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>[x] I... all right, fine, as long as Reveille doesn't get her sparkles on me.
"Well..." I look past Meiling to Reveille, bobbing back and forth on her heels, hands clasped together, positively beaming. Beaming. "...yeah, okay, but if Reveille gets any more cheerful I will probably just curl up and die."
Reveille gets more cheerful.
I don't manage to curl up and die.
Her exuberance practically radiates off her as her wings flit up and down, up and down, while Meiling leads us back to the small cadre of maids drilling.
"Gatekeeper on deck!" Reveille abruptly barks from behind me, making me jump about a foot.
"At ease," Meiling replies with a faintly amused voice. I suspect she's done this song and dance before. "Girls, as you can see you'll have a little outside help today. I think you're all familiar with Kazuki?"
Oh dear gods, they're all sparkling. Why? Why, gods, why?
Meiling clears her throat to reclaim their attention, and continues. "To be honest, he'll only be offering advice as it comes to him. Mostly, he's here for a special session with me." They...are they disappointed?
When did I become a vampire mansion celebrity? My world is changing, and I don't--right. Change.
Meiling moves to one side, motioning me after her. "Start your warmup drills, then we'll commence the lesson."
I follow her with a bemused expression. "Special session, huh?"
"Well, most of them aren't practitioners of combat magic."
"I should probably do some warmups as well, shouldn't I?"
Meiling smiles at that. "Good on you, Kazuki. All right, start with some stretches. I'll have to think of something easy on your leg after that..."
She takes me through some mild stretching, arms, legs, waist and shoulders. I try not to enjoy the view (though not that hard), but nonetheless I swear I catch Meiling's eyes twinkling as she follows my gaze. Behind us, the fairies split off into pairs, bowing alternately, palm-to-fist, and beginning routines they've clearly drilled into memory. A cycle of slow, pantomimed strikes that target points across the whole body, met and countered by blocks to each area. Then they split off and trade roles.
"What do they do about their wings?" I ask.
"Not much," Meiling admits. "I teach them not to show Flandre their backs until they're safely away. She might..."
"Take it badly?" She nods. "I see where you're coming from, but..."
"I do teach them some evasive moves. Mostly for use in confined spaces underground," Meiling reassures. Not a bad idea, but... I'll have to see how they work. For now, though, I have my own knitting to keep to.
"So what did you want to start with?" I ask.
"Well," she says with a wry smile. "I thought I would punch you."
"Gently!" she laughs at my dismayed expression. "But really, I want to see the extents of your magic. I was thinking I could throw a lone punch at you, which you would block. I would gradually increase the force behind each hit until you began to feel it. If that wouldn't be too tiring?"
"I..." Well, I did just say I trust her. "Yeah, all right. But--hang on."
I motion for Meiling to move aside as I note the Basement Brigade training. They're making evasive maneuvers, using a quick burst of speed and a flit of their wings to twist out of reach from a lunge.
"Hold on, over there," I call. Instantly, somewhere between ten and a million pairs of eyes are on me, and I have to force myself not to shrink back reflexively in dismay. "That last move there," I continue, sounding more authoritative than I feel, "have you ever had to use it?"
"Er," says the other fairy, probably feeling about as put-on-the-spot as I do, "N-no."
"Any of you?" I look around. No one speaks up, suddenly looking very chagrinned. "Well, no offense, but it shows. Meiling, you remember what I've told you about flying?"
"How different it feels, propelling yourself versus using wings?"
"Right." I turn to the first, luckless maid who caught my eye. "I'm going to try to grab you. Try to use that dodge, the same way you just did." She swallows and nods, taking a ready posture.
I take a breath and then dart forward, hands snaking forward, lashing out almost blindly. Almost. Sure enough, she twists away and takes flight, a quick burst of speed carrying her body out of harm's way--
But not her leg. I snare her ankle as she gives a surprised shriek, pulling her back down in an eyeblink. I let go of the surprised maid, her hand to her chest, eyes wide.
"That," I offer, "is how I got caught in the forest, once upon a time. You can't just leave your limbs dangling out like that. And you're turning your side--try the same thing again, but pull your legs in like you're making a high jump, or--" Or they might not ever bother with high jumps, because they can fly. Right. "--Or like you're cannon-balling into the lake," I try. "And fly straight back. You won't go as far, but you can re-angle in the air to either direction with one more flap. Come on, again."
Despite her nervousness (and probably pounding heart), she nods and squares off again. She meets with a lot more success this time, curling up close and pulling her legs out of harm's way. The other maids cheer and clap as she smiles nervously, turning a little pink. Meiling folds her arms and nods approvingly.
"It's something that doesn't really come naturally," I explain. "It feels a lot more comfortable to stretch out in the air, and it's more aerodynamic, cuts down on resistance. Remember, your whole body is your..." I almost said 'tailfin,' but I doubt anyone here knows airplanes. "...rudder," I settle on. "Steer your motions with your whole body, just remember it's out there. Okay?" They all nod. "Good. Back to it."
"Not bad, Kazuki," Meiling says. "I should have caught that."
I shrug. "You don't really fly with wings. And besides, you're more about teaching them to protect themselves, not escape, right?"
"Something like that, I guess," she nods. "Still."
"Well, they wouldn't have picked up on that until personal experience."
She frowns. "Was that when...?"
"Rumia, yes." Inwardly, I feel glad my leg is covered by my pantleg. I would have felt much more self-conscious if all the girls could stop and see it. "Right, no sense dwelling. You were about to punch me?"
She laughs. "That I was. Start without magic, let's get a baseline tolerance. When it starts to hurt too much, try your enhancement."
It doesn't take many--a pulled Meiling punch still echoes across the courtyard with a sharp slap. Finally, I almost bounce off one of her strikes as my blocking arm moves me against her as the fulcrum, diverting nothing. Her curled fist quivers half an inch from my nose, reminding me pointedly that I've seen her impact so hard the ground cracks without so much as pausing midstride.
"I think," I note, shaking out my shocked arm, "that's my physical limit."
"Better than I thought," Meiling reassures me. "You're very strong for your size. Are you ready to try it again with magic?"
"Yeah," I say. "Can you match that level of force to start with?"
We square off again as I try to focus my mind. Meiling lets fly again, the fabric of her dress snapping audibly as it whips taut in an eyeblink. This time, her arm meets mine sheathed in a crackling cloak of blue. I step forward resolutely with my raised arm, and this time, Meiling moves against me, fist sailing wide and away as I turn her body with the force of my deflection.
"Beautiful," Meiling declares. "Again!"
And we go again, and again, her strikes coming faster and harder. Soon it's almost all I can do to catch blindingly fast impacts, and turn them away. The pressure increases as I pour more energy into my heightened strength, only barely keeping pace with Meiling. I can feel the impacts through my arm now, faint and muted, but present. Somewhere in the back of the head I remind myself that she's still restraining herself. Still, her smile is infectious, a broad, proud grin on her face as she takes a step back after her last meteoric impact.
"What? Is my form slipping?" I pant.
"No," she replies, "but I want to show you something. Take a quick rest, I'll be right back."
With that, Meiling unceremoniously departs into the air, leaving me with a gaggle of fairy girls...most of which, I realize now, have been watching us. Erk.
She doesn't leave me hanging long (mercifully), touching back down as quickly as she left. With her arm behind her back. "Kazuki," she says, "I'm going to throw an overhand strike. I want you to block it just the same as you have been, okay?"
"...Okay..." I feel like this 'trust' thing is perhaps a double-edged sword. What is she about to do to me?
"Ready?" I retake my stance, take a moment to steel myself, and nod.
An explosion of movement. The grass ripples as I throw everything I can muster into the enhancement. My arm rises to meet the attack as Meiling's descends like a thunderbolt.
There's a sharp, resounding crack, a terrible crunch and something shattering. For a gut-wrenching moment, I'm sure it's my arm.
In less than an eyeblink, it's over, Meiling looking at me over the top of a weapon. A broken weapon.
"That," Meiling says, her eyes aflame, "was a length of rosewood. Look." She points behind me, at the other piece, currently lodged in a recently-broken window.
"I, uh," I manage, still almost dazed, "I'm sorry. I can try to fix--"
"Sorry? Don't be sorry!" she exclaims. "You just broke a club! Kazuki, that was--was--" discarding the broken cudgel behind her, she attacks with something no one could block--a tackle-hug. "That was fantastic!"
I try to take back the breath she just knocked out of me as she continues, gushing about how fast I am to keep with her, and that it was a proper deflection, not just letting it break against me, which means it was even faster and stronger, and I'm not even at my limit yet, and--
"And Meiling," I wheeze. "You just tackled me to the ground."
"Oh. Oh!" She blinks. "Sorry!"
"...In front of the entire Basement Brigade."
Well, that gets her off. She leaps backward like she just bumped a hot stove, starting to flush a little pink herself, still beaming at me. The maids, for their part, say nothing, simply looking on in varying degrees of fascination.
[ ] Well, uh, I have to, um. Flee.
[ ] ... I didn't say you had to stop.
[ ] I should probably go see about that window. And maybe meet... someone. (Who?)
[ ] Write-in