A/N: Another big chapter that doesn't really need the padding of a stat sheet. Oh well. Enjoy!
John watched the ball of fire floating in the air with interest. Kirche was guiding it with her wand, her every movement causing the flame to sway and dance. It was almost hypnotic to watch, even in the midday sun.
Despite the news of the Royal Wedding, he'd been sure to remind Louise of the planned lesson with Kirche and Tabitha as it neared the time they'd arranged to meet. It had taken some persuading to get her to come, but eventually she'd cracked and agreed to follow him. Complaining about how it was a waste of time and they should be preparing for the wedding the whole way of course, but he'd expected that. It wasn't a problem anyway. He was getting quite good at ignoring her.
As it had turned out, it had definitely proven worth the time. Tabitha and Kirche were exceedingly knowledgeable on the subject of magic and perfectly happy to answer any questions he had. Even Louise had occasionally broken her annoyed silence to explain a few details to him. It hadn't taken him long to get a solid grounding of knowledge.
With a flick of her wand, Kirche dismissed the flame and smiled at him. "And that's about all I can show you in here. It wouldn't be a pretty sight if the librarian caught me using Fire magic in the library."
"I can imagine," John said wryly. When Kirche had first conjured the fireball, he'd half-way expected that he was going to have to rush for a bucket of water very shortly afterwards. But her control had been quite excellent, and the fire had never so much as come close to touching so much as a single book. "Still, it was quite interesting. And very different from what Guiche did."
Kirche smirked. "Naturally. Guiche's talents lie very much in the Earth element however, and even then mostly in his own family's speciality. Such subtle control of fire is beyond him." She paused, considering. "Or most students at this school, really. I'm quite exceptional."
"Please Kirche," Tabitha said, her voice dry. "Don't be so humble."
"I'm simply saying it as it is," Kirche replied. The redhead smiled at John. "Tabitha would never admit it, but she's actually quite a prodigy herself."
"It's not that I won't admit it," Tabitha said firmly, "But rather that I don't feel the need to boast about it constantly like some other people do."
John fought back a grin as he watched them. Beneath the barbed comments they occasionally threw at each other, there was an air of easy camaraderie that spoke of a long friendship. It vaguely reminded him of Raul and himself. Although he and Raul had been a great deal more prolific in their use of casual insults, to the point that was all that conversations between them had tended to contain.
"Are we done now?" Louise said, her voice thick with irritation. "Can we go?"
Tabitha and Kirche glanced at each other and John could practically see the unspoken words flashing between them.
"Is there somewhere you need to be, Louise?" Tabitha asked calmly, a slight hint of ice in her tone. John sighed. It seemed like Tabitha had just about had enough of putting up with Louise's attitude for one day. From the look on Kirche's face, she had similar feelings on the matter.
"No, I'm just getting a little bored of listening to knowledge that I've known for years."
"Well, I didn't know any of it," John said quickly, cutting across Kirche as she opened her mouth to reply, no doubt with an acidic comment. "So, my thanks to you two."
He gave Kirche and Tabitha a grateful nod.
"It wasn't a problem," Tabitha replied. "You're a quick learner."
"If you ever need any more... lessons, then feel free to visit me in my room," Kirche added, her voice a purr. "I'll be happy to help."
John smiled at the heavy-handed double entendre. He had a sneaking suspicion that the lessons Kirche had in mind didn't have much to do with magic.
Louise was glaring at all of them. "So we're done now? We can go?"
John frowned. There was an odd tone in Louise's voice, beneath the obvious annoyance, almost like panic. For some reason, she seemed almost desperate to get away from Kirche and Tabitha. That was strange. She'd been fine with them for the past hour, if a little moody.
He considered that for a moment, before realisation struck.
Ah, he thought. That explains it.
Kirche and Tabitha were highly skilled mages. In fact, they were quite possibly the most talented students in the school. And Louise was the Zero, the student who's very ability to use magic at all was considered questionable, let alone her ability to do anything useful with it. Their very presences aggravated her. Their light-hearted jokes about their magical abilities, not even aimed at Louise, had been enough to set her off.
Which wasn't that surprising, in retrospect. Louise had an ego that had the unfortunate trait of being both oversized and exceedingly fragile. He'd need to try and get her over that as soon as possible. Handling her with kid gloves all the time was just going to be too exhausting.
The crux of the whole matter seemed to be Louise's magical talent, which wasn't living up to anyone's expectations, least of all her own. Virtually everyone thought that she was basically incapable of making anything more than an explosion. And even that unreliably.
Which was, quite frankly, bullshit.
She'd pulled him from another world. Not some volcano or forest a few hundred miles away, but an actual goddamn separate planet. Maybe even a different plane of reality. Louise didn't seem to have caught onto it yet, but her very act of summoning him had been perhaps the most impressive display of magic in history. If nothing else, it proved she wasn't lacking for magical power.
Her grasp of magical theory seemed solid enough too, judging by her interjections during Tabitha and Kirche's explanation. Realistically, there was no reason why she shouldn't be a perfectly capable mage. There had to be something they were all missing.
After a moment, he shrugged. He could figure it out later.
"Yes, I think so," he said to Louise. "Thanks again, Tabitha, Kirche."
"Don't mention it," Kirche replied, standing up. "I should probably check on Flame anyway. He isn't allowed into the library."
Not exactly surprising, given that the salamander had a tail that was literally on fire. On top of being a large, predatory lizard.
They opened the large door that led out of the library. As they stepped out into the corridor, the salamander perked it's head up from its resting place on the floor, reptilian eyes flicking across the whole group, before coming to rest on John. He matched its gaze steadily. Technically that was probably something akin to a challenge, but he wasn't overly worried. It was a big lizard, but he'd seen bigger. He'd killed bigger.
"Ah, John," Kirche said quietly, leaning towards him. "You really shouldn't stare into a salamander's eyes."
Suddenly, the salamander rose to its feet and approached him, its gaze never wavering. Kirche stared at it, even as Louise and Tabitha backed away. "Flame, what are you doing-"
The crimson lizard rose on its hind legs, muscles rippling beneath its scales as it stood. Its mouth opened, revealing a row of razor sharp teeth, glistening in the light. The threat in its posture was obvious, the imminent attack even more so. John just continued to watch it steadily.
And then Flame relaxed, all the wariness simply rushing out of its stance. It extended a single claw towards him. John shook it.
"Good boy," John said, smiling. He lowered himself down to one knee and instantly the lizard hurled itself at him, longue tongue slobbering at his face like an overgrown hound. He laughed, desperately trying to fend off the now affectionate animal. "Ahaha! Stop it, you lump! You're drooling all over me!"
Finally, he managed to grab it in a headlock and began grinding his knuckles into its head. "There we go! How do you like it, you bastard!?"
The salamander struggled desperately to free itself, but John just tightened his grip.
"Not a chance. You aren't getting out until you give in!" He laughed freely.
John blinked. He looked up. Kirche, Tabitha and Louise were all staring at him, mixed looks of shock and surprise on their faces. Kirche in particular just looked flabbergasted. John's grip on the lizard slackened as he realised that he'd been completely ignoring the noble girls for the past minute, and Flame ceased struggling, peering up at him as if to ask why he'd stopped playing.
Caught between the playful salamander and the girl's shocked expressions, John just shrugged a trifle embarrassedly, even as the lizard snuggled against him.
"What? I like animals."
Kirche flopped down onto her bed, her face twisted thoughtfully. Idly, she brushed a stray lock of hair off of her face and stared at the ceiling.
"Well," she said. "That was interesting."
Tabitha looked up from her seat by the open window and nodded in agreement. "More than interesting. I don't think I've ever seen Flame so... playful."
"Oh, he's a big softy really," Kirche said, waving her hands dismissively. "But I suppose he is a bit cautious around strangers."
Tabitha gave an amused snort. That was an understatement. The salamander had only been summoned two days ago, but he'd already made it clear that the only person he liked was Kirche, and everyone else was to just barely tolerated. After the first few students had only just avoided having their hands bitten off, they'd stopped trying to pet him. Most of the other familiars also went out of their way to avoid Flame, sometimes to the point of actually hiding when they thought the salamander was nearby.
Of course, Sylphid was an exception to that rule, being both relentlessly friendly and possessing an ability to read another's mood that was roughly on par with the average brick. Tabitha suspected that Flame truly hated her familiar, but had so far been unwilling to risk attacking something that was four to five times larger than him.
Indeed, when he'd approached John, she'd been sure that they were just about to be witness to a fight. Instead, they'd decided to play-wrestle, and the proud, aggressive salamander had taken on a persona more commonly associated with puppies. They'd had to practically drag him away.
She glanced at the lizard. He was staring at the door, as if hoping that John was going to burst through it any second now.
"John is certainly a unique character though," Kirche continued. The redhead sat up on the bed. "I want him."
Tabitha winced, flushing slightly. "Do you have to be so blunt?"
Tabitha sighed. "Ah. Of course. How silly of me to ask."
"I thought you knew me by now, Tabitha," Kirche said, laughing. "In this case though, I didn't only mean it like that."
Tabitha ignored the 'only'. While she truly considered Kirche a dear friend, she couldn't but wish that the Germanian noble would control her passions a little more. "Then what do you mean?"
Kirche's face grew a little more serious as she replied. "Louise doesn't deserve someone as talented as that. And John deserves more than someone like Louise."
Tabitha frowned. Truth be told, while she wasn't particularly fond of Louise, she didn't hate her either. The Valliere's were an elite family even amongst the nobility and failing to live up to their expectations was obviously taking its toll on her. Louise's frustration was understandable.
That wouldn't stop her from snapping back at the girl when she pushed too far, but still. She could understand.
And John... John was interesting. He was intelligent, almost frighteningly so. When you told him something, he grasped it instantly. She'd expected the earlier lesson to take three or four hours, but he'd simply mowed through the material she'd prepared in advance in less than an hour. It was almost disconcerting to watch how easily he picked up knowledge.
He was an obviously skilled warrior too. There was a certain confidence in his voice too, one that drew you in, made you believe and trust in his words even when there was no reason for you to do so. When he spoke, you listened. All in all, he was far more impressive than the humble vagrant he professed to be. He could pretend all he liked, but Tabitha knew someone exceptional when she saw them. He was worth watching.
After a moment, she shrugged. "I don't know. John seems like a good influence on her. If nothing else, he knows how to keep her sharp tongue from getting her in trouble."
"But that's such a waste!" Kirche said loudly. The frustration in her voice was evident. "You saw what he was like in his fight with Guiche. That strength. That passion... And you want to leave him to patch over Louise the Zero's social mistakes?"
"It's not like we have a choice," Tabitha replied. "He's her familiar. What happens between them is their business. We have no right to try and interfere, even if we wanted to. Which, it seems I must make clear to you; I have no desire to do."
Kirche threw herself onto her back and groaned loudly. "You're such a spoilsport, you know that?"
"I thought you knew me by now, Kirche," Tabitha said, grinning.
Kirche threw a pillow at her at that.
"Now that's just being childish," Tabitha said chidingly, dodging round the missile. "And your aim is terrible."
Kirche opened her mouth to reply only to receive an expertly thrown pillow to the face. She glared indignantly at the blue haired princess. "Oh, it's on now."
For a few minutes, anarchy rained as pillows were tossed about, the two girls frantically ducking and dodging. In front of the door, Flame ignored them, instead focusing on the door. Once or twice his tail twitched in annoyance when a missed pillow bounced off of him, but for the most part he remained aloof of the whole conflict.
Eventually, a truce was declared and the two girls collapsed onto the bed. They glanced at each other, then burst out laughing.
After a few moments, Kirche finally calmed down enough to speak. "So, are you still leaving next week?"
Tabitha nodded, still breathing heavily from the battle that had gripped the room only a minute earlier. "I have to. My uncle is on a tight schedule. Even if I ride on Sylphid, next week is the latest I can leave to catch up with him."
"Well, give my regards to anyone you think should get them," Kirche said lazily. "I trust your judgement."
"You really can't come?"
"Oh, I'd love to come," Kirche said, smiling somewhat bitterly. "I just suspect that my family would object. No doubt they'd prefer a more... respectable candidate to pay their respects at such an august occasion."
Tabitha couldn't help but scowl at that. "You could come as my guest. Uncle Joseph could make the arrangements-"
"Don't be ridiculous, Tabitha," Kirche replied. "It's hardly worth asking the king of Gallia to make room for me on the guest list."
"It's not an issue," Tabitha said firmly. "Without Uncle Joseph's support, there wouldn't even have been a wedding. He could invite his entire court and they wouldn't object."
"Well..." Kirche hesitated. Tabitha fought down a smile. The idea of missing a party, especially one as prestigious as a royal wedding, was abhorrent to Kirche. No doubt this internal conflict would be a short one. "I suppose I can hardly leave you alone in such a situation. You need me to protect you from the ravenous young noblemen."
"By distracting them with yourself, I'd imagine?"
"It's a sacrifice I'm willing to make for you, dear Tabitha," Kirche said easily.
Honestly, Tabitha couldn't say she was unhappy with that. Having to fend off suitors was always aggravating. Having Kirche around made the point moot, since the flirtatious redhead tended to be the centre of male attention in whatever room she was in.
Tabitha blinked at that and turned back to Kirche. "What is it?"
"I suppose Louise will be there too, won't she?"
"It wouldn't surprise me," Tabitha said. "From what I've heard, she and Princess Henrietta are childhood friends."
"Then that means John will be there too?"
Tabitha sighed. You certainly couldn't fault Kirche for lacking focus. "If Louise is? Almost certainly. Dare I ask why you want to know?"
"Do I really need to explain?" Kirche asked, raising an eyebrow. "The weeks leading up to a wedding... Tension in the air, infecting all around... Suddenly, a noble lady and a commoner begin a steamy relationship under the stars, their love and passion beyond all description... Isn't it just perfect?"
Tabitha sighed again.
Dr Borous watched the tower displayed on the monitor before him with a mixture of apprehension and glee. Scientific and very serious glee, of course.
Standing nearly fifty feet tall, the metal construct was composed of thick, metal cylinders, held together by welded bars of steel. Occasionally, a thin burst of electricity would crackle off of it, as an unfortunate insect got too close and was instantly turned into a small puff of dust.
The whole thing practically radiated raw, unadulterated science. An excited shiver ran through Borous's bio gel at the sight.
Nevertheless, he couldn't quite repress the faint, niggling concern in the few parts of his brain that hadn't undergone some degree of bio gel corrosion. While the tower was certainly an impressive sight, he'd feel a lot safer if he knew what it did.
Mobius, Dala and Klein had practically sequestered themselves while they planned it, before suddenly press-ganging most of the robo-scorpions into construction duty. Which, Borous had to admit, they were very good at. One moment he'd been looking at a sample of Deathclaw DNA, the next there was a fifty foot tower smack in the centre of the Big MT, shooting lightning at anything that came close.
Next to him, Klein was nodding his eye screens in satisfaction. "I've truly outdone myself this time. Who would have thought that a single, lone scientist could develop a fully functioning dimensional radar tower? Well, apart from me naturally. I always knew I had it in me."
A dimensional radio tower? Borous remembered the last thing they'd built with the word 'dimensional' in it. It had caused half of the herd of Brahmin he'd acquired to spontaneously vanish and appear three hundred feet in the air above the Mohave. The front half.
"I seem to recall that I played a not insignificant part in it's construction, Dr. Klein," Dala said sharply. "As did Dr. Mobius."
"Oh, I'll be sure to accredit you as assistants," Klein assured her, in the tone of one who had no such intention.
"Just like you accredited Wan Shun, right?"
Klein spun. "Mr Wan Shun left of his own volition after being discovered stealing funds! I know I deleted all audio files to the contrary!"
"Stealing funds?" Dala said. The think tank's voice was thick with derision. "He bought a toothbrush, Klein. Which you then gave to Dr. Borous!"
Borous had very much appreciated it. Gabe's plaque had been building up terribly, what with the Psycho injections causing him to attack anything vaguely organic and non-Borous at the time. He'd needed a thorough cleaning.
"It's all about principle! First a toothbrush, yes, but where does it end? A wrench? A screwdriver? Perhaps even a spanner!?
"All of which are legitimate expenses!"
Klein sighed. "The point is, Dr. Dala, it happened two hundred years ago. The truth is lost to time-"
"Actually, I'm pretty sure I have some backup files on the whole thing-" Dr. 0 began.
"Lost to time," Klein said firmly. "And so I do not appreciate your snide remarks, Dr. Dala."
Dr. Dala's voice unit practically shook with indignation as she gathered herself to tell Dr. Klein exactly what she thought of his opinion. Perhaps fortunately, 0 took that moment to cut into the conversation.
"So what does it do?"
"What does it do? What does it do!?" Klein's voice was outraged as he spoke. "Dr. 0, you are looking at an instrument of pure science! The dimensional radio tower is perhaps the greatest achievement of the entire Think Tank! It is the only means of saving our benefactor, John Smith! It's workings are complex, it's power needs vast! And you ask what it does!?"
"Oh. It... it does many things! Things with portals and electricity and lightning galore!"
"More specifically," Mobius said, spinning round to face the rest of the Think Tank. "It opens a dimensional rift, through which it can send it's signal so as to ensure that it reaches it's destination instantly, regardless of anything that might attempt to interfere with it. With it, we should be able to send messages to John, as well as receive them in turn, no matter where he is. "
Mobius pause, his monitors twisting into an approximation of a thoughtful frown. "I think. That, or it just shoots lightning at things that come close. Or maybe both, come to think of it."
"Well said, Dr. Mobius." Klein's monitors bobbed in relief as he spoke.
"So, is it safe?" Borous asked.
"Progress is never safe, Dr. Borous," Klein said, his voice haughty. "Unless it not being safe may in some way endanger us. Which is why we're watching this through a monitor while sitting in the middle of what amounts to a bomb shelter."
The other members of the Think Tank nodded approvingly at that. Science was at it's best when you were a safe distance away from any possible explosions.
"So..." Mobius said after the moment of self-appreciation ahd passed. "Can I push the button?"
"No!" Klein said, raising the volume on his voice module to max. "I will press the button! It is my duty as Project Leader."
"Actually, I believe the term is 'ladies first'?" Dala said primly, floating next to them.
"Hold on!" Borous said loudly. "As you three built this, I think it's only fair that someone else get to press the button."
"That doesn't even make sense!"
As the members of the Think Tank began squaring up for another argument, they were cut off by a shrill, whistle. Klein blinked.
"What was that?"
"That... was the activation siren for the dimensional radio tower." Mobius said slowly.
As one they turned. Dr. 8 gave them an unashamed look, one of his monitors pressed firmly down against the large red button on the panel in front of him.
"Dr. 8!" Klein said, his voice shocked. "How dare you?"
8 shot back a stream of RobCo sound waves.
Klein gasped. "Now that was just uncalled for!"
On the monitor, the tower was beginning to crackle, arcs of raw power playing around it as it charged. Monitors lit up, and miles of circuitry began to process the data being beamed to the tower. The Think Tank stopped talking, their attention drawn to the screen.
The electricity continued to build up until it practically obscured the tower beneath a corona of light. Beneath the crackling lightning, metal grew white hot as it was superheated by the sheer intensity of the power it was trying to channel. Cooling fluids bubbled and became vapour, and slowly the circuitry inside the tower began to heat up.
And then, with a great roar, a blast of light roared into the sky, shredding the clouds that obscured the night sky. As it reached up it, it spread, covering the sky in an aura of white lightning. Beneath that sky of unbridled power, the Big MT was lit up as if dawn had arrived before it's time. The living inhabitants of the grounds ran for cover, hiding beneath anything they could, anything that would shield them from the baleful glare of the storm of energy above.
In the midst of that white sky, a single point glowed with an intensity that eclipsed the surrounding area. Space rippled and shuddered as the raw power of the Think Tank's machine tore at it, shredded it. With a great ripping sound, a bright window began to form in the midst of the storm of energy.
Its light was not akin to the chaotic power that spilled around, but was instead regulated. Controlled. It was a representation of the genius of the Think Tank, decayed and maddened as it was. It was sublime, lit with the promise of a whole new world hidden behind it.
And then, with a shriek of metal pushed far beyond its limits, the tower exploded.
Huge chunks of metal shrapnel shot off from the destroyed building, propelled at speeds far surpassing supersonic by the unleashed electromagnetic forces that the tower had controlled only a moment before. They tore into the Big MT, their raw velocity alone enabling them tear new craters into the already blasted landscape. The rock was torn open, exposing the frames of underground laboratories to the open air. A group of nighstalkers were caught in the middle of one impact and reduced to little more than a bloody smear. Another chunk of the tower smashed into the Dome, but failed to so much as dent the reinforced structure.
It did, however, shock the Think Tank, who's gazes all shot up. For a moment, there was silence.
"Well then," Klein said slowly. "Did it work?"
Mobius stared at him for a second, then looked down at the reading on the monitors. "Actually, I... I think it did. Before the tower gave way, there were definite signs of a successful rift being formed."
"Excellent." Klein said, nodding his monitors in a pleased fashion. "Then I think we can call this a rousing success!"
John relaxed in the middle of the courtyard, lounging on a bench. A cool breeze played against his skin, countering the heat of the day with ease. With a casual movement, he slipped a bottle from the pouch on his belt and took a long, draught. The fresh, clear water felt good.
His gaze slipped around the courtyard. It was mostly empty, barring a few students at the corners of the lawn. He couldn't help but be struck once again by how… pleasant it all was. A green land, full of life. The poses of the students were relaxed, free of worry or concerns. Even the commoners, resentful of their positions as they seemed to be, lived a quality of life that was beyond what most of the inhabitants of the Mojave had had. Three guaranteed meals, safety and work that was easy enough, if dull. There were people who would gladly surrender their freedom for such things.
He smiled cynically at that. But that had been the Legion's way of things, hadn' it? Safety and civilization for all, as long as you bowed your head to the Bull. Forget who you were, forget who you could be. Simply acknowledge your place in the world and praise Caesar, and you would be provided for. So went the rhetoric, though the reality had been different.
It was easy to see similarities between the slave army and Tristain. Role and purpose decided by blood, not merit. The value of a life decided from the moment of its birth, an entire system in place to keep it so. Drawing parallels wasn't hard.
There were differences, of course. From what he'd seen, the nobility at least pretended towards valuing the common folk more than the Legion had their slaves. In the territories of the Legion, beating a slave to death in plain sight wouldn't have caused most to bat an eyelash. Here, there seemed to be some modicum of respect afforded to the peasantry. They were considered human, if nothing else.
But in the Mojave… In Vegas… What decided your standing was talent and skill. A man with a gun and a will could carve out a place for himself. Even his own position, as absolute as he had worked to make it, was only his for as long as he could hold it. Of course, no-one had dared to challenge him for rulership, and perhaps no-one ever would. But the point was that it could be done, like it could be done to any man.
And had kept him, that had kept everyone, on their toes. If you had held a position of power in New Vegas, then you had earned it, whether by strength or wit or wisdom. And you knew that there were others gunning for the spot. If you performed your duties badly, or abused your power, there was always another happy to take it from you.
Hell, he'd had more than few who'd taken the privileges of their positions too far removed from those positions. By force if need be. In truth, the Mojave had been anarchic to look at, held in check only by his own will and the Securitron armies.
And yet, it had thrived. Trade had blossomed, once-desolate villages had become bustling towns and even the most daring raiders hesitated in the face of his Securitrons. Freeside had changed from slum to thriving suburb. The Followers of the Apocalypse had set up schools and libraries, educating a populace in dire need of precisely that.
Vegas, shining Vegas, had drawn ever closer to its days of pre-war glory, its lights growing brighter and more blinding. No longer a corpse in pretty clothing as it had been under House, but a living, breathing city.
It hadn't been easy. The early days of his rule had been filled with struggle. His dreams of a free Vegas had clashed with the reality of the world he found himself in. The Mojave had still teemed with danger, the NCR had still had its greedy eyes fixed on Hoover Dam and the remnants of the Legion had been an ever present threat.
There'd been more sleepless nights than he cared to count. More days spent in the wasteland, hunting raiders and resolving disputes between communities. Hurried meetings with members of the Three Families. Political skirmishes with the NCR. Building trade routes. Setting up patrols. Struggle. Loss. Conflict. Mourning.
But he'd done it. The NCR had been calmed, their citizens once again streaming into Vegas, and their caps into his pocket. The Mojave had been made safe, his Securitrons personally escorting caravans across the roads. The shards of the broken Legion had been driven from his land. And he had been left with a land of independence and chaos, of virtue and depravity, of self-determination and anarchy.
And he had made it work.
"What are you looking at?"
He blinked as Louise spoke up from next to him, drawn from his thoughts. "Hmmm?"
Louise frowned. "I said, what are you looking at?"
"Nothing much," he said. "Just thinking that the weather's lovely."
"It is," Louise agreed. "Perfect for a visit to the city, wouldn't you say?"
John sighed. He was quite interested in seeing what a city in this world looked like, but Louise's intentions were transparent. "And I suppose you have a destination in mind? Specifically, to hazard a guess, a clothes store?"
Louise's expression went blank for a moment and John smiled. Bullseye.
"Well, why not?" Louise asked after a moment. Her tone was annoyed "It needs to be done."
"No," John replied firmly. "It doesn't."
Louise stamped her foot. "Familiar, I cannot have you appear before the Princess dressed in… in… that!"
She gestured at his armour, a disdainful expression on her face. He had to admit that she had something of a point. His desert ranger gear was several hundred years old and had certainly seen better days. He'd patched it up quite extensively over the last ten years, but there was no doubting that it looked more than a little ragged.
On the other hand, it was also one of the most practical suits of armour he'd even encountered, with defence nearing that of Power Armour, without the aggravating weight of the latter. He had few better suits of armour, and he rarely wore them if all he was doing was going our ranging the Mojave. A mistake in this case.
Still, this was the best he had on him. He wasn't going to swap it out for some random set of party wear. It seemed he was going to have to make that clear.
"And I can't guard you properly if I'm dressed up like a goddamn White Glove," John countered. "The Princess will just have to bear with it."
Louise stared at him in shock, before a dark, angry look swept over her face. "Familiar, I am ordering you to-"
"No. You don't get to do that."
Louise blinked at him in surprise as he cut across her, and he leant in towards her. Now it was his face that was twisted in anger.
"Remember that deal we made? That we would be equals? Yes? Well, that means you don't get to order me to do shit. You don't even get to try. Are we understood?"
A mix of warring emotions played over Louise's face as he spoke. Anger, frustration, fear. That was good. She should fear him. Part of her problem was that she'd never had to deal with situations like these. People either avoided her, or were her obvious social superiors. Either way, she'd never been opposed by a peer, an equal. Not like this. Not a direct battle of wills.
He couldn't help but wonder if having this conversation in an open area was a good idea. Originally, he'd been planning on playing the dutiful familiar that Louise had always wanted in public after all. Increasingly though, he was coming to suspect that what Louise actually needed was someone to challenge the way she thought. Just trying to get her to open up through friendly means wasn't going to work. Her behaviour with Tabitha and Kirche earlier had made that clear.
"Fine," Louise said eventually, looking sharply to the side. "I'll just have to beg Henrietta's forgiveness for your appearance."
John fought back a grin. The noble was only making baby steps, but it was progress regardless. "You do that."
Now it was time change the pace of the conversation. Keep her unbalanced. Keep her learning. Suddenly, he poked her sharply in the shoulder.
Louise gave a small shriek of surprise, then rubbed the point he'd poked, glaring at him while she did so.
"What was that!?"
"You see, that wouldn't have hurt as much if you'd been wearing armour," John said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "Maybe we should go to the city after all. Buy you some leather armour or something."
Louise stared at him in horror. "Leather-? I can't wear leather armour in front of Henrietta!"
"I don't see why not. It's very practical," John replied. He looked at her face for a moment, then sighed. "Fine, fine. No leather armour."
"Of course no leather armour!"
"On a completely unrelated note, what's your opinion on plate mail?"
"I can't wear it!"
"You are a bit fragile looking," John admitted. "Maybe a brigandine?"
"You're not making this easy for me."
"I don't want to make it easy for you! I'm not wearing armour in front of the Princess! You're the one who wears armour!"
"Why, thank you. I do look good in it, don't I?"
Louise's face was practically red with embarrassment and anger as she glared at him. Oh, this was fun. He should have started doing this sooner.
"Um, excuse me…?"
Both of them wheeled on the speaker.
Guiche stood there, recoiling slightly from their attention. Or mostly John's attention.
"What is it, Guiche?" Louise asked, her voice snappish.
Guiche's eyes flicked to John, as if asking for permission to speak. John nodded slightly and then spoke. "Is something the matter?"
"Well, not exactly," Guiche said, voice hesitant. "It's just that I couldn't help but overhear your conversation…"
John raised an eyebrow. That wasn't surprising. Louise was many things, but quiet was not among them.
"…And I was wondering if I could offer my assistance," Guiche continued. "As an apology for my behaviour yesterday."
Now this was surprising. He hadn't expected the noble to actively seek him out to make amends. "Rather than me, I think there are a few others that you should apologise to."
Guiche nodded. "I've already begged Montmorency and Katie for their forgiveness. I was fortunate enough to receive it, though not without… some difficulty."
He held up a hand to his right cheek. It was rather red and swollen, as if someone had slapped it several times. Next to him, Louise raised an eyebrow, apparently amused. John didn't even bother to hide his smile at the sight. "And Siesta?"
"The maid?" Guiche asked, his voice hesitant. "I asked for forgiveness and she gave it, but…"
"She could hardly have not have done so, correct?"
"Indeed." Guiche admitted reluctantly. "My position would demand that she accept my apology, regardless of her feelings on the matter."
John sighed. "Next time, I'll come with you. If I'm there, she might feel a bit more confident about slapping you as well."
"I… would be very grateful for that," Guiche said slowly. To John's surprise, the noble didn't appear to be lying. "I know you will find this hard to believe, but I did learn a lesson in our duel. One that I will not forget."
"I see," John said, nodding his head. "So you've stopped two-timing?"
"What? Uh, well…" Guiche rubbed the back of his head nervously. "…Not quite?"
John laughed at that. Still, it was genuinely surprising that the young nobleman had gotten so much out of a short duel and a few threats. It might be possible that there was actually a decent human being under the veneer of the inveterate flirt.
"Well, that's not my business. Just try and be a bit more subtle," he said after a moment. "Anyway, you were offering to help us?"
"Indeed," Guiche said, smiling widely. "You see, I heard that you needed armour and clothing for a royal presentation-"
"Wait, you heard that?" Louise said, her voice panicked. "How much of the conversation did you eavesdrop on!?"
"I wouldn't say I eavesdropped-"
Guiche held up his hands. "Not much! Just enough to know that you are going to meet with the Princess at some point in the future. I don't know why."
"He's telling the truth, Louise," John said calmly. "You never mentioned the reason."
Louise relaxed slightly. "All right then. Go on."
Guiche nodded cautiously. "Well, my family happens to frequently patronise several local armouries and clothiers. I would happily ask them to sell you their premium stock. They don't normally sell it to anyone outside a very specific group. There are a few stores with craftsmen who can rival the royal smiths, if you know where to look."
Louise smiled widely. "That sounds like an excellent idea."
John sighed, rubbing his face with his hands. "Guiche, if you're trying to apologise to me, then giving me a gift I actually want tends to be a good start."
"Don't worry," Guiche said, his tone placating. "These stores sell only the highest quality goods. Their gear is all suitable for military use by experienced battle mages."
John frowned thoughtfully at that. He was actually somewhat interested in seeing what exactly these people wore as armour. From what he'd seen, they appeared to be somewhere around the 16th or 17th century technology wise, and he'd only ever read a few books about that time period. It would be interesting.
More practically, knowing what mages wore would be useful. He doubted that it'd be enough to stop a .45 round, but it wouldn't hurt to find out.
"All right," he said after a moment. "I'll have a look."
Next to him, Louise beamed.
"Just a look though," John warned. "If it all turns out to be inferior to what I've already got, then I'm not wearing it."
"Of course," Guiche said, nodding in agreement.
"Also, if we do get anything, then we're getting it at a discount, right?"
Guiche hesitated. "I… uh, well, I'm not sure that…"
Guiche hung his head. "…Yes."
The early morning sun was shining brightly in the sky as John reclined against his post outside Louise's door, tapping his fingers impatiently against the wall. Apparently, going into town was a big enough event that it was causing Louise (and by extension, Siesta) some trouble in choosing her clothing, judging by the occasional loud complaints that emanated out of the door. And the sheer length of time she was taking to accomplish this seemingly impossible task.
He sighed. The girl was nearly as bad as the White Glove Society were, primping and preening for hours in front of their mirrors for hours on end before their banquets. He'd gone to one or two of said banquets, but generally turned down the invitations. Much to their relief, he suspected. They'd never quite been happy about how he'd taken 'formal wear' to mean 'combat armour'.
After waiting for another two minutes, he rapped sharply on the door. "How much longer is this going to take, Louise?"
The use of her given name in front of a servant was something of a risk, but it had benefits too. The servants at the academy seemed to perceive him as some kind of hero of the common man, a delusion he wasn't under any particular desire to deprive them of. Playing up the fact that Louise didn't have a hold on him a bit would only reinforce that image. More importantly, it would remind Louise of their conversation the day before.
A bit excessive perhaps, but Louise had a stubborn streak long enough that you needed the mental equivalent of a sledgehammer to get a message through.
"Just hold on for a moment!" Louise's voice carried loudly through the door. "I'm still choosing my blouse!"
"Louise, we're going to have to miss breakfast at this rate," John said, his tone annoyed. "We promised to meet Guiche an hour from now."
"Then you go down and have breakfast! I have more important things to worry about."
John considered that for a second. It wasn't a bad idea actually. Louise hardly needed to be escorted everywhere by him. This was an academy after all, not a den of Deathclaws. If she wasn't safe here, he'd have to glue her to his side anywhere else.
As he turned to leave, he heard one last demand as Louise commanded that Siesta simultaneously open up the fourth door down and get out her summer wear.
He shook his head wearily.
The dining hall was nearly halfway emptied by the time he arrived, a steady stream of students leaving for whatever business occupied their day. Despite that, he noticed a familiar figure sitting at a small table, separated from the main part of the room by a fair distance.
"Guiche," John greeted the noble as he approached. "I'm surprised to see you here. I thought you'd be getting ready for the trip."
"Ah, John. Good morning," Guiche responded, turning in his seat to face the older man. "And actually, it was something of a surprise for me too actually."
Guiche gestured in front of him as he spoke and John noticed the large tray on the table, heavily laden with food and drink, far more than one person could eat. He raised a questioning eyebrow.
"Montmorency invited me to breakfast," Guiche said, rubbing his head somewhat embarrassedly. "She said that she wanted to put the whole Katie… incident behind us."
John glanced around. The drill-haired blonde was distinctly absent. "Where is she then?"
"Good question," Guiche replied. "I was just about to go looking for her."
"Go ahead," John said. "I'll watch your place for you."
Guiche stared at him for a second, before bursting into a smile. "That would be very kind of you. Feel free to help yourself to the tea, if you'd like. It's one of Mon's special brews, so it's certain to be excellent. Though I haven't tried this one yet."
John frowned. "Mon?"
The blonde noble flushed.
"It's, ah, a pet name I have for Montmorency," Guiche admitted.
John grinned slightly at that, causing the noble to turn an even deeper shade of red and flee with a hurried farewell.
He sat down in the newly vacated seat and absentmindedly poured himself a cup of tea, frowning thoughtfully. Guiche's reaction had reminded him just how young these students were. He was probably two to three times older than some of them, and he hadn't been born with half a dozen silver spoons rammed down his throat. Life experience outside of being waited on hand and foot probably wasn't in great supply within the academy.
After a moment, he shrugged. It wasn't his business. At least not unless they tried to make it his. He picked up the cup of tea and brought it up towards his lips, blowing on it gently to cool it.
"Don't drink it!"
John spun in his chair at the sound of the shriek, to find himself face to face with Montmorency. The noble's gaze was flicking between him and the teacup in his hand, a horrified expression on her face. Around the hall, a few of the remaining students were looking at them with curiosity, their attention drawn by Montmorency's cry. The blonde haired girl didn't even seem to notice them however, her attention fixed on John.
"Did you drink it?" Montmorency asked, her whispering voice a sharp contrast to her panicked shriek from a moment before.
John stared at her for a moment before realisation overcame shock. Something was in the drink. Slowly, he put the cup down, hiding it behind a large loaf of breath. He smiled up at the noble, a friendly, open air surrounding him. "Guiche is looking for you."
Montmorency ignored that comment, glaring at him. "I said, did you drink it?"
"You could probably catch him if you left now."
"You're drawing quite a lot of attention," John said calmly, gesturing at the students now openly staring at them. "Maybe you should sit down so we can talk? Before Guiche returns?"
Montmorency looked around her quickly. The blonde seemed to deflate under the regard of her peers, a look of sheer, animal panic crossing her face.
"Smart choice," John said. "Would you like to something to eat? I know I'm not your scheduled partner for breakfast, but we have to make do with what we have, don't we? And the side dishes look pretty good."
Montmorency scowled. "I prepared the breakfast. The food is of the highest quality."
"So you did," John said, nodding cheerfully. Then his smile took on a decidedly evil bent. "Perhaps some tea, then?"
Montmorency paled further still.
"To answer your earlier question, I haven't tried it yet," John continued. "But maybe that's for the best. What's in it?"
"I don't know what you're talking about. There's nothing in it," Montmorency said firmly. The young lady seemed to have gathered fresh resolve from somewhere and sat up, squaring her shoulders as she glared at him.
"Really?" John raised an eyebrow. "Perhaps we should see if Professor Colbert has the same opinion?"
He stood, teapot clasped in his hand.
"Don't!" Montmorency said quickly, her voice fearful.
John sat down and leaned back, fixing the girl with his stare. "What's in it?"
For a moment the girl was silent, hesitation warring with inevitability as she searched for a way out of this predicament. After a moment, her shoulders slumped in defeat. She glanced around, but bereft of further drama the rest of the students had simply stopped paying attention to them. She leaned in closer to him, then spoke in a whisper.
"It's a love potion."
John blinked. "A… love potion? You mean an aphrodisiac?"
"No!" Montmorency snapped. "What kind of person do you think I am!? I'm no whore, to give away my chastity like that. It's a genuine love potion."
"I find the fact that you find brainwashing someone into loving you to be more morally acceptable than just sleeping with them to be both amusing and horrifying in equal measure, but we'll put that aside for now," John said. "How strong is it? How long does it last?"
"Very strong. I made it myself," There was a hint of pride in the girl's voice as she spoke. "Guiche will be entirely devoted to me while he's under it's influence. The effects will last for months, at the very least."
"That can't be legal," John said after a moment, shaking his head. "You'd have the entire nobility drugging each other into the ground every few weeks if it were."
Montmorency didn't say anything in response, which was an answer all it's own. It only made sense that something like a love potion would be illegal. If the effect was as strong as Montmorency professed it to be, then the possibilities of something like that were endless. You could topple a nation if you knew what you were doing.
Suddenly, he was very interested in the tea.
"How does it work? I'm guessing that you made it so that everyone who drinks the potion falls in love with you?"
"No. It's whomever you first see after you've drunk the potion."
John stared at her in surprise. "But you weren't here earlier. What if Guiche had started drinking?"
Montmorency scowled. "I was held up. One of the teachers wanted to ask about some components I'd been borrowing from the school stocks lately."
"I can see how that would have been an uncomfortable line of questioning," John said dryly.
The ramshackle nature of her plan was almost painful to watch. She'd actually borrowed the supplies from the school? And then she'd sent the potion, the actual key component of making Guiche stop his philandering, ahead of her? The girl might be a talented alchemist, but subterfuge was clearly not her strong point.
John sighed. "Alright, well as much as I can understand why you'd want to do this, I can't let you. Guiche has his flaws, but doping him into following you around like a lovesick puppy probably isn't the right solution for your relationship."
Montmorency had the grace to look slightly ashamed, but glared at him nonetheless. "And who are you to tell me what I can and cannot do?"
"The person who you literally just told your entire plan? And who has the evidence right in front of him? All I need to do is take this pot to anyone with some authority and I suspect that you'll be in deep shit."
"And I can't let you keep it either," John continued. "So instead I'm going to- Oh. Guiche is back."
Montmorency turned in her chair quickly. The blonde dandy had returned to the hall, his gaze flicking around .Eventually, it settled on Montmorency. He waved at her, and then began making his way over.
Montmorency spun back to face John. "You can't tell him!"
"I'm not going to," John assured her. He gestured at the teapot. "I'm going to dispose of it instead. How long does the love potion last before degrading, and will diluting it with water render it ineffective?"
"It'll last for years before it degrades," Montmorency said quickly, staring at the approaching figure of Guiche with fresh panic. "But ten parts water to one part love potion should render it entirely useless."
"Simple enough. Go. Distract him while I get rid of this crap. And you owe me a favour for this."
Montmorency shot him a glare as she stood. "A favour? For getting in my way?"
"For not selling you out for breaking the law," he replied. "And for stopping you for doing something incredibly stupid. Now hurry up. He's almost here."
Montmorency shot off, catching Guiche no more than ten metres from the table and immediately pulling him into a conversation to distract him. And, conveniently, she was also distracting herself.
John pulled the teacup out from it's hiding place behind the bread, and drew an empty bottle out from his coat pocket. Hiding his hands behind the teapot, he quickly emptied the cup into the bottle, then closed the bottle up and slipped it back into his coat. Then, calmly, he shoved the now empty teacup and pot off the table and onto the floor.
The crash drew the entire room's attention, and John suddenly found himself the centre of attention. Within second, Guiche had hurried over, a concerned look on his face.
"Are you alright? What happened?"
John shrugged. "My hand slipped. Sorry, Guiche. I seem to have ruined your breakfast."
"Oh, don't worry about it." The noble waved his hands dismissively. "It's a shame that I won't get to try Montmorency's tea, but accidents happen. Right, Mon?"
"I… suppose so," she replied, her voice annoyed. "We really should get a servant to clean this up as soon as possible though. It wouldn't do if anyone was to slip and hurt themselves."
"No doubt one of the staff will be along soon enough," Guiche said, apparently oblivious to the frustration in his girlfriend's tone.
Suddenly, out of the corner of his eye, John noticed Louise enter the room, Siesta a step behind her.
"Hold on a second," he said, pulling himself to his feet. Guiche and Montmorency gave him curious looks but relaxed once they saw where he was looking.
"You look good, Louise," John said as his master neared. To his own surprise, it wasn't a lie. The lilac silk blouse that she had finally settled on accentuated the colour of her hair nicely, and she'd swapped out her normal skirt for something a little longer, but with far more frills. It was definitely a design focused on being 'cute', but it was also possessed of a certain elegance. Veronica would have happily killed for it.
Louise smiled triumphantly. "I do, don't I? I told you it would be worth the wait."
"I wouldn't go that far."
Siesta giggled slightly at that. She was quickly silenced by a glare from Louise.
"Have you had breakfast then, familiar?" Louise asked, her tone thick with vitriol as she put emphasis the title.
John shook his head. "I haven't had a chance. I got caught up talking to Guiche and Montmorency."
"Montmorency?" Louise gave him an incredulous look. "What did she want to talk to you about?"
"Oh, nothing much. Guiche. Tea. I wasn't really paying much attention."
"Good," Louise said firmly. "She doesn't have anything to say that's worth listening to."
"If you say so," John replied easily. "Thought I suspect you'd get on well with her f you just talked to her."
Louise crossed her arms, a look of disbelief on her face. "And what makes you think that?"
John slipped his hand into his pocket, feeling the glass surface of the bottle containing the remnants of the tea. He grinned viciously.
"Call it a hunch."