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“Hm? Honestly?” Marisa scratched her head lazily.
Her hair needed a good thorough brushing, it was a bit frazzled and all over the place. At the best of times it wasn't the shiniest nor most well-maintained hair but it was a bit sad to see it in a state of such disrepair. I was weird for thinking about it then, I knew, but I could scarcely help it. When I was young I used to take baths with Auntie and, though I can't remember much else, I remember how fine her hair was when she let it down. Smelled so nice too, like flowers. As the years wore and the baths stopped I still remember admiring it from afar and always being eager to help her do it up. Recently she took a more casual approach, using a pencil sometimes to hold it in place. It completely wrote me out of the equation. Marisa must spend at least a little time to girly things like brushing her hair if it tended to look like that in the mornings. It was an odd mental image.
“I haven't said anything yet, so why the frown?” Marisa asked.
“Oh, sorry, my mind wandered there for a moment,” I apologized, feeling a little embarrassed. Thinking about Aunties cheerful and healthy-looking locks was best left for another time.
“You must be more worried about this than I thought then,” She took away an erroneous conclusion.
“That might be a bit of a stretch-”
“No need to be modest and to hide your worry, just means that my advice needs to be extra-good.”
If she had something on the tip of her tongue earlier, there were signs that it was no longer a satisfying enough piece of advice. She sunk into a pensive state, hand on chin and legs crossed. It looked like she was meditating, her eyes were closed but her face held something of a troubled expression. Having been half-expecting something irreverent like Marisa calling herself 'the love magician' or something equally silly, I was now anxiously awaiting her serious response. I didn't want to say anything to interrupt her thought process.
“I know,” Her first words were eerily quiet, they carried the weight of the world, “I know just what you need to do.”
“What do I have to do?”
Her eyes opened up, meeting mine. A tingle of excitement shot up through my spine. In that brief window of time, it felt like the secrets of the universe would be exposed to me. She began well enough, saying, “What you need to do is get her in a room alone with you, free of any other distractions,” I nodded, latching on to her every word like a faithful puppy, “and then look her straight in the eye. It's important to be straightforward. If she tries to take the initiative, stop her, hold her by the waist or arms if you have to. Waist is preferable since it keeps her closer to you. And-”
“And-?” I felt like I was going to explode.
“Kiss her, even if she resists at first.”
“What?! Kiss her?!”
“Yes. You take your lips, bring them close to her face and press them to her lips. Quite simple actually,” She blushed a little, “You should know since you've kissed me. It was my first, you know.”
“Are you serious?” I was at a loss for words.
“Yes, hard to believe that someone as awesome and beautiful as me would be so inexperienced, but to be honest I haven't had much time for relationships and I never met the right person either so-”
“No, not about that!” All that earlier excitement had been converted to aggravation. I fumed, “That can't be the best advice you have for me. Something like that won't work. Besides, I would be forcing myself on her, worst case scenario. She might even kick me out.”
“How cruel, you forced yourself on me, you know,” Though the redness on her face hadn't quite subsided, she looked a little despondent, “you practically ruined me for marriage later on that night with what you did when we were in bed together. I have a big heart, but even I have feelings you know.”
“Couldn't you give me a more serious answer about Alice?”
“That is serious!” She insisted, “She's a withdrawn and grumpy girl. If you ask with words she might play it down or twist what you say around. But that's because she isn't honest with herself, because she doesn't know how to do that. So a kiss would be the most direct way to bypass all that, to get through to her. You're a jerk you know,” She pouted.
“If you're serious about that, look, I'm sorry,” I said.
“You said you would take responsibility. It doesn't seem like you will...”
I was walking on eggshells, it seemed. As cruel as it might have been for Marisa, I wanted to focus on the other moody magician, “I wasn't implying that I wanted to confirm those sorts of feelings anyways. I just want her to be honest. Tell me that I'm at least a friend or something. I want to know where I stand.”
“Of course you don't want anything more, because if you put your heart out there, you're just liable to get hurt. Is that it?” She scoffed, acting more than just a little hostile.
“No, it's really not about that-”
“She's cute, smart and available,” She interrupted, “Even I've been tempted to kiss her more than once. To see if she feels good about it, looks like a normal girl with all sorts of lovely feelings afterwards. I think she deserves her happiness too. You're too scared to commit to anything without being sure that your own heart will be broken. How selfish, you don't even stop to consider how others feel. Have you forgotten already about the others? There's no way you haven't noticed how Suika and Reimu have changed. I'm sure that you think that you're hot stuff, playing off all these different girls but the truth is you aren't. You're just a big jerk. A big jerk that comes and goes as he pleases, toying with girls in the prime of his maidenhood. It should be alright to kiss one more, shouldn't it? Another notch for you to celebrate.”
“I think you're overreacting,” I defended myself, “I'm really not like that. I'm sorry if I've given you the wrong impression but I'm being honest here. I don't mean to play anyone, I just... I'm inexperienced about this sort of thing as well. I want to learn magic in order to be someone, not just that guy that's an inconvenience to others.”
“I'm sorry,” Marisa stood up, “But could you please leave?”
“Oh come on now-”
“I'm serious. Please leave,” She went and opened her front door, “Leave me alone for a while. I really don't feel like seeing you right now. I don't feel any good at all.”
I planned to protest but the look on her face told me she was being serious. Instead of making things worse, I decided to cut my losses and do as she asked. I tried to apologize again but she would have none of it. With nothing to be done about that situation, I returned to Alice's house. There I flung myself into bed, staring at the ceiling for a long, long time. I avoided Alice entirely, not sure that I was capable of handling anyone else for the rest of the day. I skipped meals.
Eventually I fell into an uneasy sleep.
She sat in her chair, staring at me. There was no trace of overt anxiety like before even though some of the other feelings of longing still lingered in the air. She did what she could do and that was to observe, to wait, to be patient. It was a vigil in which the object to be watched should have been swapped with the watcher. I wanted to go back to that, but I couldn't. So I stayed still, finding solace in the fact that we were at least together. It was something. I wanted more but it was the best I could do.
I was still feeling tired when I got up in the morning. I moved slowly and got ready at a snail's pace. Alice was downstairs at the table, drinking her morning tea, when I came in. She was back to her distant and unapproachable self, calmly giving me directives for the day. I was to try the spell from the other day again and see if I could do it at a reliable rate. Afterwards she said that there was a few books worth of reading I should get to and a few practical exercises I could do following that.
Replicating the spell successfully did not prove to be a problem. Even though my heart wasn't really into magic that morning, my mind was more than ready to do as I asked it to. It was like there were new paths open in there that acted like shortcuts, hastening the preparations I needed to do and channeling the energies needed in a more efficient fashion. Again and again I was able to make the test plants bloom with boldly-colored flowers. Satisfied with how that turned out, I turned to the reading next. I worked most of the day on that and only stopped to eat a meal in the early afternoon. It was all boring stuff, nothing revolutionary but I could see why I had to read it. It laid the foundations for more complex things that were to come. By late afternoon I was ready to try the first of the practical exercises and was halfway done when Alice talked to me in the evening.
“You've done enough for the day, you ought to rest,” She suggested. Like with anything related to her lessons, it had a very tangible reason, “If you are too tired or your energies too drained you increase the likelihood of failure. And invite catastrophic consequences inadvertently.”
“I'll do as you say mistress,” I answered glumly.
“Tomorrow you will have much work to do, including making an important choice. Rest up and clear your mind.”
Another day drew to a close. I stayed up, lying in bed for a while. Persistent thoughts kept me awake. It took a long time for me to finally fall asleep.
She continued to stare. Her eyes did not lose focus even for an instant. I was glad. At least they didn't contain pity. It was not the best situation, but it was what it was. Her silent vigil was enough even if no one else was there with her. That had always been enough. What came next still held promise. There was a slight smile on her lips. A promise of things yet to come.
By sticking to a tight schedule I was able to focus on my magic lessons. I didn't have time to think about anything else. Alice pushed me to grow in power and knowledge. The absolute confidence with which she gave me orders and instructions made me suspect that she was investing a lot of herself into teaching me. There was pride showing in her normally stern eyes. Whether it was pride in me or in herself I did not know. I could do within a few days what I never had thought possible a month earlier. I was not impressive, by any metric, but the difference between the dumb-struck me who first saw that spectacle of lights all those months ago and the me now was significant. Or so I felt.
Around midday Alice had me take a break. With six hours or so of hard work done, I stopped to have something to eat. She joined me, silently watching me as I wolfed down my meal. Magical energy had to come from somewhere, I supposed, and wasting it made me rather hungry. After I was done, she had a talk with me. The nature of the choice that she had mentioned the day before now became clear.
“Apprentice,” She started, “you've come far along to take the first incipient steps into specialization. In time you will develop your own focus and specialization but for now you should begin to do more in-depth study in a rubric of magic.”
“Am I to choose something myself?”
“That is correct.”
“Do you have any suggestions for me, mistress?”
“Of course. But it is not my place to interfere. You must decide yourself. I can say that you are not especially lacking in any field, save by detriment of inexperience but that can be overcome with dedication. I do not believe I have to explain what these specializations are, do I?”
She did not. It was one of the first things she taught me. Under the umbrella term of 'schools of magic' but even that was a misleading label. There was no consensus on what constituted a 'school' and the many arbitrary subdivisions. Truth was that everything was interrelated and there was plenty of crossover. The spectrum of magic was not exactly continuous but neither was it too interrupted. Alice could help me out with anything I chose because of the fact that the general principles were innate to all types of magic. Her experience was something that made her superior to me.
I thought about the different choices and what I wanted to go for. There was transmutation, the changing of one substance to another temporarily or permanently. It wasn't lead to gold but often much more subtle and a generally undetectable form of magic (unless someone looked really hard). It could also be used to strengthen objects by changing their properties. Then there was something similar but focused mostly on the self and others. To call it restoration did not do the complexity of the discipline enough credit but was otherwise a good enough term. It meant the alteration of the body, something as subtle as inducing someone to a better mood or something more obvious like helping to heal a wound or reducing the time it took for broken bones to mend. Some types of protective spells fell into this category. That was not an exhaustive application of those talents and it was more ill-defined than evocation. This was using my own energies to create things that weren't there. My light spell was something of an evocation since I didn't use external energy. A fireball would fall into that category, though frankly that was just a stupidly childish application. Then there was the opposite of that. Drawing out the power from things around me. Like conjuring up the energies of nature from trees or using lightning for my own purpose.
Those were the specializations I sort of wanted to do. There were other things I could do, but honestly they didn't interest me. I wasn't sure what Alice's style was. Her manipulation of dolls required her internal energies but the dolls themselves were also prepared to be manipulated. Besides that I hadn't really ever seen her cast anything really big or specialized. I wanted to ask, but felt that she wouldn't tell me. She was determined to get me to choose my own path.