In Flight: The Twenty Seventh Wing
Author's notes: Well, its been four weeks, but here's the next chapter of In Flight. A bit of a long delay, but I did mention that there would be some. So far it seems that either the company I arranged my internship through or the company I'm working for themselves have an obsession with devouring my weekends. They keep arranging all kinds of excursions and parties and stuff. Still, when my reviews start saying things like 'update now or I'll track down your pets and hold them hostage' its a good sign that its time for me to put my nose to the wheel.
I'll get right to the chapter notes so that you all can enjoy the new addition.
Just like that one chapter before, this one is really mostly a breather episode type chapter. The last couple of chapters have been Wham episodes, or fight scenes, or emotionally tense. Its generally not a good idea to keep the pace like that for too long or both readers and writer will get burnt out trying to maintain that kind of pressure. I know its not what a lot of people were hoping for after such a long delay, but it was definitely time to give the characters a bit of breathing room.
A couple of specific elements to pay note to character wise. It was a good chance to give the characters a chance to show there reactions to the events around them. Miya for instance dealing with the fall out of her first encounter with her own fallibility is a nice one. Her disappointment about her scarring was a chance to emphasize both her inexperience with that kind of thing as well as her own femininity. Uzume pulling all the Final Fantasy references was a good way to lighten the mood of the story as well, and display her reaffirmed comfort with Shirou's presence. I'm attributing her knowledge to spending too much time in the nerdy parts of town while cosplay costume hunting.
The three most interesting characters here are Kuu, Matsu, and Karasuba in my opinion. People have been mentioning their desire to see Kuu do something a bit more exotic than fulfilling her token loli role. I'd been toying with the idea of giving Kuu the same kind of hero worship for Shirou that Shirou once had for Kiritsugu for a while truthfully. Part of it was a desire to expand a comic relief aspect by having her being adorably clumsy, and part of it is a lingering mental picture of Kusano fully grown wielding thorn blades and looking badass.
On Matsu's behalf, this ends the estrangement between her and Shirou as well. I always wanted some conflict to emerge between Shirou and his harem, more than the usual forgive and forget conflict that usually ends up providing episodic conflict solely for the purpose of keeping characters from sealing the deal. I wanted genuine points of conflict to emerge in the growing relationship between Shirou and his aliens, something to show that relationships are hard, and poly-amorous relationships like a harem are even harder, especially when all members are being treated as equals like Shirou tries to do.
Karasuba had a part also on the basis of their needing to be some reactions to the previous events, in this case MBI turning their attention towards Shirou specifically beyond him just being a participant that happens to be related to one of the administrators. It also gave a chance for me to keep Karasuba and Shirou interacting regularly and display their growing familiarity with each other. Specifically, Shirou's lack of concern with Karasuba's homicidal impulses, and Karasuba's continued interest in Shirou's aforementioned lack of concern.
The next few chapters are going to be more character and plot driven, for anyone interested. There are probably going to be periodic info dumps about magi related matters, but I'll try to keep them low key and interspersed with humor and character development to make them bearable for those who already know all the important facts.
As for plot points, probably next chapter will involve an angry Homura, a shifty Uzume, and the beginning of the third stage. Shirou might accidentally snap someone's sanity as well, but that might end up in the chapter after the next depending on how things go.
Enjoy it? Dislike an aspect? Something catch your eye? Leave a review. Questions/comments/concerns? I haven't been able to keep up with my forums lately, mostly due to travel and crappy internet connections, but I'll see what I can do about catching up on that kind of thing.
ANd as always, enjoy.
I woke alone the next day. It was the first time since the night I had taken Akitsu into my home that such a thing had happened. Even as my eyes opened I groggily reached to either side, trying to find the warm bodies that I had grown so accustomed to finding beside me during the first few moments between sleep and being alert, and in my half awake state the realization that there was no one there was disappointing.
Sitting up, a task which was usually a little trickier with the added weight on me I noted, I groggily rubbed at my face, briefly wondering what sadistic jerk had found the time to go gather sand and then put it under my eyelids, before belatedly realizing that the responsible party was most likely my own inability to get to sleep last night. In my sleepy state I decided that since I couldn't really blame myself personally for that problem I'd just chalk it up for another thing that was entirely Archer's fault.
"Shirou-tan!" a voice caused me to glance slowly towards the doorway and discover that at some point Matsu had peeked her head in. The dark rings around her eyes that I had noted before were still there, but it looked like the rest she had gotten last night had done her a bit of good. "You're finally awake."
"Finally?" I repeated, briefly confused by the qualifier, but a bleary look out the window jolted me to a more alert state as I realized that the normal predawn glow that I typically woke to had been replaced with the brightness of the noon sun. From the half open window I could make out the sounds of Musubi's and Miya's usual spars, combined with the noise of Kuu playing. "My appointments," I yelped, starting to scramble to my feet, stumbling towards the dresser so I could start to get changed. "I am so late!"
"It's alright, Shirou-tan," Matsu interrupted me, interrupting my made rush quickly. "Matsu already called them to reschedule." Hurrying towards me she lightly grasped one of my arms through her overly long sleeves to get my attention.
"Reschedule?" I repeated, shaking my head briefly like a dog, trying to get the last of the sleep out. "To when? And why did you all let me sleep this long? These people have been waiting for me to show up. It's impolite to cancel at the last minute."
I fretted at the inconvenience. A good repairman should be punctual. It might not seem like that an important a job, but people were depending on me to ensure that they have proper working air conditioners and laundry machines. As silly as it might be, the idea of me promising to show up and help out, only to apparently blow them off made me feel like a bit of a jerk.
"We thought about waking you up," Matsu admitted, giving me a stern look. "But a lot happened last night, and if you were so tired that you didn't wake up even when Tsukiumi-tan and Musubi-tan got in an argument, then you obviously needed some more sleep." Then the hacker's grin turned sheepish and she reached up to scratch the back of her head. "Besides," she continued. "Since all of your tools were in the shed, you wouldn't exactly have been able to do anything anyway."
I froze, the realization that I had lost more than my research in last night's conflagration hitting me like a brick to the head, and I groaned, sinking my head into my hands. "Oh yeah," I muttered, feeling stupid for having forgotten even for a moment the events of the night before.
"Anyway, when Miya-tan started giving everyone chores, Matsu decided to sneak away to her room to keep an eye on Shirou-tan for when he woke up," the hacker continued, giving a fiendish giggle as she adjusted her glasses at having managed to evade the landlady, an act which would no doubt catch up with her at some point in the future.
"Keep an eye on me?" I asked, resuming my trip to the closet at a much more reasonable pace. I might have missed my morning appointments, but that didn't change the fact that there was still a lot to do today. I gave the shirt I was wearing a quick sniff, and suppressed a cringe. It seemed like in the confusion from last night I had forgotten to change into something cleaner before going to bed. Maybe the smell of smoke, sweat, and blood might have been contributing factors last night's insomnia.
I was considering whether it would be worthwhile to try and salvage the shirt when something from Matsu's statement made me pause. Slowly, I turned to give the nearby Sekirei a suspicious look. "Wait. Keeping an eye on me from your room?" Matsu blinked, and then paled a little. Sheepishly, she glanced to the side, laughing nervously as she did so. "Don't tell me you have spy cameras in here?"
"Alright," Matsu nodded immediately. "Matsu won't tell you!"
"That wasn't exactly what I meant…" I began, before giving up with a sigh. I tried to ignore the triumphant grin that spread on the hacker's face at my surrender as I gathered a new shirt from my closet. I briefly considered grabbing a set of pants as well, but decided against it. Matsu had brought up an important point about how there had been more than just a body in my workshop when I had it burnt. I think the first thing I was going to have to do today was start digging through the wreckage to see what I could salvage from it. A good number of my tools had been steel so they might have survived the heat, and I think a few of my tomes might have been protected as well. I had to change my shirt so that when I started looking the neighbors didn't notice the bloodstains, but the pants were less incriminating and already dirty enough as it was.
"I'm really going to need a bath when I'm done," I muttered, tugging at the hem of my shirt reflectively before realizing that I should probably get some privacy while I changed. "Matsu," I turned to the still watching Sekirei, who seemed to realize that she had been watching me a bit eagerly and quickly schooled her expression to something less predatory and more innocent. "Do you mind stepping outside for a moment?"
"No! Matsu doesn't mind at all," she agreed, nodding happily. "She'll just go back to her room for a minute…" She had made it two steps towards the door before the realization of what she was planning hit me.
"Wait," I yelped, reaching out to catch the departing Sekirei's wrist. "Isn't your room where you can watch your spy cameras?" I accused, and Matsu nodded instantly, not even having the grace to look ashamed of her plan to peep on me. "You know what," I decided, "I'll just stop by the bathroom instead."
"That's fine," Matsu added agreeably, and I could only stare at her for a second before I felt another prodigious sigh escape my body as I slouched forward.
"You have spy cameras in there too, don't you," I stated, not bothering to phrase it like a question.
"Fuhuhu, fuhuhu," she giggled, rubbing her hands together as she did so in a way which made me very uncomfortable. "Matsu has camera's everywhere!"
For a moment I wasn't certain whether or not the implied confession of having peeped on me in the past made me feel dirty or not. Finally, I scrubbed a hand through my hair and decided that this was one battle I probably wasn't going to win. "You know what? I don't even care anymore," I admitted. Heedless of the Sekirei's presence I began to tug off my bloody long sleeve. "By now you've probably already seen everything there is."
"Fuhuhu," her muffled giggle made it through my shirt as it covered my ears. "It's not like Shirou-tan has anything to be ashamed of," the perverted hacker added. When my head was finally free I was greeted by the sight of her shamelessly taking advantage of the show I was putting on for her.
"It's not my body that I'm ashamed of," I grumbled, and was tucking my arms into the sleeves in preparation for putting on the new garment when a soft touch on my back caused me to jerk.
"If Shirou-tan isn't ashamed of his body, than is it these that he's embarrassed about?" No longer smiling, Matsu had moved to stand next to me and was resting one of her hands on my skin, directly over the exit wound that marred my otherwise mostly clean back. The feeling of her soft hands on the raised skin of my scars caused a brief flash of goose bumps to sprout across my arms. Even as one hand remained on my back, her other came up to rest directly opposite it, giving the starburst on my chest the same treatment.
"I-It's not exactly embarrassment," I began, my voice hitching as the sensation of her hands tracing my sensitive flesh. "It's just, well, they tend to make people uncomfortable, and sometimes when people see them they start to ask hard questions," I admitted, beginning to lower the shirt.
"Questions like, 'How are you still alive?'" Matsu prompted, and I had no illusions about her not understanding the significance of the matching wounds. "Whatever did this must have gone right through you, Shirou-tan."
"Yeah," I agreed to both her question and her observation. "Things like that." Slowly, I tugged my shirt down to conceal the scars that lined my body. Rather than let the fabric chase away her grip, she instead pressed her arms against my lower torso, her forearms lines of warmth against my skin as she let the clothes fall over her arms, trapping them against me as they did so.
It was a casually intimate action, and I found myself momentarily surprised when rather than make me uncomfortable I instead discovered that it was strangely comforting. Much like the night before when the weight of my flock didn't trouble my sleep, Matsu's warmth against me left me undisturbed.
Of course the realization of that lack of discomfort was enough to make me uncomfortable a moment later, and I found myself taking a deep breath to suppress a flinch. It wasn't just the implications of implied physical acceptance for the alien that caused the feeling, but the recollection of just what our current personal situation was.
"Matsu," I began before trailing off as the redhead leaned in to me, her hands slipping away from where they had been resting on my disfigurements so that they could slowly wrap around my waist as she embraced me. My breath caught in my throat before I released it slowly, letting her hug me.
"Ashikabi-san," she began, pausing for a moment before continuing in a rush. "I'm sorry for last night."
"Which part?" I asked, letting one hand come down to rest against her arm, still buried beneath my shirt.
"For hitting you," she blurted out, burying her face into my arm as she confessed. "Matsu shouldn't have done that. She should have found some other way to tell Shirou-tan how she feels; she should have been more polite, she should have done something, anything…" The pace of her voice picked up, a note of panic and a further note of regret seeping into her tone until she was pouring out her words so fast they were slurring together. She would have continued but she froze as I shifted underneath her grip, finally adjusting myself until the arm she was pressing herself against had moved enough for me to awkwardly rest my hand on her head.
"You shouldn't," I told her, glancing to the side. "Apologize," I clarified a second later. "You, well, you might have been right," I confessed back to her.
"Shirou-tan…?" she began, obviously confused by my dismissal of her assault. With a deep breath, I raked my other hand through my hair, knowing what I had to say but not how to say it.
"It's been pointed out to me in the past that sometimes I might be a little dense," I finally settled on. "There are times when I'm so committed to a course that I forget the potential consequences. I get so concerned over how to help everyone else that I forget to give myself the same attention. You're not the first one to have to smack some sense into me," I gave Matsu a wry, self depreciating smile, glancing down to see her looking up at me intently, a hopeful look on her face.
"You mean Saber and Rin," she guessed, making the connection over just who it was that used to keep me from getting out of line. I nodded sheepishly. A small smirk appeared on the hacker's lips as she noted my confirmation. "So Shirou-tan is the type that needs a woman's touch to keep from getting out of line?" Her grin turned a touch lecherous, and her hands began to trail downward from where they were wrapped around my waist. "Well, if all he needs is some touching some time…" she began, and for a moment I suspected I was about to have to fend off an amorous alien again, when unexpectedly her fingers began to attack my side, tickling me without warning.
"Matsu," I yelped, starting to squirm away from the invading fingers while suppressing the giggles they were evoking. "Stop that!"
"Fuhuhuhu," Matsu giggled in response, but obediently stopped her assault. Arms still around me, she leaned back into the embrace, my hand still resting on her head as she made herself comfortable. "Still," she continued, her voice growing serious again. "Matsu is also sorry about before, when she forced you to tell everyone about the Grail War." She peered up at me from where she was pressed against my arm, giving me an honestly apologetic expression. "Matsu should have just asked. If she had…"
"If you had, then I wouldn't have said anything," I admitted as I cut in. "Or I would have lied…"
"Because Shirou-tan is kind and he's trying to protect us." It was Matsu's turn to interrupt as she smoothly took control of the conversation back from me. "And I think that even if Shirou-tan had said something, Matsu wouldn't have believed him." Glancing down forlornly, the hacker tightened her grip on me. "Shirou-tan was right," she added softly. "Matsu didn't trust him. Matsu thought she knew better, and that she was right. Shirou," she met my eyes again, her expression sincere, "I'm sorry."
Faced with such an honest apology, with sincere regret, I could do nothing else but try to assure the remorseful alien. "It's alright," I forgave her. "Honestly, you're probably right: I probably haven't been a very good Ashikabi either. Or a boyfriend, or mate, or whatever the proper term is…" I trailed off, not quite sure which role was the proper title for my situation, but certain that whichever was appropriate I had in some way failed to live up to an important duty regardless.
"Hmmm," Matsu hummed against me. "Well, if Matsu hasn't been the best Sekirei, but Shiro-tan can forgive her for that, than Matsu can also forgive Shirou-tan for not being the best Ashikabi." An amused smile began to form. "Guess what, Shirou-tan? I think we just had our second fight!"
"Huh," I grunted, recalling how she forgave me for that time when I had panicked and fled when confronted by the truth of the relationship between Ashikabi and Sekirei. "You know," I admitted, "I think you might be right."
"Well, now that we finished, how about some makeup sex?" she offered hopefully, her grin turning into a playful leer. Despite her lecherous suggestion, her tone remained playful and her hands innocent. I found myself giving an amused snort at her obviously intended to be humorous suggestion.
"Maybe on Friday?" I offered, recalling the officially assigned 'Matsu day' briefly before freezing. At my side Matsu also stilled momentarily. That's right. Friday wasn't 'Matsu day'. Not at the moment anyway. With a quick look at the pensive Sekirei, I made my decision. "If you want, you can put your name back up again," I offered, not sure if that was the best way to say that she could add herself back into the rotation of who gets to sleep with me but plunging ahead anyway.
It still felt weird that I had so many woman interested in me that I literally had to schedule the week in advance. It hadn't even been a week since the original punishment had been handed down. The end result had only been one day where she had been denied the same privileges that the rest of the flock had. Despite that, in a promising show of unity Friday had remained untouched for the last four days, no other Sekirei even making an effort to try and claim the empty spot on the calendar. Similarly, even Wednesday, Akitsu's day, had also remained emptier than the rest of the weekdays, though if that was the ice user wanting to lay claim to sleeping by me by herself or if she was simply waiting for Matsu to once again join her was something I wasn't too certain about either.
For a moment Matsu looked up at me, uncertain about just what I was offering, and then her eyes lit up as she understood just what I was saying. Her mouth was instantly open, a word already forming on her lips before she paused, freezing stock still. I had a moment to wonder what was going on in the hacker's head for a moment, before she finally closed her mouth, a determined expression forming on face.
"Actually, Shirou-tan," she began, her tone firm. "Matsu thinks she will wait a bit."
"What?" I gawked at her briefly. A Sekirei, even more, a Sekirei as perverted and obviously interested in a physical relationship as Matsu, refusing the opportunity to sleep with her Ashikabi? "Why?" Realizing that the question might come off as presumptuous, I shook my head quickly and tried again. "I mean, are you sure?"
"Matsu has been thinking, and she decided that it wasn't really fair to Shiro-tan," she nodded, certainty in her voice. "It's always been Shirou who has adapted to being with Sekirei. Not just with being married, but with dealing with the Sekirei Plan as well. And we always just expected him to do just that. Maybe it's our fault that you never really thought you could count on us to help." With a deep breath, the hacker committed herself. "So to make up for that, I'm going to do thing's Shirou's way instead. Matsu is going to help Shirou-tan every way she can with his wizard problems," she stumbled over the word 'wizard' briefly, obviously unaccustomed to speaking it in a serious context, before continuing. "And moreover, Matsu is going to act like a human when it comes to being with Shirou-tan as well!"
"Act like a human?" I parroted, confused. "What do you mean, Matsu?"
"Matsu is going to take her time, being with her Ashikabi," she pronounced, withdrawing her hands from around me so she could cross them under her breasts as she nodded proudly at her declaration. "She's going to go on dates with Shirou-tan, and get to know him better! Matsu will be a girlfriend rather than a wife, and act like a human female!"
I could do nothing but stare at the redhead as she resolutely chose a course of action that I had honestly never expected any of the Sekirei to even consider. The species as a whole had so far shown itself to be rather ethnocentric, or species-centric I suppose might be a better term for their way of constantly adhering to their natural behavior patterns. It was a behavior that was perhaps supported, or even enabled might be the better word, by MBI. I had never particularly had a problem with it, being far too used to being forced to adapt to situations which had developed outside of my control, but if Seo's determination not to get involved with the Plan and Haruka's outright determination to escape it were an indication as to other Ashikabi's responses to their sudden involvement in the game then I was probably closer to an exception than the rule.
And yet here Matsu was offering to ignore my offer to allow her to indulge in those behaviors and instead take up the ones of my own species instead. Coming from her, one of the most aggressive when it came to progressing to a physical relationship and simultaneously one of the most involved with my efforts to control the progress of the Plan, the offer was genuinely touching.
"And then Shirou-tan can be the one to seduce Matsu instead after he finally becomes overcome with lust and throws her down on the kitchen table to ravish her!" Matsu continued, stunting my previously growing gratitude briefly as she licked her lips in a lecherous expression that I was far more familiar to having her display.
I sighed, but despite my resignation I found myself smiling a bit at her bluntly stated goals. "You know, you should probably not mention that kind of thing if you're going to play hard to get at some point," I pointed out, and Matsu's grin grew.
"Matsu's still trying to get used to 'subtle'," she admitted. "Afterwards she'll try and start teaching Musubi-tan for Shirou!" My grin grew at her joke. "For now, maybe Shirou-tan should start thinking about where he's going to take Matsu for their first day this Friday! Maybe some expensive restaurant?" It seems that even if she had decided to pass on sleeping with me she was still going to lay claim to eating privileges, even going so far as to try and get me alone and away from the rest of her sister Sekirei.
"Well," I began, running through a list of restaurants and eateries that might be suitable, "I'll see what I can come up with..." I really wasn't much for eating out, so the list was disturbingly short. Maybe I should ask Takami for some advice? Or Homura? Yes, I had a feeling that Homura would be able to give me some appropriate tips.
A second afterwards a thought hit me like a lightning bolt.
"Um, Matsu," I began, not sure if it was appropriate to bring this up. Maybe she had already figured out a way around the potential snag I had just come across. "How exactly am I going to take you out if you're still on the run from MBI?"
She froze, her face turning as white as her dress as the realization that she was still technically on the lamb hit her for what was most likely the first time since she declared her intentions to woo me honorably.
"Eh…" she let loose a small high pitched whine as she hunched over, her eyes glazing over as she began to think so hard it almost hurt to look at. "Maybe Matsu didn't think this whole 'human dating' thing over enough before hand," she finally admitted, rubbing her head sheepishly as she did so.
Matsu was still thinking over the conundrum ten minutes later when I finally made my way to the section of the hallway where a good number of the rest of Izumo House had gathered to watch the spar between Musubi and Miya.
I almost felt sorry I had brought the whole thing up at that point, having watched the furiously contemplating hacker follow me almost like she was on some kind of autopilot as I made a brief trip to the restroom, her waiting outside the room as I did my business and splashed some water on my face to help wake me up, and then resume her shadowing of me as I stopped by the kitchen in order to get a late breakfast snack. It was almost comforting to have her nearby, as she perhaps unconsciously seemed to emulate Akitsu's habit of following me from behind me on my left though her muttering was a bit disturbing from the bits I'd managed to make out as she tried to plan a way to get out of the house with me.
"Afternoon, Shirou," Uzume chirped from where she was kneeling on a cushion placed on the veranda overlooking the yard where the other two females were sparring. She looked like she was going to say more for a moment, but then paused, giving Matsu a strange look. "And why is Matsu muttering about hacking the power plants and shutting down all power to the greater Shin Tokyo region?"
"That's a bit of a long story," I told the kneeling Sekirei as I glanced over the rest of the assembled Sekirei. Sitting on the ponytailed Sekirei's left was Kuu, though it appeared that the youngest of the species was too enraptured by the sight of unfolding violence to pay attention to the arrival of her onii-chan. The green girl was emitting periodic grunts and whines that seemed to coincide with the battle unfolding before her, letting loose pained sounding noises whenever Musubi was dodging or defending and excited squeals whenever the fist fighter was doing the attacking. On Kuu's other side was Akitsu, the snow woman once more making her porcelain statue impression, though she stirred briefly when Uzume called attention to my presence.
"Aren't they all?" the Veiled Sekirei responded to my earlier statement, sounding more at ease in my presence then she had in days. Uzume favored me with a brief smile before turning back to the mock battle between Miya and Musubi. The two were clashing briefly in a furious whirlwind of punches and slashes, an encounter that seemed far more intense than the few sessions I had born witness to before. Uzume seemed to notice the same thing as she nodded at the combatants. "Looks like you got everyone all fired up after last night."
"I guess," I scratched the back of my head briefly, not which part of the events of the evening before had been responsible for the increased intensity of the duel, but willing to accept the blame for it. "Where's everyone else?" I glanced around, trying to find the rest of my flock. The scent of their presences was lingering, but I couldn't make out the specifics of their locations with just that alone.
"Not too sure about Tsukiumi," Uzume shrugged briefly, "but I think Homura is in his room. Saw him earlier and he looked pretty out of it. Don't think he slept too well last night. As for Kazehana, she said she wanted to look through my costume collection so that she could 'give Shirou-kun the wakeup he deserved'."
Judging from what I knew of both Kazehana's personality and Uzume's costume collection I think I was perfectly justified in the brief shudder of terror that crawled down my spine. When Uzume's smile turned toothy I took it as all the confirmation that I needed that I was probably going to be made very uncomfortable the next time I ran into the wind user.
"Well, maybe I should check on Homura later," I decided, ignoring the other topic deliberately. With any luck I'll be out of the house whenever the older Sekirei was finished preparing her surprise long enough for Miya to catch wind of it and derail the whole thing. I was going to continue when one of Kuu's high pitched whines grew unusually loud before cutting off completely. Glancing down I saw that the green girl had leaned all the way forward, balancing on all fours as she stared with rapt eyes at the spar in front of her. I followed her gaze, taking in the unfolding scene.
Both Miya and Musubi had separated on opposite sides of the lawn, Miya with her sword at the ready and Musubi in a rigid fighting stance. Standing completely still, both of the combatants were studying the other, though Miya's expression was a great deal more relaxed than Musubi's tense gaze. It was late enough in spring that the sakura petals were no longer falling, otherwise the whole scene would have been like something out of a cheesy samurai movie.
"I'm coming," Miya finally announced, her voice stern as she shifted her grip on the handle of her sheathed blade. Musubi had time for a brief nod before the lavender haired landlady streaked across the yard, her blade above her head and coming down in a blur as Musubi launched both her hands up to intercept the attack, slapping them together just in time to…
To completely miss the blade as it struck down on the blinking Sekirei's head with an audible 'thunk'.
"Owwww," the shrine girl began to whine, reaching up to cradle her abused appendage, which I noticed already had a collection of forming goose eggs on it. "I still can't do it!" Cradling her head and pouting while wearing her usual bloomer combination, the battle maniac looked a great deal like nothing more than a petulant child. Kuu let loose a disappointed noise, slumping back onto her knees as the young Sekirei gave her older sister a sympathetic wince.
"Now, now," Miya chided the ursine Sekirei, her eyes trailing briefly over to where I was standing, taking note of my newly arrived presence. "It's not so easy to catch a blade, Musubi-chan. Perhaps we should take a break for the moment?"
"No!" Musubi chimed in, her usual cheer returning. "I'm ready to try again!" With one fist raised to accentuate her passion, the bloomer clad Sekirei began to bounce on the balls of her feet as though to prove how much remaining energy she really had.
"I'm sure you are," Miya smiled warmly at her exuberant partner with crinkled eyes. "However, it looks like Emiya-kun is finally awake…" Though it sounded like Miya was intending to say more she trailed off as Musubi instantly whirled to look around as though trying to confirm my presence by checking everywhere in a two hundred and seventy degree arc. The moment her eyes landed on me, her bouncing nearly doubled in speed, and the hand that was previously fisted opened so the shrine girl could wave excitedly at me.
"Ah! Shirou-san! Good morning," Musubi called eagerly. "Did you sleep well?"
"Well enough," I smiled at her as the scatter brain seemed to completely forget about her earlier dedication to training so that she could hop over to me immediately. Miya's smile lingered as the landlady shook her head, though she took began to come over at a much more sedate pace. "It looks like you've been training hard," I noted, angling my head at the collection of bumps adorning her crown.
"Landlady is strong," Musubi admitted, sticking out her tongue and beginning her customary forehead knuckling before flinching as the finger that was grinding into her own temple graced one of the knots already forming there. "Owie," she muttered, wincing again before shaking her head and brushing off the pain. "If Musubi is ever going to get as strong as Shirou, then I'll have to work hard!"
"Onii-chan!" Kuu chimed in, apparently finally realizing that I had been standing behind her. "Good morning!" The little sprite beamed up at me, wiggling in place until she was turned around to face me. Without bothering to get up the girl latched onto my leg, giving me my morning hug.
"Good morning, Kuu-chan," I responded in kind, reaching down to muss her hair briefly. Unlike her usual response to my attacking on her hair Kuu grinned up at me, taking my teasing good naturedly. Even as I did so my eyes drifted over to Miya, my good cheer slipping a bit. "Good afternoon to you too, Asama-san," I added.
"Oh? My my," Miya quipped, affecting a disappointed look. "Such a formal greeting," she bemoaned, putting one hand to her cheek as she did so. "Could it be that you're trying to butter me up before making excuses for why you haven't started fixing my house yet, Emiya-kun?"
I was familiar enough with Miya's mood to know that the last statement was just her teasing, but I still winced. "Partly," I admitted, glancing down the hall towards the doorway that would lead to the decimated dining room. "More importantly, how's your chest doing?"
"Ah!" Miya gasped, one hand coming up to cover herself as though to protect her modesty from some kind of molester. "It has finally happened!" she bemoaned, shaking her head mournfully. "Emiya-kun's base lusts have at last caused him to turn his wicked eyes upon me. Oh, what would my poor husband in heaven think, to know that I would soon be preyed upon so cruelly?"
"He would say you know d-" I glanced down at Kuu and adjusted the exact word I was going to use at the last moment, "darn well what I'm talking about, and then he'd tell you to hurry up and answer so that he could rest easier knowing that there weren't any complications." While Miya's playfulness was a good sign, I was still worried about the exact condition of her wound. I had never used a traced version of Avalon before, especially not on another person, and even more noticeably on a creature which wasn't even human in the first place. "Please, Miya," I continued, trying to be firm without being confrontational. "How are you feeling?"
"Ara," she began, before glancing down as though having trouble meeting my gaze. "A little stiff," she finally admitted, the hand previously being held up as though to shield her drifting a few inches so that instead she could trace her fingers over the line that had been carved into her last night. "It as though my skin is a bit too tight." Her gaze drifted back up to mine, and I think for the second or third time ever I had the opportunity to see the normally unflappable landlady look uncomfortable. "I was considering asking you for your help later."
"My help?" I repeated, not liking the sound of that. "Why, what have you noticed?" I leaned forward as though the few extra inches the act gained me would be enough for me to spontaneously be able to identify just what it was that was troubling the alien. My mind flitted through possibilities. Was my od in some way harming her? Or perhaps Avalon hadn't been able to fully heal her properly inside, instead only closing the external wound while leaving the internal damage alone like it sometimes did. Or maybe, and this thought in particular was chilling, the artifact had in some way impeded her ability to use her power.
"It seems that your 'magic' was mostly effective," Miya somehow managed to sound skeptical as used my chosen term for my power. It looked that the alien was still doubtful about the veracity of my claims, though she was at least choosing to humor them for now. "In fact," she continued, "I was rather hoping that you might be able to schedule some time later tonight for another session as to finish the job."
"Finish the job?" I repeated, leaning backwards as I blinked in confusion. "What do you mean?"
"As fascinating as the process is," the landlady continued, sounding like she was choosing her words carefully, "I find myself greatly disliking the healing process and the marks it leaves upon one's body. Perhaps you could use that…" she paused, lips quirking as she tried to find an appropriate word before she continued, "object of yours to remove them?"
The confusion I was feeling lingered for another second before what she was referring to hit me like a blow to the back of the head.
"You mean the scar?" I blurted out, honestly surprised by the request. Here she was, Miya, a creature so soaked with blood and pain that it had stained the very fundamental nature of her power, was asking me for what amounted to cosmetic treatment to help remove a mark of battle. "But that's impossible," I continued, still confused by the show of vanity I was bearing witness to. "Avalon just doesn't work that way."
"Ah," Miya murmured, glancing back down to the side briefly, before looking back up, her expression once more settled into her customary smile and crinkled eyes. "Never mind then," she told me, sounding so casual that I nearly dismissed the conversation from my mind by reflex. It was only the way her hand continued to trail across her upper body that gave me pause long enough for the realization of just why Miya had brought the topic up.
It made sense, in a way, that the lady in front of me would be upset about the marring of her body. I was so used to thinking of her as a fellow warrior, as an untouchable pillar of power, that perhaps I had forgotten that she was once a married woman. She had had a husband, one she had loved wholeheartedly from what I knew. Though I might not care about the markings on my body, being willing to dismiss them as nothing more than tokens that inevitably made themselves known as a consequence for the life I had chosen to live, there was no reason that Miya had to have the same disregard for her physical appearance. Moreover, this had been the very first time she had actually taken such a wound as well.
It was a somewhat disturbing realization that despite her great power and fearsome history in some ways I was more experienced then her, maybe even more mature. Miya was someone who was so naturally superior to all her other opponents that she had never once in the past had to confront the truth that I had been inured to since the first day I had picked up a sword: anyone who carries a blade is going to get cut.
"'Avalon'?" a new voice chimed in, jerking me back from my thoughts. I blinked, and focused on Uzume, who was giving me a curious look as she repeated my earlier statement. "What's that? One of your magical spells or something?"
"Um," I began, trying to pull my train of thoughts back together. "Well, yeah, I suppose that's a good way to put it," I finally settled on.
"Oh?" Matsu chimed in, the hacker apparently shaking herself out of her previous train of thoughts as she focused in on the conversation once more. "What happened, Shirou-tan? Did you run out of MP?"
"MP?" I repeated, not quite sure what the phrase meant. "What do the military police have to do with anything? Do you think the army somehow managed to get a witness in last night?" Now that was a worrying thought.
"Oh! Musubi knows this one! That means 'magic points'!" the bloomer clad girl declared waving one hand excitedly through the air as she proudly contributed to the conversation. Despite her surety, I was once more feeling like I was missing something very important from the conversation.
"Magic points?" it was my turn to parrot random phrases as I scratched my head awkwardly. "What are those?"
I was half way expecting disbelieving stares or disapproving words, but instead the gathered Sekirei all seemed to take amusement out of my ignorance. Even Kuu managed to give me a look which was a strange conglomerate of laughter and condescension.
"Yup," Matsu chimed in, nodding sagely. "That's the Shirou-tan we've all come to expect!" I managed to get out a small glare, knowing that I was in some way being mocked but unable to isolate the exact joke, before Matsu waved away the earlier statement. "But that does raise a good question. Why aren't you able to finish healing Miya-tan last night? Shouldn't your sorcery have been enough to leave her without a scratch afterwards?"
"Don't call me a sorcerer," I chided her absentmindedly, cringing at the title. "I'm only a magus. And honestly, I'm surprised that it worked at all, all things considered. I've never even tried Avalon on someone else before, and even when I use it on myself I still end up scarring sometimes."
"Worked at all?" Miya repeated, her tone curious. "Goodness. Emiya-kun," she began, her earlier disappointment over me being unable to remove the final traces of her wound being replaced with something vaguely apprehensive. "You didn't attempt anything dangerous last night, now did you?"
"Attempt something dangerous? At what point?" I asked, my voice a touch dry, needing to know precisely which element of the complete disaster that had occurred she was trying to call me out on. "The part where I got thrown through a fence, or the part where I engaged a superior magus in one on one combat, or the part where I tried to use a temperamental Noble Phantasm to heal a completely alien creature?"
Honestly, a good few hours of my lack of sleep could be contributed to me going over the entire scenario with a fine toothed metaphorical comb as I tried to understand just what the hell had occurred last night. I had finally managed to reach a few conclusions, and for once in my life they were actually cautiously optimistic ones.
"He-heh," Uzume chuckled, bringing the cup of tea she had been sipping on while watching the spar up to her lips for a taste. "No need to be modest, bro! Even if Miya is being a sourpuss, the rest of us are pretty impressed at the ass kicking you gave last night!"
"Shirou-san was so strong! Even when Miya-san had been beaten, he managed to make it through alright," Musubi added her two cents, clutching both her hands under her chin as she wiggled joyously.
"Really now!" Miya huffed, apparently affronted by the not so subtle jibes that the two more vocal Sekirei had launched at her, though in Musubi's case it was most likely unintentional. "It wasn't that impressive," she muttered, folding her arms underneath her chest petulantly, acting the most immature that I had ever seen the usually regal landlady behave.
"She's right," I nodded, though my own thoughts were a great deal less jovial than the mood of the rest of the group. "Honestly, last night was downright depressing."
"Don't worry, Shirou-san," Musubi consoled me, bouncing over so she could pat my arm comfortingly. "Just because this opponent was weak doesn't mean that next time won't be any better. I'm sure you'll have a stronger enemy eventually!"
I actually had to take a moment to stare at the shrine girl, trying to figure out just which part of her statement disturbed me the most. On one hand, her strangely twisted sense of priorities was a little jaw dropping. It takes a special kind of crazy to actually hope for stronger opponents, the kind of battle lust madness which had more or less been bred out of humanity by this point. Sure, in the old days when life expectancies were mid forties for old age and the best hope a warrior could have was immortality through glory hoping for a stronger enemy might have been in style. Nowadays though hoping to die young was either the mark of a diseased mind or someone going through a stupidly rebellious period during puberty.
The other more disturbing part was the fact that Musubi seemed to think that last night's enemy actually qualified as 'weak'.
"Musubi," I began, trying to break the news to her gently that reality didn't share her same perception. "I really hope that if another magus manages to find me they're nowhere near as strong as the Fraga from last night. The only reason I won yesterday was because of a fluke."
That revelation seemed to have varying effects on the crowd in general. Matsu narrowed her eyes, straightening slightly as she did so as she started to pay closer attention to my words. Uzume's eyes also narrowed, though her reaction seemed to indicate more confusion than attention like Matsu's. Conversely, Miya's eyes actually opened, a sign that she too was raising the conversation's priority from 'casual' to 'potentially important'. Kuu did nothing more but shift from where she was still clinging to my leg, while the only sign Akitsu gave of her increased intention was the clinking of the chains on her neck as she shifted.
"What's a fluke?" Musubi asked, tilting her head in confusion as she tried to follow just what it was that had changed the mood for the rest of the group. "Is it like 'discretion'? If it is, I think I'm ready for it!"
"It means that last night was an accident," I told the distorted Sekirei patiently. "The Fraga was stronger than me, faster than me, more skilled than me, and more prepared. The only reason she lost was because she underestimated me just enough for me to take the advantage."
"Look," Uzume chimed in, her lips quirking up as she began to give me a crooked smile. "Bro, if you're still trying to do that whole 'impress the danger of the situation' thing that you were doing last night, you can ease up. We get it, things are a bit different from what we're used to. Don't worry about trying to be modest."
"Indeed," Miya chimed in, her voice still laced with the doubt she seemed to be making a habit of displaying whenever I started to talk magecraft. "Though I might have spent a good portion of the fight…" she hesitated before settling on, "indisposed, I saw no indication of any such discrepancies in ability."
I suppressed a grimace, before giving their arguments a careful review. In many ways it was easy to forget that for all that the Sekirei were qualified to be considered mystic creatures, they at times had more in common with mundane humans when it came to their personalities or experiences. They were after all raised by scientists and in labs, and having been exposed to that kind of culture basically from incubation. In most cases they obviously had a reason to be ignorant of some of the fine points of magical society. Last night I might have told them enough for them to understand the absolute basics of my situation, but there were still implications that they simply couldn't understand without a little supplementary material.
Unable to completely suppress a sigh of annoyance, I settled in, leaning back so I could support my frame against the wall as one hand came up to ruffle my hair as I tried to gather my thoughts for the upcoming impromptu lesson.
"Look," I began, not sure how else to begin explaining just how dangerous the battle that had outed me to my Sekirei had truly been. "I'm not sure how else to say this, so I'll be blunt: as magi go, I'm actually not a very good one."
"Not a very good one?" Matsu repeated, pursing her lips as she did so. "What does that mean?"
"It means I barely qualify as an apprentice, much less a proper magus," I elaborated for her. "I only recently managed to make it to third rate. I have only around average magic circuits, only two or three years worth of study, can only really use one outdated thaumaturgical system, and have no magic lineage or traits." I rolled my shoulders uncomfortably. "In other words, compared to other magi I'm actually kind of crappy."
For a moment silence greeted my disparaging self assessment. Finally, Musubi cocked her head to the side. "I'm sorry, Shirou-san," she admitted mournfully. "It looks like I wasn't ready after all. Musubi didn't understand a word of that."
"Matsu didn't either," the hacker added.
"Count Uzume in that list," the veiled Sekirei put in as well, perhaps unconsciously imitating the other two's use of the third person.
"Neither did Miya," the landlady chimed in, before blinking and giving her head a quick shake. "I mean, neither did I." She emphasized her use of a personal pronoun before continuing, her attention returning to me. "Perhaps you might explain your situation a little more clearly, Emiya-kun?"
"Yeah," I nodded, my agreement before I was interrupted by Akitsu making a small sound. Pausing, I turned to give the snow woman a quick glance.
"Akitsu did not either," the snow woman finally finished, apparently also infected by the trend Musubi had unknowingly kicked off. I blinked at her for a second, feeling vaguely nonplussed by the delayed contribution.
"Uh," I began, before taking a turn to give my head a quick clearing shake and collecting my thoughts. "Well, I didn't really have time to go into details last night, but the thing you have to understand is that when I said magi have been around for millennia, I was being serious. Humanity has spent thousands of years using magecraft, and the people who study it, magi for the most part, have accumulated a lot of knowledge and terms. Being a magus isn't just a matter of being able to use magecraft or not, it's like a whole separate culture."
"And that means?" Matsu prompted, adjusting her glasses as she did so, her expression attentive as she took in my impromptu lecture carefully.
"I could spend days trying to explain every little detail or fact and still not cover even a fraction of everything associated with magecraft," I elaborated. "More than that, since I'm not a very good magus in the first place, there are lots of things I just don't know, or think I know and could be wrong about."
"That's fine, Emiya-kun," Miya assured me. A hand came up to cover her mouth, and I got the distinct impression that she was covering either a smirk or a smile. "Perhaps I might be able to help fill in some of those blanks later."
"You're really not letting up on the 'Shirou is a Sekirei' theory, are you Miya?" I asked, my voice dry as I did so. I couldn't be certain, but I think the smile she was concealing might have grown a bit at my exasperated question. "Fine," I huffed, narrowing my eyes. "Maybe if I go a bit more in depth about what magecraft is, I can convince you all that I'm not just making this all up."
"Musubi believes you, Shirou-san," the bloomer clad Sekirei chimed in, nodding reassuringly at me as she did so.
"Thank you, Musubi," I told her, giving her a thankful smile.
"Matsu would probably believe too, if Shirou-tan would just continue his explanation," the hacker added, rubbing her hands together eagerly. It looked as though the curious Sekirei was more concerned with the chance to satisfy her unquenchable thirst for knowledge than proving whether Miya or I was right about the origin of my powers. "Maybe if he started with explaining why he thinks he's a bad wizard?"
"Magus," I corrected the term again, grimacing as I did so. At least she wasn't calling me a sorcerer any more. I leaned back again, scratching my head as I did so. A brief moment of trying to adjust my footing reminded me that I still had Kuu-chan latched onto me. It appeared as though the little sprite had made herself quite comfortable, settling herself down so she could seat herself on the top of my foot and use all four limbs to hold onto me tightly. Resigning myself to not being able to move, I began my brief exclamation.
"Well, I went over magic circuits last night," I started off with. "Magic circuits are kind of like blood vessels, only instead of blood they carry, well, prana." When I noticed Musubi get a confused look and Matsu begin to open her mouth I realized that I would probably have to be a little more general in my explanation for now. "Prana is the energy magi use for their magecraft. The more circuits a person has, the more power they are able to access. In my case I only have a little bit above the average amount in a magus."
"You mentioned those last night," Matsu remarked, nodding her head slowly as she went through my general explanation. "About how maguses use some strange energy to do their sorcery. Does Shirou-tan think that Sekirei use the same energy?"
"But I don't have any circuses," Musubi added, putting one finger to her chin as she gave her own thoughtful contribution to the conversation. I did my best to ignore it, the same way that I was ignoring Matsu's constant misuse of various terms like 'maguses' and 'sorcery'. There'd be time enough later to clear that up.
"I have no idea if you use something different normally, but I know you absorb prana whenever your species gets winged or uses a Norito," I explained. "I haven't been able to figure out much else about the Sekirei, probably another sign of my inadequacies by normal magi standards."
"You sounded kind of proud about that," Uzume noted, cocking her head to the side. I blinked, realizing that she was right and the last statement had come out with a positive tone of voice despite the negative message.
"That's because there are certain aspects of being a proper magus that I don't agree with," I admitted. "Just because I haven't gotten results yet doesn't mean I'm willing to go to the same lengths another magi might."
"Does this have to do with you mentioning you only have a few years of training?" Matsu asked, pursing her lips as she recalled one of the other inadequacies I had listed earlier.
"That and I'm not willing to vivisect any of you so I can study your insides more carefully while you're still alive," I admitted. My comment appeared to be unexpected and an awkward pause settled on the gathered females.
"Uh," Uzume began, wincing as she did so. "That was a rather specific example. You sure that you're not just trying to hype up the bad guys?"
"Not really," I shook my head firmly. "A second rate magi might limit themselves to a Sekirei they haven't bonded with, but a first rate one would probably try to get as many different examples as they could; a few winged to themselves, a few more winged to someone else and their Ashikabi to go with them, a few unwinged ones as a control maybe..."
"Okay," Uzume cut me off, raising her hand as she did so, still grimacing. "I get the picture, bro. No need to go into details. Magi equal bad."
"Interesting," Miya murmured, once more entering the conversation. When I glanced up at her, she continued, her hand no longer hiding her mouth and instead rubbing against her chin slowly. "When you speak of the actions of a 'first rate' sorcerer you speak in terms of experiments and dissection. And when you mention your own diminished status, you emphasize your lack of results."
"Matsu noticed too," the redhead nodded, her voice subdued as she added her agreement to the landladies observation.
"I told you last night, the Mage's Association was primarily academic in nature," I reminded them. "Most magi consider themselves to be researchers above all else."
"Oh!" Musubi chimed in, raising a hand as she bounced in place. "Is that why you were able to beat the meanie from last night, Shirou-san? You said that you were inexperienced, so she must have been as well. I only saw her use one spell after all, while Shirou-san was doing lots of powerful special techniques."
"No," I shook my head instantly. "She was a Fraga, so she was probably studying since she could walk and had a long lineage. Her magecraft was on another level than mine."
"But that doesn't make sense," Uzume argued, sitting up straighter as she shook her head in confusion. "If the psycho from last night was so powerful and awesome, than why is it that you beat her down in like a minute?"
"And what's a Fraga?" Musubi added, her hand still in the air as she continued bouncing.
"Well," I began, trying to figure out how to explain the nuances of a battle where significant portions of the deciding factors had been internal reactions and quick thinking. "Last night was a bit different from a normal battle between magi in that both of us were Magus Killers."
"Oh?" Miya hummed the hand at her chin pausing as she reacted to my confession. "So Emiya-kun is some kind of assassin?" The lavender haired landlady let loose a theatrical sigh, shaking her head sadly. "What has become of my inn?" she bemoaned to herself. "It has become a den for debauchery and sin."
"Magus Killers aren't assassins," I hastened to reassure the group at large as similar reactions of distaste began to make themselves known in Matsu and Uzume. "Well," I paused, cursing my honesty. "Some of them are, but the title has more to do with the way they use their magecraft than any actual killing."
Judging from the confused looks that were spreading, it seemed my attempt to explain things was going less than optimally. I suppressed a sigh and tried again, hoping that this time my explanation would go a little better.
"Look, first of all, like I said most magi are researchers. The most important thing in their lives is their magecraft and their mysteries, so they dedicate everything to their studies. The Mage Association considers its primary goal to be the preservation of thaumaturgy, and the reason that so many magi join it is because the Association is willing to give them all the resources they need in order to make new discoveries."
"Really?" Matsu perked up, sounding intrigued by the idea of a community which considers its primary goal to be research. "That doesn't sound so bad."
"Yeah, well, the thing is that the only thing the Association cares about is advancing thaumaturgy while simultaneously keeping it a secret from the rest of the world," I emphasized the word 'only' as I spoke. "So long as a magi keeps their existence a secret, they can do pretty much anything they want as long as it doesn't affect any other magus."
"That still doesn't sound so bad," Matsu asserted, sounding confused why I would consider something like the freedom to indulge in unrestrained research as bad. I decided that an example would work.
"If a magus were to go into a maternity ward and kill every infant there in the most gruesome ways imaginable, the only things the Mage's Association would care about would be whether or not the act could somehow reveal the existence of magecraft and whether or not it got results," I said bluntly. "And if it did get results, than the Association would start encouraging other magi to do the same."
"Okay, when you put it that way, it sounds bad," Matsu admitted, deflating as she did so.
"You speak as though something so detestable might truly happen," Miya noted, her own tone touched with distaste at my tactless description of typical magi ruthlessness. "Are such things common?"
"That particular incident only happened once as best I know," I admitted, "and he wasn't as discreet as he thought he had been, and the results were too lackluster so he was punished afterwards, but yeah, magi generally aren't very moral people."
"Oh dear," Miya sighed, putting a hand to her cheek as she shook her head resignedly. "They certainly don't sound to be," she agreed with my blanket summation.
"So what does all this have to do with being a 'Sorcerer Hunter'?" Uzume chimed in, bringing the conversation back to one of the earlier topics.
"It's 'Magus Killer'," I corrected, beginning to be annoyed at the constant mispronunciations. "And the difference is how a conventional magus and a Magus Killer focus on when it comes to research. Normal magi are usually pretty devoted to research without giving much thought about how to use their discoveries for anything else besides making new discoveries. Most magi never stop looking for new mysteries, but sometimes a few will decide to focus on developing a new skill; learning how to make the magecraft more efficient, finding pragmatic uses for it, things like that."
"You mean like the difference between pure and applied science," Matsu suggested. "The difference between a scientist that just researches for research's sake versus the scientist who tries to find useful and profitable discoveries?"
"Yeah," I nodded, snapping my finger lightly as I did so. "That's exactly it. And when a magi focuses on combat…"
"They get the title 'Magus Killer'," the redhead nodded, a pleased smile forming on her face. "As in 'a magus who is a killer' rather than 'a killer of magus'." Even though it originally had been the later originally instead of the former, I decided that was close enough for my needs at the moment. "So is that why you won last night even if you really aren't very powerful, Shirou-tan?" Matsu continued, making the logical connection of where my explanation was going. "Even though you weren't as strong as the other wizard, you were better at fighting?"
"Well, that's normally how it goes, but last night really was a fluke in all ways," I admitted, my eyes narrowed as I replayed the battle in my head. "The Fraga had me in every way: she had better magecraft, more power, she was better prepared, and she caught me completely by surprise. Did you get a chance to see her fight?" I shook my head with a touch of helpless awe as I recalled the few glimpses of mysteries I had managed to discern from last night. "Whatever magecraft she was using to boost her speed and strength was a lot better than the one I use. She was breaking my swords by punching them for god's sake, and the one blow she did land on me launched me nearly fifty feet through a fence."
"Yeah," Uzume nodded. "No offense there, bro, but that was actually kind of cool."
"And I don't even find it disturbing anymore that might life seems to double as entertainment to you," I responded back a trifle sardonically.
"No prob," she told me airily, waving her hand as though to dismiss the sarcasm with a grin. I didn't let her teasing get to me though; this was the most at ease I had seen Uzume around me in almost a week. "So that part at the end, where you were both using the same spell: was that the fluke you were talking about?"
"That wasn't a spell," I corrected automatically. "And the actual fluke that let me win happened earlier when she chose to prioritize Miya as more dangerous than me." I glanced at the landlady while pinpointing the exact moment which marked the turning point for the fight. "Which on its own wouldn't be the wrong choice," I admitted, freely acknowledging the much greater amount of danger the alien represented than me conventionally, "but that let me see through her mystery, and then I was able to use it against her."
"I will admit to my memories being a bit disjointed," Miya began, her voice sounding a little stiff as she did so, "but I have trouble recalling at what point I was prioritized during last night's argument. In fact, if I recall correctly that rude young lady did not seem to pay much attention to anyone but yourself."
"Exactly," I nodded. My voice became a little distant as I found myself slipping a bit into my battle persona, reviewing the battle as I had spent most of the night doing. "The Fraga new exactly how to get past my wards and exactly where I'd be when she launched the first attack. She didn't even blink when Tsukiumi and Homura tried to counter attack despite the fact that they were using their powers; instead she just used the most efficient counters she could while staying focused on me. She charged into the middle of a nest of powerful creatures, and then ignored them in favor of targeting the one nominally weakest human. That can only mean one thing…"
I trailed off, reviewing the facts in my head one last time before I committed to them, but rather than a terse or uncomfortable silence forming Matsu simply chimed in. "She must have been watching you for some time if she had managed to figure out that killing you would have stopped just about everyone else."
"Yeah," I nodded my head at Matsu's conclusion. "It's the only thing that makes sense of everything."
The Fraga don't normally join up with the association, so she must have been a freelancer instead of an Enforcer. She knew how my wards worked, and enough about how I fight to get the first attack in, so she must have seen them in action. If I had to bet, I'd say she had most likely been watching me since the day Archibald died. Hell, she might have been the reason the other magi had found me in the first place. It would make a certain degree of sense if the obnoxious bureaucrat had decided to hire a freelancer to hunt me down, something which would no doubt have taken more time, money, and effort than the Clock Tower would likely deem me worth. And the Fraga had been good, very good. I had no trouble accepting that someone as professional as she had shown herself to be would be capable of finding me.
She hadn't been present during the first fight, no doubt having been paid only to find me and then told to get out of the way. Maybe the Archibald was planning on letting her have my body afterwards originally to cash in on the bounty as a bonus. Maybe the Fraga had just stuck around for a bit to see how the fight would go. Whatever the case, she must have seen what my wards did to her employer, seen how I fought against him, and most likely been interested when she also got an eyeful of what Akitsu was capable of.
"She must have been watching for a while now," I elaborated. "Long enough for her to make a few educated guesses: she'd have to have seen everyone who's been coming in and out, and since most of our visitors or residences are either Sekirei or Ashikabi she would most likely have been smart enough to put two and two together and decide that eliminating me would take top priority. She would have been gambling on either defeating me and using me as a hostage against the rest, or worse comes to worse, that the rest would be incapacitated if she had to kill me."
"So she was sitting around long enough to figure out that Miya was dangerous as well?" Uzume leaned back, propping herself up on her arms as she made herself comfortable. "And that's why she used her secret limit break too early?"
"Limit break?" I repeated, having no idea what she was talking about. My eyes narrowed in suspicion. "Are you making things up on purpose just for the sake of confusing me?"
"He-heh," the ponytailed Sekirei grinned up at me easily as Matsu turned her head suspiciously to the side in order to conceal her no doubt traitorous laughter. "If I was, you wouldn't be able to tell, would you?"
"Fine," I sighed, giving up just like I did earlier. "You know what, go on ahead. I'm getting way too used to this kind of thing."
"Right," Uzume nodded graciously at me. "So then, she used her ultra powerful spell of butt whooping plus one too early, and you were able to use your blue magic to learn it? Or your enemy skill materia? Or, oh, I know! Your mime ability?"
"It was a Noble Phantasm," I corrected her, rubbing my forehead slowly as I let her now over the top shots sail by. "A legendary artifact of immense power. Its how I know that whatever her name was she was definitely a member of the Fraga clan; they're the only ones left in the world with the ability to recreate that weapon."
"Oh, a legendary artifact," Uzume muttered, her grin still splitting her face. "That's even better. So what, you saw that she had a super rare Excalibur item and decided to use your steal skill on him?"
"You know what, that's not too far off," I admitted, causing the teasing Sekirei to blink. "And it was the Fragarach. I already have Excalibur."
"Heh," Uzume chuckled, her grin spreading. "Nice. But it's no fun if you're playing along, Shirou."
"So what?" Matsu prompted, her brow knitted as she ignored Uzume's banter to focus on the pertinent issues. "Since she used the 'fraggle' thing you were able to cast a spell or something that let you block it or recreate the effect or something?" She absently began playing with her braid, her brow wrinkled with the effort of adapting her train of thinking to something which was no doubt the equivalent of alien logic in her eyes. "If it was that easy to do something like that, it must not have been a very good Royal Ghost."
"Noble Phantasm," I corrected, suppressing a wince. Okay, seriously. I mean, I wasn't this bad when I got exposed to Sekirei culture the first time. Sure, I mispronounced 'Ashikabi' a few times, but at least I made the effort to get it right. "And no; Noble Phantasms are some of the most powerful and dangerous artifacts in existence. If she had used it against me first, I wouldn't have been ready for it, and it would probably have killed me on the spot. It's only because Miya is so powerful herself that she survived in the first place. The fact that she willingly used it in front of me when I wasn't its target is actually reassuring."
"Why is it reassuring? And for that matter, if this Noble Phantom-thingy is so rare and powerful, how come you were able to use it too?" Uzume chimed back in, reaching up to scratch her cheek thoughtfully as she reentered the conversation.
"Because it meant she had no idea what my real skill is," I answered. "She still thought I was only an apprentice level when it came to combat. I told you all I received a Sealing Designation because of achieving a unique thaumaturgical ability. One of the side effects is that I'm the only person in the world who would be able to duplicate a Noble Phantasm after having seen it, much less be able to use it afterwards. It was in my notes when the Clock Tower raided my workshop, and since the Fraga wasn't aware, that means that she wasn't working with the Mage's Association."
"And is that good?" Musubi asked, raising her hand again as she used her other one to scratch casually at the hem of her bloomer. It looked like the sweat staining the clothing she had been working out in had begun to dry and the shrine girl was beginning to get itchy. Despite Musubi's confusion, Matsu's eyes lit up in realization.
"If that Fraga person wasn't working with the Mage's Association, than that means they still don't know where Shirou-tan is!" the hacker crowed triumphantly. Leave it to a fellow refugee to comprehend the intricacies of the situation. "And if they don't know where he is, they aren't hunting him, so Shirou-tan is safe!"
"For now," I corrected the jubilant hacker, trying my best to keep the situation in perspective. Despite my best efforts I couldn't keep a smile from breaking my lips as well. "There's no telling if the Fraga had some kind of backup plan, or if she sent a message to someone or had a coworker of some sort. I still have to keep a low profile and keep an eye out for any other magi, but for now I should be alright."
"Congratulations, Emiya-kun," Miya beamed at me, a smile her eyes crinkled with happiness as the realization that their Ashikabi had some small relief waiting for him spread through the gathered members of my flock.
I was honestly glad for what the news meant for my situation. I had spent weeks constantly aware of the fact that at any moment I could be called away to fight to the death against the members of the Enforcers, wondering if I was being watched, or if the next moment might be my last. It was a tension I was more or less used to and capable of dealing with, but it was still a tension none the less. And now that the tension had finally relaxed, I realized just how much it had been worrying me.
For the first time in weeks I felt, if not completely, than at least mostly at ease.
"Thanks," I told the smiling landlady, scratching the back of my head out of habit as I did so. Still, just because I finally had a stroke of luck is no reason to rest on my laurels. I decided that now was as good a time as any to start the day's chores. "Since I slept too late to do any cooking, I figured now might be a good time for me to sift through the remains of my workshop and see what I can salvage."
"An excellent idea," Miya nodded her expression returning to her usual benevolent smile. "Don't worry about lunch today," she continued, tilting her head slightly to the side. "It has been a while since I've taken a turn to cook, but I'm certain I haven't lost my touch yet."
"Are you sure?" I hedged, not liking the sound of that. When Miya's eyes narrowed, I held up my hands in surrender. "I mean, I'm certain you can cook, but I wouldn't mind putting off the shed until later tonight." I winced slightly. There had been a body in the blaze I was about to root through and it would be a little awkward if I were to unearth some particularly incriminating piece of the corpse at an inappropriate moment. It might be best to wait for after dinner before I began the salvage operation.
Seriously. That was my only reason. I was in no way nervous at the way Miya was trying to cut in on my kitchen time. Not nervous at all.
"Its fine, Emiya-kun," the landlady assured me, her smile growing almost imperceptibly wider as she did so. "You just focus on cleaning up the mess your friend caused." Turning away she began to address Musubi, not giving me time to launch an argument about how last night hadn't been my fault. "In the meantime, perhaps you would like to practice a bit more before you go to the bath, Musub-chan?"
"Of course!" the shrine girl announced instantly, pumping both fists in the air. "One more time, please!"
I frowned as the two separated from the group, a little annoyed and a little worried by the implication that Miya might not let me into the kitchen until the inn was completely fixed. If that really was the case, than she could quite possibly have finally found a punishment for me in lieu of my immunity to her hannya mask.
What a scary thought.
I was dragged from my thoughts as a tugging at my pants reminded me that I still had my youngest Sekirei attached to my leg, the tiny girl beaming up at me with a wide smile when I glanced down towards her.
"Was there something you needed, Kuu-chan?" I asked, wondering if her insistence on being attached to me was a sign of her being just happy to see me or a prelude to her making a request of some sort.
"Onii-chan has magic swords!" Kuu-chan announced, nearly bouncing in her excitement over the revelation.
"Um, yeah," I admitted, my hand once more finding the back of my head as I acknowledged the new modifier to one of Kuu's favorite proclamations.
"Hey, hey, onii-chan," Kuu continued, nearly babbling with a hopeful tone in her voice. "Can onii-chan show Kuu-chan how to use swords too?"
"What?" I repeated, blinking rapidly as I tried to convince myself that I hadn't just heard the request I was actually pretty sure I really had heard.
"Swords!" Kuu repeated unwrapping herself from around my leg so she could make a strange and childish maneuver that resembled a hop and a spin that somehow included running in place and left her standing a few feet in front of me, both hands clenched beneath her chin in excitements as she stared up at my face worshipfully. "Kuu-chan wants to use swords, so when she grows up she can be just like onii-chan!"
"Aw," Uzume cooed, her grin widening. "That's so cute! Little Kuu-chan wants to be just like…" Whatever else she was about to add to her teasing was cut off as a generic ringing noise suddenly emerged from her pants. Jumping slightly in surprise, she shifted, stretching her legs out in front of her so she could snake one of her hands into her pockets and retrieving a thin phone I didn't even know she owned. After giving the screen on the front a quick glance Uzume's smile shrank, transforming into a small grimace.
"Ugh," she moaned, before seeming to remember that she had company at the moment. Quickly her smile reemerged, albeit in a slightly more restrained version. "Sorry guys," she held one hand in front of her face in an apologetic gesture. "Looks like I gotta go take this."
"Sure," I said instantly, moving to help her up. Uzume looked surprised at the offer, but accepted the hand I held out to her. "Well," I continued, speaking to myself out loud. "Looks like I should be heading off now too. Lots of work to be done…"
"Onii-chan!" Kuu demanded from behind me, and Uzume gave me a wry grin as she realized that I had been trying to use her as an excuse to change the subject and escape the very awkward situation that had been developing. "What about Kuu-chan's swords?"
Well, it had been worth a shot.
"Um, about that, Kuu-chan," I began, turning back to the young Sekirei to be greeted by the sight of her hands fisted at her side and her cheeks puffing in childish anger. "It's just that you're a little young for that kind of thing…"
"Fuuuuggghhhh!" I was interrupted by the sound reminiscent of the ground rumbling right before a volcano erupted emerging from the Green Girl's throat. Behind her in the courtyard I couldn't help but notice that several of the cherry trees and flower bushes that Miya cultivated had began to move in an ominous fashion. Hastily I held up a placating hand to try and calm the girl.
"Kuu-chan is still too small to be able to use a real sword," I changed my approach, trying to use reason before the little sprite turned rabid. "I'd have to find some practice swords in your size first."
"Fuhuhuhu," Matsu began to giggle, an actual giggle rather than her perverted one. "Looks like we're about to see an explosion of Kuu-chan's jealousy!"
"Don't you have a computer or something that you need to look at?" I muttered at her from the side of my mouth.
"Kuu-chan is not small!" the tiny girl insisted, stomping her foot childishly. The she twirled away stomping to the edge of the veranda, and for a moment I thought that she was going off in order to find a place to pout. I nearly jumped in surprise when she was greeted by a sudden flourish of green and brown; two sprouts had emerged from the otherwise barren earth beside the porches edge. Reaching out, Kuu wrapped her childish fists around the strange growths and pulled them free of the earth with apparent ease. Wheeling around, she held the two sticks at her side facing upwards.
"Kuu-chan has swords too!" she declared, doing her absolute best to imitate my customary fighting stance.
"Aww," Kazehana cooed as well, imitating Uzume's earlier reaction. "That's so cute!"
"You know," I began, eying the two imitation bokken that the youngest Sekirei had just grown spontaneously. "I had almost forgotten she could do that." It had been so long since I had seen Kusano use her Sekirei powers that it had gotten customary for me to think of her as just a young child, and not a member of an alien species with fantastic abilities. Then I blinked, getting distracted from the revelation of Kuu's otherworldliness. I started to turn around in order to face the unexpected voice that had just spoken. "Wait, when did you get here Kazehana?"
I made it about halfway around before I froze, blushed, and then was forced to spin back to face the other direction, my hands coming up to pinch my nose as I tried not to hyperventilate.
"Good morning, dearest," Kazehana purred in an exuberant tone, apparently very happy with my reaction. When she decided to wrap both her arms around me, pressing herself against my back as her hands closed around my chest in a hug I felt my spine stiffen and my blush increase. "I was planning on waking you up, but it looks like I took too long changing."
"Too long changing?" I repeated, feeling faint. "How can you take long to change into something like that?"
"Oh!" Matsu gasped, pointing at the newcomer behind me with awe on her face. "The legendary Naked Apron!"
I had no idea what made it so legendary, but the title was certainly descriptive. The few seconds I had seen it had been enough for me to confirm that yes, the frilly and loosely tied apron was really the only thing that the luscious wind user was wearing. Large swathes of skin visible along her flanks and around her chest were proof enough of that.
"W-were you planning on cooking something?" I offered somewhat lamely, more in an effort to find something else to think about than just what the warm body pressed against my back was wearing.
"Mmmm," Kazehana blew softly in my ear, sending a shudder down my spine. "Well, there was something I really wanted to make, but only with you, husband," she whispered in my ear, and I had the distinct impression that whatever it was she wanted to make it most likely had very little to do with cooking.
"Is this really appropriate?" I asked, hoping to distract myself from the way the hands on my chest were now beginning to wander. "Especially since Kuu, Matsu, and Akitsu are right there?"
"Matsu doesn't mind," the hacker instantly announced, a flush of her own spreading across her cheeks. "Fuhuhu fuhuhu," she added, once more displaying her old man giggle.
"Jiiiiiii," Kuu added, staring with wide, innocent, and very confused eyes at the unfolding sight before her. She had apparently forgotten about her new makeshift swords and their tips had sunk until they rested on the floor.
"Ah," Akitsu began, before pausing. Though she was still mostly facing the courtyard the snow woman had tilted her head enough for her to take in the scene from the corner of her eyes. "I kind of like that," she finally concluded.
"See," Kazehana continued whispering directly into my ear, one of her legs wrapping around mine. I suppressed a manly 'eep', certain that if I showed weakness now it would be all over. "They don't mind. Now, why don't we go back to our room and I can show you how I was planning to wake you up?"
"Oh dear god," I gulped, my voice shaking as I did so. I thought I knew what seductive was. I thought I was prepared for what it might mean if Kazehana ever joined my harem. What the hell had I been thinking?
"Oh," a new voice interrupted, and I realized that at some point the figure of Miya in the courtyard had disappeared. Musubi was still in the courtyard, hand poised to block an attack that would never come and blinking in surprise as where her sparring partner had apparently vanished mid strike. "God isn't here right now," Miya continued from where I assumed she was standing directly behind Kazehana and I, her voice deceptively cheerful as she did so.
I felt Kazehana stiffen, and then the hands that had been trying to seduce me changed to clutching me in terror. "M-M-Miya," the wind user began, stuttering slightly as I felt her shift to look behind her. "W-when did you get here?"
"Now, now, Kazehana-san," Miya tsked, and even with my eyes locked straight ahead I could still hear the sound of howling wind and clashing wood blocks. "I'm always here when it's time to talk about what is prohibited in Izumo House."
I found myself hoping that I was wrong, and that the Fraga from the night before really did have allies, and that they attacked right this very instant.
Sadly, if they were out there, they had enough common sense not to interfere with Miya when it was time for a lecture.
It was with a relieved feeling that I found myself an hour or so later shifting through the scorched debris which mark the wreckage of the old shed. I had been fortunate enough to have escaped the majority of Miya's displeasure by way of her giving me a five minute lead where she deemed it more important to drag Kazehana back to Uzume's room in order to find something more appropriate for the doomed Sekirei to wear. Me, being the sane and logical being that I was utilized this respite to escape next door and remove myself from the firing range.
At least now I knew what Uzume was laughing about earlier. It seemed that her and Kazehana were giving every impression that they were going to get along great; something which worried me just a little. It had been a while since Uzume had managed to get any of my Sekirei into her cosplay costumes; the only one who regularly dressed up being Kuu, and only in a variety of adorable animal costumes. Now that Kazehana was here, and apparently game, I was giving the new fear of some of the more racy costumes that no doubt existed in the back of the mischievous Veiled Sekirei's closet.
Still, that was a worry for another time. Right now I had another project to occupy my attention with.
"I remember this rotor," I muttered to myself, shaking my head in dismay. "It only exploded on me twice."
Cradled in my hand was yet another of the components to my lost Mystic Code, the unnamed washing machine with which I was committing atrocity in the eyes of competent magi everywhere. It was a small and unassuming thing, blackened heavily by soot and warped by the heat of the flames, but I could still make out a few of the dozens of lines of runes that I had painstakingly etched into it one at a time. This looked like it could still be useful later.
So far since I had begun picking through the mess I had started four official piles to sort any discoveries into. The first pile had thankfully remained completely empty up to this point: the small hole I was planning on throwing anything which might be connected with the dead body which had been here last night. I had ordered Homura to burn everything, and I had been fairly confident that he had been thorough, but that didn't change the fact that there still might be clumps of bones or personal effects which might have made it through the blaze. Nothing would be quite as awkward if something like a skull had survived in recognizable shape and was found later by some innocent passerby. The same could be said for any jewelry or personal effects, things like engraved rings or reinforced pocket watches. I had dug out a small pit that I was planning to toss anything into before surreptitiously using my own magecraft to finish the job immediately.
The second pile was by far the biggest, a fact that I had used to help conceal the hole for the first pile, and it was merely a space for me to dump any junk in a vaguely organized manner: scraps of wood which hadn't burnt all the way down, melted puddles of metal that might have been tools or scraps, and unidentifiable chunks of plastic which probably had similar histories all were tossed together. The third pile was where still salvageable materials were gathering. So far I'd found a hammer which could still be used, a set of wrenches that had came out in perfect condition, of all things a roll of duct tape, and various other treasures. By the time I was done with the salvage I might actually have enough to fill a tool box with the essentials.
The fourth pile was the one which was proving to be interesting: the pile where everything related to my magecraft was being placed. Surprisingly, or perhaps unsurprisingly, a good number of my tomes had managed to survive the inferno virtually untouched by the flames. It made sense, after I stopped to think about it when I discovered the third preserved tome beside chunks of metal which had obviously been rendered unusable. All the books I had related to runes were actually very basic in the end, the kind of thing which only an apprentice would need with any regularly. And the thing about apprentices is that they do tend to have accidents from time to time. It was probably simpler in the long run to put some effort into making sure the rune primers would be able to survive a little accident rather than have to get a new copy every time a first timer accidently blew something up.
The other thing which was proving to be a useful find was the scraps of washing machine that had begun turning up when I started searching through the area most of it had been located in. While the machine itself was missing too many parts, and many of the parts that I had located were too warped from the fire and pressure of the buildings collapse to be usable, they did provide me something else which would be invaluable: my research.
It was no surprise that a good amount of my notes were gone forever, having been nothing more than paper in the first place. The loss of a workshop would be a crippling experience for any magi who focused on the traditional aspects of magecraft. However, for me as a magus killer I was more or less unaffected by the damage. As a magus killer, I was never interested in intricacies and the development of obscure and unusual modicums of data; my research was all functional and thus much similar. More than that, it had always been my intention to find appropriate combinations to make spells which would in some way or another be used in combat, and because of that most of the combinations I had discovered so far that had proven useful I had already memorized and practiced so as to have them become second nature when I needed to use them in the heat of battle. For the more basic uses of runes, the sections of the washing machine still bearing the earlier spell work and fragments of runes would prove useful for helping me reconstruct my earlier experiments.
As for the other two aspects of my research, the damage was almost equally unimportant. Trying to figure out the specifics of my Reality Marble were almost always internal matters, experiments where I tried to adjust my Aria, increase my concentration, practice my tracing speed, and other things which didn't really require much in the way of notation. Moreover, I already had one experience with someone stumbling across any notes on the subject and things going very bad for me afterwards. I was actually considering whether or not I should even begin taking notes on the Unlimited Blade Works again or just keep all my new research internalized.
In regards to my research in Sekirei, it wasn't like I was making much progress there either. The only thing I think I'll regret in those lines of study was the loss of the place where Akitsu and I had our first time, and that's mostly just due to practicality. My workshop really would have been the best place to go if any of my other Sekirei were intending to engage in intimacy with me, and I wasn't relishing how having a half a dozen mature members of the species all feeling frustrated due to the inherent difficulties they were forced to endure when trying to seduce me with Miya around was going to turn out.
"At least now I can be fairly certain that there won't be any more additions to the crowd," I muttered to myself, picking up a jagged sheet of metal that at one point had been inscribed with runes designed to heat water. "I'm already out of days of the week."
"Well," a sly voice broke in, causing my spine to stiffen from where I was still leaning over the latest piece of scrap, "guess it was a good thing that I went with the other Ashikabi then isn't it, Minato-chan?"
"Karasuba," I responded, the name both an identification and a greeting. "Is it really such a good idea to tempt me when I'm surrounded by ammunition?"
I was pleased that my voice managed to come out so casual, despite the frantic pace my heart had assumed. Part of my accelerated heart rate was over the fact that for some reason I kept having trouble sensing Karasuba coming like I could other Sekirei; MBI's Dog's scent was just so similar to Miya's that when the landlady was around she completely masked the Black Sekirei's power with her own.
The other part had to do with the fact that the enforcer of the Sekirei Plan was apparently watching me as I riffled through wreckage that may or may not still have pieces of a body littered through it.
"Ammunition?" Karasuba responded, a playful tone in her voice. "Whatever do you mean, Minato-chan?"
"And this is your last warning," I told her, my voice dry as I did so.
"Of course, of course. I'll stop now," she assured me, her voice casual and relaxed. For a second I thought she might possibly have meant it, but then with even more amusement in her tone she continued, "Mina-"
Cutting her off halfway through I spun, taking in the sight of her as she leaned casually against the inside of the fence furthest away from Izumo House proper. Karasuba was in the only clothing I'd ever seen her in, barring Musubi's bathrobe, both arms crossed under her modest breasts and one leg bent so she could rest the flat of her foot against the fence behind her. Despite the fact that this time she had her long nodachi sheathed and resting against her hip, the hilt being clutched lightly in one hand to keep the weapon ready, I took aim, letting a thin trickle of od flow into the battered piece of scrap metal in my hand, and then I threw the steel fast at the interloper's head.
Karasuba's grin widened and she dodged, moving only the slightest amount she had to in order to get out of the way of the impromptu projectile. With a solid 'thunk' the Altered metal buried itself only inches away from the swordswoman's ear.
"You know," Karasuba said, not even letting the impromptu attempt on her life phase her as she gave the quivering projectile a casual glance, "I never get tired of seeing you do that."
"Good morning to you too, Karasuba," I told her, straightening up from the pseudo-crouch my attack had left me in. A casual glance of my own assured me of the fact that there was nothing too incriminating exposed at the moment, though in the interest of keeping it that way it might be a good idea if I took a break for the duration of this visitation. "Did you like the fruit basket I sent?"
Karasuba laughed, the sound surprisingly feminine from the bloody warrior, her eyes crinkled in her usual expression of good humor. "Well, you can imagine that we were all a bit surprised when it showed up I'm sure," she admitted. She shook her head slightly at the memory, still smiling. "It took security nearly two hours before they were willing to admit that it wasn't some kind of bomb, or poisoned, or a hidden attack of some sort."
"It was probably the note," I admitted with a shrug. "You think it might have been over the top when I congratulated you on number eighty six?" Eighty six had been the number whose Ashikabi decided that getting a little payback on his exes was an acceptable use of his mate's abilities.
"Maybe a little, but it is nice to see my hard work being appreciated every once in a while," Karasuba admitted with a shrug. One of her eyes opened a bit more, peering out at me from beneath her bangs as she did so. "How did you know I like apples, by the way?"
"I asked Musubi," I confessed, rolling my shoulders as I started to make my way closer her. I could still hear the noises of sparring coming no more than a few dozen yards away, and if I remembered correctly Miya didn't exactly get along with Karasuba that well. It made sense for MBI to send someone to investigate last night's little blip with their systems, and the best option at the moment was to cooperate with the interrogator rather than pick a fight. It was probably best to keep my flock from interrupting, seeing as how Karasuba makes most of them very nervous. "I wasn't certain what the others would like though, so I improvised."
"Well, Haihane certainly seemed to enjoy the bananas," Karasuba recalled, apparently not having any problems with sharing details. "And Natsuo used the pineapple for one of his cocktails later on. It doesn't look like Benitsuba was too happy with the gift though."
"Haihane and Benitsuba," I muttered, trying to recall the details of the name. "The Blue and Crimson Sekirei, weren't they? Did she just not like the selection?"
"Not precisely," Karasuba's grin got wider though she made no effort to question me on my knowledge of the Disciplinary Squad. "You see, once the basket came, Natsuo decided to do a little investigating over who would be sending fruit. Once he found your record, well, it looks like he's taken a bit of an interest in you. Benitsuba didn't like that."
"Oh?" I tried to make my response as casual as I could even as I tensed. "Well, if I'm to be targeted by the Disciplinary Squad this early in the game, I suppose that will give you a chance to fight Musubi soon enough." I tried to keep my comment from appearing like a probe for information, even as my mind raced to consider the implications of her statement. If I had known the gesture of good will would make me a target, I would have tried to be more discreet.
"Not that kind of target," Karasuba corrected me in a knowing tone. She leaned forward as though to share a juicy secret. "It looks like my Ashikabi might have a bit of a crush on you."
"Your Ashikabi?" I repeated, still pondering the implications of being a target when her words caught up to me. "W-wait," I stuttered holding up my hands to stop the conversation. "Isn't your Ashikabi a male?"
Karasuba nodded, looking entirely too pleased by this development. "He was quite excited when he discovered that you already had a male Sekirei of your own," she continued, and I groaned, sinking my head into my hand in embarrassment despite that meaning I took my eyes off of a dangerous creature. "Since Benitsuba still has hopes of 'showing Natsuo the light', she was a little upset."
"You know," I began, groaning into my hands. "Its times like these which make me certain that there is some kind of higher power watching over the world, and that at some point in my past I must have offended it greatly." It wouldn't surprise me at all if that higher power was Archer, and the jerk had somehow managed to find a way to use his status as a Counter Guardian in such a petty way.
"Hmmm," Karasuba hummed, still sounding entirely too amused at my expense. "It's enough to make me wonder just what someone as 'peaceful' as you could have done to deserve it, Shiroi-kun."
I glanced up sharply at the emphasis she put on 'peaceful', taking note in the back of my head that while the blood soaked Sekirei still was refusing to use my real name she was at least no longer calling me by my birth name. "And what's that supposed to mean?"
"Oh, nothing," she answered in a casual voice. "It's just that recently the forums that MBI monitors to look out for dissidents have started to have some interesting rumors." The blood stained Sekirei pushed herself up off the wall, the first time she'd made any overt movement since she had shown up, and began to pace almost idly along the edge of the fence. I noted that for all her nonchalance she was making sure to keep as much distance between her and the rest of Izumo House as she could as well as avoiding the open hole I had put in the fence the night before. It seemed she was also trying to keep this just between the two of us. "Something about an Ashikabi with swords that is actually a demon disguised as a human that devours souls or something."
"Well, that sounds like the kind of person I should avoid," I told her, trying my best to keep a good poker face on even though I was pretty sure it was pointless. There was no way that Karasuba would have brought it up if she wasn't already suspicious. "If I ever come across someone so scary I'll be sure to send for you right away."
Karasuba's innocent smile slipped, changing briefly into something that carried an almost predatory air to it. Her lips were still curled, and her teeth still covered, but the effect was much different than what it was before. The overall impression might have been helped by the change in the Sekirei's eyes: just like with Miya whenever the landlady was giving something a serious evaluation Karasuba's eyes opened all the way, locking on me and searching me carefully for something though I wasn't quite sure what. I matched her gaze, preparing to defend myself if my attempt at flippancy had been enough to provoke this more intense version of the normally smiling killer.
Then the moment was gone, and the walking genocide in front of me was once more wearing a peaceful appearance.
"Well, that's a relief," she told me, cocking her head to the side in a gesture which seemed to indicate indifference. "I was wondering if maybe somebody had run into this new guy last night." MBI's Dog gave the lot an obvious once over, lingering pointedly on the wreckage I had been sorting before she arrived. "After all, there was apparently some kind of glitch in the mainframe last night. Would you believe that up until right around dawn the system still had that little hovel standing just fine?"
"What an amazing thing," I told her, my voice monotonous as I did so. "Maybe you should see about getting your system checked?"
"Well, they spent most of the morning diagnosing it just to be sure," Karasuba admitted freely before pausing at one particular area along her path, glancing downwards bemusedly. I suppressed a twitch when I realized that she was looking at: one of the gouged craters left over from the Crane Wing Three Realm. "Still, the Director seems to think that there might have been outside influences involved." With a helpless shrug that managed to convey just how little she actually cared, Karasuba continued, moving on from the gouged earth. "He asked me to check around a bit, see what or who I could dig up. After all," she glanced at me from over her shoulder, a movement which actually looked coquettish from her angle, "there aren't many people that could get past MBI's firewall."
I grit my teeth before forcing myself to stop before they made any noise. I could hear what she was saying loud and clear, and though it did answer a few lingering questions, the intent behind it was obvious. There probably weren't many humans that could get into MBI's information and even less Sekirei who could manage to do the same. In fact, there were only two Sekirei with the qualifications that hadn't been terminated yet, and one of them lived right here.
They knew where Matsu was. Of course they knew where she was, after all, she had a tracking chip in her. Despite their intelligence however they still had made no effort to reclaim her regardless of her fugitive status. There could be two reasons for that. The first, they simply didn't want to risk an encounter with Miya, a perfectly logical course of actions.
The second, they simply didn't care what the hacker was doing. Despite having committed some kind of offense worthy of an initial effort to capture her, Matsu was now being allowed to roam freely anyway. I could think of a dozen reasons why they might have given up on capturing her or decided to move on to more important targets, but none of them stuck out in my head particularly.
Whatever the case was, I had to say something back to the waiting Karasuba.
"Have you tried Higa of the East?" I supplied, shamelessly taking advantage of the situation. "I hear that he has a Sekirei with some pretty mean talent for that kind of thing."
It only seemed fair. Higa kept trying to target me ever since I stopped his movements against Tsukiumi; spreading dangerous rumors, offering a bounty, things like that. Now it was my turn to send a little trouble his way.
It's just that the trouble I was directing was more likely to work than his had.
"Hmm," Karasuba hummed, finally unfolding her arms as she paused at another spot on the fence, a spot I realized was stained a dark brownish red. It was where Miya had been thrown last night after her wounding, the first blood she had ever lost staining the earth beneath Karasuba's eyes. "Well, I suppose I should check out that potential lead," she declared, her eyes lazily tracking back to where I was standing and trying to look innocent.
"You should be careful," I encouraged her, nodding my head sagely. "That Higa has a tendency to be violent. You might want to have your sword ready, and shouldn't think twice about cutting down anyone that gets in your way."
For a moment Karasuba paused to study me, her eyes unlidding once more as she took in my admonishment. Then, she began to chuckle, her eyes closing as she did so. "Oh? Are you saying that I should show Higa my own special brand of intimidation, Shiroi-chan?" she asked between chuckles, apparently finding my encouragement to make her visit to the East as bloody as possible to be borderline uproarious.
"It's the only way to get the point across for some people," I told her piously. With a quick glance towards the inn, I leaned in conspiratorially. "Afterwards, as a thanks for all of your hard work, I'll send another basket. This time, I'll include some pastries."
"Hmmm," Karasuba hummed, shaking her head side to side in disbelief at my shameless attempt at bribery. "Now, I'm fairly certain that bribery is something that I, as the head of the Disciplinary Squad should be ab-," she began, before I cut her off.
"I have a recipe for apple tarts," I told her, taking advantage of her recent revelation of a like for apples. Karasuba paused for a moment, and I sweetened the deal. "Delicious apple tarts, with cinnamon."
"Only you, Shiroi-chan," she muttered shaking her head as she did so at the presumption of my offer. For a moment Karasuba seemed to consider the matter carefully before she began to make her way back to the entrance she had originally used, shifting her grip on her sword as she did so. "You better include something with strawberries, too," she told me, and I knew that once more the power of baked goods truly was one of the most powerful forces in the universe. "Benitsuba loves them and it might be enough to stop her whining."
"Deal," I told her, nodding in agreement. "Always a pleasure doing business with you, Karasuba-san."
"You know," she muttered, shaking her head as she smiled as she continued making her way back to the gate leading from the lot to the street, "I honestly think you mean that."
It appeared that the concept of someone enjoying her presence was enough to honestly surprise her. Despite that revelation, it looked like I had officially either been dismissed as the cause of last night's electronic incident or the idea of spilling blood was too much for her to resist any more as she made her way off the property.
Karasuba paused before making her final exit, her warning delivered and her curiosity satisfied. Slowly, with the hand not cradling her nodachi she reached up, gently running her hand down the length of steel which still sat buried in the fence where her head had once been. With her back to me, she glanced over her shoulder, an innocent look on her face as she did so.
"You're an interesting person, Minato Sahashi," she told me bluntly. Still looking at me, she carefully grasped the improvised weapon, tugging it firmly out of the fence as she did so. "I'll be taking this," she continued. "It will fit right in with my collection."
"Call me Minato one more time and I'll be happy to add a few more for you," I told her bluntly, gesturing with one hand towards the piles of scrap and all the sharp objects that still remained in arm's reach.
With a final chuckle and a shake of her head, Karasuba turned away. "I'll be looking forward to those tarts of yours," she told me, waving the newly claimed scrap metal over her head in parting.
"Have a safe trip," I told her in return, watching her disappear around the corner of the fence.
The moment her presence disappeared, I let my enforced relaxation slip as I contemplated the implications of this unexpected meeting. For all the civility of it, there was no shortage of ominous overtones packed into the few minutes she had stuck around to talk.
On my part, I now had confirmation that MBI was definitely aware of Matsu's location and wase willing to look the other way for the most part. More than that, I knew that I was under both official and unofficial scrutiny by the Disciplinary Squad, but that the unit as a whole mostly appeared to look favorably on me at least.
And on Karasuba's part, she had learned that whatever battle here had been heated enough to carve gouges out of the earth in various irregular patterns, and that someone had gotten badly injured at the very least. I had no idea what she would do with that information though. Despite her position, I had no way of knowing just how devoted Karasuba was to her official duty or MBI at all: after all, she had just accepted a bribe from a competitor designed to use her to weaken another competitor. Not exactly the most sterling example of neutrality out there.
Whatever the case was, I decided I'd make it a point to brush up on the apple tart recipe as much as possible in the next few days.