If there was a lesson to be learned in keeping to one's character, it was that some sacrifices had to be made if one wished to remain true to his or herself.
Readying a sick notice in a manner Shirou had become familiar with in his days in Homurahara Academy, he labeled himself as one of Arturia's guardians and took her home before Jounan Academy's lunch break could even conclude. A clean school record was apparently something she wished to maintain if only for her family's sake.
In some ways, the Arturia of this world really was like the Saber Shirou knew, honest to a fault and a stickler to rules and obligations. It was almost concerning how similar they were, more on his end than Arturia's as he felt like he was with a Saber who could no longer remember him…perhaps having grown tired of waiting, a miracle left unfulfilled.
Such depressing thoughts once more caused his features to dampen, but if Arturia noticed, he made sure to give a smile that was wry at best, melancholic at worst.
Arturia pursed her lips, likely feeling that his present mood may have been her fault, and the guilt of it all warding away any protests as he picked her up. One of his arms came to rest beneath her knees, and the other supported beneath the small of her back before he hoisted her up, unwilling to let her walk the distance home on her own.
Something Shirou had learned in confronting Erica and Godou was that Arturia was already on a watch list from this world's magic organizations, Japan's History Compilation Committee in particular.
Knowing the minds and habits of most magi in his world, Shirou didn't want to take the risk if this world's magi were just as unscrupulous in their means.
Leaping through the air, and out of sight by most passersby preoccupied with staring at the ground or their cellphones as they walked, he used the rooftops as a form of transport.
Fierce wind and the chill of the breeze had Arturia's hair swishing back and forth with each jump, even as she wrapped her arms around his shoulders to keep secure.
With the capabilities of a Heroic Spirit, or a Heretic God as Athena kept stressing, it didn't take long to return to Arturia's accommodations,
"We're back," he said before gently lowering Arturia down into her living room, the two having entered through the veranda.
"Thanks," Arturia eked out with nary a hint of confidence. By the looks of it, she knew what was coming and so did he.
Shirou sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose and shaking his head. Placing a hand on her shoulder, he lowered his gaze until he was level with her.
"What happened back there was a mistake, Arturia. You shouldn't have come. There are things that need to be done in order to ensure the safety of those close to you and you yourself even if it means doings things you don't want," he reproached her with good intentions, trying to stress the impact of her actions, but quickly failing at the sight of her features downcast, eyes on her feet.
'Not Saber. Not her. Stay strong…she's a Saber that needs guidance.'
"I don't like hurting others-"
Shirou's confusion must have shown on his face because Arturia winced, but resolved herself to stare up at him. The teal of her eyes remained firm despite the guilt marring her face. She punched him lightly on the chest, more of a friendly pat than anything harmful.
"You're a hero. An ally of justice who only ever wanted to save others, but that doesn't mean I would want you to forsake all that on my behalf. You can't do that. It's not fair, and if you insist that it's for my sake, then I should be the one to make that decision and not you."
He didn't know how she knew that about him, or what else she knew, but he attributed it to Servant dream cycles rather than the notion that Arturia practically read everything about him in his 'legend.' The fact that she also knew about his struggles, ideals, and Saber was just the cherry on the top.
"I know, I messed up, okay? I don't think Athena's ever going to stop calling me a little girl because of it, but you can't just baby me either. This was my fault, so why do you look like that?"
"Brooding and like you're ready to do whatever's necessary!" Arturia bit down on her lips, fingers shaking as she balled her hands into fists and pointed her index finger out. "I don't like it. I don't like that expression at all. I-I'm sorry, alright? Can we just talk about what happens now, and what I can do to help?"
Arturia stared at Shirou with a conviction and mettle all too familiar to him. Saber had looked at him much the same when she readied herself for battle, or resolved herself to put up with whatever came her way. Namely, him doing something stupid like jumping in the middle of a Servant battle, but the roles were reversed here.
The thought of the Arturia before him jumping into the strike of a Heretic God for his sake horrified him.
Double-standards much he knew, but emotions were unreasonable.
Inwardly, he flinched, doing his best to ease his features, but only making them worse in Arturia's perspective.
She shivered, one hand rubbing on her forearm until he answered.
"Very well," he said, doing his best to remain firm. Coughing, he broached the topic.
"In all likely hood, whatever magical organizations that exist in this world may become aware of your existence and mine. This itself isn't the real problem. So long as I stay beside you, I will shield you and guide you to the best of my ability, but the issue arises in your daily life. If I'm right, you've now chosen to walk a path beyond that of an ordinary person."
"And it was my choice…you're making it again. That face."
"Sorry," Shirou took in a long breath, his demeanor almost disheartened. He shook his head ruefully. "I don't expect you to understand, but I, I just. Look, your innocence and the normality of your life was something worth protecting to me."
Just like his Saber, to see this Arturia willingly forsake the peaceful path she could have led for something beyond her own control was heart wrenching in a way. What would his Saber have been like had she not drawn the sword in the stone? At the very least, the clearest idea Shirou had were the days he spent in the Holy Grail War walking side by side with Saber and touring the streets of Fuyuki. Images of a plush lion toy, a white blouse, and a long blue skirt filled him with a sense of bitter nostalgia.
"What's done is done," Arturia tentatively reached her hands out and cupped his in her own. "It was my choice," she stressed. "If I was only thinking of myself, then I never would have followed through with my actions."
'Saber was the same.' Shirou inwardly lamented. For the sake her people and country, she didn't hesitate to ignore the repercussions her decision had on herself.
"I can tell, which is all the more reason I have to keep you safe," he smiled weakly, feeling the warmth of her hands enveloping his own. Slowly, gradually, he leaned in on her, his forehead pressing against the groove of her shoulder, stunning her speechless. Her heart hammered in her chest, butterflies erupting in her stomach, uneasiness and yearning mixing into an odd sensation of pleasantness.
"Sorry," he apologized, taking in her familiar scent and feel. "Just let me stay like this for a little while until I sort out my thoughts. I never told you, but you really do resemble someone I care deeply for, and I got ahead of myself. I just wanted you to continue living your life without the weight of a burden or the threat of danger over your shoulders."
Arturia opened and closed her mouth, unable to even stammer out a reply, and allowed him to rest into her.
'It's not really me he's looking at, is it?'
The thought was depressing. A pang of emotion assailed her heart with doubt and uncertainty.
"It's Saber, isn't it?" Arturia mumbled ever so quietly, but for Shirou's part, he was too lost in the familiarity of a long-forgotten embrace to hear her.
Suddenly, the pleasantness Arturia had been feeling before abated at the statement. She was almost disappointed, envious even of some fictional character based on her. Her arms wrapped over Shirou's form and patted him on the back, not knowing what else to do until he eventually got himself straight.
He pushed away from her, and she couldn't help but feel disappointed at the loss of conta- bad! Focus! She regaled herself in all righteousness.
"It may be dangerous, but I believe in you," Arturia ended up saying, knowing that few would know and trust Shirou as well as her in this moment.
Shirou regarded Arturia silently, and nodded. "It is my duty."
The first order of business was deciding on a course of action rather than waiting for the magi of this world to initiate an offensive. Shirou's lack of proper information really was proving to be detrimental in establishing what he should or shouldn't do. For now, he figured it would be best to keep Arturia guarded by Athena at home while he scouted out what they were dealing with. It sounded nice in his head, but he couldn't help but feel he wasn't taking everything into consideration, nor the extent of the capabilities of this world's magi.
"I see that thou art thinking. Perhaps, thy should have considered such a wise action before letting an enemy live?" A soft and refined voice echoed out before Athena gingerly opened a window into the living room and tried climbing through.
"Athena," Shirou greeted cordially, but didn't rise to her barb as exasperation was practically bleeding from her tone. If he found it odd that she didn't just use her magic to enter the room, well, he didn't mention it as he felt like she'd explode on him.
With Shirou having bailed on meting out punishment or death to his foes, the task naturally fell to Athena who was already weakened. Potent curses and use of her Authority in her present state as a Divine Ancestor with low reserves practically left her feeble.
Athena would have been glaring if her features weren't so impassive, but her brow did twitch when she noticed that the veranda into the living room would have been the better option than the window. Still, it was too late now and she was too exhausted from magical depletion to care.
Pushing on the darned windowsill, Athena believed she'd opened it enough to fully climb through, but like most people, she underestimated the curvature of her present body, believing it sleeker than it actually was.
Unfortunately, the window didn't open far enough and her waist then her rounded butt got stuck in the process. She stiffened, mortified. Damned Japanese humans and their compact housing! She squirmed, pushing and wriggling in an attempt to free herself to no avail. She blanked, deadpanning while staring at the two staring at her in morbid fascination. It may have been a trick of the light, but she was blushing heavily, whatever impression of grace or noble bearings she'd tried to facilitate long since foiled.
"This Goddess requires assistance. What art thou waiting for?" She raised her hands up towards them. "Pull me in."
The solemn atmosphere in the living room gradually evaporated before Shirou snorted and helped Athena through.
Patting herself to remove the wrinkles on her sailor uniform and cardigan vest, the way she looked at the window unnerved Arturia, but only got a chortle from Shirou.
"Doth, thou find amusement from the plight of the fair?" Athena glowered, face twisting in a rare show of indignation. "Then I suppose thy doth not need to know the information mine-self hath gleamed?"
"Forgive him, h-he didn't mean it," Arturia said, stepping forward, but Athena found it highly suspicious that she was covering her mouth with a hand.
The snicker of amusement Athena picked up with her ears didn't help assuage anything. Her eyes narrowed.
"And you," Athena clicked her tongue. "Thou possesseth a uniqueness that thou self can not seem to fathom. Thy ignorance though will lead only to harm," Athena rebuked. She had no qualms being harsh with Arturia. Shirou was just biased in comparison.
Arturia flinched, but had nothing to say to defend herself. "Sorry."
"The clock of reckoning ticks forward ever quicker. No apologies change anything."
"Then what do you suppose we do. You know more about the magic organizations of the human world than I do," Shirou spoke up. At the very least, it was Athena who corrected his views about being summoned for a Holy Grail War that didn't exist here.
Athena nodded, clearing her throat, she stared at both Shirou and Arturia.
"Gods and Godslayers will gather upon a prophecy of old for a false idol of Strongest Steel that may surpass the original. Fake or not, an era of war begins its rallying cry."
"Yes girl. War between Gods and their slayers as they did in the ancients. Cities will be destroyed, continents erased such as the tragedy of Atlantis. Gods of Steel, fertile Earth Goddesses, and the Campione who covet them all in their drive to usurp Authority will fight and fight ever still. It will be a battle on the grand scale."
Athena shifted her attention away from Arturia and looked imploring at Shirou instead.
"We will need all the strength we can muster, and what better than my wisdom coupled with the return of mine strength? My other divine half exists locked within an artifact in possession of the humans. My connection with it traces its location here on this island, probably with the eastern branch of sorcerers."
"And you want my help to get it, now before anything else?"
A nod, firm and resolute.
"It would aid me greatly," she said, icily staring at the window with contempt before sighing. Her exhaustion was proof enough of how hampering her present weakness was compared to other Gods.
Regardless, Athena never pictured herself being in such a position to ask for the aid of a God of Steel, and yet here she was now. No, she didn't have a change of heart, or anything remotely close to compassion, just that she could tell that Shirou was different, and that Arturia's uniqueness was an opportunity like none other.
"If I am to be an effective Servant to a Master, then being this weak is a problem, yes?" She tried another vantage point while Shirou was hesitating.
It was remarkably simple to persuade Shirou when it came to Arturia.
"Then we are agreed. We must strike as early as possible. There's word of another Campione making his way over from the Balkans, and Black Prince Alec has begun investigations regarding your descent into the mortal plane."
"How can you be so sure of all this?" Arturia interjected, both she and Shirou waiting for a response.
Athena smirked, but didn't elaborate.
"Because I am neither naïve or a fool. I have my means to make use of a tool that the both of you could so readily discard. If the measure of one's dignity is also the measure of one's wit and intellect, then I for one have plenty of dignity."
"But you're the one who got her butt stuck on the windo-"
"Arturia, not the time," Shirou clamped a hand over Arturia's mouth, noting the absolute frigidness of Athena's eyes.
"Y-You think she's mad?"
Thanks for reading, and thanks to my newest patrons: Nicholas D, Deniel97, and Ghost Trecker!
Bit of a shorter chapter here, but the section I had going was a little too much for the prologue chapter for this new arc and not enough for a new chapter, making it turn out this way.
Next update: Fate Parallels (Will be out tomorrow or the next day)
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