Morning came with the gentle swish of seawater ebbing upon a distant seashore as Arturia groggily sat up in her guest room bed. Bags had formed under her eyes, and a feeling of fatigue irked her into a less than pleasant mood.
She rubbed the crust caking the sides of her eyes, sighed, and then pressed her hands over her face to bring back the darkness. The guest room Lucretia had provided came with a sea-side view from a panoramic glass sliding door that led to a high balcony. The light from the morning sun piercing through the glass was unrelenting, but it wasn't nearly as bothersome as the black feelings in her heart.
Arturia pursed her lips and reflected on herself, before taking her hands away from her face, and staring at her palms. They were sweaty, the tips of her fingers trembling before she balled them into fists.
She wasn't acting like herself. This pettiness and envy were not her.
It was only after she picked up Caliburn did the feelings begin to abate from unbearable, to just soft whispers constantly on the back of her mind.
What was going on with her?
These feelings weren't right. She should have known better, so why?
She shook her head, and readied herself for the day.
Lucretia played a very welcoming host. Breakfast and the day's agenda were already prepared the moment Arturia stepped out into the kitchen area, but again, everything tasted rather dull after growing used to Shirou's cooking. As for the day's plans, Arturia listened once, and soon steeled her features.
It was going to be one of those days, wasn't it?
Just to make sure, she clarified with Lucretia, Godou, and Erica that they were indeed going boating off the coast of Sardinia today.
The answer was still yes.
Arturia clacked her mouth shut, and said not a word while the group finished breakfast, then visited a mall to make the necessary purchases for the day's outing.
A majority of the time had Erica and Godou flirting right in Arturia's face, so feeling salty, she'd made due with waiting in the car lest she be 'mistaken' for a member of Godou's harem.
It was not lost on Arturia that Erica had been giving many opportunities for her and Godou to get along, and she could understand that it was to repair their shoddy first impressions, but it felt like there was more to it.
Regardless, they were now on their way to the cruise ship Lucretia had rented for their boating trip. The rented vehicle itself was moments before arrival at the ship dockyard.
"We came here on Athena's direction, and now she's gone. You might as well make the best of it and enjoy yourself," Shirou shrugged from his seat beside Arturia in the group's rented vehicle.
Godou and Erica were in the other rented car up ahead, both having limo drivers to accommodate the two Campione.
Arturia reacted to Shirou's words by wetting her lips, and then realizing what she did, and then pursing them.
"Honeymoon va-," she abruptly clamped her mouth shut, gulping at the thought before shaking her head. "Vacation then."
"Vacation." Shirou nodded. "With all the changes you've been forced to experience, I think you've earned it."
Arturia had to say, but the sight of Shirou wearing glasses, an unbuttoned dress shirt, a loose-T, and denim pants, gave him a modern feel. She couldn't help but keep subconsciously sneaking glances.
"Yeah," she said dazed, only to snap out of it at the sound of her side's car door opening.
They'd arrived at the cruise dockyard, and Shirou had stepped outside first, to open the door on Arturia's behalf.
He offered his hand to her to aid her like one of those classy escorts in a princess novel. Of course, didn't that make her the princess?
Arturia swallowed, and then immediately shifted her gaze away after putting her hand in Shirou's. It was big. Enough to wrap his fingers around her entire hand with a gentleness that denoted careful consideration for her.
She didn't mean to, or thought much about it, but she found herself intertwining her fingers between his own, and letting him help pull her out. Perhaps due to the prior night's dream, she felt both more conscious and hyper sensitive about him at the same time, unable to meet his eyes.
"…T-Thwank you." She even flummoxed when it mattered most. Dammit.
She immediately pretended as if her little fibble didn't happen, the tips of her ears reddening when Shirou paused and looked at her after he closed the door of the car.
Oh, who was she fooling? He'd definitely heard it!
"Are you alright?" Shirou asked. He'd noted that Arturia had been acting somewhat off all day.
"Groggy from sleep- that's all!" Arturia's response was to run away, only to pause as she realized the alternative to rushing ahead was joining that womanizer Godou already flirting with Erica.
Godou and Erica had exited their vehicles first and were the ones heading to the rented cruise ship.
Erica winked suggestively at Arturia, and immediately, Arturia felt as if she'd somehow lose if she went up there to join them. She shuddered. The dubious gleam in Erica's eyes was not lost on Arturia. Something was afoot, so she slowed her steps and stewed in her shame when Shirou caught up and kept looking at her in concern.
Her head hung low the entire time she boarded the cruise ship, and Lucretia piloted it to sea a good distance away from the busy shore. Lucretia said she knew a peaceful spot away from prying eyes.
Taking in a deep breath, Arturia realized that this was the moment she'd been preparing for all day.
Today…she was going to have to swim, right?
By the time Erica, Godou, and Arturia came out of the ship's cabin, they were dressed in their swimming attire. Godou was in a blue pair of trunks while Erica wore a red-lace bikini and top.
As for Arturia, Shirou recalled her browsing through swimwear and focusing on a simple white bottom and top bikini today, but you practically couldn't see it anymore with all that she was wearing over it. A large-brimmed sun hat was on her head, maroon snorkels over her face, and the rest…were just floaties. The most conspicuous was the gigantic rubber duck floaty around her waist, followed by the life jacket, arm floaties, then tube floaters she hugged with her arms.
"I'm ready," she declared as if she was prepared to enter a war zone.
Let it be said, but Arturia did not know how to swim, but had gone anyway.
Feeling self-conscious, she felt embarrassed to admit to Shirou and everyone that she couldn't swim, so she thought up her own countermeasures.
Truly she was the epitome of wisdom and progression.
She should just be thankful that Athena wasn't around.
Her plan was essentially to float by the nearby reefs carried forward by the ocean current, and if she got too far, Shirou could pull her back. In any case, she'd be safe from drowning as she'd made the necessary preparations.
She nodded her head before boldly jumping into the water, concealing her fears.
Instantly, her rubber duck floaty pushed up under her armpits, while her life jacket and inflatable armbands had her arms floating by the side. Unfortunately, her tube floats were immediately lost, flying in different directions when their buoyancy ejected them from Arturia's grip.
Left unsaid, but Arturia had missed the point that she didn't have to swim if she didn't want to.
Why else was Erica and Godou still on the boat enjoying the scenery?
Of course, Arturia might have been able to realize this as she tried to paddle back to the boat, but although her inflatables kept her afloat, they made swimming difficult in an ocean that constantly bobbed and weaved.
Arturia drifted side to side more than she moved.
Erica stared at Arturia's appearance stiffly before Arturia stopped all movements, and gave everyone a shaky thumbs up, refusing to admit that she wanted to be rescued.
She was still fine!
She wasn't drowning today- ah, a water, nooo!
The crest of a wave cast a looming shadow over Arturia, but contrary to being drowned under it, the sheer mass of her inflatables had Arturia comically cresting on top like she was surfing. Stiffly, her raised thumb remained raised for the 'okay, don't mind me,' before she disappeared on the trough of the next wave.
Shirou clapped a hand over his face, features wry before he turned to Godou and Erica still on the boat.
"I'm staying next to her." He told them before dematerializing into spirit form.
Yup, he was still worried.
If Arturia couldn't swim she could have just said so when the idea to go boating off the coast of Sardinia came up.
"By all means, hero. Go ahead." Erica gestured for Shirou to go. The initial plan failed, but this also gave her alone time with Godou, so it was a win-win she supposed.
Meanwhile, Arturia moved in the direction of the waves to the shore. She was fortunate that she wasn't actually caught in an ocean current that may have forced her further out to sea.
When the size of the waves eventually diminished as Arturia drifted closer to the coral reefs, she began to relax a bit. Her tense muscles eased, and she sort of began to enjoy the school break for what it was.
"Shirou?" She called out just in case.
"I'm right here. I'll push you back to the shore if you start drifting out."
Ah, of course he understood. She felt her heart hammer in her chest. Single word communication…that was something only close people could have.
Yeah, they were close.
Just the two of them. No Athena.
Arturia blushed before securing her snorkel over her face and dipping her head into the water, mouth blowing bubbles. The cool temperature brought her flushed features down as she soon focused on the colourful reef in view.
Sardinia's coast really was quite idyllic. Clear waters, white sand, and a plethora of aquatic animals and plants.
Having drifted closer and closer to shore, she ended up spotting several ivory-coloured seashells on the underwater embankments of sand. She came just near enough to grab them with her hands.
They could make for a nice souvenir.
Putting the shells inside the zipper of her life jacket, Arturia shifted her attention elsewhere towards the fishes swimming around the corals.
She never knew swimming was this interesting.
If Shirou could read Arturia's thoughts right now, he'd be the first to state that 'floating' was not the same as swimming. In any case, at least Arturia was enjoying herself. Her method of moving around was essentially splashing water with her legs as if she was running, while she waddled her arms to turn left or right.
The moment however wouldn't last.
The sea suddenly sloshed violently beneath Arturia, and when she pulled her head out of the water to see what was wrong, she swallowed at the towering shadow approaching her.
That was a big wave.
Compared to all the other ones, there was no comparison.
There was no way she was cresting this one even with all her emergency floaties.
Her complexion paled, her pupils dilating.
Immediately, Arturia felt Shirou materialize and scoop her up out of the water. A blink-of-an-eye later, and she was back on the cruise ship where Erica and Godou were staring off into the Mediterranean Sea in the direction of Italy and Greece. A cloud of dust was rising there accompanied by an oppressive magic force.
It was the direct cause of the wave that nearly capsized 'HMS Pendragon, the floating fortress.'
"A Heretic God's descent now of all times…" Erica muttered in a daze before glancing at Godou then Arturia.
The Seventh and Eighth Campione were likely the closest to the disaster zone, and if she recalled, the local magic cabals should be aware of Godou and Arturia vacationing in the area. It was one of those mandatory policies magic societies around the world had regarding Campione to keep track of them. This was primarily to steer clear of them, but also to contact them in the case of an emergency out of human hands.
Expectedly, a magic circle appeared near the cruise ship before a representative of Italy's magic cabals appeared. It was a shame it wasn't a member of the Copper-Black Cross, but Erica could be accused of playing favorites if her family was the only one to make contact with the Campione.
Erica cleared her through, puffed up her chest, and straightened her back in preparation to formally address the representative as the knight of the Seventh Campione, but the cabal representative moved right past her.
Erica's mouth locked shut, her mind instantly piecing the puzzle together.
Internationally, it was already clear as to which Campione's services the world thought better of between Godou and Arturia.
Arturia's versatility was already far higher than Godou's, considering the nature of her Authority.
The ability to ask for Enkidu's aid alone was already very tempting, both to mitigate collateral damage, and as an anti-divine counter, let alone the others.
"Please listen to an urgent request!"
Arturia pulled up her snorkel, and replied with her rubber ducky floaty still secured around her waist.
She spat out sea water.
Trouble was brewing on the mainland, and the local magic cabals wished to implore the specific help of one of Arturia's contracted Heretic Gods. However, even if there was a first choice, there was also a second and third.
Kusanagi Godou was asked to help on the side due to his track record of damaging property in his wake. He was to act only if needed.
Meanwhile, the ultimate say was still in Arturia's hands. In the end, she decided in favour of helping. She knew Shirou's character well enough to know that he wasn't the sort who could just stand by as others died or were hurt. Moreover, she too was the same.
This being the case, what she couldn't agree with was what happened after.
"This shouldn't take more than a day or two, so wait here, okay?" Shirou said, placing his hands on Arturia's shoulders and advising her before letting go and getting ready for his departure.
Arturia thought of the members of the magic cabal making promises that nothing untowards would come to her, then to how she was carefully returned to Lucretia's villa and expected to stay there.
She was being treated like precious glass by everyone. Even Godou and Erica seemed to agree with the arrangement of leaving her behind in Sardinia under Lucretia's care while sending Shirou on his own.
Of course, Shirou only agreed to this due to the revelation that Command Seals could be replenished. He trusted her to call on him immediately if her life was in danger, but that wasn't the type of trust she wanted.
She had Caliburn! She could help!
She stared hard at Shirou, knowing he knew exactly what she was trying to plead with her eyes, but was devastated when he still shook his head.
"I can't take that risk, especially when Athena isn't around."
Generally, it was safer for Arturia to be near Shirou as he could immediately act in her defense. However, if he was actively participating in a clash against another Heretic God, it generally fell upon Athena to guard Arturia from the backlash of the fight. Remove Athena from the equation, and Shirou now figured it would be far safer to just keep Arturia away from the battlefield.
The reasoning was sound, but utterly unreasonable to Arturia's ears. Still, it didn't change developments as she was plopped back into Lucretia's guest room while Shirou, Godou, and Erica made for the country's mainland.
Frustrated, Arturia paced back and forth, the morning's persistent whispers coming back stronger than ever. It shifted from garbled background noise to a full blown purr.
"Look at you; the only one acting as baggage again and again."
Her pacing froze, her jaw clenching. There was no one around her or the premise of the villa. Even Lucretia had excused herself for some meeting with another associate.
"Even that womanizer and Blandeli girl get to actively participate, but not you. Oh no, definitely not you."
Shut up! Oh great, now she was talking to herself! She was grimacing right now. She could feel it, her stomach twisting into bitter knots.
"He doesn't even consider asking for your aid even if you felt capable enough."
Yeah. Yeah, she thought exactly the same…
"He's too busy acting to protect you again and again."
She didn't need it. She found herself nodding more and more in agreement. She was capable, and she knew herself better than anyone.
"Would he do the same if you were 'her,' that woman we saw in the depths of your dreams, your soul?"
"Or would he not fight side by side with her, a role reserved solely for her in the truest depths of his mind?"
There were no words. None at all except for an unbearable feeling of growing inferiority and discontent, spurred more and more by bemused whispers.
"You'll never compare to the fruit that made him fall…Listen, I can help you."
Arturia swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry, as she barely managed to convince herself that she wasn't going crazy.
Suddenly, Caliburn shone, its Authority enveloping Arturia in full and expelling what looked to be a pink mist that converged into a shattered seashell, the very one Arturia had inspected the other day. In the end, that too was incinerated under Caliburn's light.
"Tch. Damn sword."
The whispers began to increasingly abate in Arturia's mind, but not before saying one final piece.
"Love is war, and you decide whether you're content with being the loser. Think on it. I'll be waiting. You need only break the shells of the sea."
Suddenly, Arturia recalled the sea shells she'd picked up on the day's boating trip.
Were they not normal seashells?
Elsewhere, Athena finally locked on to her target the very moment she'd sensed it. This presence was different from that of the most recent activities of some Heretic God in Italy or Greece which Shirou moved to deal with, but another more personal target.
Interestingly enough, she found it not far from the coast of Sardinia where she had initially flown to from the beginning. The bitch must have been able to elude her somehow, likely by concealing her divinity in an object or playing parasite on a human host.
As Athena neared the location locked onto by her divine sense, her previously expressionless features twisted into a heavy scowl.
Soon enough, she reached her destination, her mood darkening from a less than pleasant feeling of affirmed recognition and familiarity.
It was exactly because of this familiarity that she'd been so distracted as of late. Like she'd dreaded, the resonance of the Authorities displayed in Divine Fort Andromeda had coaxed out the Heretics that had descended but had yet to do anything.
Before Athena was the manifestation of a large white clam. The top half was missing, and where the pearl should have been was a woman lounging and barely clothed in white silks. The woman's ordinarily bemused expression looked more annoyed than anything else right now.
She must have lost another of her precious shells, barring that, perhaps she lost one as potent as her sacred pearls?
Nevertheless, Athena was not smiling when she drew near, and neither was the woman who carefully schooled her frustrated features into a welcoming one.
"Aphrodite." The name was spoken flatly.
Athena's brow twitched. No matter where or when, Aphrodite's voice would always sound crass to her ears, like some cheap whore's. Questionable, because at least whores had better priorities, and often engaged in carnal acts to make a living.
"Have you finally come to me to acknowledge the results of Troy?"
Athena narrowed her eyes as Aphrodite brought up matters of the past as if they were still relevant. What a bird brain, but that would be an insult to birds. All that was probably in her head was air! A woman driven solely by her desires and entertainment when not pressed into a corner of her own doing.
"In your dreams." Athena scorned, pulling on the hem of her white toga and observing her sister with a critical eye.
"Come now," Aphrodite was not done with the topic. She always liked to rub salt in a wound when it came to beauty. More so in one of the rare instances where her charm was compared to her fellow sisters. "We both know who won that contest."
Athena's eyes narrowed.
It was off topic, yes, but this is a woman's battlefield.
"The vote of Troy and the Trojan war is void." Athena said with finality. "As if a mortal would have had any real aesthetic sense."
"Say what you will, but they can be the most honest." Aphrodite chuckled and fired back.
"And the worst of liars," Athena shook her head, having enough of this argument. She got to the point. "What are you doing here, Aphrodite?"
Magic energy exuded from Athena's form, the glow of her silver eyes pronounced in the moonlight. In her hands, a scythe was held at the ready.
"Oh, trying to pressure me, dear sister?" Aphrodite was unperturbed. In this instance, facts were on her side. "Don't you already know it's useless?"
Aphrodite was right, of course. Athena attacking her changed nothing.
Athena could tell that the Aphrodite she was speaking with was merely an avatar, a projection. Her sister's main body was not here.
Athena was just irked was all; the impulse to end the entire conversation and continue to search for Aphrodite's true body, rather tempting. However, it could be faster if she could get Aphrodite to somehow slip up mid-conversation and give her location away. In the end, this warranted a try as it was better than nothing.
"In any case Athena, I assure you that I'm too busy to cause you any grief this time."
Unlikely. Athena would be a fool to believe that, but she did ease her pressure and reel in the aura of her Authority.
Still, the expression Athena was making likely revealed her distrust, as Aphrodite ended up elaborating.
"As for why? I've simply found myself dabbling in something quite amusing."
"Amusing?" Athena humored her sister.
"I'm here for an interesting story and nothing more."
Athena sighed. What was she expecting?
"This one detests your penchant to speak in riddles." Athena abhorred it.
Aphrodite grinned, sitting up and crossing her legs on top of her clam, and patting the area next to her, inviting Athena to take a seat.
Athena refused, and Aphrodite shrugged before speaking.
"Love, jealousy, envy, don't you think those are the best dramas?" Aphrodite steepled her fingers, and pulled a knee to her chest like a giddy middle school romantic. "A girl who dreams of what she already has, and even possesses the gall to envy what's clearly herself! Truly, novel."
"Is that Ishtar speaking?" Athena spoke with a barbed tone. "Your aspect that ruins everything?"
Aphrodite did not answer, Athena sneering before she shook her head with finality.
Like she expected.
"The Curse of Madness befalls you," Athena stated.
Aphrodite did not deny it, but had her own explanation. "Love is mad, but I find myself quite sane. At least when I'm entertained or occupied."
It was an answer that could hardly be verified.
"This is why I hate dealing with you." Athena pinched the bridge of her nose.
"Because love is blind?" Athena glared. "Or is it that your wisdom can't encompass affection's unpredictability? Nevertheless, if that's all, I have a drama to get back to and spur new developments!"
Aphrodite stood up and willed the clam to float away, but Athena would not have it. She wasn't done speaking, and had intercepted Aphrodite's path.
"Where are you going? We are not done," Athena once more readied her scythe.
This time, Aphrodite's countenance dimmed. Even if her current self was just a projection, it still took considerable energy to make. She'd rather not just lose it to her temperamental sister.
"You think me an enemy?" Aphrodite said slowly, the air growing tense. "We have nothing against each other."
"I think you mad."
"You do not trust me?" Aphrodite tried another approach.
"As if I'd trust the worst of my headaches." Athena was not moving.
"Ouch, but like I said. I'm here for a story of love, and not just any love, but destined love. As a Goddess of Love and not Wisdom, is it easier for you to understand the temptation if I likened it to the forbidden fruit of knowledge?" Aphrodite appealed, but her reasoning put a scowl on Athena's face more than anything else.
"It's not the same."
It was essentially comparing her favorite subject to filth in her eyes.
Finally, Aphrodite's features twitched, her nails digging into her palms as she forced a smile. On a one-on-one, she knew she wasn't Athena's match, but that was pitting a God of War and Wisdom against a God of Love. Each had their own way of fighting, and it just so happens that Aphrodite was one of the most troublesome of Love Goddesses.
"Heh, what did I expect?" Aphrodite activated her Authority. The one Athena had stepped into from the moment she drew near the clam. "Of course, a virgin who's never experienced the bliss of love could never understand, but we're sisters. I can forgive it. In fact, I'll give you a gift so you may understand it."
"I don't want it." Athena hissed, her eyes narrowing as an ominous premonition heightened her vigilance.
It was already too late. Unseen, but the area the two were in was charged with a pinkish hue that Athena and Aphrodite had been immersed within throughout the entire conversation.
"Too bad. I already gave it the moment you entered my sphere of influence," Aphrodite admitted. "You and I never really got along, so I took precautions the moment I sensed you."
"Huh?" For a second, Athena thought she heard her sister wrong. "No…you didn't?"
"Oh, but I did. Like seriously."
Athena shuddered in fury as she slowly inspected her Divine Core and noticed the brand of a seashell burrowing into her Authority. It wasn't replacing it, no, she would have instantly noticed. Rather, something wrong was being added to her aspects.
"I blessed your barren divinity with my aspect of affection." Aphrodite cheerily revealed the answer. "From the stars blessed under the light of the moon, I grant thee revelation on my name as a patron god of love! Look into the toned abs of chiseled muscles and know of lust! Look into the hot face of a man and know of the tenderness of love! The driest of deserts may now have the potential to become the wettest of wetlands!"
Athena's heart inexplicably sped up at the description, and instantly, she knew she was going to have problems with this.
Her navel was already feeling funny.
No. NO this was wrong!
This level of mischievousness-!
"Ishtar, you Bitch!"
The clam under Aphrodtie's feet suddenly shattered and turned into a floating bow, Maana, the Boat of Heaven. Nothing was its match in transport, and before Athena could even react, it was streaking through the horizon on its divine Authority.
"Hehehahahah! I'll see you around, wise girl." Ishtar goaded. "Oh and…Ares would be proud. He'd still have a place for your monument in Sparta yet!"
Athena froze before she could even think to give chase, knowing exactly what was being referred to.
D-Dammit, she saw that?
(Angry Goddess noises.)
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