Erina watched Shirou continue pacing back and forth. He'd been at it ever since she'd brought up her point, and cold realization set in for him, causing sweat to matt his brows. He'd instructed her to practice meditation in order to better grasp the sensation of ambient mana and the energy of her own magic circuit, but his pacing was detrimental to Erina's efforts.
"It really sounds like something she'd do." Shirou muttered with resignation, his pacing stopping all at once as gloom set in.
"Is it not natural?" Erina tilted her head, her ears perked up. Rather than concentrate on herself, she'd obviously been listening to Shirou from the start. "It's what I would have done when seeking the best of people beneath me- I mean, people. The best of people."
Erina frowned, old memories coming to mind that she'd rather not think about.
Shirou noted the shift in Erina's tone, but Erina herself quickly changed the subject. Life sparkled in her eyes as a sense of anticipation replaced her helplessness.
"Can you show me an example of what I'll be learning as your student?" Erina asked.
The request was simple and expected, which really hammered in that Shirou had become a mentor. Kiristugu hadn't done the best job teaching Shirou, so Shirou felt obligated to at least try when circumstances squarely placed Erina as his direct student.
"I've said this before, but I'm just a third-rate. I don't know anything too impressive." Shirou said while considering how much to reveal or not. "All the magecraft I know is basic at best."
"I see. I see." Erina wracked her mind to fit Shirou's character template with characters in shonen genre manga she'd read. Quickly enough, she arrived at a certain growth-type protagonist scorned by others, but who was able to rise up from out of the box methods. "Ah?! Is it terrible at other things, but highly specialized?"
A shiver went down Shirou's back.
He didn't dare answer, somewhat unnerved by Erina's accuracy and fearing positive reinforcement would only delude Erina into the wrong path. However, silence itself was an answer, Erina's eyes gleaming with anticipation.
Sighing, Shirou obliged because Erina was under his tutelage.
He raised a hand and Traced a kitchen knife much to Erina's amazement.
"It's called Tracing, my unique form of a magecraft known as Gradation Air or Projection that allows a magus to create fake constructs out of magic." He explained, watching Erina suck in every word. "The degree of completion is ordinarily far inferior to the original, but my Tracing makes it difficult to differentiate."
"A-And I can learn that?" Erina beamed.
Shirou shook his head and shot Erina's anticipation down.
"Not quite." He mulled over how to best explain about origins and elements, or even alignment, but settled on what Erina could presently understand. "It's a magecraft unique to me for a reason, but it should be possible to learn standard Projection. I can help you by sharing the same way I learned my Tracing. Maybe, something could come out of it?"
Briefly, Shirou went over his seven steps of Tracing, not expecting Erina to grasp any deeper meaning, but more to use it as a template. He paused however when Erina abruptly gave him the most scandalized expression she'd ever made.
"...By imitating the standard of its making, sympathizing with growth, and reproducing accumulated years, doesn't that mean you 'copy' the skill?" Erina felt her mouth dry, especially when she scrutinized the kitchen knife Shirou had Traced. "Isn't that mine?"
Shirou glanced away from Erina's eyes, coughing into his hand to feign his composure.
"Well, yes. That's correct. Tracing also replicates the skills of an item's user, but only for blades and certain shields," he said in a tone trying to downplay it to no avail.
"T-Then you can just- with anyone- just- that's not fair!" Erina stammered with disbelief before pausing. "Wait, doesn't that mean I'd be able to do something similar as your student?" She muttered under her breath.
Shirou's brow twitched at the insinuation, but could see that Erina was increasingly motivated and so kept his mouth shut.
For the rest of the session, Erina mulled over the seven steps Shirou talked about, and eventually grew lost in thought, entering a meditative state. Her tongue felt prickly, like it was tingling from an itch she could not scratch by scraping it against her teeth.
She soon blinked her eyes open to see Shirou nodding at her, a faint trace of magic energy rising and dissipating in the air.
"We'll call it a success that you at least felt something tonight."
Shirou smiled softly, choosing to put aside his own troubles to encourage Erina. He'd already decided that Erina's manga delusions were her way to cope. Surely, they'd fade away in time if she gained some semblance of self-reassurance?
"You can go back and practice more on your own until the feeling becomes more natural."
Erina nodded in a daze, but didn't bother responding as she immersed herself in the memory of the foreign sensation.
The first night's practice was over with Erina contemplating about her own unique Tracing as a lead heroine, and what it meant for the Voracious Gluttony.
Meanwhile, Shirou stopped smiling when Erina was out of sight, and grew lost in thought.
It was late in the evening, and not a time Shirou expected to meet anyone else in the Polar Star Dorm, but he encountered an old woman on the way back to bunking with Soma.
Her hairs were graying, but were still lush enough to stick out like a sunfish when pushed back by a hair band. Wearing overalls overtop a simple long sleeve shirt, she squinted her eyes upon noticing Shirou's approach.
Stopping in his tracks, Shriou felt awkward as the old woman raised a brow and approached with an air of feigned schadenfreude.
"Hmm," the old woman hummed with a wary face before suddenly grinning and smacking Shirou over the back. "You must be Joichiro's eldest boy."
An acquaintance of his father's? Shirou bowed to be polite to his seniors.
"You are?" He inquired.
"Fumio Daimido, but you can call me Ms. Daimido," the old woman introduced while eyeing Shirou up and down. "I'm the dormitory mother of the Polar Star Dorm, and I don't recall suddenly having an extra tenant."
"I'm sorry." Shirou apologized, knowing he was in the wrong for not going through proper procedures. However, it wasn't as if he didn't have circumstances that led to this point. "I had to ask my brother for a favor this time."
Silence stretched between the two before Fumio grunted and sneered at Shirou with frustration.
"Ease up boyo!" Fumio smiled, enthusiastically slapping Shirou's back again and again for emphasis. "Normally I'd tell you to live in the barn until you can be officially accepted into the dorm, but you're welcome to stay. I won't be such a hard ass for Joichiro's brats, let alone the eldest he'd always thought he'd lost. That fire really came out of nowhere…ruined many people's lives. Tch."
So she was someone his father was close enough to confide with? Shirou surmised the relationship between his father and Fumio using her level of intimacy and the way she spoke about his dad.
"Enough wasting your time though," Fumio raised a brow at him and took note of the time and why Shirou would still be awake. There was an obvious answer here that wouldn't really be considered wrong. "You look like you've got a lot to think about with the Autumn Selection coming soon. So, get some rest."
"Thank you." Shirou expressed his thanks, but Fumio was looking at him strangely before shaking her head.
Personally, Fumio thought Shirou was acting too much like an old man, uptight about being polite and respectful. She couldn't imagine how Joichiro birthed such a fine young man.
Still, Fumio noted Shirou's prior expression and it didn't sit right with her.
"Do you like naked aprons by any chance?" She asked Shirou out of the blue.
He blinked, stupefied.
"...Oddly specific. Why are you asking?" He eventually muttered the words out.
"No reason. A handsome man shouldn't look so troubled. You'll get wrinkles before you know it." Fumio snorted before suggestively tossing Shirou an apron from who knows where. "Still, you'll fit right in. Everyone here's a good kid. They all mean well and all have their own reasons for being here. I'm sure you do as well, so it's probably best to let life take its course rather than dwell over troubles that may or may not come."
Uhm, alright, but more importantly-
"I don't need this," Shirou was quick to try to return the apron, but Fumio merely winked and laughed, refusing to take it back.
"I'm sure you have a girl or two who'd love a show," she joked before sauntering off back into her section of the dorm.
Shirou glanced at the apron shoved into his hands and shuddered.
Why was everyone in this academy so eccentric?
In the end, Shirou turned in for the night, having no idea how long he was going to stay here.
Rin said she'd contact him when she and the others worked something out. It was the most unnerved and guilty he'd ever seen her, and Rin was never meek. His presence was apparently a spark that could ignite a powder keg of misunderstandings and resentment, so he'd left without a fight.
Rin had looked all too thankful.
The next morning came with its own difficulties.
Just like Erina had warned, Senzaemon contacted him in the morning and had him seated in the principal's office.
The two men sat across from each other. Senzaemon had his arms crossed and smiled thinly as if embarrassed, but he was determined nonetheless. In contrast, Shirou was already expecting what Senzaemon had to say with Erina's forewarning.
"This is a school," Senzaemon began gruffly, leaning forward with his bear-like build. "And I have been showing enough sincerity and consideration for your circumstances, but Joichiro's favor can only go so far."
"The Autumn Festival," Shirou didn't beat around the bush and cut to the point.
Senzaemon raised a brow, but smiled all the same. "Precisely."
Senzaemon had been getting pressured by Erina lately about blatant favoritism as an affront to proper education standards. The irony was that Senzaemon had such considerations for Erina as well, especially with the recent assault case where the culprit remained at large.
Inwardly, Senzaemon grimaced about the whole situation. He would have thought that his son-in-law may have had something to do with it, but physical abuse and battery was not something even that man would condone against his own daughter.
Dangerous variables had taken root within or nearby his academy, and he as principle could not take that lightly. Recently, he'd been offered an unexpected pact of cooperation with Japan's own underground mob of blackmarket dealers and businessmen from the Fuijimura group on the initiative of their young heiress.
No matter, right now Senzaemon was discussing school-oriented events and proceedings.
"If you know already it makes things easier," Senzaemon took out a document and slid it towards Shirou. The document listed a time and place located within one of Totsuki Academy's private kitchens.
"A test?" Shirou read between the lines.
It was understandable that because he'd missed the first-year training camp that his culinary skills had to go through some kind of test before the Autumn Festival.
Of course, there was the Shougeki with Eizen, but it was held under confidence, and many were unaware of it. To have Shirou participate in the Autumn Festival without any prior background or justification, would only incur a public sentiment that would very much be against Shirou.
"Sharp, aren't you?" Senzaemon didn't hide things. "Totsuki's head chef and I will be waiting for you there."
Across from Shirou was a former associate and schoolmate of his father named Gin Dojima. He was an upright man with a shaved head buzzcut and wearing a clean black suit and red tie. He was to be one of the primary judges in this cooking evaluation.
In front of Shirou was a state-of-the-art kitchen, filled with modern appliances and stocked with fresh produce, meats, spices, and ground seasoning. There was even a wine cabinet stored in a small underground storage that opened from the floor up. However, the wine must have been expensive because there was a note that penalized students who'd used it in their food, but failed to realize its worth through flavor and presentation.
"You have an hour and twenty minutes," Dojima announced , hiding his curiosity. Of course he was privy to information regarding Eizen and Shirou's Shokugeki, but sadly he hadn't been there to see it himself.
There was expectation in Dojima's eyes, and the willingness to wait for something that would surprise him once again in his career as a chef and manager.
Shirou had to cook something using the provided items that could impress Dojima enough to enter the Autumn Festival under Dojima's recommendation.
The main ingredient was triple A-Grade meat, with his choice of garnishes and sides. The marbling on the meat would enhance the flavor to its fullest, and it was the culinary student's job to create a restaurant-grade dish.
In Shirou's case, he'd always been self-taught as a self-preservation mechanism. Even now, he believed that if he hadn't learned to cook, then he and Kiritsugu would have died from starvation or food poisoning.
Under Dojima and Senzaemon's urging, Shirou had to decide on what to cook while caught under the turmoil of his inter and external problems regarding the moonlit world. The issue however, was that Erina had pointed out that he couldn't cook anything truly exceptional unless he focused on his cooking alone.
At least for this moment and the coming Autumn Festival while residing in the Polar Star Dorm, what if he just focused on his cooking? The matter with Rin did not appear small, and it would likely take longer as Rin, Luvia, or even Saber had yet to contact him.
To begin with, he realized that he was depending on them too much. When he had a problem, they were always there to help solve it, but wasn't the present competition and Lorelei's perspective a matter that could be solved by cooking?
Therefore, forget the stress, forget the anxiety, and just take a moment to enjoy the one hobby that never failed to put his mind at ease. That was his path of cooking.
"Oh?" Dojima hummed as the look in Shirou's eyes gradually shifted.
It was a subtle change, but one that heavily reminded Dojima of the way Joichiro turned into a different man when in the kitchen.
Lost in a fire or not, perhaps there were some things that just flowed naturally in the blood?
Dojima glanced subtly at Senzaemon, a smirk playing on his lips.
This year's Autumn Festival was bound to be interesting.
A tired looking man and a smirking blond-haired woman made their way through an airport in Narita. Their destination was towards a certain part of Japan subtly attracting the attention of magi, neither of the two knowing that said magi included even Lorelei.
Instead, as the tired looking man was marched forward to the amusement of the blond, the both of them focused towards a peculiarity in magic energy whose source was at their destination.
"Is that what the old vampire was so interested in?" The woman mused, misunderstanding that the magic energy was a whole other matter entirely. "It's concealed by a bounded field that limits the spread of magic energy, but only a third-rate would fail to notice. Honestly, is it indolence or is it the hastiness of the caster? It's like they were in a hurry to hide their dirty laundry. Shall we investigate brother?"
The man shuddered at the oddest feeling of recognition in the magic energy and capacity that no ordinary human could possess. The fluctuations in the energy itself denoted a confrontation between magic entities that had the potential to level a city.
All at once, the man seemed to recognize the heightened feeling of sensitivity and tension in the air.
Japan. Somehow it was always Japan.
It was the fourth war all over again…
"Brother?" The woman was now frowning.
"Let's go," the man smoked a cigarette and called out to the cloaked student, who was too shy to pull down her hood or dare to walk side by side with the man and woman. "Gray, looks like we have another case file on hand."
The blond-haired woman pouted.
"And here I thought we were here for a rumored magical dessert?"
The blond huffed, her short stature almost comical in the way she spoke like an adult.
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