just because I peeked at your underwear! At this rate, you'll never get married!" He shook his head and let huffed dramatically. "Oh, to be young again... these simple pleasures are the limit an old man can go. Have you no pity, Miss Longueville?"
Old Osmond began stroking Miss Longueville's bottom without hesitation. Miss Longueville stood up and without a word took out her wand. She bound an powerful, experienced mage and without hesitation began kicking him with her high-heeled shoes.
"Ow, ow, ooh! There, a little lower!" the old man cooed. "Ow! That pushed out a few old knots in the back."
His secretary let out an indisputably sexy growl and intensified her kicking. 'It's all just a game to you, is it?' she wanted to scream. 'Would you dare to pull this sort of thing on a noble.?' She paused momentarily. Probably. Nobles had an extensive but unwritten code of interactions and relationships, so a noblewoman probably just might accept it, feel flattered, and try to lever that into greater political influence. That wouldn't be as much fun.
Old Osmond covered his head and cowered. Miss Longueville breathed heavily as she continued kicking Osmond. Her leg fairly blurred.
"Ack! How can you! Treat a senior! In this way! Hey! Ouch!" Old Osmond groaned. He could not have reached such age and reknown without figure a permanent protective spell on his clothes at least. There were some who thought he anchored the material component of an Armor spell in his beard.
This "peaceful" moment was interrupted by a sudden intrusion. The door was thrown open with a slam, and Colbert rushed inside. "Sir Osmond!"
"What is it?"
Miss Longueville was back at her desk, sitting there as if nothing had happened. Sir Osmond had his arms behind him, staring out the window, and turned to face the visitor with a serious expression. Colbert blinked, unable to decide if the scene he saw upon entering was just an illusion. He shook his head and pushed on. "I-I-I have some big news!" he announced, out of breath.
"There is no such thing as big news. Everything is but a collection of small events."
"P-P-Please take a look at this!" Colbert handed Osmond the book he had been reading just before.
"This is "The Familiars of the Founder Brimir," is it not? Are you still going around digging up old literature like this? If you have time to do that, why don't you think up some better ways of collecting school fees from those slack nobles? Mister, err... What was it again?" Sir Osmond cocked his head.
"It's Colbert! You forgot?"
"Right, right. Now I remember. It's just that you talked so fast I never really caught it. So, Colby , what is it about this book?"
"Please take a look at this also!" Colbert then handed him the sketch of the runes on Shinji's left hand. He leaned closer to whisper its source.
The moment he saw that, Osmond's expression changed. "Uooogh!" His eyes took on a solemn light. "Miss Longueville, would you please excuse us?"
Miss Longueville, with calm poise, stood up and left the room. She glanced back suspiciously. Osmond spoke only after he confirmed she was properly outside.
"Explain this to me with every detail, Mister Colbert..."
Shinji had no reason to go off on his own. Louise was still trying to think of ways to get him to elaborate on his story, but realizing that if she pushed too quickly he would just clam up under the excuse that it was still too raw and emotionally painful. Maybe he needed to relax in her presence a bit.
She flexed her right hand again. Pain was not something she was unfamiliar with, due to her many 'accidents',
Had Louise been born in the era that Shinji came from, a world lacking magic, her aimless rage at having everything of value yet nothing of worth might have led her to dressing all in black and scoffing at the world in all its futile hurry. However, the pride of the nobility meant that Louise had to be poised and perfect as if always on display, and her frustration had a clear source and a clear avenue for expression. She had no choice but to shine, for a noble, a lady, clearly did NOT brood. Only weaklings wallowed in their own failures; she was allowed no such frivolity. A mage's magic was brought out straight from his or her willpower.
Shinji, for his part, was curious about Louise's disastrous magic. Even when he piloted the Evangelion, he had never really considered himself anything special. When he failed, it was clearly because he was -weak-, but no one had any choice but to depend upon him. His spine could break under the weight of those expectations. Louise was like himself, only turned inside-out. His invisible companion wanted to see it again, and rather than trying for some paltry magic tricks, she wanted to see if those accidental effects could be turned into new combat spells.
Unknown to either teens, they were being followed. Though it had just been a day, gossip about Louise the Zero and her strange familiar had already gone around the castle. Though there were doubts that her summon was really a human, her bringing him into the dining hall and taking him to class convinced most people that it really was just a commoner. Human summoning was unheard of, and as Louise herself had complained, because it was almost useless. A servant, at least that you can dismiss. A human familiar would have to stick to its master, it was a bond that lasted for a lifetime. Any advantages, such as being able to more effectively understand and follow orders, were more than overshadowed by the drawbacks in terms of support and housing or the lack of effective magical boost.
It was just so worthlessly redundant. It was ridiculous to the noble students. However, for the commoner staff, it was very clearly a form of slavery. Such a thing was the exact fear that plauged many a servant.
One of the maids walked down the same corridor, carrying a tray of small cream-filled cakes. For breakfast and lunch she had brought him his food, and those fleeting moments the young woman observed the newcomer. The boy looked so unmotivated. Her heart ached in sympathy. It was understandable, the nobles were difficult to deal with on an extended basis, but Louise had a bad reputation. She was barely a noble, in terms of magic, but in no way any less prone to self-entitlement than her peers. Her belittling of the lower classes was even more intense. It was that vehement bravado that ensured she had no allies in every rung of the social ladder. Not the commoners, who resented her; or the other students, who scorned her; nor even the teachers, who feared her ineptitude. Now someone was dragged against his will into that circle of madness.
The threat of magical compulsion was bad enough, but not until recently had that actually crystallized into an open display of mockery. Trying to watch from afar, it was the least she could do. She was ashamed, but much as she might want to just run up there and start bashing away with her metal tray, she was justly scared nearly out of her wits. Commoners had their peaceful lives only on the suffrance of the nobles with their magic.
They ended up in the main hall. "Get me some dessert." Louise commanded. "On second thought, make it two. Yes, I'm letting you have one- don't get used to it. Sweets are not for familiars." She smiled suddenly, remembering that he admitted to being younger. "You'll rot your teeth."
Shinji was reminded again that this was a magical world, though the varied and apparently natural hair colors made it difficult to forget in the first place. Did they have toothbrushes or was there some sort of magic dentistry? Commoners, non-magical folk, probably had their own preventative measures.
He looked around and his face brightened a bit at seeing the approaching maid. Siesta eep'ed and cowered slightly behind her tray as he approached. Facing each other, the height difference became clear. "Um, hello? Miss? Excuse me?"
"Y-yes? Can I help you?"
"Are you here to present dessert to these... nobles? If you allow me to serve my..." Shinji frowned a bit. "Mistress first, afterwards, I'd like to help out. If you don't mind."
"You're the familia-... the person, that Mistress Vallière summoned, aren't you?"
"Yes. I'm Ikari Shinji... uh, Shinji's my first name. May I know yours?"
"It's Siesta." She smiled gently. "If you really want to help, then I'm grateful." Inwardly she frowned. Why had he approached her? What did he really want? As a familiar of a noble, specially one known for her ill temper, the maid had no choice but to comply. Her authority as a mage rubbed off on him.
'Smooth. Since when the hell were you this smooth, baka?'
'I actually have no idea.' Still, it made him uncomfortable to walk ahead of Siesta, over to where Louise waited. Serving felt more natural than being served. Or was it that he wanted a bit of time away from Louise?
"Louise-san, this is Siesta-san." Shinji reached for one of the cakes and a small silver spoon. "Here's your cake by the way. Please enjoy."
"Why are you introducing me to this maid?" Louise asked cooly. Siesta was starting to subtly shake in place. Being noticed by a noble tended not to end well, at the very least it meant an increase in her workload.
"Oh, no reason really. If you'll permit, mistress, I'd like to help around the castle a bit. You don't really need me right now, do you?"
"I forbid it. A familiar's place is beside her master!"
"Information gathering, Louise-san." Shinji added with a smile. He bowed with his palms together. "Please?"
Louise huffed and crossed her arms. "Fine. And don't think I haven't noticed you're using the same honorific for her as for me."
"Referring to someone without a honorific implies intimacy, Louise-san, and the choice of suffixes depends on the situation and location and... can I just explain this later?"
Louise blinked. Suddenly, she realized, that though he was her familiar, he was still a human. A person with a brain, a will of his own, and thus also his own agenda. You could trust an animal to really only be concerned with food and amusing itself, but the mystery around her weird familiar... his thoughts and wants still eluded her. 'Just what are you planning?' thought Louise.
'What are you planning to do to me?' Siesta thought. She could have accepted his offer to help as just a kind whim, but did he have to introduce her to Louise? What was it all about, really?
Shinji continued to smile softly. He was just being polite according to his upbringing. The very least a master must do is to know his servant's name. Even waiters or fast food servers had name tags for that reason. Helping out, being useful in something harmless, it was a nice change of pace.
He bowed to both young women and accepted the tray. He then began to walk around the hall, carrying the tray while Siesta picked up the cakes with tongs and served them one by one to the nobles. Many easily recognized as Louise's familiar, his clothes and the odd self-satisfied smile gave that way. The two left behind confused nobles staring suspiciously down at their own dessert.
Among the many noble students was a tall mage with curly blonde hair and a frilly-edged shirt. He stood among other students, who in their own way were as resentful of his presence as Louise about to cast as spell. He was just too damn -pretty- to be a man, and his expression was fixed in that self-important sneer. There was a rose in his chest pocket which he idly fondled now and then.
"So, Guiche! Who're you going out with now?" asked his friends. "Who's your lover, Guiche?"
The mage gently put a finger to his lips. "'Go out?' I hold no one woman in such special regard. After all, a rose blooms for the pleasure of many."
All of this happened with Shinji and Siesta nearby. They noticed the scene, and ignored it. Such vanity was expected out of nobility, and neither gave a damn about what the nobles did in their spare time. Guiche twirled about, letting his cape flap around. He pulled out the rose with the oddly long stem from his chest pocket which looked nowhere near deep enough for that. Unfortunately, while doing so, something else followed, falling from the pocket and kicked away as he twirled in place.
It was a small glass vial, which rolled across the floor until it hit Siesta's shoe. 'Huh?' "It's perfume." she said, holding up to the light. She turned to Shinji.
Still holding the tray, he motioned with his head. "It came from over there."
The maid looked at the vial in her hands, and to the group of young nobles. With his frills and effeminacy, it seemed quite obvious who had that perfume. She had no choice but to return it. Shinji smiled a bit, trying to look supportive. "Pardon me, sirs... but one of you, did someone drop this?"
Guiche turned, looked at the young woman, and seeing her maid garb, seemingly -through- her. His eyes were glazed with disinterest, until he saw the perfume phial. His look tightened, then he turned away.
"Well it has to be one of you." Shinji added. "It came from this direction."
"You must be mistaken." Guiche replied offhand.
"Then I guess we'll have to ask you one by one whose this is, and then move on to other people in this hall." It was clear from everyone's faces that its owner could only be him. Guiche looked panicked. He needed to get rid of it, and get these two servants to stop asking around before someone gets asked the wrong question.
"Regardless, I have no need of it." He smiled charmingly. "Perhaps, even a wildflower such as you can have your allure magnificed by such a scent. How could I have overlooked such a beauty? Take that perfume as a sign of my esteem and get out of here and don't mention this to anyone."
One of Guiche's friends snickered. "Putting the moves on a commoner now, Guiche? Have you no standards at all?"
"Hmf. The rose whose beauty brightens the world does not discriminate whose lives it makes more wondrous. It does make a choice who gets to pick and keep it." He turned back to the two servants. "What are you still standing around here for? You've been granted a touch of luxury. Be grateful."
Both bowed. "T-thank you." Siesta replied, blushing, but also faintly grimacing. "We won't bother you any more, sirs." They hurried off. Some distance away, she turned to Shinji and asked "What do you think should I do with this? I don't really want it..."
"What, don't you like that sort of guy?"
"Very sensible of you, Siesta-san." Shinji frowned at the vial in her hand, then towards the far end of the hall. "I think maybe we should ask for some advice." Luise was both a noble and a young woman, and so far Shinji has had little reason to doubt her judgement when it came to the finer, more expensive things in life.
"So, are you saying that Guiche never really admitted that the perfume was his?"
Siesta and Shinji looked at each other. "No." they said together.
Louise pouted and held out her hand. "Give it to me." She then took off the stopper and took a sniff. Recognition showed in her eyes. She looked up at the two servants, waiting for her verdict. Shinji still carried the tray of cakes. "What you should do with it..." Louise held out the vial. "Well, I think you should wear it."
"I don't know what Guiche is up to, but he might check if you did anything with his 'gift'. You could sell it, I suppose, but that sounds rather rude. Get some use out of it first." She turned to Shinji. "Hey, you. How long are you going to keep on leaving your master alone like this?"
The boy looked narrowly at Louise. He blinked, and his expression evened out. "Huh? Oh. Not long now. This is a valuable learning experience. I mean, could this event have been triggered if I didn't help out?" He turned to Siesta. "Shall we?"
The maid still looked worried. Very reluctantly, she splashed some of the scented liquid onto her palm and daubed at the sides of her neck. She smiled weakly as she stoppered up and put the vial into her pocket. "O-okay. Let's get this over with."
A second-year noble girl with long blonde hair styled in long drill curls suddenly paused. She turned away from chatting with her friends and stared at the passing pair of servants. "That can't be.."
She quickly stalked over to the maid, and grabbed at her shoulder. Siesta was pulled around, and she let out a frightened squeak at being so close to yet another noble, the third time in less than an hour she attracted unwanted attention. She wanted to cry about her bad luck.
The blonde noble held the maid in place with both hands on the shoulders and leaned close, seemingly for a kiss. Shinji leaned forward on his heels. The noblewoman sniffed and then her lovely face twisted into a snarl. "I was right." She roughly let go and pointed. "You! How dare you! How can a commoner like you have that scent that is reserved only for me, Montmorency the Fragrance?"
"W-what? I'm sorry-."
"I asked you a question!"
Siesta whimpered. She pulled out the perfume vial from earlier. "If this is yours, I'm really sorry. I didn't mean to..."
Montmorency quickly snatched up the phial and took in the scent. "Do you know why I'm called Montmorency the Fragrance? It's because I create my own perfumes, and this is a scent that I made. How could you have this? You stole it, didn't you? You filthy thief!" She shoved the maid, who stumbled back onto Shinji, who dropped the tray of cakes.
The boy let out an 'aww' of dismay. He had yet to taste any of those delicious-looking cakes.
"No, no no no..." Siesta was openly crying now. .
"I'll see to it that you get punished for this insult. You'll never work in Tristain again!"
"Stop right there." Shinji stepped between the two women and snatched the perfume vial out of Monmorency's hand. "Siesta-san is no thief. It was given to her freely. Whether or not you made the scent is of no consequence. It ceased to be yours when you let go of it."
"More of you peasants? Impossible. This is -my- scent. No one would ever dare insult my by giving it to a commoner. No, the simple answer is that she stole it! You, you're an accomplice! I'll see to it that both of you are flogged for this!"
"Why is this happening to me...?" Siesta whimpered.
"Hey, you there! Montmorency the Flood! What do you think you're doing?"
"It's 'the Fragrance', you ignorant twi... oh, it's you, Louise. You ignorant twit."
"I heard that you used to wet the bed like a flood, didn't you? 'The Flood' suits you better!" she retorted, once again escalating the round of insults as the opening move. "Whatever, you've got no business threatening -my- familiar."
"Your fami... oh. Yes, I had heard Louise the Zero failed again, just getting a commoner in her summoning. Hah! I'd expected better manners even from Louise the Zero. You're protecting thieves now?"
"We're not thieves. We have plenty of witnesses whose 'noble' reputations are above reproach. Someone DID just hand over your precious, unique scent." Shinji coughed. "Perhaps, even a wildflower such as you can have your allure magnificed by such a scent. How could I have overlooked such a beauty? Take that perfume as a sign of my esteem." It was eerie. He had duplicated Guiche's voice perfectly. "So stuff it, forehead girl."
Louise chortled. "Forehead girl! That's nice." Montmorency's hairstyle did pull her hair back, and while the curls looked regal, they also emphasized the emptiness between her brow and hairline. "Yeah, that's right. It's only happened just now."
"You-you lie! My beloved Guiche would never... on a filthy commoner!"
"Perhaps." The boy rubbed at the bridge of his nose, as if pushing up orange sunglasses that weren't there. His voice grew noticeably louder "It sounds as if Guiche wanted to get rid of a vial of perfume given to him by Montmorency before it could implicate him for something else." The words carried through the hall, drawing everyone's notice.
"Hey, we saw that." one of Guiche's friends all-too-gleefully piped up. "That vivid purple color, that's only something Montmorency fixes for herself, right? For that to fall out of your pocket, then that means Montmorency is the one you're going out with, right?"
"Wa-what are you saying? Listen, I'm saying this for the sake of her reputation, but..."
A loud sob came from the table behind them. One of the girls, a cute one with chestnut-colored hair stood up. By the color of the cloak she wore, she was a first-year student.
"Guiche..." she murmured while approaching the other table, and began crying uncontrollably upon stopping. "I knew it, you and Miss Montmorency are..."
"They're misunderstanding. Katie, listen. The only person I hold in my heart is you..."
But the girl called Katie slapped Guiche's face as hard as she could. "That perfume you dropped from your pocket is more than enough proof! Goodbye!"
Guiche rubbed his cheek.
Over at the other end of the hall, Montmorency stood statue-still, her fists clenched. Louise sneered triumphantly. "Oh you gave it to Guiche after all." She walked over to the troubled young nobleman and began to drag him towards Montmorency. "Hey, stop struggling! Are you going to deny that Montmorency gave your her private scent?"
Guiche sweated. He could not so baldly lie about it, specially when Montmorency was looking. Katie was already a lost cause, so... "Montmorency. This is a misunderstanding. All I did was accompany her on a long trip to the forests of La Rochelle..." Guiche said, shaking his head.
"Just as I thought! You've been making moves on that first year, haven't you?"
"Please, Montmorency the Fragrance. Don't twist your rose-like face in anger like that. It saddens me to see it!"
Montmorency looked around frantically, grabbed the empty tray that Shinji was still holding, and smacked Guiche flat in the face with it. Guiche fell flat on his back. "You liar!" She yelled and stormed off. She looked back at Louise and her commoner accomplices. Such a humiliation she'd suffered. 'This isn't over, Louise the Zero.'
An indreculous silence fell upon the hall. Shinji whispered aside "You knew this might happen, didn't you, Louise-san?"
The pink-haired girl flushed. "What are you talking about." At his disappointed look, Louise felt her resistance drain "and even if so, you knew too. Why didn't you say anything?"
Shinji bowed to Seista. "I'm sorry, Siesta-san. But I wanted to see nobles in the raw, if they really had the good manners and poise of breeding that they took such pride in. I'm sorry for dragging you into this, I'll make up for it somehow."
"N-no. That's all right." She'd be happier if he never spoke to her again.
Guiche pulled out a handkerchief and slowly wiped his face. Discreetly he rubbed out a trickle of blood from his nose. Shaking his head, he spoke dramatically. "It would seem those ladies do not understand the meaning of a rose's existence."
"A rose gets its petals pulled apart, it withers, and it dies." Shinji whispered. "Seriously, trying to model one's life after something so... fragile. How silly." Legions of slaves in him gave their affirmation. He had no sympathy for pointless indiscretions.
Guiche looked up. These three people orchestrated his downfall. Louise the Zero. Some maid he did not know. And that strange commoner familiar. He dismissed the two women. Guiche stood up, and brandished his rose at Shinji. His every move exuded arrogance. It was starting to give the boy a headache. "Thanks to your thoughtless words, the reputation of two ladies has been damaged. How will you take responsibility?"
Shinji stepped forward, and punched Guiche straight in the face. "Four ladies, you asshole. That's for dragging us into your stupid little games, you two-timing bastard."
The young noble spun around, stumbling backwards until he crashed into a table, sliding across and throwing out chairs on the other. Girls shrieked.
Inside his head, Shinji screamed. 'What the hell was that? What? That's wasn't what I wanted to do. I didn't...' He stared at his fist in disbelief. 'Why did you make me do that?'
'Oh come on. You hate people like that. Besides, I was getting bored just watching you have fun. I want to have fun. I want to see you suffer.' replied Asuka, appearing behind him and stroking his cheek.
Shinji snarled. 'All right, that's it. Everybody back in the hole. BACK IN THE HOLE, NOW!'
'You're not much good with improvisation outside of combat.' Gendo Ikari remarked while slowly sinking into the empty darkness. 'You will need us again.'
'You can't make me go in there. How else can you be sure you're really suffering?'
'Back. In. The. Hole.'
Meanwhile Guiche staggered back to his feet. He shoved aside attempts by other students to help. He rubbed at his jaw and still seemed in shock. Did a commoner just now really dare lay hands (or rather fist) on a noble? Did it really happen? He looked up, and Shinji's distant expression seemed dismissive and arrogant. "You! You need a lesson in RESPECT. I, Guiche de Gramont challenge you, whoever the hell you are, to a duel!"
Shinji blinked. "What?"
"H-hey! Duels are forbidden!" Louise exclaimed, stepping to beside her familiar.
"Only between nobles. Not between nobles and commoners." someone put in. The looks of the other noble students, most of them were amused, but some were guardedly hostile. While many of them did not not really -like- Guiche's playboy conceit, he was still a noble. A commoner should never get away with such an affront.
"I, Shinji Ikari, familiar of Louise.. uh, Francoise de la... deli... familiar of Louise, accept your challenge." It was not like he had any choice in the matter.
Behind him, Siesta covered her face with her hands. Everything was going wrong so fast.
"Good." Guiche replied, rubbing at the edge of his lips. "I won't taint this hall with the blood of a commoner. At sundown, come to Vestri Court." Scraping up his dignity, he put his nose into the air and sniffed his rose.
Louise pulled her familiar out of the hall and into a corner. The two sat crouched facing each other, whispering. "What the hell do you think you're doing? Are you stupid? You can't just challenge a noble like that. You'll die!"
Shinji cringed. "I'm sorry, but I just... I couldn't help it. I wasn't thinking. I didn't mean to punch him in the face, but..." He paused and chuckled while looking at his feet. "I can't say now that I really regret doing it."
Louise laughed. "He is annoying that way, isn't he?" Her tone softened. "But what are you going to do now?"
"I don't know! How do duels work?"
"Usually until someone yields. It's rarely to the death, but that's with magic. It's actually been outlawed for nobles to duel each other these days, the damage gets too much out of hand. I have no idea how it's supposed to be between a noble and a commoner. That's not supposed to happen!"
"I suppose I could just yield, then."
"I don't think he's going to let you off that easy. Guiche is a weakling, but his father's still a general. He can't let you get away with humiliation that public." It would have been bad enough with exposing his two-timing ways, but striking a noble was something very, very serious. "You know, it's because you're my -familiar- that he can't just have someone else punish you. Guiche will probably order you to do something shameful and besides, losing reflects badly on me, your master."
Shinji nodded. "I can't fight him with my bare hands though. Do you happen to have some weapons or armor, Louise-san?"
"I could try to transmute some-" her expression fell "No, wait, can you even use a sword? If you wound, or even kill a noble, I don't know what will happen! I can't do anything. This is bad. You idiot familiar!"
"Wait, that's it! Guiche challenged you, a commoner and my familiar, and you don't have magic. Maybe, we have it that you have to fight his familiar instead to make it fair!"
"That's a really good idea, Louise-san. As to be expected from my beautiful and intelligent master." Shinji beamed. "If it works, then it should be much easier than dealing with a mage. Do you know what his familiar is like?"
Louise looked away. "I-it's just a giant mole. Don't get too excited."
"A giant mole?"
"You know, big, thick hide, sharp claws, burrows underground."
Shinji sighed and rubbed at his face. "Oh, this bites." He looked up. "That just leaves the matter of at least a weapon. Could you make one of those explosive pebbles for me to throw?"
"No!" Louise retorted, red-faced. "Be serious about this! I'll find something. What do you know to use? A sword? A spear? A bow"
Shinji thought back to his fights. An antimatter cannon was just far too much to ask. "I don't think I'll be much good with a long weapon. I'd be much more comfortable with a big knife, maybe two, and some smaller knives for throwing."
Loud feminine laughter erupted from behind the two. Both teens jerked out of the huddle in surprise and turned to see Kirche and her familiar, Flame. "Well, you two certainly look suspicious. I thought it might be a pre-battle tyrst, but it looks like you're actually taking this seriously. What a surpring change of behaviour, from Louise the Zero."
"Shut up. Go away."
"Are you sure? I AM here to offer my help from the kindness of my heart." Kirche smirked. "Or you could try conjuring those weapons yourself. Or what, you're going to steal them off the display pieces?"
Louise grit her teeth. No one else would help her,evenif she asked. In fact, they would likely lord it over her for a long time that she had to beg for help for something so simple as that. The difference with Kirche... there was no difference, really. "You can take that help and shove it up your-"
Everyone turned to see Siesta standing nearby, who eep'ed under their scrutiny. "I.. I apologize for interrupting, but if it's knives that you need, there are plenty in the kitchen. They may not be as good as magic knives, but..." she wrung her hands in embarrassed misery. She still had to help, somehow. "They're there!"
Shinji nodded and got up. "That sounds good. At least with a real knife, I'm sure to know where it's balanced. If I take one of the duller knives, that's less dangerous."
Louise did not look convinced. She glared at Siesta. The maid was the lynchpin for whole mess anyway. Kirche, who was not there for the show, coughed into her fist. "I can guarantee that my transfigured knives will be sharper and stronger than any mere common knife. You're going to need every possible edge you can get."
Shinji looked to Louise. "Well, Louise-san? It's either the kitchen or Kirche."
Louise huffed. "You, let's go." she pointed at Siesta.
Shinji bowed to the taller, well-endowed mage before followed. "Thank you, but using some other mage's weapons might count as intereference or cheating."
"Your loss." Kirche replied, disinteredly turning away. Flame breathed out a small plume of flame, before likewise turning snootily from the other familiar. However, once the three troubled teens were some distance away, Kirche looked back and smiled. It's been a while since Louise looked so lively and deeply interested in life around her. Though her flirtatious flame might be thought badly of others, she knew that a person'sinner fire, if left to turn inwards and unexpressed, could only sear its holder. Having known Louise since she made that self-important declaration at the start of their school year, and utterly failing to live up to it, it was nice to see her nemesis getting something for her enthusiasm for a change.
Activity halted as the three teens entered the kitchen just behind the Alvii Dining Hall. Shinji noticed that the cooks' uniforms were the same as in his world; white shirts and aprons with tall hats for the chefs. The head chef was a burly man with a thin pointed moustache. He diligently completed his taste-test of the soup stock first before asking "Siesta? What is this about?" 'Why are you bringing a noble here?'
"My deepest apologies, Mister Marteau, but we need your help." Hurriedly she explained the matter. As she repeated the events leading up to the duel, she found it difficult not to smile. It seemed quite frightening at the time, but in retrospect - it was exciting. She remembered his words 'Four ladies, you asshole'. Though he had brought her into the mess, he did get her out, and the duel was partly for her honor. Even a commoner had her pride and her sense of duty.
"Ugh, this dirty place. Do I really have to be here?" Louise put a hand to her nose. Although the smells of the kitchen were otherwise pleasant, she was repulsed by the sight of fish being gutted and pig legs hanging in hooks for turning into ham. "Ugh, I don't know if I can eat again, knowing what goes into my food."
"Don't say that, Louise-san. Cooking has a magic all its own. Ingredients don't turn into fine meals by themselves, you know. Even if somehow mages can conjure food, I highly doubt it will ever be as good as the real thing."
Marteau glanced at Shinji, who looked fondly at the all the bits and pieces of foodstuff spread through the kitchen. He went over and in a booming voice said "My dears! It's such an honor to have you here. And you must the one who will fight a duel, hmm?"
Shinji nodded. "I'm sorry to be a bother, sir. But I do need a weapon, and what I know are knives."
"My knives are instruments of creation, my dear boy, if I let you have them, you must never ever bring them back here. And, how do you mean you know knives?" the chef asked suspiciously. Knives could be used for work, as a butcher, cook, fisherman, hunter or even a lumberjack, or to kill- a knife was a tool, easily hidden and explained away, unlike an assassin's dagger.
"I know how to cook a fair bit." Shinji replied. "That's mostly how the feel of a knife is familiar to me." Prog blades, being the size of a small house, just may not count. It wasn't lying, technically.
It did seem to please Marteau, though. "Oh, never mind then." He clapped his hands. "Come along, everyone. Let's see what we can spare." Siesta was right. The kitchen, since it had to feed so many students, had A LOT of knives. Knives designed to cut through bone, knives thin enough and sharp enough to be scalpels for delicate decorative work, and knives long enough to almost be considered swords. Even Louise looked impressed at the arsenal so cunningly hidden in plain view and so insistently ignored by everyone.
Mister Colbert was fervently explaining everything to Sir Osmond about the commoner boy that was summoned by Louise at the Springtime Familiar Summoning, and the runes appearing on the boy's hand as proof of the contract between him and Louise. They had sparked his curiosity, and he went out to find out more.
"And in searching, you reached the Founder Brimir's familiar, Gandálfr?" Osmond intently examined Colbert's sketch of the runes on Shinji's left hand.
"Yes! The runes that appeared on that boy's left hand are exactly the same as the runes that were inscribed on the legendary familiar Gandálfr!"
"And, this means?"
"That boy is Gandálfr! If this isn't big news, then what is?" Colbert wiped his balding head with a handkerchief. "Things like this don't just happen randomly. There must be a reason such runes appeared again."
"Hrm... Certainly, the runes are the same. But for an ordinary commoner boy to become Gandálfr just by having the same runes... that's assuming far too much. It's probably too early to be making definite claims."
Colbert sighed. "That's true."
There was a knock on the door. "Who is it?" the Headmaster asked.
From behind the door came Miss Longueville's voice. "It's me, Old Osmond." She did not even bother to open the door, respecting the privacy as earlier ordered.
"Oh, what is it?"
"It seems there are some students dueling at Vestri Courts. It's causing quite a commotion. A few teachers have gone there to try and stop it, but their attempts are being impeded by the sheer number of students."
Sir Osmond groaned. "For heaven's sake, there's nothing worse than nobles with too much free time in their hands. So, who is involved?"
"One of them is Guiche de Gramont."
"Ah, that idiot son of Gramont. Skirt-chasing must run in the family, considering his father's even more of a womanizer. I wouldn't be surprised if the boy knows every girl in school. And his opponent is?"
"...Well, it's not a mage. I've been told it's Miss Vallière's familiar."
Osmond and Colbert exchanged a look.
"The teachers are requesting to use the "Bell of Sleep" to stop the duel."
Osmond's eyes glinted like a hawk's. "Ridiculous. There's no need to use such an important artifact just to stop a children's fight. Leave them be."
Miss Longueville's footsteps disappeared down the hallway.
Colbert swallowed audibly. "A duel? Between a mage and a commoner?"
"Hrm." Sir Osmond opened up a drawer on his desk and brought out a large crystal ball. He placed it on his desk. "This might be a bit improper, but this sounds like a good chance to find out if that commoner is really the Legendary Gandálfr, don't you think?"
Rumor quickly spread through the school. Vestri Court was the central garden situated between the Wind and Fire elemental towers. Being located to the west, the Court didn't receive much sunshine, even in the middle of the day, but it was the perfect place for a duel.
"A duel! A duel!" A pack of the first-year boys went running out into the courtyard. The sun was already low in the sky, and Guiche waited out in the clearing. He looked cool and collected, though his cheek still felt sightly numb. Magic was useful, with its healing spells.
The place was starting to get packed with students. Among them was Kirche, and with her a shorter blue-haired girl carrying a book. "Sheesh, why aren't the teachers doing anything about this? I thought duels were forbidden."
"Only between nobles." her companion replied evenly. "Commoners are fine."
Kirche bit her lower lip. "Louise... you stubborn fool."
A hubbub began to rise from the crowd. They parted to allow Louise and her familiar to enter the dueling place. Louise looked stoically forward, her steps precise as if marching, while Shinji slouched as if sleepy. The kitchen staff had fixed up for him a crude bandoleer, and several small knives were set into a belt of leather crossing his chest. Two large butcher knives hung on hooks over his thighs. Following behind them and some distance away, Siesta hoped to be overlooked.
One of the third-year students shouted. "Ladies and gentlemen! Today we have a duel! Guiche is going to duel! His opponent is Louise's commoner!"
A ragged cheer rose from the crowd. Guiche spun in place, accepting it all. He stopped and only just then seemed to notice that his opponent had arrived. "I commend you for coming here instead of running away." he remarked, smirking, in a sing-song voice while he twirled his rose close to his lips.
"Hey, you!" Louise pointed at Guiche. "You challenged a commoner, but he's my familiar first! Challenging my familiar is like challenging -me-. Send out your own familiar instead!"
Guiche scoffed. "Who would waste their time even challenging -you-?" He looked at Shinji and his multitude of stabbing implements. "No way am I letting my lovely Verthandi close to such a hooligan! You monsters! You're trying to murder my lovely Verthandi, I won't allow it!"
"Well, there goes plan A." Shinji muttered.
"That's not fair!" Louise shouted angrily.
"He should have thought of that before butting into the affairs of his betters." Guiche replied. "Move away from the battlefield, Louise the Zero. Your familiar or not, even a pale flower such as you has no business interfering in a duel between men."
'Oh, myself!' Asuka's voice resounded in Shinji's head. 'This guy is just begging to get his ass kicked. Grind him into dust, baka.'
Pouting, Louise moved away to give them room to fight. All eyes looked intently at the two, and Siesta put her hands over her mouth in horrified anticipation.
"Right, then. Let us begin." Guiche pointed his rose in Shinji's direction.
Shinji Ikari was not a soldier. His fighting instincts was not geared like that of normal people. Now that he no longer feared being hurt, a lot of the things that made him look like a coward evaporated in the desolation of time. The instincts that remained told him in no uncertain terms that he should tower over all other living creatures, that his stride should shake the Earth, and that he should hurry to destroy his enemy. A more rational part explained that given Guiche's pretty-boy looks, he should not have much endurance or pain tolerance. A quick and painful hit should end it quickly with minimal harm to both sides.
Guiche watched Shinji approach with a leisurely smile and flicked his rose. A petal floated down as if dancing in the air... and in a flash of yellow light transformed into a female-armored warrior. Its height was about the same as a person's, but it appeared to be constructed from some hard metal. Under the pale sunlight, its golden armor gleamed.
Shinji did not slow down. Only the fact that it was vaguely woman-shaped that made it in any way intimidating to him. Smoothly he plucked out one of the smaller knives and threw. It was as if he had been throwing such things all his life, an expected but still surprising sensation. The Valkyrie moved its arm, deflecting the knife. Its new angle missed Guiche's head by a hair, cutting over several blonde locks as it passed just over his ear.
Horrified, Guiche touched the side of his head. "You! You just tried to -kill- me! No mercy, then! Valkyrie, attack!"
The runes in Shinji's left hand blazed. He felt light as air. The approaching enemy seemed to move in slow motion. Suddenly his body seemed to want to do six different things at once, there was this powerful urge to leap and slash, while in the forefront of his consciousness he decided to duck the blow and head straight for Guiche.
This just ended up with him stumbling on his run and freezing in place. His world exploded in pain as the golem punched him in the gut. The young teen flew into the air and crashed rolling some distance away.
"Guiche!" Luise yelled, pushing her way out of the crowd.
"I am a mage, therefore I fight using magic. Surely you have no complaints?" he said, kissing his rose, whose stem served as his wand.
"Wh-why you..." What could knives do against that?
"I guess I forgot to mention earlier. My Runic name is "the Bronze." Guiche the Bronze. Accordingly, my bronze golem "Valkyrie" shall be your real opponent." he told Shinji, who was slowly trying to get back to his feet. "This is the price for not recognizing a noble's power."
Shinji groaned and clutched at his stomach. He tasted blood at the back of his throat. He felt like laughing, if only his diaphragm could unclench a little. "It's... it's not over yet."
"I'd be most disappointed if it were." the noble replied cooly.
Shinji took and brandished his large knives. The weight felt loose in his hands, a good feeling. Though pain left hazed up his vision, he forced himself to take a step. And then another. It got easier. Soon he was running again.
The Valkyrie charged, its fist held straight out. Shinji easily bent aside and his knives left a trail of sparks down the length of its arm. Memories of fighting an implacable, unrelenting enemies, the Angels, surfaced to lend easy familiarity to his motions. His bones screamed, but he managed to stab into the joints and get up to the golem's back. His options opened up and again-
Pain! He froze in place and was hit by a flailing arm. He slammed into the ground, and dug the knife-points into the ground to bleed away his momentum. Dirt and pebbles raked at the skin of his forearms, leaving a ragged bleeding line. Ironic, perhaps, as that too was the only visible damage he could do against the bronze golem.
Shaking, he woozily got back to his feet. 'What's happening to me?'
"You... Shinji!" Louise screamed. "Stop it. You understand now, right? A commoner can't beat a mage!" She turned to Guiche. "He's learned his lesson. I'm his master, I say he yields."
Guiche smirked. "How nice of you to say so, Louise the Zero, but I'm going to have to hear it with his own words."
Shinji stared at the glowing runes on his left hand. He was a failure in so many ways, but... he should not be so -weak-. Pain was nothing. He had no reason to hesitate. Why then, was his body refusing to respond just when he had the chance to push for the advantage? 'Is it magic? Is it a curse?'
He looked up at Guiche, and the bronze golem still standing to protect its creator. It might as well be a wall. 'You can go over a wall, or under it, or through it. What's your problem? Just pick a tactic and roll with it! And that goddamn golem, where the hell does the extra mass come from? a red-haired girl yelled.
He screamed wordlessly and then held his breath. He stamped his right foot and was off again, leading with his chin and the two knives held straight back. He kicked at the bronze shin of an approaching golem kick, and used that to run up its torso and again onto its back. Bringing his arms forward sharply, he threw both cleavers. The two knives spun in the air, lending them a smooth arcing trajectory to meet from either side of Guiche.
'Crap.' thought Shinji. 'This move is fatal when it hits.' Maybe Guiche would move so it would just cut of a leg or an arm or something? Every instinct in his own body led to a killing stroke; the more his pulse increased with excitement, the harder was it to suppress.
Guiche nonchalantly released two more petals from his flower-wand, which turned into two more bronze golems that blocked both spinning cleavers. Shinji felt a hand grip around his left ankle. The golem he was standing on had its head turned completely around, and light flared from behind the empty eyeholes of its helmet. 'Double crap.'
The golem picked him up and threw him into the ground like a sack of grain. He screamed again, though now in overwhelming pain.
'I'm an idiot!' he screamed to himself. 'Why the hell do I even WANT this?'
'Then stop the hurting! Stop screwing around! What is wrong with you?'
Shinji coughed up blood and curled to try and get up. However, a kick by one of the golems in the hollow formed by his body sent him flying again. He heard someone cry his name, in anguish, it was a girl's voice. Or voices. He barely felt it when he hit the ground again. He felt cold... so cold.
"That looks painful." Sir Osmond said evenly. He sighed and stroked his long white beard. "Mister Colbert, I don't think that boy is Gandálfr after all. It must be just a coincidence."
"Yes, I agree. Gandálfr was said to be able to use any weapon to take down its enemies..." the teacher murmured. "So it must have at least an arm and a hand, I think."
"And that's what led you to think a human summoning was somehow the legendary familiar? Clearly this is not the case."
"Sir Osmond, now that we've satisfied our curiosity, shouldn't we stop this?"
The old mage shook his head. "We at Tristain teach children to live as nobles. Sometimes we must stand aside to let them learn the meaning of honor for themselves." Though a noble himself, he had very little regard for the intelligence or fortitude of other nobles. "I just hope they learn it very quickly."
"What are you doing?" Louise screamed frantically, held back by Kirche from running into the battle zone. "Just stay down, you idiot! You stupid familiar! Even a dog knows to obey its master when it's hurt!"
"What's this? I didn't think you could stand up again..." said Guiche. He was starting to feel bad about how much damage his Valkyries were inflicting, but his honor and pride as a noble demanded that he keep going until the opponent either yields or proves unable to continue the duel. "Maybe I went too easy on you?"
Shinji smirked. "Shut up. I've faced worse things than your little statues." One more time. 'Stop betraying me.' He removed three fruit knives and held them with the hilt inserted in the spaces between his knuckles. 'Simpler now, okay? I'm just going to run. Let's keep running. Nothing complicated, nothing to think about.' He circled around the three golems, which tried to position themselves to cut off his lines of approach.
He flicked one of the knives out, and it flew into one of the Valkyrie's eye-slits. The golem did not show any pain, the cutting implement just bounced around inside its head to no ill effect. He continued running. Seeing a gap forming as the golems moved, he threw another knife, this time towards Guiche. The closest Valkyrie moved with surprising speed to intercept it.
Shinji slowed down and let his hammering pulse settle. The golems could move faster than he could ever run. After all, he was made of flesh and blood and fatigue. They had magic sustaining their existence. He looked down at the knife in his hand. It had a blade only abot five inches long. What was he supposed to do with such a thing against such creatures?
He dug deep inside himself for an answer. 'Come on. Someone. Anyone. What should I do?'
'Surrender' was an option. 'Kill yourself.' was another. A variation on the latter was to fake defeat, to get Guiche to de-summon his golems and give him a chance to strike. It was dishonorable, and to make it worth it that single change had to be a fatal finisher. He rejected that and many other cold-blooded plans. It was just so easy to murder... but he didn't want to kill. He wanted to win!
'Is that pride? Is that ego? Is that why you're fighting?' Mocking female laughter echoed in his skull. 'Go see how far that takes you!'
While distracted for a second, the three Valkyries moved, surrounding Shinji. They closed in, and Guiche smirked. "This is getting more pointless the longer it lasts."
"Idiot! Do you really think just having this power makes you better? An inflated sense of self-importance doesn't make anything right!" He was the very personification of that lesson. The folly of man playing at being God. "Try to get me to learn respect, fine, but I'll make sure you don't run from the consequences of your mistakes!" It was his own, new personal creed. He can never run away. Never again. He may not close his eyes.
Shinji stabbed at his right hand, at the glowing green runes there. The glow blazed, then turned red. "Raaagh!" He caught one of the fists heading for his face, and felt his shoulders pop right out of their sockets. Rather than keep on getting pushed, he slid under the arm and in a variation of an aikido throw, sent that golem off to collide with another Valkyrie. The onlookers gasped.
"How did he do that?" murmured Kirche. All that rage, so clear on the unimpressive-looking young teen's face. That stubborn desire to just keep on going no matter how much he's hurt... she smiled, as a strange shiver passed through her body. 'That's not a dog, Louise. Starving, half-mad, maybe... but that's a wolf. You'd best be careful.'
Unfortunately, this left one last golem. Its right hand lashed out and caught his cheek. He spun around in the air and slammed face-up into the ground. He coughed up blood, and it fell back spattering his face and dirt-stained white shirt. Before he could move again a broze boot was at his face. "Gnngh." he struggled as it pressed down.
"Stop it! Stop it, Guiche!" he heard as if from a great distance.
He pulled out the knife still stuck in his hand and stabbed it into the golem's ankle. 'Come on. Come on. he roared inside his head. 'I don't want to die. I don't deserve to die.'
The runes on his left arm glowed, and the blade slid effortlessly into and through the bronze foot. The glow subsided, and a great beast seemed to growl. Shinji punched, and broke the foot right off its joint. "That... that did it."
It served to throw the Valkyrie off-balance and its entire weight fell upon Shinji. "Oh. Shit."
And then there was just darkness.
Siesta screamed. For a while there, she had believed that someone could really stand up to the nobles. Even when he failed, it was still so brave. She was not strong, getting weapons was the meager help that she could offer. And yet... while someone else bled, dying in front of her eyes, was that really the most she could do?
She wanted to blame Louise for her malicious advice, but she was raised to believe that ill manners from nobles was as much a fact of life as a dog licking its own balls. 'That person out there, he's fighting for something he believes in.' she thought in despair. 'It's my fault he's like this. I have.. I have to do something.'
Sieta saw Louise still being restrained by Kirche, though the mage was also screaming for the battle to stop. She looked around her, all the nobles near her were intent on watching the spectacle. Some of them looked disgusted, but no one moved to make it stop. No one was holding her back.
Siesta wiped tears from her eyes and pushed nobles out of her way. She ran out into the clearing until she faced Guiche, who looked puzzled at the sudden interruption. There, she collapsed to her knees and placed her forehead to the ground. "Sir Gramont, I beg of you, please. I may be just a commoner, but please listen to me. Please have mercy. I'll do anything you ask, please just forgive him. Have mercy!"
Guiche sighed and lowered his rose. He bent down to one knee and tipped Siesta's face up. "A gentleman feels shame at a lady's tears. Now that I look at you closer, you are a delicate flower too... these tears don't become you." He smiled gently and stood up. "You don't need to offer yourself, I would love to stop this. But it's out of my hands," He looked back to where his opponent clutched at the dirt, shakily trying to force his way up. "Just stay down, Brimir damn you!"
Shinji floated on an orange sea. He held his hand up towards a distant sun, broken into many glittering shards upon the surface of the waters. Then, he felt something grab at his arms and legs, his neck and his waist, countless hands dragging him down into the depths. He screamed, and the waters ate his voice.
'Gently now, gently.' Guiche tried to communicate to his golems. The commoner did not look as if he could take much more. 'I don't want to kill anyone... just keep on pushing him down until he doesn't want to stand up anymore.'
Shinji wobbled back to his feet, unable to stand in place he stumbled about as if drunk. One of the Valkyries moved to push him over, but he just bent aside that obvious lunge. The other golems moved, and like liquid the familiar dodged every one of those attacks at the last moment. FInally, one of the golems punched and caught him at the small of his back. It was like punching a glob of jelly. Shinji flew again, but rolled upon landing and unfolded back into his unsteady stance. His eyes were still unfocused, he was completely unharmed by that attack.
"Drunk? No... he's barely conscious." Guiche remarked. He kissed his rose again. "Go, my golems! Finish this now!"
The Valkyries moved at the the same time, but somehow in his unthinking, clumsy state the familiar just flowed around their attacks to let the golems just hit each other. A loud brass clang resounded as two Valkyries caught each other's face in a cross-counter punch.
"Enough! Go back to full power!" Guiche commanded. Siesta, still kneeling by his feet, looked on in horror.
The Valkyries' movement sped up suddenly, and once again at the critical moment, Shinji seemed to freeze in place. He blinked, his consciousness returning, only to see a bronze fist heading for his face. He raised his left arm to block, and there was the sound of snapping bones. He was once more thrown off his stance and slammed, sliding, into the ground.
Louise screamed. She broke free of Kirche's grip by stamping down on the taller young woman's foot and rushed to her familiar's side.
"I've long lost whatever enjoyment I can take from this." Guiche sighed. "Louise, concede for your familiar and this ends."
Louise sniffled as she stared down at the bruised, bleeding face of the one person in the castle who seemed to believe in her. "You idiot... why are you doing this? Just stay down."
Shinji raised a shaking finger and touched the tear tracks on her cheek. He tried to smile. "Didn't you say losing reflects badly on you? There... there has to be a way to win this. Give me enough time and I'll figure it out. Don't worry... I won't die."
"You idiot! Don't stay stupid things like that!" She looked back to Guiche. "He's had enough! Okay, I, Louise, decide that my familiar yi-"
Shinji's grip had unexpected strength as he grabbed her wrist. "No." he whispered. "I ran away when everything went tumbling down. I can't run away anymore. I... refuse!"
"And I don't care!" Louise spat back. "I don't want to see you get hurt anymore. Guiche!"
The young noble sighed again. "I suppose. This is just pointless. It was already over before it started. I, Guiche de Gramont accept you surr-"
He turned around. "Hmm? Oh, Montmorency."
"It's not just the commoner that insulted m-... you, you know. It can't end that simply. You're the victor, so what's your penalty for Louise?"
Guiche looked at Louise's distinctly childish figure. "Hm... but I really don't want anything from Louise."
"Then at least have Louise the Zero say her surrender properly." Montmorency sneered. "Apologize, Louise! Admit you're a failure as a magician. Even your familiar is a failure, he proves it!"
Shinji pulled weakly at her wrist. "No... don't..."
Louise grit her teeth. For a familiar? Should her pride as a Vallière forever be broken just for that? She looked at her familiar, who kept on shaking his head, pleading with his eyes not to give up. All her life, Louise held to her pride, it was the only thing she truly owned, a Vallière was made of stronger stuff- her eldest sister drilled that into her head. Louise was rightfully scared of her eldest sister, who was so strong and so severe... and if she was doing it, then there had to be something to what she was saying, right? Louise could never really muster any defense. She was a Vallière. She -must never- admit defeat.
The girl put both hands over her eyes and screamed wordlessly. She shivered.
"I am Louise..." she muttered. "I am Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière..." and slightly louder. "I am Louise the Ze-"
"You.. you're all IDIOTS! LOUISE-SAMA IS NOT A ZERO!" Shinji yelled suddenly. "That's because she managed to summon ME! And I won't be destroyed, not like this, not from something this easy! I WON'T RUN AWAY!"
"No!" Louise screamed, as the Valkyries picked up Shinji.
"You're still going on about that? What is the source of your bravado?" Guiche asked. "You're powerless and refuse to admit it. Is it worth your life just to be this spiteful? That's not courage. That, instead, IS idiocy."
Shinji chuckled, with blood dripping from the side of his mouth. Born from a world half-dead, for him honor was not something that could feed the multitude. It was not something that you can escape. "It's still not enough... this is nothing. I've had worse than this. You nobles... you have no idea. A thousand million slaves are crying out, this isn't right. You don't know what power is."
Guiche gestured, and one of the Valkyries pulled up Shinji's right arm. "Was it this hand that dared strike me? Is this the hand that lets you think you have any chance at all against a mage? For thousands of years, this world that the great Founder Brimir gave to use turned on the balance of mages and commoners, and it's our duty to maintain this balance. You poor fool. It's so sad to see the damage that happens when someone doesn't know his place. Let me cure you of your sad ignorance."
"Put him down, Guiche!"
Guiche raised his left eyebrow. "Oh, Louise, Louise." He shook his head, chiding. "Are you actually raising your wand at me? Not only is it a violation of rules of the duel, what do you think you can do?"
"Don't you dare, Louise the Zero!" Montmorency raised her own wand and pointed it at Louise. "Don't interfere!"
Kirche looked around, and then sighed, the motion bobbing her breasts. "I can't believe I'm doing this, for a Vallière of all people." She raised her wand. "Put it down, Montmorency the Fragrance."
The blue-haired girl next to Louise did not even look up from her book. She raised and planted her staff into the ground, as if daring anyone to raise a wand against her friend.
Siesta looked at Shinji, still held aloft with his body held out in a T-shape, as if crucified, and grimaced. She looked around and saw one of the butcher knives nearby, just a few steps away. No one was looking at her. No one cared.
Shinji wanted to slap his own face, except that the Valkyries restrained him well. 'This is getting stupid. Aaugh, these nobles. Can't they just leave well enough alone?'
Back at the Headmaster's Office, Mr. Colbert rubbed at his balding head and remarked "This is getting well out of hand." Watching students maim each other through a crystal ball was not a line of research he wanted to pursue. "We can't let this continue, Sir Osmond!"
"Hmm. You are correct." replied the Headmaster. He prepared to intone the incantation for the Bell of Sleep. As Headmaster of the Academy, he did not need to go through certain requisite rituals and red tape.
Siesta moved. The sudden act caused someone to yell "Hey!", which caused Montmorency to fire off her spell at Louise, though missing utterly. This shocked Kirche into sending off a fireball, which also missed Montmorency, but sending the boys behind her tumbling in the blast. Louise yelped and cast her spell, which predictably set off a rather large explosion. Fortunately it was some distance away, but it knocked Siesta off the her feet and just as well preventing her the knife. The golems, sensing danger to their master, moved.
"Louise!" Shinji screamed.
The girl coughed and looked up just in time to see a Valkyrie plow out of the curtain of smoke with its hand outstretched. She closed her eyes and cowered, waiting for the pain. She was struck and fell.
There was a squishing noise and she felt something wet and warm splash on her cheek. She opened her eyes and saw only red.
Shinji had knocked her down and on his hands and knees covered her with his body. His white shirt was soaked, and blood from his lips trickled down to her face. Five bronze fingertips protruded from his chest.
And still he tried to smile. "... are you okay?"
Louise screeched. "Me? What about you?" She reached out, and her fingers hovered under the wound. "That... that's enough. No! Don't die on me...! Guiche! We've had enough!" Louise grabbed Shinji's face. "Pull yourself together. Okay? It's going to be fine. We'll get you to a healer. It's okay... don't think of anything else right now. This duel doesn't matter. DON'T DIE!"
Shinji laughed, causing his wounds to bleed more. "Louise-sama. Finally you show that you do deserve to be called a noble." Something unimaginably old growled behind his eyes. "Dry your tears. I told you before... I won't die."
He pushed away from the ground and back to his feet. his mouth open in a wordless pained shout. The fingers into his back dug in further. Sharply, the familiar turned around, and the bronze golem's hand was torn off from the wrist.
He struggled for breath, his feet were shaking, and he snarled up at the bronze Valkyrie impassively staring down on him. 'This... this freaking hurts.'
A red-haired girl in a red plugshit paced around him. 'You pervert. You can try to eat up all the pain that you like. But She will never let you die.' Asuka pressed her forehead to his. 'For a short while, we release you from your bonds. We open up the Pit. Drink from the Well of Souls, Last Child of Man, and let this world hear our voice. Until your enemies are broken, we will sing the song of Absolute Terror.'
Louise's miscast spell kicked up a large cloud of dust. Almost everyone was blown off their feet, and they coughed as they tried to get up. The sun was low in the sky, and all was stained red. Shadows stretched across Vestri Court.
Deep within the shrouded battlefield a great beast roared. The glow from red eyes pierced the gloom, and a shadowy figure walked out of the dust cloud. An unfamiliar smile was on Shinji Ikari's face. The irises of his eyes, normally a wan brown, burned as if an opening into a merciless furnace. 'It is a good pain.'
A bronze golem burst out and punched. The thin, blood-soaked boy caught its fist. His eyes blazed even brighter, and he pulled. The Valkyrie's arm was crushed right to the shoulder. "Is that it?" he shouted to its emotionless face. "It's still not enough!" With his other hand he punched into its neck, and tore its torso open from neck to abdomen. "Just an empty shell." he added, somewhat mournfully. "Something like you can never truly beat me."
The bronze golem dropped to the ground, broken and useless. Shinji Ikari looked around. A strong wind carried away the obscuring dust. "Louise-sama." Then toward Guiche, and a fallen woman beyond him. "Siesta-san." The hellish glow in his eyes faded a bit.
The two remaining Valkyries attacked from behind. Shinji quirked his head, as if listening to something. "What... what is this? What are you saying? The first movement in the Suite of Terror?"
'You can say the Music of Creation. You can say the Mathematics of Creation. At these levels, they're pretty much the same thing anyway. Oh, and think fast.' The runes on Shinji's hands glowed bright again. He leapt aside and the two golems crashed into each other.
"Ugh." He clutched at his chest. His vision was starting to narrow.
'Don't over-stress yourself. We had to grow you a second heart in a hurry. Magic is -loud-. This thing, forcibly grafted into your soul, it's trying to flood your body with magic and make you act like you're some sort of acrobat or something. It's got a whole set of instincts all its own.'
'What, is that like some sort of mind control or something?'
'Maybe. It's kinda useless trying to mind-control -you- anyway. This thing is still trying to have you go all-out. It's trying to get your body to flood endorphins.'
'So it's not just magic, but drug-based mind control.' He felt light on his feet, though whether from blood loss or natural pain blockers it was hard to tell. He wanted to fight, though. He looked to Louise. A familiar was conditioned to respond with glee to protecting its master?
The two bronze golems approached. Shinji exhaled and stood his ground. "Defense. Think only of defense." he whispered to himself. "Override your instincts, Ikari. You're not going to die."
He ducked one blow and swept his arm out. That bronze Valkyrie was torn to pieces as if clawed by a massive beast. The other golem kicked. Shinji Ikari blocked that kick with his face. The golem's leg exploded. It fell. He screamed and leapt, driving it hard into the ground. With a foot at its neck, he grasped the crown of the golem's helmet and ripped its head out of his body.
He looked up at sky and opened his mouth, what came out was no human roar.
Shinji heaved, gasping for breath. He stared at the head in his hands. Automaton. Empty. Bloodless. Unsatisfying. He threw it aside. "Guiche de Gramont..." he said hoarsely. "You like to play with human hearts. What fear lurks inside yours?"
"No, this is impossible. Shit. Shit. Shit." the young nobleman no longer cared for appearances as he flicked his rose wand again and again, creating more golems. Eight was the most he could make.
"Ngh." Shinji grimaced in pain with every step. Five golems all zoomed towards him, their feet barely touching the ground. They had weapons now, the lead Valkyrie had a lance. "More." he whispered desperately. "MORE!"
The lance-carrying Valkyrie struck at him, and the point of its lance was stopped and held by a flickering red hexagonal barrier in front of the wounded boy. Shinji looked frightened right out of his wits. "No, not this again! Not-..." His eyes burned red. The tips of his hair were losing color. His skin, already pale from blood loss, began to thin out even further.
Shinji pushed, and the barrier vanished. The Valkyrie was thrown high into the air, until it struck halfway up the central tower of Tristain Academy. A cloud of masonry dust marked where it hit, and the crumpled golem fell into a further mangled ruin into the paved plaza on the other side of Vestri Court.
"What... what was that?" Luise breathed. The other students murmured similar sentiment. Was it magic? There were no incantations, or a magical device such as a wand or staff.
The familiar runes in Shinji's left hand kept flickering, and the glow in his eyes faded. He gasped for air. There was no escaping his shame. A thousand million mothers cried out. "Magic, huh? Wealth? Authority? Is that all? Power over others? What's that if you can't even control yourself... ? The only thing that's truly yours is your soul! Show me its power!"
"Don't underestimate me!" Guiche shouted, gesturing sharply down with his rose. The Gramont line was an old one, filled with warriors and generals.
Shinji shoved out with both palms and two of the Valkyries were knocked out of the circle. They were held in the air by red hexagons on a plane. The boy brought his palms together, and the two golems swung to meet each other at high speed, flattening out.
The other two wound their path into a tight circle and slammed each into wide red barriers on either side of Shinji Ikari. Their battered away at it with their weapons, a word and an axe, each hit creating a rippling effect out to where the edges of the barrier looked the most solid red before fading into nothing. Shinji shook his head. "This... is the light of my soul. Magic, physical force, it's meaningless. The only way through is if your soul is stronger than mine." He turned his gaze over to Guiche, who seemed frozen in fear. "Just how much do you want to win?" Warriors through time stared at death and laughed. For death was a coward. "More! Hahaha...! Sacrifice... more!" The boy was losing blood. He was hungry. "Sell your soul for power!"
The young nobleman screamed incoherently.
Shinji dropped his barries and caught the golems' weapons with his bare hands. Blood trickled down his palms. 'All right. Show me what's behind your intrusion'. The Gandalfr runes blazed green. Shinji pulled out the axe from the Valkryie's grasp, spun it around and slashed around in a circle. The two golems fell apart at the waist.
He collapsed to his knees. His small second heart beat frantically, trying to compensate for the pierced primary organ. 'This hurts this hurts this hurts.' He looked up. Guiche was shaking in place. Shinji stood up and wearily began to walk. His steps faltered now and then, weak and bloody, he looked utterly a non-threat.
Guiche screamed and stumbled back. He began to crawl, not taking his eyes off the familiar... the thing... with the eyes of a devil. "Wa-what are you? Stay away!" he waved with his rose.
Shinji paused and chuckled darkly. "That's... a good question." He sighed and looked up at the darkening sky, at the two moons. "I am... no one." There was a momentary flicker, almost imperceivable, as if the light from the sun was interrupted. He chuckled bitterly. "But for now, I am the familiar of this... Louise."
The Gandalfr runes flashed. One moment he was still a good distance away, and in another he was at Guiche's face. He grabbed the young noble by the jaw and pulled him up with unnatural strength. "Was it this mouth? This mouth that disrespected my master? Was it this mouth that led those girls to cry?"
"Guiche!" Montmorency screamed.
Shinji looked at her for a moment, and she yelped in fear. His look softened, upon considering Guiche again. "I see. You're afraid. You're afraid of so many things... you don't want your soul to be tied down." A low growl came out his throat. "You're not a total loss, de Gramont. Not yet. No, you -still- don't know your place. But you're looking for it. I hope you find it."
He let go, and the noble crashed to the ground. "Don't hurt me!" he whimpered.
"Agh-apologize. Then yield."
"I... I, Guiche de Gramont, beg your forgiveness." He bowed low, putting his forehead to the ground.
"Not to me. To the ladies you wronged." Shinji pointed. "And to my master."
"Louise! Forgive me!" And following Shinji's finger, he turned around to see Siesta. "You, uh... maid whose name I don't know!"
"It.. it's Siesta, Sir Gramont."
"Siesta! I'm sorry. Please forgive me!"
"It... it's all right."
"And Montmorency! And Katie! I was wrong to try and go out with the both of you at the same time!"
Shinji blinked. He wanted to laugh. 'I got thrown around and bloodied just for this foolishness? So much pain for this romantic stupidity? I don't even believe in romance anymore! Hahaha... is this enough irony? These annoying nobles...!' "Do you yield?"
Guiche cast his gaze down. "I yield."
Shinji's breathing was starting to slow down. He closed his eyes. "Get out of here." he hoarsely ordered. Guiche scrambled to his feet and all but plowed through the onlookers in trying to get away.
"Whoa... what is that familiar? Did he use magic?" the crowd of students began to loudly mutter amongst themselves. "No way, Guiche lost?" and "How can he still be standing after all that? Shouldn't he be dead?"
He turned to see Siesta still nearby, half lying down on the grass. "Siesta-san." he greeted weakly. She cringed, her eyes full of fear. A golem's hand was still stuck through his chest. His expression fell. "I understand." he whispered gently. "It's... it's fine."
His vision was starting to haze out. The pounding noise of his pulse in his ears was starting to fade. From the corner of his vision, he could see Louise running towards him. He was too weak to turn his head. He smiled. "Hey, Louise..." he said, his voice trailing off. "...I won."
His knees buckled, and he fell onto Siesta's arms. His blood stained her white apron.
"Shinjiii!" Louise's voice was so very far away.
'That'll do, baka. That'll do.'
The two teachers stared blankly at the crystal ball, even as the studently slowly dispersed. Someone cast a spell of Levitation on Shinji, and some of the teachers finally arrived. The familiar was taken to the castle's own infirmary. Sir Osmond waved his hand over the crystal ball and leaned back on his chair. "This is a disturbing development." he muttered.
"Was that magic?" asked Colbert. "I know familiars should have some special abilities... salamanders breathe fire, some dragons can breathe ice, bugbears have a paralyzing beam, but what is that?" Surely someone as old and experienced as Old Osmond would know.
The old mage shook his head. "I don't know." It was totally unprecedented to his breadth of experience. "Remind me again about Gandálfr."
"The familiar used by the Founder Brimir, Gandálfr! There was never any description of its appearance, but it's said to have been created specifically for the purpose of protecting the Founder Brimir during his spell incantations."Mr. Colbert said excitedly. "It could annihilate an army of one thousand all by itself! Ordinary mages were said to be no match for it!"
"Mmhmm. Correct. Founder Brimir's incantations were especially long..." Sir Osmond remembered. It was a basic rule of magic. "However, that made his spells very powerful. And as you know, mages are most vulnerable while spell casting. Gandálfr was the familiar that he used to protect himself in those times of vulnerability."
"That red thing, it's a .. um... barrier of some sort. It fits, for what better way is there to protect a mage while speaking an incantation than to put a shield between him and the enemy? If using a weapon, then it can attack... but not so effectively block so many different attackers from all directions."
"But that is not how it is written, Gandálfr's abilities. You said so earlier."
"It's puzzling." Mr. Colbert had to admit. "But I'm sure of it, those are Gandálfr's runes."
"Is that boy really a commoner? Such... ferocity! Such power. It's like a beast. Can a mage summon another mage? You were supposed to supervise the Summoning Ritual for the second years, weren't you?"
Mr. Colbert shook his head. "I made sure, casting Detect Magic when Valliere initially summoned him. He was a perfectly normal commoner back then, no magic at all."
"This raises an interesting question. If that was magic that he did, was it done on his own or is it a pre-cast spell? Who cast that spell? How can he use it?" Old Osmond tugged at his beard. "If it is not magic, then what is it? This Vallière, she must be a very talented mage, I take it?"
"Not at all. Rather, one might say she's un-talented..." Colbert answered sheepishly.
"So on one end, we have a boy who seems to have no magic, and on the other end a mage with little talent. Where they meet, there is the legendary Gandálfr. What a paradox."
"Sir Osmond. We should report this to the palace immediately and ask for instructions..."
The old mage sniffed. "That will not be necessary."
"Guiche is only a first level Dot mage, but even so, he shouldn't have been beaten by any commoner. And THAT... I have no idea what that was, but it scared me even from over here. That's no ordinary commoner. There's no doubt that he's Gandálfr!"
"And that is why we must not speak hastily, not until we are sure."
"But sir! This is the biggest discovery of the century! A Gandálfr reborn in the modern world!"
"But is it really Gandálfr? In any case, such terrible power, if we hand over this familiar and its master to those fools at the palace, there's no good that can come out of it. Give them a toy like this and they'll just cause another unnecessary war. Court advisors have too much free time on their hands and like fighting far too much."
"I see. I apologize for overlooking such important matters." Abashed, Colbert rubbed at his bald pate again. "But what should we do, Sir Osmond?"
"First, it should be that our little point of curiosity doesn't die, don't you think? Although, seeing just how injured he was, he should have died rather than continue fighting. I've seen wonders and impossibilities through my life, but not such a deep determination to do battle no matter what." He could think of several magics that allowed it, but all of them forbidden, and it was unlikely that a child as Vallière would know them. "And, perhaps we should have a... talk.. with Miss Vallière, at her earliest convenience." He turned on his chair towards Colbert. "I will take responsibility of this case myself. You will not speak of this to anyone else, Mister Colbert."
Sir Osmond took hold of his staff and turned to look out the window. He immersed his thoughts in the far reaches of history. "Founder Brimir... Gandálfr..." he whispered to himself. "Oh, the end to my peaceful days..." It was what he wished for, but it was still sad. Times of great change were often also times of great pain.
The entire school was in a hubbub. Noble students wrote regular letters to their parents and friends, and it was difficult to hide just how Guiche was humiliated. The young noble hid in his quarters, avoiding all attempts of taunting or sympathy. The only one he allowed was Montmorency, for some reason. Gossip, though quick, was unreliable. With Mr. Colbert's silence, the nature of the Gandálfr was kept from popular discourse. All that people knew was that Louise the Zero seemed to have summoned a surprisingly powerful familiar, who was at the brink of death. What else could be expected from challenging a noble? It must have been just luck or something.
Lord de Gramont, Guiche's father, also did not care much. His son's reputation was not his own. He knew that his son's reliance on golems would come back to bite him someday. It was nicely balanced for defense and offense, a good golem could rout hordes of soldiers, but it did have its vulnerabilities. A familiar that's fast or could attack from unexpected angles could give a golem trouble. Dragons, for example, were difficult to deal with. It was a valuable learning experience, he supposed. He put it out of his mind as a pretty noble miss crossed his field of vision.
Likewise, Louise was difficult to approach. She attended classes, but brushed off any and all attempts at conversation. No one again called her 'Louise the Zero' to her face. It was what she wanted, but the girl found that attention hollow and unpleasant. They were just trying to expose whatever special secrets she had, until they were no longer special at all. She rubbed at her eyes as she stalked back to her room.
"Oh! Mistress Louise."
"Siesta." Louise said tonelessly.
"My apologies." the maid bowed and moved aside from the doorway. She carried with her a basin of warm water and damp washcloth. Louise narrowed her eyes at that. Nobles usually didn't care how servants helped to keep them clean. However, it was Siesta who utterly shamelessly was giving Shinji Ikari sponge baths while he slept and while conveniently Louise was unavailable due to classes. "There's been no change, I'm sad to say."
Louise nodded, not trusting herself to speak. She strode into the room while the maid went back to her other duties. She stared down at her familiar, sleeping so peacefully. With his clothes torn in combat, he was dressed now in plain commoner clothes in the current style, all in white. Most of his body was still wrapped in bandages. These, the clothes and his thin-blooded paleness combined with the sunlight streaming through the window seemed to give him an angelic glow.
She sat on her desk, dangling her legs over its edge, and laced her fingers together. With her elbows on her knees, she leaned with the arch of her hands just under her nose. Her rose-tinted eyes glinted orange in the shadowed portions of her room. "You stupid familiar..." she whispered pleadingly. "Wake up, already."
Shinji opened his eyes. The light flooding the room was at a low angle, and since he knew that Louise's room faced the sun, it was early morning. He felt incredibly thirsty. Weakly, he got up to a sitting position and clutched at his head. His spine burned, and his whole body felt heavy. He fell back down to the bed. Louise's bed, he recognized now. He saw the bandages on his arms, and the memories returned.
'Welcome back to the land of the living, baka Shinji.' he felt a pat on his back. 'Congratulations. You get to suffer a little bit more before you're allowed to rest.'
Shinji reached around and touched that hand. 'Thank you.'
The moment was broken by the sound of the door opening. A feminine gasp made him look up. Siesta was there, carrying a tray with a bowl of water and half of a French loaf. She was clad in fresh maid uniform and smiled warmly at Shinji. The apron stained by his blood, she had kept that. Magic made it too easy to forget, erasing all the signs of a commoner's struggle.
"So you're awake now? How do you feel?"
Shinji touched his chest. He felt the beating of his single, perfectly unremarkable human heart. "I'm... fine?"
"It's amazing..." Siesta said, her eyes wide. "The mage who cast the healing spell wasn't sure if even it would be enough. I'm..." she stopped wiped some tears from her eyes. "I'm so happy you're all right, Sir Ikari."
"Yeah... I... no, I'm not a sir. My name is Shinji, Siesta-san."
"You can call me Siesta. I'm just a commoner, after all." The maid placed her tray on the dresser then went over to sit on the bed near him.
"Siesta." she said firmly.
"Oh, okay, Siesta." Shinji took a deep breath. "What happened?"
She smiled. She remembered; referring to someone without a honorific implied intimacy. The sight of a teary-eyed noble on his knees apologizing to her, it frightened her just how so deeply thrilling it remained in her memory. "After all that happened, Miss Vallière had to get a teacher to cast a spell of healing on you too. It was quite serious. One was not enough, and it had to be reinforced by another Triangle-class mage."
"Spell of healing?" Shinji opened and closed his hands. "You mentioned that before."
"Yes. It's magic to help treat injuries or illness. You didn't know?"
"No... we don't have that where I came from." Magic and his physical body, he could feel it inside him, the two still did not get along. He could not be sure just how much was due to the influence of magic, or his own natural abilities. Bone was whole again, blood was replenished, torn flesh covered up neatly. He shook his head. If this was the healing that these people expected, then there was justifiable cause to be proud of having magic. "Just how much can a Spell of Healing fix?" Words like 'cancer', 'tuberculosis', 'diabetes', and 'malaria' drifted across his mind, but she would likely not recognize any of those words. "Can it... um... cure consumption? A wasting disease? Open wounds?"
Siesta nodded, somewhat confused about his ignorance of some of the basic terminology. However, he did say, he wasn't from neaby. That little nugget explained a little of his mystery, about why he was so faithful to Louise, yet so disdainful of other nobles.
"Don't worry, Miss Vallière paid for the reagent that was required for the healing spell." The teachers could have given it for free, the Academy's apothecaries were well-stocked, but it was also punishment for going into a duel in the first place. Just because it was between a noble and commoner, was no reason to flaunt the rules. Clearly, Louise had to see, duels were far more trouble than they were worth.
The low tone that Siesta said that, it hinted to Shinji that it must have cost a lot. "I see. She did that?" He tried to get up and winced in pain.
"Ah, you shouldn't move! Your injuries were so severe even the healing spells couldn't completely fix them! You still need to take it easy!" Siesta worriedly cried out. She reached over to help steady him, and then stopped, flinching just before her fingers touched his body.
"I'm sorry..." the young woman said, looking up fiercely. "I'm... I'm not afraid. I just don't want to hurt you. Please let me help."
Shinji nodded and she helped bring him to a straighter sitting position. Siesta held onto him a bit longer, her fingers digging uncomfortably into his flesh, and she let go. She stood up and gave him some space. "Um. Would you like to eat?"
"Water." Shinji asked hoarsely. The water in the bowl was for wiping, but Siesta nodded. Gently she helped him bring it to his lips. Shinji greedily drank it down. Siesta took a cloth to wipe the dribbling from his chin. "How long was I out?"
"Three days and nights straight. Everyone was worried you wouldn't wake up."
'And so on the fourth day...' He stared down at his left hand. The bandages were a very faint green. The Gandalfr runes were still active. "Everyone?"
"All the kitchen staff..." Siesta cast her eyes down shyly.
"Please, convey my thanks. I couldn't have done it without their help."
"That... that's not true. We weren't of much help." She put her hands together and worriedly wrung them. "I'm sorry. It's because of me... you were hurt. If only I could have just accepted the punishment for wearing a noble's scent, this could all have been avoided."
Shinji shook his head and as firmly as he could, said "It's nothing to apologize about. It wasn't your fault."
"Nobles were always so scary to us commoners, since we couldn't use magic..." Siesta continued to mumble while looking down. "Seeing you fight, it was scary too, but... you sounded so -certain-. I wish I could believe that strongly... in anything. " She looked up. "You won against a noble. I guess, you're not a commoner after all? Please, can I... can I still be your friend?"
Shinji chuckled slightly, and winced again as the sharp jolt of pain to the underside of his stomach. "Siesta-sa... Siesta, if there's one thing I can be absolutely sure of, I'm not a noble. I wasn't a noble where I came from, and I'm not a noble here. I don't believe in people who think they have the right to other people's lives just because they feel they're born with that power." He thought of a mask with seven eyes.
Siesta's eyes glitterred. "Thank you, Shinji." She resisted the urge to pat him on the head, like a puppy or something. He was still shorter than her, and looking so small and embarrassed, she felt like hugging all the hurt out of him.
The boy tried to stretch out, forcing his muscles to obey even through the pain. "Did you tend to me all this time?"
"Some of it, but mostly it was actually Miss Vallière..."
Siesta nodded. "She changed your bandages and kept watch to wipe sweat from your face. As soon as her classes are finished, she comes straight here." Siesta looked aside, and following her glance, Louise was actually sleeping over at the desk. She was seated on the chair and used her arms as pillows. Her doll-like face was marred by heavy dark circles under her eyes. "Poor girl, I don't think she got to sleep at all, with the worry. It was only last night that we were told your body was mostly healed, and that you were out of danger."
"Hm. I guess I was right after all. She does have a kind side." Shinji nodded, satisfied. "Shouldn't she be in class or something?"
"It's the Day of Void. There are no classes today."
"Oh, so it's like Sunday in my land. In that case... hey, master, rise and shine."
Louise's breathing was slow and even. Louise's eyes flickered open. "Fuaaaaaaaaah~~!" She made a great big yawning stretch, like a cat in midsummer. She opened her eyes and blinked in surprise. "Oh, you're up." she said to Shinji.
The boy smiled. He had sensed she was awake for quite some time, just pretending to sleep so she could listen into his conversation with Siesta. "Hello, Louise-sama. I'm sorry to have been a bother. Are you getting any more trouble from Guiche or any of your classmates?"
Her expression twisted in anger. She stomped over to the bed and began pounding on his injured chest with her fists. "You stupid... stupid... stupid familiar!"
"Mistress Louise!" Siesta tried to pull her away.
Louise's pounding slackened off, until she just pressed her head into his bandaged chest. The bandages grew damp. "Stupid... letting yourself get hurt for something so stupid... don't do something like that again. Don't make me worry like that again. I don't care what they say."
Shinji hesitated, and then put his hand on her head. "I'm sorry, Louise-sama. I'll try to be less troublesome in the future."
The pink-haired girl's sniffling slackened off. She looked up, a pouty and insistent expression on her face. "We need to talk." Louise said darkly. "You've been lying to me, servant."
After Siesta had left, who for a commoner and maid was presumptously insistent that Shinji at least eat a little under her watchful eye, it was time for the interrogation. Louise paced back and forth in front of the bed, and then pointed with her arm held straight out. "J'accuse! Are you a commoner or a noble? How long were you planning to laugh at me under this charade?"
"Charade? I wasn't laughing at you at all, Louise-sama. I had, at least, hoped for a mostly uneventful term of service."
"You liar! You made me believe you were nothing special, and then - THAT! What the heck was that?" Louise was beaming. "So you're actually, what, really powerful?"
"No, not really."
"What you do, no other familiar can do that!"
"Ah. Well, I had hoped there would never arise a need to open up that heap of misery again. I wasn't lying, Louise-sama. I was fully prepared to serve you to the fullest of my ability- in as far as it was necessary." He shrugged. "I guess I just understimated just how much your people relied on magic and just how potent it is." In his own way, he'd been quite arrogant.
Louise pointed with her other arm, switching out her stance. "And are you saying now that wasn't magic? Look, I believe you now when you say that you're not from around here. But you seriously can't expect me to believe that everybody else where you came from can do THAT."
"No, not really. As far as I know, there were only five of us... and I'm the last. But please believe me when I say, just because I can do THAT, doesn't mean I was -ever- in any position of power or authority." Shinji sighed. 'Craft yourself a wasteland, and crown yourself a King!' a voice shouted into the abyss. 'Emperor of the Great and Everlasting Empire of Earth! Population, one! Hahahahaha!' "Nope, not a noble, not magic, as I said to Siesta-san earlier, Louise-sama. Magic is something completely beyond my ability, Louise-sama."
"Hey, what's with this Louise-sama business?"
"Ah, -sama is what's used in my land for nobility and social superiors. -San is generally for anyone you respect or hold at a professional distance. Now... Louise-sama, you've proven to me that you are a noble worthy of your name. I'm proud to enter your service, Louise-sama."
"Uh... well... of course! You should be! I am a Vallière after all!"
"I don't give a damn about the Vallière. You are Louise. That is my noble master."
Louise blushed. Only her older sister, the middle child of the family, had ever expressed any faith in her. If Louise was thus devoted to her other sister to a disturbing degree, this was a shocking boost to her self-confidence. "You... stop saying things like that! You, you're trying to distract me, aren't you? Answer my questions!"
"Um, which question?"
Louise breathed in deeply, and jumped onto the bed. Standing over Shinji, he legs spread to either side of his body, she pointed again and asked "Now, what, in Brimir's name, was THAT?"
"Ah." His mind buzzed with explanations ranging from the scientific to the mystical to the metaphorical. All of them opaque and useless. Then, a gentle voice, clear as glass, reminded him of hint he gave while his heart was breaking. "It's an AT-field, Louise-sama. You could say... it's the light of my soul."
"An ethereal spear-head?"
"That's what you said. The light of your soul, all right, but that looked nowhere even close to a lance."
"I said, AT-field. Um, wait. There must be something wrong with the magical translation between our words again. This can be troublesome... I won't know if we're actually communicating." Shinji looked at his left hand again. "Excuse me, but first, could you please repeat what I'm saying? Just as it sounds. AT-field."
"Ethéré fer de lance."
"Crap. Something is making sure information from my world isn't leaking into this one."
"Crap. Something is making sure information from my world isn't leaking into this one." Shinji tilted his head aside and looked exasperatedly at Louise. She, in turn, stared back imperiously. "Well, aren't you going to explain yourself?" she urged.
"Okay. When I say it's the light of my soul, I mean it's literally the light of my soul. The Ang... Shito, that we fought, they could use the power of their souls to perform feats beyond mankind. Some of them were so big, that they shouldn't even be able to hold their own shape, except that the power of their own souls just holds their physical body together. A few of us, we were chosen to... pilot? Ride? Command? These similar creatures to fight their estranged siblings." He sighed and slumped. "There's a saying that goes... beware ye who fight monsters, lest in the end you turn into one. The more we fought, the more we -changed-. The people we were sworn to defend in the end feared us, and in the end it was not monsters that killed us... but those people that we thought we were protecting."
"You... you're still not telling me everything."
"Please, trust me, Louise-san. This knowledge wouldn't help you. My memories..." he tapped the side of his head. "You don't want to know them. I'm your familiar, it's my duty to protect you. Including against myself. Please, for your own good. I'll tell you when you're ready."
"I say I'm ready now!"
"I say you're not."
"When it's something that will put you in danger, I can disobey. So, no."
Louise growled and grabbed his head with both hands. She sat on his stomach and brought her face close to his. She stared into his bland, unresisting gaze. Eventually, she sighed. "Fine. But what can you tell me? It's not magic... but can you do it again? Can you teach me how to do it?"
"Throwing out your soul is one of those things that's automatically A Bad Idea, Louise-sama." Shinji showed his palms. "It's not something I can do too often, also. Forming my own soul into a barrier, only when either of us are at risk of dying. Real danger, not just little battles. It's sealed away, and that seal is difficult to break on purpose. Do you believe me now, when I say I fought in a war?"
"Yes." Louise admitted, forcing herself to look brave and unflappable.
"Believe me too, when I say... I've never managed to protect anything in my life. I want... I want to start with you, but it's difficult. It's not something I can just turn on or off at will. There's only one thing I'm actually good at, and it's -ending lives-. Every fight I've ever decided to fight, it's always been to the death. This is actually the first time that I managed to convince someone to just surrender."
Louise looked down. "So that's it, huh? You're not going to trust me? And you want me to trust you."
"Excuse me, Mistress Vallière?" there was a knocking at the door, and it opened to show Siesta. "But it's a request from the Headmaster himself. Now that your familiar is awake, if you can..." the maid gasped at the sight. A noble, a mage, was straddling a commoner, her familiar.
Belatedly the two teens realized their position. "It- it's not what it looks like!" Louise screeched as she hurriedly got off, inadvertedly kneeing Shinji in the gut, who let out an 'Ouf!' of pain. "Nothing happened! Nothing's happening!"
"No, no, it's none of my business. Sorry for interrupting." Siesta hurriedly closed the door. "Though really you should wait until he's healed more..." were her parting words.
Louise blushed heavily. Shinji began rubbing the bridge of his nose. This was a complication both unforeseen and entirely undesirable. "Look, Louise-sama."
"S-shut up! Don't say anything! This never happened, okay? Just stay there, be quiet! I've got to sort this out." Louise didn't look back, and fled from her own room.
"Huh. What's her problem?" Shinji sighed. "Though I guess I kind of went overboard with the duel. I need some simpler, more plausible way of explaining it to other people."
'Hah. You just admitted to being dangerous and yet somehow under her control. You're now the brooding bad boy wrapped around a mysterious past full of pain. Are you really that much of an idiot? Teenage girls, for some reason, are really attracted to jerks like that. Hell, you were like that.'
'Th-that was different! Kaworu was... kind.'
Mocking laughter was the only answer. Shinji desperately wanted to punch himself in the face. So, he did. He was rewarded with a generous burst of pain that echoed around in his skull, until he knocked himself out.
Louise had to endure a somewhat uncomfortable and unsatisfying interview with Old Osmond. All they did was to dig up her dismal academic history, and there was no explanation for how she of all people could have summon a human... if it really was a human... as a familiar. She answered his questions honestly, that she only did the Academy instructed rituals. She had a feeling that the kindly old Headmaster thought she was lying, for some reason.
A day later, and Shinji felt strong enough to resume his tasks. He sighed at the pile of laundry that Louise had built it. It was punishment for letting himself be hurt, his own personal pain was not enough. After all, she had to give up most of her allowance for the reagents to fix that. Siesta helped, teaching him how the servants washed clothes for the nobles. It was surprisingly normal to his experience, they even had bars of soap very similar to that he used to see on store shelves.
The Gandálfr runes never did stop glowing, though more muted than before. "I need to cover this up." he said to Louise, the closest he could get to complaining. Though he may have blown to hell all chances of living a harmless, mundane, easily-overlooked life, it was not good to draw undue attention. His old clothes were ruined from the duel and he had to request for new garments suitable for that of personal servant, like a butler or something.
It was time for him to accompany Louise back into open society. Shinji put on the manservant's long black suit and checked the fit of his white gloves. He looked at himself in the mirror. All he needed now was a scraggly chin beard and some orange-tinted sunglasses. He turned away angrily.
He closed his eyes and felt himself sink. In the darkness he stood alone. Out from the lightless void showed countless eyes, watching, measuring, judging.
"Hey, are you listening?"
Shinji opened his eyes, the sunlight stinging his eyes. "I'm sorry. What did you just say?"
"I said I won't tolerate you going off on your own to do any more stupid things." Louise raised a finger triumphantly. "You're my Familiar, after all!"
Shinji wanted to laugh. He did not know what he deserved, but with Louise around in her childishly innocent and egotistical, all-too-demanding way, he would never lack for pressures to gauge his remaining worth. Redemption was not for those such as him. He bowed with his gloved left hand over his heart. A strangely feral grin crossed his face. "Yes, my Master."
First off, my apologies for stealing whole chunks right out of the Baka-Tsuki translation of Zero No Tsukaima. It's rather easy to add sections when one can just lift it right off the source material. When it gets around to more serious deviations from plot, likely it's going to slow down much as Shinji and WH40k did.
Anyway, this was done because I heartily agreed with what was mention in the JustBugsMe entry in tvtropes for Zero No Tsukaima. It actually has a pretty good plot at its core. It could have been much more than generic harem fare, plenty of those war plots and politics are actually pretty interesting. It's why I'm working straight from the light novels. Some situations in it treated as comedy just as well could be used for drama, intrigue, or horror. The books did well later in focusing more the greater sweep of war, and how it affects these young people.
Just like with NGE, it seems to me that it's the sort of setting that if you inject just a bit more insanity into it, might coalesce into something a bit more balanced. Louise's tsundere-ness, hugely over-emphasized for comedic purposes, sadly get in the way of the compelling plot and pull the characters into the familiar back-and-forth of jealousies and indecisiveness. Hence, post-3I Shinji. To love is to hurt, as a starting point.
It's really starting to disturb me how so many of my stories deal with insanity. Can't I just have a nice, sane, reasonable protagonist? Unfortunately, it seems insanity is an easy lever for so many turns of plot, in much the same way as tsundere reactions tend to drive the harem situation. Heh. Perhaps it's just sheer laziness. One of the other changes I wanted to make was that, through centuries of cultural conditioning, all nobles to some degree are assholes (re: Old Osmond), while all commoners to some degree just as spiteful (Siesta or Marteau). Character development begins with being able to see perspectives other than their own. Brimir's balance is starting to crack, and it's almost time again for the status quo to realign. As far as the light novels have me believe, the Big Bad of the story is pushing chaos into Halkeginia just because it would be fun. It's a pretty 'Major' move, eh? Eh? It's not gonna be grimdark, but a little more of the serious background leeching out into the typical harem hijinks. I mean, if you remove those angst-and-pique-filled scenes of teenage love, what's there to fill the gap?
Also, regarding the point of honor, as raised by a pre-reader at TFF: both Shinji and Guiche felt that ladies have been wronged, and that it's entirely the other guy's fault. Hence, the duel. However, the value systems of a noble raised to defend his real and his honor and someone born from the hard reality of Second Impact (and living through the death of the entire human race), are of course wildly divergent. It's fine to dislike the protagonist, since that's kind of the whole point of Shinji Ikari's character, isn't? If you -like- the boy without reserve, that tends to erode his canon characterization. Shinji and WH40k gets a bit of a pass, since it's about rebuilding the character from the ground up. Here, this is still the Shinji that jerked off to Asuka's comatose form. He had accepted the worthlessness of his being, but for some reason here that went on for uncounted time, crossing over from pathetic self-hate into vicious disregard.
In any case, I hope you got some enjoyment from this brief look into an alternate treatment of the 'Familiar of Zero'. Very sorry, but please don't expect a follow-up too soon. I do have the other major projects to finish first.