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“But even better than that,” Esther continues, “you’ll never guess what I finally found.”

Maria is left in a moment of suspense as the witch very slowly and deliberately pulls a book from her inventory. It has a worn emerald-green hard cover and Maria doesn’t even need the title to come into view before she gasps.

“Ah, an early edition!” she notes in delight as Esther holds it out to her. This should be perfect for reviewing arcane methods of form, since the best way to fully understand anything is to truly know how it started out. Glad enthusiasm bubbles up from within her and she unthinkingly throws her arms around her friend without even putting the book down first. “Esther, you are a saint!”

“I just had a good lead, haha.” Esther’s voice is awkwardly modest and she hesitantly puts her arms around Maria in turn, the gesture having taken her by surprise. “But I’m always happy to help you.”

A soft completeness ripples faintly through Maria’s whole body before they part.

“Nevertheless, I am grateful,” the magic knight says earnestly, book now held firmly in both hands.  “I promise I will make good use of it.”

“I know you will,” Esther returns, and the warmth behind her words assures Maria that she could not possibly have chosen a more ideal best friend.

 

Friendship

There are no afternoons more comfortable now than the ones Maria spends talking with Esther, her friend’s enthusiasm spilling out in sparkling streams of thought. She knows so many things and has so many ideas that Maria can’t find it in herself to be sorry that she’s stealing Esther away from alchemy for a few hours every day. Work has its place, too, of course, but there is so much more to her--to both of them--than that.

“I probably shouldn’t even get started on how this corresponds with synthesis,” the witch is saying, but she’s clearly ready to keep going anyway.

“I have some experience with it, myself,” Maria responds with interest, happy with the thought of hearing her continue. “I would be glad to discuss it, if you have time!”

The look of radiant delight on Esther’s face brightens Maria’s heart like the sun.

 

Love Letter

Late in the evening, Greg finds Maria curled up on her bed with her letter book, pen still in hand. She is so intent in her writing that she doesn’t notice that he’s entered the room.

“Are you still writing with Esther?” Greg asks, bemused.

Maria startles only slightly. “Oh! Good evening. Did you need something?”

He has her attention immediately, and so Greg half expects her to tell him the weekly communication with her parents has run late, or something else equally dutiful. Perhaps something serious has happened instead, and the details are being taken care of at that moment.

Writing back and forth late into the night just for the fun of it is a mainstay of teenagers and young lovers who can’t bear to wait for the next day to communicate in person. It’s certainly not something he’s even vaguely observed in Maria, ever a paragon of the virtues of magic knighthood.

“No, but if you keep this up,” he teases, “I’m going to think you’re writing love letters.”

This doesn’t appear to register on the level that it should, as Maria only waves off the comment with a mild laugh.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she says, but she never denies who her recipient is.

 

Secret  

It has gotten worse.

Maria had hoped that ignoring it would do some good, because surely it was too ridiculous a problem to have any real backing. The strange feeling in her chest that stirs when Esther’s words are on her lips continues to create disruptions in her mana flow. She had initially considered that maybe the spells not being her own had caused some kind of issue, but by now it has happened with her own incantations as well. Even her personal casting form sometimes falters under the weight of distraction.

But it has spread to other, unrelated things, too, creeping across her skin sometimes like a pain she can’t and perhaps doesn’t want to understand.

She silently squeezes her own hand for a moment. That will have to be enough.