So let me get this straight. We've been here for all of three days and already you want to set up the baka with what looks like a younger, even more emotionally stunted version of you? The one with the even less reluctance about resorting to lethal force as her hello?

That is correct.

Okay, we're done here.

We have a signed petition.

Your clones don't count as separate votes! NEXT!

We have an endorsement from Mrs. Ikari.

... that perverted hag counts as a million negative votes.

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Surrogate of Zero

ch 7

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Last episode, we saw Ikaricus Inepticus acquire a magical talking sword that supposedly eats magic. He has also agreed to a later all-out duel with Tabithas Neotenus Badasseri, which is sure to end up being hilarious for us.

So now we begin in the middle of the day, skipping over the unimportant early morning routine. Shinji Ikari and Louise La Valliere are inside a classroom. Shinji's quiet and well-behaved enough that he's allowed to sit up on the desks as if he's a student, but not in this class. The professor is quick to anger, and Shinji would rather not seen, be forgotten, and avoid pointless conflict. On the other hand, there's nothing stopping him from lying down and taking a nap if he wants to. On the gripping hand, he doesn't want to sleep. He's talked Louise into lending him some sheets of a paper and a set of quill and ink.

Okay, just added to the list I'm making Shinji write, Money-making Scheme number 32: self-inking Brush Pens. Shinji's written it down in Kanji, so it should be safe from casual perusal.

And then with something that makes writing easier, Shinji, if you're going to have all this much free time inside a classroom, why not become a novelist? You've got paper and ink, and that's all you need. We should ask Tabitha if there's someone like Dumas in the scene, and if not- the Count of Monte Cristo is sure to be a hit. Or we could try poetry. Nevermore. You could create the detective story genre. Trashy romance novels are trashy. And profitable.

We have an almost infinite library of stories just waiting for resale.

'That's just.. plagiarizing.' Shinji thinks, discouraged. 'That's stealing other people's work. I won't earn my money that way.'

Who do you think you are, Scrooge McDuck? You can't be tougher than the toughies and sharper that the sharpies and make your money square. You can try to convince Louise into doing that, but for you- if you're not cheating, you're not trying. Copyright doesn't matter anymore. You own -all the rights-.

'That still doesn't make it right. I should at least put some effort into it.'

Fine. Owning a printing press would still be useful. Make sure to do that. Words can do more to destroy the foundations of nobility than any number of small uprisings.

'Each according to their needs, each according to their ability, isn't so simple when there's a sizable segment of the population that can command nature to do as they want, who are instrumental to the persistence of civilization. It's only an assumption that the distribution of resources and heavy elements are the same as Earth. We don't know if it obeys the same rules of nature.'

Clouds still bring rain. Dead things return to the soil. Fish come from the sea. What more do we need?

'Mages are people too, Asuka. Trying to make them obsolete out of spite doesn't solve the problem.'

School. It's so boring. When you've got the repository of all human history and philosophy in your head, you can pretend to be as educated as you can want. Knowledge is different from maturity, though. Shinji's so intent on gaining power through mundane human means to preserve himself from the temptation to rely upon the streams of incarnate might just waiting under his veins.

The teacher, Kaita the Gust, a tall man with long jet-black hair and very aggressive disposition, is still going on about how Wind is the strongest magic. As if there's any such thing. Louise is inclined to agree, due to the terrifying fame of her mother, but as she explained to us earlier, mages cast spells from their willpower. Stamina is probably a better word, but it's more a combination of intent and endurance.

"Everyone, I now tell you why the wind element is the strongest. It is quite easy. Wind can sweep up everything. Fire, water, and dirt alike cannot find footing when faced against strong enough winds." Kaita briskly announces. "Unfortunately, reality does not let me experiment this, but even Void would probably not stand. That is the wind element."

Wind is just the motion of molecules, you idiot. We should introduce him to solar wind. And even then, that can't move someone who's anchored himself in absolute spacetime. We already survived the sun going nova.

All of a sudden, the door to the classroom opens.

It's Siesta. Dun dun?

"Pardon the intrusion, please." she says to those inside, her eyes slightly unfocused. She sweeps her gaze around the room until her attention locks on to Shinji.

Completely ignoring the teacher's steadily more volatile inquiry, she quickly strides over to him. She bows to Louise. "Excuse me for a moment, please, Mistress Valliere?"

"Siesta?" Louise asks archly. "What are you doing here?"

Rather than answer, she sits down and folds Shinji into a tight hug. Shinji smells a touch of brandy.

"Hey!" Louise shrieks in scandalized outrage.

"Please take care of yourself." Siesta says when she finally pulls free. "Make sure to eat well and try not to get any more fights." She gives him a tender kiss to the forehead. She stands up and wipes at her eyes. "Goodbye, Mister Shinji!"

She flees from the room, the very picture of heartbroken maidenhood.

And the room erupts in noise. "You perverted familiarrr!" rises above them all, and fueling even greater speculation.

"ORDER! I WILL HAVE ORDER IN THIS CLASS!" the teacher shouts, his voice amplified by Wind magic. "SILENCE!"

Quickly the class simmers down. Louise has her face forward, an unemotional mask of intent attention.

"I will not tolerate any more interruptions in my class. There will be no more stupid useless chatter! As a Triangle-class Wind Mage, I will be able to pick out even the slightest whisper, and know who needs to be punished! Now pay attention! You there! What is the most important function of Wind magic in our society?"

The pudgy young noble, Malicorne, answers with "Uhh... making windmills move?"

"Wrong! I'm ashamed to see you as a Wind-aligned mage! Crawl in the dirt instead!" the teacher replies. Malicorne's owl hoots its displeasure, but the young noble just cowers. The teacher turns to Kirche. "How about you, miss Fireball?"

Kirche smirks, apparently undaunted by how the teacher had deflected her fireball from earlier to prove that Wind was stronger than Fire. "Airships. Wind magic is needed to control airships and recharge Windstones."

"Adequate."

Louise winces and rubs at her forehead. Her vision's starting to get fuzzy, and the back of her eyeballs feel itchy. She blinks, and sees herself. She looks left and right, but even as she moves her head, the view doesn't change.

She's looking through her familiar's eyes!

Yesterday, he's connected with Louise a little, and in return for her gift he feels like he should start being more useful. The view moves down towards the floor and a sheet of paper there. Written on it is:

- Please don't be alarmed. I figured out how to get this remote vision thing working. It turns out I have to let you in. Normally it's the mage that has to trigger it, right? For us, it's reversed. I can look through your eyes too, but you have to decide to allow it. This arrangement preserves our privacy, and is much more useful than just a one-way remote observation. -

"What are you talking about?" Louise hisses softly.

"Haven't you been listening?" the teacher shouts. "One would expect a child of the famed Valliere family would understand the importance of speed when it comes to trade! A ship would have to sail all around Halkeginia to reach Romalia, a journey that takes a fraction of the time in an airship. Likewise, wagons can't carry a load that can equal the cargo capacity of an airship, and would be as pitifully slow. Tristain has the second largest air fleet in all Halkeginia because we recognize its importance! Is this too difficult for you to understand, Miss Valliere? Or were you thinking I was just bluffing about being able to hear even the tiniest whisper?"

"No, Professor Kaita! Please accept my apologies, sir." Louise responds quickly, stiffening her sitting posture and staring straight ahead.

The teacher nods and continues his lecture.

The perspective of her sight remains the same. Some more lines have been added to the sheet.

- Please close your eyes and think about what it would feel like to let someone else look through your eyes. It might be disconcerting for a while, but please bear with it. -

Driven by her curiosity, Louise doesn't hesitate. She closes her eyes and wonders what it means. She has her eyes closed, and strangely she feels both sightless while at the same time still seeing clearly through Shinji's eyes. She feels some sort of distant tugging sensation and decides to pull back in turn.

She opens her eyes and "Gah." She's looking through Shinji's eyes, who's looking through her eyes, who's also looking through his eyes and what he's seeing is what she's seeing and oh dear she seems to have gone cross-eyed.

Louise knocks at the side of her head with the ball of her palm and tries to focus. Eventually she opens her eyes and forcefully pushes aside the thought of how the hell she's managing to look out through four eyes at the same time without going mad.

It's not that difficult. The images manage to overlap. Darker areas are more transparent to lighter areas. That the writing paper is the same bright color to both sets of eyes, means that Shinji manages to adjust the paper he's written on to align with the sheet on Louise's desk. Now it looks like there's writing on it.

- Please focus on the vertical line below this, and then write something below it. -

- Like this? -

Like some sort of primitive chatbox, Shinji easily slides in his reply. He tests turning off the vision-sharing on his end, and then Louise tries both to deny and force open the connection on her end.

- Looks like it works. -

- An optical illusion. This is somewhat interesting, I admit. -

- Feeling lucky yet that you have the power to summon a human familiar? At the very least, a familiar that can read and write. -

- Why should I feel lucky? -

- You could be a most excellent spy, or a least a very well-informed field officer. - Shinji writes. - A mere animal would just let you see from its eyes, but a human can report on his findings. Just with this, you can hold a conversation between two groups of people no matter the distance, don't you think that would be important in diplomacy?

You really should stop being so jealous about other's powers. None of them have the potential to influence society on a continental scale like you can -

- Jealous? I'm not jealous! - Louise responds anyway.

She's grinning, slowly in her imagination builds what Shinji meant. It's an advantage that no one else can claim, unless there are others who have summoned humans too. Just because one is unique doesn't mean that one can't be useless, but Louise takes worth in being of able to serve someone else's purpose. Fealty is a strong component of nobility.

- This is interesting, but it's just a way to communicate. Better to ask, what's up with you and that shameless hussy of a maid? -

- Nothing's up with us. But... something's troubling Miss Siesta. - Shinji pauses and thinks over his place in this new life of his. - Rather than tell you, Mistress, what do you know of deductive reasoning? -

- It's analysis going from the general to the particular, right? Why can't you just tell me? -

- It's more interesting this way. These are the facts:

1. Miss Siesta had the faint smell of alcohol.

2. She rushed inside, accosted me, and then quickly left with no regard for propriety.

3. Her exact words to me were "Take care of yourself", "Make sure to eat well and try not to get any more fights" and then "Goodbye, Mister Shinji!"

4. She was crying.

5. She told me yesterday that as long as she's around, I would never starve.

What conclusion can be reached from these? -

- That she's a drunkard and a wanton woman! How dare she imply that you'd starve, as if I'm unable to provide for my own familiar! -

Shinji just sighs. - Mistress, I refuse to allow you to cripple the power of your own reason. Let me put it this way instead, why do people choose to drink? -

After a while, Louise writes down - Because wine tastes good, I suppose? Because they're drunkards and they have no self-control! It's unsightly. -

- That's redundant. A drunkard has no self-control because... ? -

- Being drunk is to be addled in the head. - Louise has to put down with a superior smirk.

- That which is called drunkeness is an altered state of the mind. Being drunk allows people to forget. It lowers inhibitions. In smaller amounts, it's why liquor is sometimes called 'liquid courage'. As B follows A, Miss Siesta felt she needed to be brave, and interrupting a class of noble-born is both rude and improper, and in its own way, very courageous. -

- She doesn't know her place! And why does she hug you for no reason all of a sudden? -

- Not for no reason. She is my friend. She's arranged for how I get to have my meals with the other commoners in the kitchen. Haven't you ever been so engrossed in something you'd rather forego meals? Miss Siesta recognizes that I'm also of that sort to neglect to eat if I've found something too interesting. -

- What does that have to do with anything? -

- Why would a maid dare the wrath of a Triangle-class noble teacher to interrupt his class, just to hug me and leave me some parting words? Why would she be so despondent about it? Think about it, please. -

- Fine. She's that daring because " Louise pauses and licks her lips. She thinks about it for a long while. It's easy to say that a commoner might be insubordinate, but insubordination is punishable. For a maid to set aside her fear of corrective action means she must have... strong emotional connection to Shinji? That hussy! No, that's stupid; Louise decides. Why be sad about it unless Shinji's rejected her already? He just doesn't look the type. It doesn't fit with what she'd observed of their apparent flirting last night. - she doesn't have to fear punishment anymore from anyone inside the Academy. She's leaving the Academy. -

- Correct. -

- That's inane. -

- Remember, Louise, it's a wild indiscretion out of the blue. Why go that far? -

After a while Louise writes - She's leaving the castle. She's leaving the castle, not of her own free will. That explains the urgency. -

- Exactly. Excellent deduction, Mistress. But now it seems we've just uncovered a deeper mystery. What could explain this sudden change in routine? -

- Not again. We're not going to involve ourselves again in the affairs of the hired help. It's beneath the attention of a noble. -

- I'm not a noble. It's not beneath me to care. I do kind of feel responsible for her. I only really know three people in this place - you, Miss Siesta, and Miss Tabitha. And Miss Tabitha is only waiting until she gets to pound my face in. -

Louise snorts. - You're not allowed to make any more trouble for me. -

- Knowledge is power, Louise. This might seem like a small mystery, but investigations always start small. -

Louise grimaces. At her age, her mother was already going around uncovering conspiracies and defeating vicious monsters. She's tempted to just write down 'I forbid you to involve yourself in this idiocy any further', except that the aphorism 'Knowledge is power' necessarily implies that 'Ignorance is a weakness'.

She ponders her options. If she writes 'Don't tell me what to do, I'm the master here', then Shinji could just say that he's not trying to make her do anything. Unsaid but all too clear there would be: she's giving up far too easily at the slightest hint of any inconvenience. If she writes 'It's not important, let the maid show some spine and save herself for once', then he could respond that to ignore a plea for help from a social inferior, and that social inferior manage to solve her own problems, means that noble superior is irrelevant. The respect due to a noble due to her power is therefore undeserved.

- Why should I keep on letting that damn maid impact my valuable time here in the Academy? -

- Why not? It's not like it's all that exciting in here anyway. -

Because even a maid is a person, Shinji wants to say, and Louise needs such a friend. Siesta is his friend, and Louise is someone he cares about, and he can't help but to want them to get along with each other too.

Louise huffs. It's not like she has anything better to do outside of classes. She doesn't have any friends to socialize with. Reading up on complex magical theory has already proven useless for getting her magic under control.

Shinji flips the paper over to write at the other side. Louise withdraws from her link for a second to do the same to her sheet.

- It's an investigation. Do you know how to conduct an investigation? - she sees next.

- Of course I do. We need to interrogate somebody. Just you watch! I'll get a confession right quick! -

Shinji sighs. That's not encouraging. - Louise, have you ever heard of the term 'good cop, bad cop'? -

Heh. Deluded gendarme and psychotic gendarme, more like it.

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The class is over. Now we're in the kitchen. The apprentices and helpers were washing dishes and scrubbing pans, pointedly trying to pretend they're not seeing a noble in the kitchen. Martreau, the head chef, has his arms crossed in a posture of guarded defiance. The highest authority in a kitchen is its head chef. Louise stands facing him across the table, her ams in a similar challenging posture. Shinji's sitting down, drinking tea.

Wait... aren't we reversing things here? Who's supposed to be the master and who is the attack dog again?

Shinji puts down his teacup with a delicate clink at the coaster dish. "Please, have a seat, Mistress Louise. Your tea's getting cold."

Louise shakes her head belligerently. "I'll stand if I want to." To her it would seem as if she's supplicating a commoner. It doesn't help that Marteau is a big man with rather crude features, and even if he sits down, he'd still tower over these two. Louise hadn't even given thought before as to who prepares the student's meals, and she can barely believe such a man with thick, arms and fingers could cook with such delicacy.

"If that's what you want..." Shinji sighs, then turns to the chef. "We're here to ask about miss Siesta. Where is she now?"

Marteau looks reluctant to speak while Louise is there. The pink-haired girl shoots him a beady look that asks 'What are you hiding? You're too suspicious! Confess!'

"Siesta's left the castle." Marteau replies with a sigh. "A certain Count Mott asked her to be his mistress."

Louise blinks. "That's it? That was simple." She shrugs and turns around. "Mystery solved, let's go."

"Wait." Shinji taps at the ring of the ceramic cup. "Please explain to me what being a mistress means."

"It's.. um... you know..." Marteau grimaces at Shinji. "It's sort of like a wife on the side, do you understand?"

"I know the definition of it, yes. I'm sorry, what I meant to say was- did Count Mott buy out her contract? Did Siesta get something in advance for her obligations in this castle?"

Marteau shakes his head. "No, only artisans have contracts to keep their service. Servants are only paid for as long as they work, it doesn't matter for whom."

"So, basically... this Count Mott just comes around, tells Siesta to quit her job, without anything in return? Thats it?" Shinji sucks in a breath through his teeth. "That's... some serious douchebag behavior."

"What are you talking about?" Louise interrupts. "A noble favoring a commoner, that's not a bad thing."

"Not a bad thing?" Marteau retorts. "Siesta's been taken away. Her life's been destroyed at a word."

"If you call being treated like a lady as being destroyed. That maid, she should feel so lucky!"

"Luck has nothing to do with it, Louise." Shinji says in a soothing voice. "It's a class change. Miss Siesta had a steady job here in the Academy, with some protection afforded by the authority and traditions of this school. To give that up for the uncertainty to become some nobleman's mistress - that doesn't provide a contract either."

"Commoners are always looking for a noble to snag! It's their ticket to an easy life!" She glances at Marteau for a moment. "To gain the attention of a noble is the only way to advance in station."

The head chef looks like he wants to say something, but is held back both by Louise's noble status and her youth. He just huffs, pushing aside his ire, it's not his place to correct noble girl's ignorance about how the world really works. In many ways, it's when commoners prove that they don't -need- the patronage of a noble, that's when the nobles appear to offer their support to claim the talents for their own use.

Shinji looks thoughtful. "And yet- how are we so sure that Siesta didn't try to say no?"

Louise frowns. "What do you mean? Why shouldn't she agree...?"

"That's just conjecture, Louise. You yourself deduced earlier that Siesta didn't want to leave the castle. How do we reconcile this conflict?"

Louise sniffs. "Well, obviously... that was just a show?"

"That just adds complexity to the situation, rather than finding the most logical scenario. Facts are facts, Louise. To Siesta, the benefits of becoming a mistress did not outweigh the loss she feels."

Louise bites her lip. That maid was too forward! She all but assaulted Shinji. To leave the castle, is that the regret Siesta's leaving behind? Louise wants to think it preposterous. Shinji's not so impressive. Maybe the maid feels some sense of debt from the few days ago, since Shinji did go so far as to challenge a noble for her honor, but surely Siesta was that self-interested enough to say 'yes'.

"Siesta couldn't refuse..." Marteau says sadly. "Or rather, Count Mott wouldn't listen to her refusal. If Siesta didn't obey, then that person could make so much trouble."

"Don't slander!" Louise barks out at the burly chef. "It's easy enough to see that maid did it all for her self-interest. What's the point in trying to pretend it's some big tragedy now? She has it good."

"Is that, therefore, what women aspire to?" Shinji ponders. "A comfortable life, to be pampered, adored, with very whim indulged, as long as at night they'd be a willing fuck toy?"

Louise scowls mightily. "You-! Watch what you're saying!" she grinds out. "I'm not falling for your word traps anymore."

"So... that's a no?"

"Shut up. Are you trying to make me angry? Of course not!"

"But you just said it's a good life. So what is it, then?"

Louise grimaces. "It's... relative, isn't it? For a commoner, to be a nobleman's mistress, it's a honor. It's better to be served than to serve... if she can't be a wife to a noble, that's close to it."

Marteau's lips curl up. "You're saying that as if there's nothing to be given up for such a thing! It's a prison! It's not an honor, it's a curse! You nobles might like to trade yourselves to secure alliances, but we treat our bodies with more respect than that! It's the only thing left that we truly own!"

"How dare you-!"

"Louise. Mister Marteau. Stop." Shinji raises his teacup to his lips, takes a sip, and puts it down with a soft clink. "Power and privilege are separate things. Maybe... how do I explain this... " What would Sherlock Holmes do? No, Holmes is kind of an ass about explaining things. The Socratic method involves getting someone else to keep talking, but we don't have time to waste letting Louise go round and round until she gets a clue.

How about...

Shinji looks to the distance, juggling in his head facets of his personality. People can't be convinced just by facts. The capacity of a human mind to deny the facts is phenomenal, but hacking a brain is to bypass reason entirely. "Louise, how about we play a game of Pretend?"

"Hm? What?"

Shinji moves his chair slightly that he can see Louise from the side. He picks up the teacup and leans back in an exaggeratedly languid pose. "Let's pretend, that I'm the noble in this relationship and you're some serving girl that caught my eye." He raises the cup to his lips, and though it hides his mouth everything else makes it clear he has a predatory smile. "I would like you to be my mistress. Do you accept this?"

Louise's posture stiffens. "... uh, sure."

"Louise, you are now -my- mistress." he whispers.

Louise makes a show of rolling her eyes exasperatedly, turning her head away from him. "... yeah, yeah, what's your point?"

"I have brought you here, to my mansion, where you will have every luxury you have ever dreamed of. But if you leave this mansion, you can never return. Here my word is law. If you stay by my side and obey me, I will care for you. Disobey me or leave, you are nothing to me." He bares his teeth slightly. "Do you understand this? Do you accept this?"

Louise's cheek twitches. Her crossed arms shifts slightly into a protective hug. "... fine. Yes. Get on with it."

"Louise!" Shinji says roughly. "You are -mine-!"

Louise blushes instantly. She flinches at his tone and then her posture begins to relax in his direction. Shinji takes another sip of his tea, his eyes intent at a point near Louise's bare neck. Marteau's eyebrows rise in fascination at the tableau.

"My pretty little Louise. Your body yields to my touch. I teach you pleasures you can't even begin to imagine. But you must remain here, in this mansion. Your enemy in behind its walls is boredom, but when I come in, I expect you to devote all your attention to pleasing me. There is no world outside. I am your world. Will you attend me, Louise?"

"... yes." she manages to squeak.

Shinji nonchalantly holds his arm out, shaking the empty teacup. Hurriedly one of the apprentices breaks off from washing dishes, wiping his hand on his apron, to refill it first with milk, then with tea. Only later does that apprentice realize what he'd done. It was automatic, he jumped to serve. A true noble doesn't need to command, and the boy is exuding that all-consuming pride. Shinji smells its the aroma then puts the cup down to cool. "Louise." he whispers.

The girl eeps and stiffens.

"I will be hosting a party at the end of this week. I would like to present you to my friends. I expect you to serve them as... diligently... as you would serve me. Will you do this for me, Louise?"

Louise blinks, coming to realize the implications, then turns her head back to Shinji. "Wait a damn minute..." That was a mistake.

Shinji doesn't look angry. He absently runs his hand around the rim of the cup, caressing it, and everyone's eyes is drawn to his thin fingers going around and around. He's not even looking at what he's doing, but his eyes entrap Louise. With every circle done by his finger, it's as if the air inside the room is getting thicker and thicker.

Suddenly he stops and pinches the lip of the teacup. Mister Marteau begins to cough and gasp for breath, as his sudden gulp seems to have gone down the wrong pipe. Louise yelps as if in pain.

"Are you disobeying me, Louise?"

"N-no." the girl squeaks. "No, I'm not."

"That's good. My good little mistress. My pretty little Louise." Shinji croons. "The party is a success. And it's all because of you. I'm so happy. You should rest now. Are you happy, Louise?"

Louise feels the beating of her chest and concludes "Yes, I'm happy."

"Good. Good." Shinji takes a sip of his tea and then speaks in a hard tone. "You've been my mistress for a while now. You seem to be pregnant, Louise. This is a bother."

"... what?"

"Have you forgotten to take your potions? Or is it that you think you can get me to come home more often? How tedious. What other women I may have is none of your concern." His voice lowers to a hiss. "I will call for a certain friend of mine, and this problem will be fixed. We will have no more of this foolishness. Do you understand me, Louise?"

Louise blinks. "Are you talking about an abortion? That's... "

"You are boring me now, Louise. Get out."

"No, wait!"

"From the muck I raised you, and to the muck you shall return! You are nothing to me. GET OUT!"

"You can't do this to me!"

Shinji slams his teacup onto the table, shattering it. A spray of hot tea flips in the air, and everyone flinches from it. He smashes the remains onto the floor near Louise's feet. "GET OUT!"

Feeling her heart as a solid mass of fear, her eyes reddening with unshed tears, Louise runs out of the kitchen.

Shinji sits back down, exhausted both emotionally and mentally. He tries to get his breathing back under control. "Maybe I overdid it...?" he asks softly.

Since we were the only living beings left on that bloody planet, roleplaying was the only way to keep ourselves just this side of insane. Our only entertainment was each other. I'm giving it a 9 on the imprometer.

After a long, ponderous silence, Shinji hears applause. Marteau slaps his beefy hand on Shinji's shoulder, his face in tears and little stream of blood leaking out of his nose. "That was the most amazing thing I've ever seen..." he burbles out. "You're amazing, mister Ikari. Just amazing!"

Then suddenly Louise leaps back into the kitchen. She's still blushing, but also in fury as it took going almost halfway down the corridor before she realized she had absolutely no reason to feel so lost and betrayed. Her embarassment is at a fever-pitch. "WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT JUST NOW?" she screams while brandishing her wand. "You- you perverted familiar! HOW DARE YOU! WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO ME?"

Shinji just looks puzzled. "Nothing happened. Please, mistre-"

That word just inflames Louise further. "You- how dare you play with a young girl's feelings! DIE!"

Kaboom.

"No magic in the kitchen!" Marteau yells out too late.

.

Shinji holds up a raw steak to his black eye. His voice is back to that faintly whining note that Louise is so familiar with. "At least, now you understand that without a contract, being a mistress offers no legal protection or security... I hope?"

"I don't forgive you."

"I'm sorry." Even if it's not his fault that Louise is conditioned to pant after affection and approval. Maybe it is slightly -my- fault. Shinji, romance me. Shinji, let's role-play. Shinji, that's some weak sauce right there, do some research then come back to serenade me like you're Frank Sinatra. I'm a lady, you know. I want to be seduced with -class-. "But... may we continue this investigation?"

"What else is there to investigate?" Louise huffs. "We already know what happened."

"No, we know that Siesta did leave the castle. We must now gather facts regarding Count Mott's character. Just because it's something endemic in the system, doesn't mean that an informal agreement like that is a good thing." Shinji licks his lips. "Marriage is a social contract, Louise. To be a mistress is to be vulnerable. A maid has legal protection here. To become a mistress, it's too great a risk- inside the privacy of a nobleman's mansion, anything can happen."

Louise shivers and restrains the urge to hit him again. "So? What's your point?"

"That it happened in the span of single morning- that's barely enough to time to get to know her 'patron'. There are two scenarios. Either she is being coerced, or that this Count Mott offered her a reward far in excess of her sense of the risk. What do you think?"

"The second." Louise replies cooly. "A noble is bound by his word, even to a commoner."

"Mmm. A promise is bound by honor, even tighter than a legal document?"

Louise nods. "Only a whore asks for payment in advance." she spits out.

But arranged marriages are still prevalent in Halkegenia and they, noble and commoner alike, practice the exchange of dowries and bride-price. A prenuptial agreement would, like, break their minds? Whatever.

"We need to gather more facts, or at least questionable information. Who should we ask about this...?" Shinji mumbles. "I'd rather not go to the adults and official records... ah." He smiles a bit. "This is gossip. So obviously, there's one person we both know who'd know."

Louise blanches. "If we really have to go to Kirche..."

"No, not her. This is -guy- gossip."

Louise looks up and thinks about Guiche, and his frilly poncy ways, and decides that it's believable that he might know about this.

.

.

They find Guiche at the common room at the bottom floor of the second-year dormitory tower, being hand-fed sandwiches by Montmorency. Aww. Looks like the two made up well. There's nothing like a life-and-death struggle to bring two reluctant hearts closer together.

As you would know.

S-shut up. Anyway! We just beat their ass down a few days ago, so the two tense up at the approach. "So what's this about, Ikari?" Guiche asks, as they move to sit around a coffee table. Montmorency just stares suspiciously at them, as Shinji had remarked that it was 'lucky' she was there too.

"Tell us everything you know about Count Mott!" Louise opens up.

"... wha?"

"... Guiche isn't a suspect, Mistress." Shinji groans. "There's time to shake someone down for information, but we're not in a high enough place." He gives Guiche an apologetic look. "But, if you please... what do you know?"

"Why do you want to know about the Royal Messenger?" Montmorency asks. She sniffs haughtily. "I'm surprised the Zero doesn't know the elements of the court."

"I make it a point not to gossip about what's none of my business." Louise replies through grit teeth. "At least my family is one that may get an invitation from the palace." she sneers, slamming at Montmorency's meager status and family holdings.

"Better than being a failed mage."

Shinji and Guiche share a pained look. If they don't stop this, the girls could be snipping at each other for hours, building up ill will through the meantime.

"That's enough, Mon-mon." Guiche says soothingly. "Let's just answer the question." He looks up, raising his chin and trying to look... ahahaha, manly and responsible. "So, Count Mott, is it? I actually do know a little about him."

Shinji in turn taps Louise's left forearm with his fingers, and the girl reacts as if burned. She claps her other hand over the point of contact, and blushes faintly. Montmorency's eyes widen, then narrow in speculative interest. "Whatever information you can provide would be appreciated." Shinji continues.

Guiche flicks his rose wand out and puts it to his lips. "To begin with, you must understand that there are three types of nobles. There are those who become nobles through old lineage and the ownership of wide farmland. Valliere and Montmorency, are examples of these landed nobles."

Louise sniffs haughtily here, for Montmorency over time had lost much of their holdings, with barely any more than a single estate. The blonde young noble pointedly ignores it.

"Gramont isn't?" Shinji asks.

"No, but it's nothing to be ashamed of. Among the landless nobles, there are two further types - those who are raised to nobility through distinguishing themselves in military service, and those raised to the station by holding official charges. I am rather proud of being noblesse militarie, and Count Mott is noblesse de robe." His eyes harden for a moment. "Gramont and Mott don't move in the same circles, and we don't get along."

"How so?"

"While Count Mott may have little more than a mansion and the surrounding land to his name, his position as a Royal Messenger allows him great influence in court." He sighs, licking his lips in nervousness before continuing. "While we Gramont may have a ... reputation ... at least it can be said we have always pursued our conquests fairly. With charm and attention."

"Guiche, remember your promise."

"Yes, yes, my dear Montmorency. I'm just speaking in, uh, general terms, now. Ahem. Count Mott... does not. He has a taste for those who would find it difficult to resist his advances."

"So you're saying he's the type to... force himself... into women's good graces?"

Guiche puts down his flower-stem wand and a strange fire burns in his eyes. "Listen to me, Ikari. While I admit that my family and my... ways... may have caused trouble to some ladies, don't you dare compare a Gramont to a Mott! Someone who forces himself onto a woman is scum! Though there are those who despise the well-earned reputation of the Gramont, never have we taken liberties with a woman without her willing consent! To us, the face of Mott is the face of the enemy!"

"Guiche..." Montmorency looks up at his facial profile with newfound respect.

"I see." Shinji looks to the distance for a moment, and frowns. "I have another question. Do you know how Count Mott perpetuates his influence? As a messenger, he'd have an easy list of important people, but peddling rumors and secrets is unbecoming of a messenger."

A flash of panic crosses Guiche's face. He looks at Louise then Montmorency. "It's somewhat difficult... let's just say that he has acquired many friends through hosting private events and leave it at that."

Louise looks puzzled for a moment, then gasps. Shinji's frown fades to be replaced with a look of serene certainty. "You mean parties, right? Very private parties. Ones that have a very exclusive guest list that many nobles would give almost anything to be included."

"Y-yes."

Now Montmorency gets it. She blushes and fans herself. "You mean, they're o-..." She stops, for a lady of good breeding is not supposed to even think of such things.

I wonder what Guiche would do to be invited to such a shindig? Or is it that the Gramonts oppose it on the principle they're not highly-placed enough to be invited? No, the truth is funnier than that. As a male chauvinist, a self-professed gentleman, he'd rather objectify women in the sense that they're as unto wonderful art, to be appreciated and worshiped, free of flaws that plague his gender. He's afraid of commitment because he has no fucking idea how to deal with women on an equal context.

Shinji laces his fingers together. "One last thing, then. What kind of mage is Count Mott? Dot, Line, Triangle? What element?"

"He's a Line Mage, Water element." Guiche replies.

Shinji smiles a bit, bringing his palms together, with a slight pop, his fingers clenching into a double-handed fist. He takes a deep breath, and relaxes visibly. He stands up and put his hands in his pant pockets, halfways slouching like a hooligan. "Thank you, sir Gramont. It's much appreciated."

Louise blinks, then gets up as well. "That's it? All right, we're done here. Let's go. Oh, and have my thanks too, Guiche."

Guiche smirks. "No problem." He raises his rose wand to his nose and says "Hey, Ikari-."

Shinji looks back. "Hm?"

"Whatever it is you're up to... good luck."

As the Shinji and Louise leave, walking side by side, Montmorency remarks "Those two have a an interesting dynamic going on, don't you think?"

Guiche shrugs. "Strange, but it's none of our business. I'd rather not get involved in any of it, looks like they're up to something far too bothersome."

Montmorency nods.

.

.

Shinji leans aganst the outside wall of the dormitory tower, all but slamming his back into the stone, and sighs heavily.

"Are you angry?" Louise asks.

"No." he lies. Angry doesn't even begin to describe what he's feeling. It's like there's a hollow pit inside of him, of infinite depth and it's expanding, wanting devour everything.

Shinji rubs at his eyes with his palm and grimaces. "Dammit." he grinds out. "I didn't want to be right..." He turns aside to look at Louise with red-rimmed eyes full of regret. "Louise. This investigation is over."

Louise looks down, unwilling to meet his eyes. She kicks at the green grass a bit. She's still an innocent in so many things, but she can compare Kirche, who might like being passed around like cheap wine, to Siesta, who has no obvious signals that she wants to be a whore. "I guess so." she replies softly. "It's the second scenario. Coercion."

A noble's behaving badly. Louise didn't want to believe it, but even she realizes that it's impossible for every noble to be as virtuous and honorable as her own parents. It's somewhat of a shock to her that a noble would use such vulgar means to advance his own interests.

"Louise... I'm really grateful that I'm with you. I'm sorry, I don't want to be a burden... but..."

Louise grins lopsidedly for a moment. "Don't bother. I already know what you want to ask. It's not problem. Mott may be a Royal Messenger, but my father is a Duke. Don't underestimate the name of Valliere! I'm sure that we can get this resolved."

"I'm sorry, but... that's not going to be enough. We need to get miss Siesta back today, before he has a chance to touch her."

Louise's heartrate speeds up. She was afraid he'd say that, but strangely is feeling relieved at hearing it. Summoning her courage, she asks "It's not like I don't have sympathy, but why do you want to save that maid so much? Do you l-like her or something?"

Thinking back, just the memory of those words... 'Louise! You are -mine-!' still sends a crackling tingle up her spine.

"Yes."

"Oh." She hadn't expected him to reply that bluntly. "I guess... it's understandable. You're both co-commoners after all." A part of her pipes up that Shinji could easily be a noble, if only he hasn't been raised under a forbidding law against nobility. Aah! That maid! That maid and her breasts. Ugh, of course- she has to admit, even her familiar is still a man.

"She's my friend, Louise. I don't... didn't have -any- friends. I have you, but miss Siesta..."

he thinks briefly of her friendly smile, twisting into a tearful expression of fear and pain, and the stone behind him crumbles under his fingers. "...she's the closest thing to family I have out here."

She looks up at the familiar desolation in his tone. "Family?"

"I didn't tell you this before? Her grandfather is from my homeland, brought over here from some sort of magical accident."

Louise frowns at him, still slouching there. "That's rather convenient, don't you think? Are you sure?"

"Fate. Destiny. It doesn't matter." He looks up and smiles sadly. "I'm the chosen of Sohryu, of course I'd recognize the blood of those bound to serve me."

Truthfully, it is too convenient that Siesta's part-Japanese and that she's exactly what we needed to attach ourselves to the lower classes. And that she's in trouble again. This damsel in distress routine may get tiresome, we need to fix it and make sure we don't get pulled into a repetitive rut. If Louise gets kidnapped, of course Shinji would pull a Mario too, but we'd have the apparatus of noble privilege to help track her down. So maybe Sam Spade or Sam Fisher instead?

"So you feel obligated to help her?" Louise asks hopefully.

"I don't... I don't know what I feel, Mistress Louise." Shinji whispers. "I don't belive... I'm not sure if love really exists anymore. I look at you, and I want to hold you, and protect you from anything that might make you cry. I want to burn this world of anything that may harm you. Miss Siesta... she doesn't ask anything from me, doesn't need anything from me, for her to be happy. Just having her around gives me peace."

"You- you idiot! You're calling me a child, you know! I refuse to be coddled like that." This is too insulting! He's calling her weak. And... he's right to call her weak, this she moans inside. It's what she calls herself, after all. A part of her wants to give up and just let herself be held, shielded from the world, and wonders- the sacred rite to call a familiar, is this what she really wanted? She begged for the most powerful, most beautiful, most holy familiar - but the heavens read her heart and its weakness and gave it what it really desired.

"I don't know what I'm saying..." Shinji pushes off the wall with his elbows. "I don't know anything." He takes his hands out of his pockets and clenches them into fists. "But... I have to do something. Anything."

Shinji places his hand on her shoulders, and Louise looks up at his face, focusing on his lips. "I won't run away again, Louise. It's better if I'm the one who gets hurt. I have to save my friends. Please, Louise..."

"F-fine. It's not like I'm i-insensitive or anything. Just as long as you don't start crying again. That's too p-pathetic." Hell yeah, I know, right? It's like he has no emotional barriers at all. He experiences everything too intensely. Personally, being emotionally neutered isn't a sign of manliness to me - a man must rage, must weep, must strive for his dreams with all power and vigor!

"Louise, you're a good person. You're strong. Together, we can do anything." He bows his head and begins to chuckle.

"What's so funny now?"

"Nothing, my cute little mistress." Shinji whispers. "It's just... this is now a rescue mission. Now, for you and I, restraint is no longer a good thing."

"Hey, now don't get too carried awa- mhf!"

Shinji unthinkly pulls her close, to press their foreheads together. Their noses are almost touching. Shinji is just too flipping happy. "Ah, Louise..." he whispers from the back of his throat. "We will -crush- that bastard."

He pulls away, not seeing Louise's stunned flushed face. "But even so we'll need reinforcements for this, I think!" he continues cheerily.

'These mood swings!' Louise grumbles inside. 'It's like dealing with... a pregnant woman? How crazy. Trying to oppose a court noble. This is crazy.' And yet, it's exciting anyway. At least he's up front and open about it, instead of running off like a moron to try and solve it on his own. It may not be her own goal, but it still a good feeling to be moving along to a purpose.

Well, technically, since he's holding our daughter's aborted soul in him, it's dealing with a pregnant man.

.

.

Louise has to hurry a bit to keep up with Shinji's determined pace, even if since he's only slightly taller than her they have the same stride length. "This is the way to the library... so, we're going after Tabitha? Why her?"

"Transportation." he replies. "Wherever Count Mott's residence is, we'll get there faster on dragonback than by horse."

That makes sense, Louise thinks. She decides to continue just letting Shinji take the lead like this, and see what sort of rescue plan he's got in mind. "You're going to just borrow her familiar? What makes you think she'll let you?"

"Miss Tabitha of course wouldn't trust us with her dragon, she'll just have to come with us."

"You're imposing on her so far. Why are you so confident she'll help?"

Shinji scratches at the side of his cheek. "Miss Tabitha's in the library instead of making conversation with her friends or working on improving her own skills. I once knew someone very much like her. She knows her purpose in life. Everything else is... irrelevant."

"She's a stuck-up, that's what she is." Louise mumbles.

"If in the sense she thinks herself better than her classmates... probably." Shinji shrugs. "You know she's Triangle class already, right? Even I can tell she'll probably win against some of the teachers here."

"Ugh. That doesn't explain why she'd even bother."

"You could just ask her, when she refuses or agrees. It's not guaranteed that she will oblige, of course."

As expected, Tabitha is there in the library, behind several stacks of books. On either side, then the to-read and the have-read heaps, while in front of her another pile is arranged by subject the books she plans to read today. Like a fortress, walling her off from other people. She's organized like that. It's unrealistic for one person to read that much during one day, and the fools that walk in and see her book piles can only wonder at such superhuman attention. She decides ahead of time what she wants to read, and through the week the pile on her left gets smaller and smaller.

No one dares sit nearby. Tabitha's pleased by this desolate isolation. She's not out to bother anyone, and the least decency she expects from anyone is not to be bothered in turn.

As Shinji and Louise sit on the opposite side of the table, facing her directly, she doesn't even look up.

"Miss Tabitha, we apologize for the intrusion, but we have a strange favor to ask of you."

Tabitha turns a page, refusing to acknowledge their existence, but -

"Yo-ho!" Kirche slides into the seat on Tabitha's right, and wrapping her arms around the smaller girl's shoulders. Their heads touch, and Kirche stares across the table with her perspective tilted slightly. "What's going on over here?"

Tabitha just sighs and closes her book. Her concentration is lost. Trying to go on would just be futile, their voices and faces would leak into her visualization of the characters.

"I don't see why we have to bring Kirche into this." Louise hisses.

"Umm. I think Miss Kirche already knows a good part of what's going on." Shinji replies, and Kirche grins at him as their eyes meet. "To see and hear out of a familiar's eyes and ears... and obviously a salamander's senses would be more sensitive than a humans."

Kirche nods. Flame still doesn't like Shinji for some reason, and watching from a distance is just convenient. Looking at him, Kirche can't decide if how much of her wariness comes from her familiar's own unthinking terror, or measuring just how much pain this boy may bring to her dear friend.

She pushes all that down, and puts a wide careless smile on her face. "Somethings got you little lovebirds in a tizzy, and now it looks like you want to pull my little Tabitha into it. What a mystery it is! Ooh! Tell me! Tell me!"

"The investigation is over." Louise replies flatly. "There is no mystery."

"There's always a mystery. Life wouldn't be worth living without them." Kirche replies impishly. "The flame of passion brings both new light and new shadows."

Shinji's eyes go blank, processing how this new development may be used. It's an expression that Kirche sees often from Tabitha's face. It's someone going through life as if always destined to be late, treating their own bodies like a puppet.

Shinji blinks. "More help would be good." he says to Louise. "There's really no reason to keep this from Miss von Zebst."

"But what if I don't want to?"

"Then... she has to leave. But I think-" with a glance towards Kirche as an apology in advance "...she'll just end up bugging Miss Tabitha for information later, which may impact her willingness to agree to our request now."

"Accurate." Tabitha replies.

"Oh, fine." Louise huffs. "You go and explain it."

And so Shinji explains about what they'd found out and the rescue mission he wants to pursue.

Kirche claps excitedly. "A wild dash to rescue a lost love, how romantic!" Then she frowns. "But now all three slots are taken. Hmm. A quattramore, is both simpler and more complicated, since two couples can pair off to keep from being bored while resting, and a man has only three useful... appendages... to speak of, anyway."

Louise doesn't get it. Kirche pouts, her fun ruined again.

Shinji groans and palms his face. "It's not like that."

"Plan?" Tabitha asks.

"Oh. Um... the simplest would be to go in, grab her, and bring Miss Siesta back to this castle before Count Mott has a chance to do anything. Then we can go back discuss reparations, because he'd have to risk causing a fuss with the Academy."

"Simplest." Tabitha agrees. "Most risky."

"That's true. Making someone angry prior to negotiations would have Count Mott want to avenge the 'insult'." Shinji makes a helpless gesture. "Or he could just demand more in redress."

Kirche smirks and crosses her arms, emphasizing her chest. "He's just a man. It's easy. I'm sure we can give him something he'll like."

"No." Shinji replies emphatically. "Sorry if I'm being too impudent, but I refuse to save a woman from his clutches only to put another one in."

"Not justice." Tabitha adds. "Contingency?"

"Um, well, I'd prefer a non-violent solution..."

Tabitha shakes her head. "I refuse. No dragon for you."

"Tabitha!" Kirche gasps. "You're not going to help? I suppose it's your right, but it's too thin an excuse. Those books can't be that exciting over going into action again."

She points lightly at Louise. "No sense of justice. No point." Tabitha is confident in her own power, and to be used as little more than an air taxi is a useless bother. It's overkill for the situation, for seeking only a peaceful resolution doesn't require the smash-and-grab or rapid evac that her dragon can provide.

The familiar reflects the mage. If Shinji's deliberately neutering his power to conform to Louise's limits, then Tabitha's interest in their upcoming battle is already starting to wane.

Louise rises to take it as an insult, slamming her palms on the table. "What do you mean I have no sense of justice!" The other readers in that library look up at her shout, and then hurriedly go back to minding their own business. It would be rather cliche for a librarian to come around to shush these unruly children, right?

"Louise, please. Calm down."

"No, I've had it with this arrogant blockhead! How dare you look down on everybody just because they're not as good as you with magic! What would you do without commoners to farm and produce what we need to live and the nobility to rule and defend the peace of the land? We're all part of something greater, and to preserve that good and holy balance is Justice!" she all but roars out. "Those who raise themselves too high on their own pride just get to die alone!"

"Peace is a lie." Tabitha replies. Louise is way off-target in her accusations, and the blue-haired girl has a grievance to match against the sacrifice for social stability.

"There is only passion!" Kirche speaks up quickly after her.

"Okay, stop. Everyone please, just... stop." Shinji groans. Neither Louise or Tabitha know about each other's real circumstances and judge each other by their own assumptions. He wishes he could say something inspiring about the power of kindness, but he doesn't believe that either. He can't tell them they're both wrong because they're both strong-willed yet deeply vulnerable teenage girls and that's like his kryptonite.

A prim middle-aged woman with her graying hair in a bun approaches to chide the group for the disturbance. Suddenly she feels as if Death itself poked its bony finger into her heart, and abruptly turns around. She hurriedly walks away, already beginning to justify to herself that it's none of her business.

"Um... while I'd prefer a non-violent solution, it's also good sense to prepare for a... confrontation?" Shinji whispers. "That's why the speed of Miss Tabitha's dragon is useful. If something troublesome were to happen, what's the most important thing for us?"

Louise exhales roughly, her emotion already relieved by her tirade. "Speed? To get away in time?" But Count Mott is the Royal Messenger. They can't outrun the long arm of the law. 'Oh angels in heaven- !' Louise pales at the thought it's her mother that may be ordered to go after them! Karin would not tolerate such a blatant offense to the rule of nobility.

For while Count Mott's behavior might be reprehensible and immoral, it's not exactly illegal.

"An alibi?" Kirche says.

Shinji gives her a thumbs-up in approval. "Ten points."

She grins back. "Do I get something nice when I reach a hundred?"

Shinji considers it. "Sure, why not?"

Kirche doesn't ask what, because it's more fun to leave it a mystery. "How many points has Louise earned?"

"Um..." Zero, because he'd only started counting for it. Oh, she did process the investigation earlier, even if she near had to be walked through it. "Twenty."

Louise groans and lowers her forehead to the table. "Why are you all so carefree? I'm surrounded by lunatics."

.

.

Miss Longueville is having tea with Mister Colbert out in a secluded veranda. The baldy one is trying to repress his giddiness about how intimate this appears. The secretary just agreed so that fewer people see them together, not like the faculty dining area in the Alviss Hall, as she pumps him for information. It turns out that Colbert and Osmond are old buddies, despite the age difference and how little respect the teacher seems to get.

"Value really is a tricky thing, isn't it?" Colbert talks on, though not really anymore to try and impress her with his knowledge. It's not like he has any charms or wealth. "Do we value gold simply because it is difficult to obtain? What about art? Increasing in value once the artist dies, and the older it is... so we value something that is rare. But what about two objects that are equally rare?"

"It doesn't matter the price." Longueville replies dryly. That Colbert is so easily distracted by such a simple scholarly tangent, is something to of an insult. A pretty woman such as herself should occupy his attention all the time, but in this case it's a relief. She decides to deal with him on his own level. "The one that has some useful purpose is easier to sell. There's no one standard of value, it depends on both the buyer and the seller. It's easier if you look at it from the perspective of someone who buys in hope of resale later."

"Like the difference between a sword and bowl? Or maybe, a horse and set of fine clothes." Colbert still looks lost in thought. "The reusable, more portable pieces would obviously be easier to sell. So there's a difference between valuable and being of practical value."

"Look, this discussion of value has been... interesting... but I'll change the question. What's the most dangerous thing in there?"

"Uh... why do you ask?"

Smoothly the secretary replies "I have to go in there every week now. While I'm going to be careful, I'd rather not accidentally touch something and cause something horrible to happen. It's bad enough with -that- weird relic." She adjusts her glasses and asks pointedly "Do you think it would be the most dangerous thing now?"

"I'm not sure..." Colbert replies, while rubbing at his head. "It's one thing to have the ability to cause harm, but it's another thing to -easily- cause harm. The skull isn't that dangerous, if its powers have conditions to be released. So what would be most dangerous, the thing that could harm anyone, anytime, without fail. A few years back, I could have easily told you what it is."

"And that would be...?"

"The cursed golden apples of Iliuum."

Longueville frowns. "... isn't that a legend? A town in Germania that burned down?"

"Yes, the legend goes that there grew an apple tree which bears golden fruit. There is nothing unusual in itself about the apples, they just have a skin that shines like gold, instead of red like normal apples. But for some reason, all those who see it are struck by intense jealousy and the desire to possess it. The tales say it was planted by a witch, and she caused discord and misery by leaving harmless golden apples at random. Marriages and families were broken, and even small wars broke out. Eventually the church caught and executed the witch, and the tree was chopped down them burned. But no one could bear to destroy the apples that remained."

"And somehow Old Osmond got the apples?"

"He beat up everyone fighting to claim the apples. The apples were charmed with a stasis spell, and sealed in a strong box, and then he locked them up in the Vault. It was enough to -know- that he had them. Eventually people forgot, and it turned into just another legend."

Miss Longueville's interest is very much stoked. The sheer effortless chaos that could bring. No wonder the Church forbids any magic that tries to muddle the mind. "So, what happened to them?"

"Um... a few years back, me and Old Osmond got really drunk... and we ate them."

The secretary arches her brow. "Seriously?"

"Yes. Maybe we were too drunk to be affected."

"And that's it? Did anything happen after eating them?"

"... no. I mean, they were just apples. Kind of sour, even."

Miss Longueville groans and rubs at her forehead. Idiots. Why do they have to keep on living down to her already vastly reduced expectations? "What do you think would be the second most dangerous thing, then?"

Colbert ponders for a while. "Overall... it would be the Staff of Destruction, by what Old Osmond tells about it. It could slay a dragon in one hit. Improperly used, it could be devastating."

The secretary smiles thinly. Easy to use, dangerous, and not too difficult to carry away. That's -very- valuable.

But before she can say anything else, who should arrive- but our intrepid quartet! Shinji and Louise, Tabith and Kirche, they ask for a moment of her time. It's the perfect excuse that Miss Longueville needs to dump off Colbert.

"You want me to retrieve your relic ahead of schedule?" she asks them once they're all some distance away and safe from being overheard. "Why don't you just ask Old Osmond for permission?"

"Um... I have a feeling he won't like how it's going to be used." Shinji replies. He doesn't explain any further.

"I... see. And what makes you think I'd like to be part of this breaking of the rules?"

"Curiosity?" Shinji shrugs. "Nothing really. At the least, this is fair warning so that you don't get implicated if I end up having to break into the vault."

"... what?" Louise reaches up and pulls on Shinji's ears again. "Are you mad?"

"Ow! Ow! Mistress, please. It's not like it's particularly difficult. Why do you think I gave up Sohryu so easily? It would be stupid not to have the power to defend you if things go hugely wrong."

"Wrong? Breaking into the Academy Vault is a -crime-. That's wrong!"

"Um... technically... as long as I don't actually break -into- it, just retrieve my own property, it isn't."

Miss Longueville just looks on, amused. Louise begins to tug even harder on Shinji's ears while muttering 'elf ears, elf ears, show your badness to the world!'

"Is this wise?" Tabitha asks.

No, of course not. But then -we- know of Miss Longueville's hidden history. It's just too obvious if you pay attention to the signs. Even Shinji's not that dense. But in the end, he doesn't really give a damn about justice, too. The rule of law in this place can go fuck itself. He has someone to save.

"I'm standing right here, you know." the secretary states. "I can hear your plans to burgle my employer." The smirk on her face is less from being amused by their youthful idiocy but the sheer irony of it. This is absurdly lucky.

"Um, think about it. What does it benefit you, Miss Longueville, to tell Old Osmond about this? He'd just be delighted with how you seem to be taking his interests at heart and think you're cooling down to his attentions. He might get even more... frisky." He pauses for a second. "Or you could hope he's going to be grateful enough to act like a decent person and stop his harassment of you from now on."

Mis Longueville grimaces. "No... the old fool's just going to take it as a sign to take even more liberties." She stares down at Shinji with renewed curiosity. "You're right, it doesn't benefit me at all to report you."

Louise lets go of Shinji's much-abused ears. "Really? Does that mean...?"

"I won't help you get into the vault. Old Osmond keeps the keys, and I don't have any excuse to enter the vault myself. But, if you children think you can get something out of the vault, then I won't stop you." Looking speculatively at Shinji, she adds "I assume what you want is for me to provide an alibi that it's never left the Vault at all, correct? I'll be 'giving it back' to you at the end of the week."

"That's right. I'd very much appreciate it, please."

"I don't see why I should bother, though. It doesn't benefit me to help you lot, either." Before they can speak about their measly little pleas or bribes or whatever, she waves dimissively. "How about this? Prove yourself. If you do manage to get it out of the vault without anyone the wiser, I won't raise a fuss. I'll cooperate if you reveal to me the full extent of just what that relic can do. I'll admit- I am curious enough to let you make your own mess, as long as it's far and away none of my business."

"Oh. Of course. Thank you very much. I promise I'll repay this favor well someday." Shinji bows deeply at Miss Longueville, then looks aside to the rest of the motley crew. "... I guess now we have to set up the alibi for our alibi?"

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Guiche is walking towards the dormitory, having managed to pry himself loose from Montmorency. He sighs tiredly. While it's nice to have such loving attention, it's also stifling. He doesn't really have any male friends, so he's both desperately in need of some 'me' time but not knowing what else to do except to flirt around.

As he passes by a washroom, the door suddenly open. "Mhf-!" He feels a hand over his mouth and an arm around his neck, and he's pulled into the dark doorway. It closes without a sound, due to the silence spell that Tabitha cast.

This is totally unnecessary. But the girl insisted. What's a conspiracy without a little kidnapping and forced labor?

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.

Getting up to the level in the center tower where the vault is without attracting suspicion proves to be simpler than expected. It's the same floor as the Headmaster's office anyway. With Miss Longueville leading a small pack of students, it looks as if they're being sent up to be scolded.

This is the Tristain Academy Vault. It's secured with some sort of stasis and reinforcement magic that looks as if it's fixed in time, giving mere stone and metal the apperance of invulnerability. Square-class Magic sure is an interesting thing, doesn't it? Earth and time, usually don't have much to do with each other. Even the mountains will end, even the world will die. The fire of the sun, even that will go out.

They call it magic and believe in forever. Morons.

Shinji. Show them the power that stands outside of time.

He stands in front of the massive metal vault door, tapping the riveted mass. "It certainly looks impregnable, doens't it?" he murmurs. "No form of magical or physical attack can breach this reinforcement."

Miss Longueville smirks. "And you were so sure it would be so easy." If even her magic would fail to break through it, and she's very specialized at pulling apart magical protections, then no one else would be able to do it. "If you're done wasting my time?"

Shinji looks back to meet her smirk with his own sad smile. "You walked with us this far... because you already had an idea of how I might be able to do it, right? You're a very smart woman, Miss Longueville."

Louise twitches. 'What's this? Is he trying to put the moves on the secretary now?' "Hey, stop fl-... uh, get on with it!"

Shinji nods. "Magic is magic. Sohryu is a dead goddess of a distant land. Their powers... don't mix." He turns towards the door and raises his right hand. "To Sohryu, this enchanted door... is little more than a slab of ordinary metal." He takes a deep breath, and throws out his will.

The spot facing Shinji's palm starts to glow red-hot. The inflexible magic tries to hold on, but the dead goddess' Sohryu's defined powerset is to mess with the four fundamental forces. The metal begins to thin out, the glow turning bright white, and then the metal drips in hissing rivulets like hot wax. Through the hot hissing mist, something round and white floats out to slap against Shinji's waiting palm.

Shinji turns aside and gives a sickly grin. "Behold. Sohryu."

Hello there, all you little people.

Guiche blanches. His battle against Shinji comes to mind, and he was lucky to get out of it so well. It made sense, something that can defeat Square-class Earth magic should not be troubled at all by a Dot mage.

The metal door cools down almost immediately, the ragged hole in it far too damn obvious. Miss Longueville adjust her glasses and shakes her head disapprovingly. "This just presents an even bigger problem."

"Sohryu's power is not magic." Shinji insists again. "Still, she allows me to perform certain abilities that may be called here as Triangle-class Earth, Fire, Wind, or Water." He points the skull at the hull, and it looks as if time is rewinding itself with the molten metal flowing back up. "Transfiguration is so awe-inspiring where I come from, but here it's just so... mundane."

The door is now unblemished. There's nothing but the memories of those who saw the weirdness happen to say otherwise. It's in no way mundane, but no one seems willing to tell Shinji that. He just looks so pleased at being... no longer so unique?

Kirche whistles appreciatively. "I'm impressed. I understand now why Tabitha's so interested."

Tabitha nods, she's really looking forward to being able to battle all four elements at once, and Kirche gets completely the wrong idea about it.

"Fascinating." Miss Longueville murmurs. She taps at the door with her wand, sending out a small pulse of magic to scan its protections. "It's as well-protected as before." she lies so assuredly.

Louise just seems shaken. She grimaces and looks down. "I don't get it...!" she whispers, her stance stiff and her fists clenched. "I don't get you people!"

Uh-oh. Did she crack from being shown up by her own familiar -yet again?-

"Am I the only sane one here?" Louise brings her fists close to her chest as if grabbing some sort of lifeline. "I agreed to this in the first place because it's the right thing to do... but you're all so casual about breaking rule after rule. It's getting too complicated. I don't understand... breaking into a vault, conspiring against a Royal Messenger... it's not supposed to be fun!"

"Are you afraid?" Kirche asks. "If it's just that, we can keep you out of it, so it won't affect you."

"It has nothing to do with fear, you red-haired cow!" Louise spurts out. "Why... what's wrong with all of you? Be serious! There's no difference between Mott and us, if we're so willing to flaunt the rules if it can be done. Going so far, if it's not for that maid... you're just indulging yourself!"

'Maid? What maid?' Miss Longueville catches, then dismisses that thought as unimportant.

"Louise..." Shinji whispers sadly. Louise is lashing out again, and he tilts my skull side to side as a warning to the others. Let her do this. Let her burn away her jealousy until she sees it for what it is.

"It's not... I'm not afraid. I want to do this. I want to help."

But what is she supposed to do? She's redundant, she realizes. Even Guiche as a dot mage has a use in being there. They've turned her episode of altruism into a comical escapade. But of them, only Shinji really has any sympathy for the victim. The two of them... they're the only ones that are -necessary-, that's what Louise concludes. The others aren't doing it to fix an injustice.

With her familiar who had sworn to stay by her side, that's all. Any more just cheapens the virtue. Any more... and it's like her decisions don't matter at all.

"I'm sorry. It does seem like we're not treating this mission with due seriousness. We're supposed to be doing it for someone else, and we're all in danger if something goes wrong." Shinji says softly. Right there the difference between Louise, who has never faced danger, and everyone else (except Guiche) that have confidence in their own ability to overcome. "But... we have to look forward to the challenges ahead."

"Why...?"

Because human -suck- at risk assessment? Because we have gathered a dynamic group of pink, white, blue, red, and green-themed people and all we lack now is a colorful explosion behind them as they pose?

"Because... Louise... it's an adventure, Louise!" Shinji holds my skull in the curl of his right elbow, while bending down and reaching out with his left hand. "Won't you go on an adventure with -us-?"

She sees his open palm and looks up. Past his arm, she sees Kirche wearing a not-unfriendly smirk. Tabitha's gaze is bland as ever, but there's a hint of impatience. Guiche is palming his face, his posture bemoaning 'what the hell am I doing here?' but unwilling to leave. Miss Longueville's guarded expression shows she's content to observe. Back to Shinji, and his gentle, expectant smile.

"... Louise?" You don't have to be alone; Shinji tries to communicate with this whole damn plan. This little girl is a blank slate, a zero state, and is the mirror that defines his existence. If she has friends, then he can have them too.

It's really almost pathetic how her face starts to light up. "Un!" she exclaims with a nod. She reaches for his hand, and he tugs her closer. Her lips break into a ferocious grin.

The group now turns to leave, and Louise feels strange as she moves in step with them. Light-headed, warm, she doesn't notice anymore how she's walking hand in hand with a young man. How so bold, Louise. How improper, Louise.

Her little fingers grip his own frail-looking hand so tightly. That minute pain as she inattentively tries to crush his fingers- she has no idea how much she's making Shinji so happy, that attention-starved idiot too. They so desperately need to be needed. Hand-in-hand, they're pulling each other from the brink of insanity.

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So: Mott. I'm going to pick and mix light novel, anime, and manga canon; whichever looks like it might end up being funnier or more awesome at the time. ;)