In Flight: The Forty First Wing
Author's Notes: Well, here it is, chapter 41. Typically, the first part of my notes is the review response, and that's pretty easy to handle in this case.
Either you loved the last chapter, or you hated it so much you'll never read In Flight again. If you're in the later, well, you're not going to be seeing this author's notes, are you?
Anyway, no surprise there. I already knew the direction I would take In Flight in would get some pretty hot reactions. A lot of people have strong feelings about the story. Several very old and faithful readers have admitted on the forums that they would be giving up the story, but they gave their reasons, and I respect them. A story is meant to be enjoyed, and if you're not enjoying it, there are other things to read. Good luck and good will to them, and thanks for being this far along with me. A lot of other readers had positive reactions, and to you, thanks as well.
Now, on to the spoiler alert section.
And just for the sake of redundancy.
This is it. This chapter was always meant to be the emotional climax of In Flight. I went in to the story with this confrontation planned pretty much from the first, and I did it for a reason. IF was always a way for me to seriously examine the harem genre with the darker overtones of a more serious universe as highlights. I wanted to give a serious and realistic presentation of a genre which normally just ends up being a wanking ground for readers to just enjoy some happy escape from reality moments. Much like with Homura, I wanted to give a serious take on some mostly abused themes.
Whether or not it worked or I was just deluding myself is up to you the reader.
As for specific scenes:
The fight between Shirou, Saber, and Rin. I wanted it to be fast and dirty, and painful for everyone involved. No happy words, no sudden deus ex machina. Just a hard end to a hard situation. I wanted this fight to be a pretty much iconic scene of 'you can only hurt those you love'. As in, swords and magic hurts, not just emotional pain. They all knew each other, they all knew the best way to hurt the other, and they all would gladly do so if it would let them help the other after.
The next scene. I wanted to try and emphasize how badly damaged Shirou was after the fight. Part of it was to help cut away from Shirou's pseudo status as untouchable. He has so far managed to win every fight, mostly with good planning and judicious use of magecraft, but he's come off as having no real antagonist, no real threat he had to overcome that could seriously challenge him. I wanted to take that perfect image, and shatter it. He made it out, but it cost him an arm and left him damaged and broken afterwards.
Also, at long last, the ever present running gag of 'the mask' proves that it was never a running gag at all and was instead Chekhov's gag! An important element of the plot that would let him overcome one of his most desperate opponents at the last moment through serious application!
Also, Shirou finally hitting Karasuba with a projectile was another one of those scenes that had been with me from the beginning.
Finally, Shirou and Kazehana. I said long ago, that I kept Kazehana in the line up for a reason. This is it. Kazehana was always supposed to be a revelation to Shirou, a final means of understanding to him about the true nature of the Sekirei. Kazehana, a mature and sexual creature who meets Shirou's somewhat cold and methodical approach on life, and how it affects him. She was supposed to be his epiphany of what physical love meant.
Maybe I just take my stories way to seriously, but like Homura I thought Sekirei took several themes which could really have been meaningful and disregarded them for genre antics. The Sekirei's bond was something that I thought if played properly could be just as interesting and meaningful as any of the endless tidbits of lore that the Nasu-verse had in it.
Anyway, just to clear up a bit of confusion.
I seemed to have put out a bit in my Author's Notes earlier that some people seemed to interpret as this being the last chapter. It isn't. I meant this was the last chapter of the 'Rin Saber' arc.
There is one last story arc planned. Should be three chapters, planned at this point, but if I have trouble fleshing out scenes, have sudden inspiration, or just find a really good cliffhanger point that I want to use, it might be extended a bit.
Yeah. I really like cliffhangers!
Anyway, In Flight is drawing to a close, no matter how much I tease my readers with nerve-wracking breaks.
So for this chapter in particular, as always:
Questions or concerns? A forum chapter will be up as soon as I post this chapter. Just want to make a comment? Reviews are read. And as always, dear reader:
"I see you've been here before," Rin noted idly, taking in the massive crater and shattered trees which marked Osaka Park. "This doesn't look like your usual aftermath though."
"Musubi did the crater," I admitted. We had arrived, and even though we should soon be leaving our own scars here I had to admit that the damage in the light was even more impressive than at night. "And Tsukiumi was the one who did the trees."
"I see," Rin muttered, still looking around. Her eyes narrowed at being shown proof of some of the capabilities of the Sekirei as a whole.
"There is a bit of an Archibald buried around here somewhere," I admitted, scratching my head idly. "And I'd be careful of that spot over there. I had to dispose of some mercury there."
"An Archibald?" Rin frowned, giving the area I indicated a level look. Suddenly, she grinned slightly. "Waver did seem pretty happy about something a few months back. I guess I should pass on his thanks."
"So this is your chosen dueling ground," Saber noted, calmly looking around the clearing with a practiced eye. She dug her foot into the ground, feeling the consistency of the earth even as she started marking various obstacles that appeared. The King was preparing herself for the fight.
"So just how many traps have you set up?" Rin asked casually, sounding for all the world like she was curious and not probing me for information.
"Oh, a few," I shrugged, just as casually lying back to her. Honestly, the only magecraft I had ever used on this area were a few runes to encourage people to avoid it. I didn't want to leave a minefield for someone with an unusually strong will that really wanted to take a walk in this crappy park to stumble on. But that didn't mean that I couldn't make Rin a little cautious. Her taking a moment to second guess a position might make the difference later on.
Conversation trailed off after that, the three of us silent as no one was quite sure what to say. I had separated from the two, instinctively putting distance between us as I automatically prepared for the fight. Rin had put Saber between me and her, allowing the swordswoman to take point as she assumed the best position for a magus in this battle. The silence grew for a few moments, before Rin finally sighed.
"Well," she declared matter-of-factly, "Let's get this over with then."
"Right," I nodded as well, before facing Saber directly. "Arturia Pendragon!" I snapped, my voice raised but firm. "I challenge you to a duel!"
Saber stiffened, her eyes flashing, and then she started to smile ever so slightly. "I see," she murmured, sounding pleased. "Well planned, Shirou."
"Why so formal?" Rin began, putting a hand casually on her hip as she did so, and then a moment later her eyes widened as she realized something. "You," she muttered, glaring at me. "You have gotten more perceptive."
"Stand forth and fight, King of Knights," I declared, deciding to make the challenge as formal as I could. "Let us test our valor and courage, in honorable single combat."
Eye of the mind, true: a skill brought about by experience, the ability to perceive even the smallest chance of victory, and to greatly increase the chance winning even in hopeless situations.
And a hopeless situation was pretty much exactly where I was.
The fact of the matter was that I was outclassed, in nearly every way possible. I had made a lot of strides in my magecraft since the first time I fought against Rin in the Grail War, but then again, Rin hadn't been standing still either. She was a genius in every way, and two years in the Clock Tower studying, experimenting, and growing had probably helped her advance even faster than I had been able to. If it came down to a fight, I might out match her physically, and I was probably better at combat in general, but Rin had her own mysteries, and no magus ever shares all their mysteries; not with their apprentice, not with their coworkers, not even with their lovers.
Combat with Rin would come down to me being able to close quick enough to stop her from preparing one of her longer Arias, and even then it might not be enough. After all, she did have the Tousaka Magic Crest: every one of those little glowing lines on her arm was a mystery, one that was already prepared and just needed to be activated. Not to mention there was no way of knowing just how many of those empowered jewels she had on her at this point. Every one of those had been prepared, carefully charged with od over the course of months, even years, and most of them were charged enough to be considered 'A' class, a magnitude of power that would even be able to affect Saber despite her innate resistance.
And that wasn't including Saber herself: a Heroic Spirit of the knight class. Just by her vary nature she was inclined to surpass me in nearly every physical trait. Add on to that the immense skill that she had as a Servant of the Sword, not to mention her Noble Phantasms, and it was a fight which I had only the slimmest chance of winning. Her magic resistance meant that any type of true magecraft that I might even bother to attempt would be brushed aside, leaving me only my sword techniques and she had been the one who had helped me develop them in the first place.
Alone, either one of them would be an enemy that I might not be able to beat. Together, my loss was nearly assured.
If it is an opponent you can't match in real life, first beat it in your imagination. And as a Faker, I was very good at imagining. Maybe that was the source of my eye of the mind, true.
The first step to being able to win was to make sure that I was fighting them one at a time. And there was no way Saber's pride as a King and a Knight would allow her to pass up on a direct challenge. Now I just had to beat a pseudo-divine spirit of swordswoman whose legendary skill with a sword had caused her name to be echoed for centuries in one on one battle.
Well, it was a start I guess.
"Saber," Rin declared giving the Servant a quick look. "I don't suppose you'd be willing to turn that duel down?"
"Rin," Saber answered her Master calmly, giving the magus a blunt look. "You know that chivalry demands I meet his challenge. Do not request me to do something so dishonorable again." It was unusual for the swordswoman to take such a blunt tone with the magus, and Rin sighed, palming her forehead as she accepted the fact that she wouldn't be able to stop Saber from fighting me alone.
"Well played, Emiya-kun," she murmured, eyes narrowed as she began to back up, distancing herself from the two of us. "I guess this won't be as easy as I thought."
Well, I had succeeded in the first part of my plan. I had had most of last night and the trip over here to go over strategies for facing Rin and Saber. It looks like things were going as expected.
"Shirou," Saber began, turning back to me. "Before we begin, I wish to tell you something."
"And that is?" I asked politely, slowly backing up as I tried to put some distance between us. When the duel started I would need every inch I could get.
"Though I understand the need for you to remain, that does not mean that I approve of it," she told me. "As a King I too have had to make choices such as this, the needs of the many against the needs of the few. And as a King, I approve of your choice to try and preserve as many lives as possible."
I had little doubt that she did. In a way, Saber and I were alike in that regard, two self-sacrificing fools who could do nothing more than try to help all around us, regardless of what it cost us.
Even as she spoke though, the air turned heavy and I could sense the cool rush of od in the air as Saber gleamed, light flashing over her. It only lasted a heartbeat, but once it was done the plain blouse and skirt were gone, and the Saber I had grown familiar with in the Grail War stood before me, looking regal in her blue armor and skirts. In her hand, already held low and ready, the Sword of Promised Victory gleamed.
"However," Saber continued, a scowl appearing on her face. "Like Rin, it seems I too have limits to my nobility in regards to your presence. I will not hold back in this match. I will do all that is in my power to bring you back to us."
Maybe I wasn't the only one changing over time, if even Saber would admit something so against her nature. Still, I understood her intent. Challenging her honor alone would have been enough to have her fully commit to this fight, and she wouldn't have held back on me, one warrior to another, but if she was motivated as a woman too that would only make this fight harder.
Still, I needed her off guard. Every second will count in the upcoming match.
"Were the things you had to eat to regain prana really that bad?" I asked her, trying to sound casually curious.
"Yes," Saber grimaced, her eyes closing only for a moment as she probably recalled something particularly foul.
It was in that moment, when her eyes were closed, that the hammer in my head went down. In both hands I was holding steel, Kanshou and Bakuya already firmly locked in my thoughts. Besides the two in my hand, another set of the same swords appeared behind me, launching towards the grimacing King even as they shimmered into existence.
Despite attacking while she wasn't looking, despite the speeds that the first set of my swords were moving, in the space of one second and the next she blurred. Almost as though she had already known where the attack would come from Excalibur flashed, a golden arc as the light and dark blades were deflected. They were sent spinning away, careening through the clearing, and then Saber was moving.
There was no way this would have been a normal fight, regardless of me calling it a duel. Saber had spent two years beside me as I learned how to fight, and she knew my style inside and out. Not only would she outmatch me physically, she would be able to anticipate my every move. More than that, she also knew my magecraft. She had been there when I had developed the 'Body of Swords', and she knew better than to allow me time to line myself with steel. So she charged, kicking off clouds of dust as she covered the ground between us at frightening speed.
I managed to force od into my body, Reinforcing it to move fast enough to react. Saber had made it halfway between us by the time I got the set of Kanshou and Bakuya in my hands up, launching them at her. Just as easily as she had the first time, she brushed them aside, before twitching slightly as the first launched Bakuya cut through the air beside her. There was no way she could have seen that coming, but like me Saber also had an eye of the mind, though hers was false.
The false eye of the mind was nearly the exact opposite of mine, the ability to instinctively just know the flow of the battle without having to analyze it. It reminded me of the pre-cognizance that always seemed to let my Sekirei escape injuries that they couldn't have seen coming with no other damage to them but their clothes.
Even as she dodged, I felt prana focus on her, and between one instant and the next her speed nearly doubled. Prana Burst, the ability to simply take power and force it into her body, increasing her abilities tremendously. In a way it functioned much like my Reinforcement, though it was much more efficient. Saber knew of my Crane Wing Three Realm technique, and it looked like she was trying to prevent me from having time to prepare the final two blades I needed for it.
She was nearly in striking distance when her eyes widened. I could imagine the sudden intake of breath when she saw the weapon I was forming
The sword that was forming in my hand was not another set of Bakuya and Kanshou.
I had considered several different strategies for fighting Saber. I had toyed with the idea of using Fragarach, but decided it would most likely be ineffective. The Sword of the Gorging War God was only truly dangerous when it was countering an enemy's strongest move. Unless Saber was willing to use Excalibur as a Noble Phantom, an unlikely occurrence, it would only be able to release a 'D' class counterstrike. With the degradation that happened in traced weapon, that would have ended up more 'E' class than anything else. Saber would probably have been able to just shrug it off. The same was true for many of my Noble Phantoms. They would either be ineffective, or like in the case of Gae Bolg, too effective for a match where I didn't want to kill my opponent.
However, there was one weapon I knew, or perhaps, one swordsman I knew of, that had been able to match Saber, to even stop her in her tracks not just once but twice.
Monohoshizao, the Laundry Drying Pole, once wielded by the Servant Assassin, Kojirou Sasaki, shimmered into existence. Too late, Saber realized that she had fallen into my trap.
It was no surprise. Even the thought of using Monohoshizao probably never even occurred to her. The enormous nodachi wasn't even technically a Noble Phantom. It was just a sword that had once been wielded by a skilled swordsman. It didn't have any special property or true ability. What had made the sword dangerous had been the swordsman who used it, who had perfected a skill so godlike that it even surpassed that of what Servants could accomplish.
There was no way Saber would have anticipated me of using this weapon. A year ago, it would have just been a lump of steel in my hand. However, that was before I had found my magecraft miraculously boosted by the affection of no less than seven psychic aliens.
I focused hard, driving my mind into the fifth and sixth step of tracing: sympathizing with the experience of growth and reproducing the accumulated years. I felt like something in my brain was burning as I forced my comprehension to grow, to remember how the sword had been held, how it had been wielded. My body moved, unconsciously reproducing a stance. Yes… it was held like this… and then it was moved in just this fashion… But only when the ground was flat…
Monohoshizao glimmered where I held it by my head, both hands on the hilt. "Hiken! Tsubame Gaeshi!" I shouted, and the sword moved in the path of the 'Concealed Sword: Swallow Reversal', sometimes called 'The Swallow Cutter' in modern texts. It was a skill so perfect that it transcended the concept of space and time, momentarily imitating even the Second Sorcery, a blow reflected through dimensions to become three simultaneous cuts.
Well. It should have been. In the hands of the original user it had been an inescapable technique. For me though, just like with all my other swords, it was just a fake. My body was too slow, too clumsy, and even if the sword knew the path, I wasn't able to follow it, not completely. Instead of three inescapable strikes, I only managed two, and my mortal body failed to match the speed and strength that the Heroic Spirit who had utilized the technique could handle. It would most likely still be too much for any modern swordsman to block.
Against Saber, it just wasn't enough.
The moment she saw the sword, saw me settling into my stance, her speed increased yet again. She knew just what this technique did, just how dangerous it was. Even if I was an amateur with it, she reacted instantly, focusing her full attention on stopping the blow. She darted in, stepping closer and low as one of the strikes went high, and Excalibur was up to block the second.
Then she countered.
Maybe it was just her experience with Tsubame Gaeishi prompting her to strike seriously, or maybe it was her false eye of the mind prompting her instinctively to lash out at a weak point, but all I felt was one quick hot lance of pain as Excalibur bit into my left arm just above the elbow, the sharpness of the legendary blade barely slowing in my human flesh, and then it was through me, my arm severed and tumbling through the air.
I ignored it. It didn't matter. What did matter, was that in that one moment where I was using the Swallow Cutter, all of Saber's attention was on me, her full focus on surviving the legendary technique.
She was so focused on it, that she didn't even notice the first copy of Kanshou that I had launched returning until it struck, burying itself into her back, cutting through her spine.
She grunted, eyes widening but still focused as she lost the ability to control her feet. Heroic Spirits were spiritual creatures, true, but even if they were mystic in nature their bodies still reacted like a normal human. The blade in her spine had the same effect on her that it would have on a normal human, paralyzing her below where it had cut. She tumbled, the speed of her charge sending her careening to the ground as she no longer could control herself, passing me by even as I took the step necessary for the Swallow Cutter, the two of us crossing in one swift movement like something out of some samurai drama.
Even as Saber tumbled, I grit my teeth, forcing myself to move. I had stopped her with that move, yes, but only for now. As a Heroic Spirit she would be able to use prana to heal, and if she got the sword out of her quick enough she could be back on her feet in a matter of moments. The healing would be costly with Rin normally being the one who provided mana, but we had been together last night and I had, er, dedicated generously at the time just like I used to. She would have more than enough power to pull herself back together.
I twisted, the hand I still had gripping Monohoshizao tightly, and I caught sight of Saber rolling through the dirt. She had been moving so fast that she hadn't finished tumbling, but as she fell the hand not holding Excalibur was reaching for the part of Kanshou that had come out through the front of her armor. She was even now starting to push it back out.
She managed to get it a quarter of the way free before I got close enough to lay the edge of Monohoshizao against her neck. She froze, eyes darting up to meet mine.
The arm she had cut off made an audible thump as it finally hit the ground, the only sound in the silence which had settled on the clearing.
The two of us stared at each other, and I noted distantly that I was panting. Even if the entire match had literally lasted only a matter of seconds, I still felt a surge of exhaustion hit me like a hammer. My head ached, and I wondered clinically if maybe I hadn't managed to damage something up there while trying to replicate Tsubame Gaeshi. It didn't matter, it would heal later.
We both knew each other too well, and I was too outmatched to make this a fencing battle. I had only had one chance, to win on the first move using an unexpected tactic before she was able to wear me down and beat me. It had cost me my arm, but considering who I was fighting I would have to say the price had been cheap.
Finally, despite the fact that she had just cut off my arm, that I had just impaled her, Saber smiled at me. It was strangely gentle, yet proud.
"Well done, Shirou," Saber complimented me. "You've come a long way since the boy in the dojo."
"Thank you," I told her, remembering those early days, when Saber had chastised me for ever thinking of facing a Heroic Spirit in combat before starting to teach me how to handle a sword. "It's thanks to you."
"Not me," Saber disagreed, eyes closing briefly. "You have done well." She had always been a little disappointed that I had started imitating Archer, even back then, rather than follow her own style. Finally, she sighed briefly, opening her eyes again and giving me a look that was somehow still majestic, even smeared with dirt, and lying on the ground, and with a sword sticking out of her. "I surren…"
Mid word, something struck me hard, a concentrated force similar to the impact of a bean bag shot out of a gun. Nausea struck me, my head spinning with gut wrenching speed, a haze of red settling on my sight. My stomach churned, bile rising in my throat, and my limb ached, a vicious brutal pain that seemed to spread through me like lightning.
Then two more impacts happened, and everything bad just got worse.
I fell, the force knocking me sideways, and even before I hit the ground I was heaving, vomiting. My head was spinning so hard I could barely think straight, the confusion so debilitating that I couldn't even brace myself, Monohoshizao disappearing as I lost the ability to focus enough to keep the blade in existence. I couldn't be sure, but I think my convulsions were so strong that I lost control of my bowels.
I hit the earth, and with eyes so blurry I could only barely make it out I found myself looking at Rin, where she had circled the battle. Her Magic Crest was bared, and the arm it was on was lifted so she could point at me.
"Well," I heard her declare, tone cool. "Maybe it will be as easy as I thought."
I was still heaving, but I managed to stutter out between the wretches. "G-gandr?"
Gandr: an old Scandinavian curse cast by pointing the finger at the target. It had the effect of worsening the targets condition, making sickness spread and strengthening any illness already present. It was one of Rin's specialties, her skill with the curse so strong that she could effectively make it physically damaging and cause a victim to sicken even when they were otherwise healthy, a level of the technique sometimes known as 'Fin Shot'.
And apparently, I realized through the cotton and glass now stuck where my brain used to be, I had just been hit by it three times.
"Rin!" Saber snapped, and I think that the blade in her back was gone, just like Monohoshizao. The swordswoman had pushed herself up, still not able to properly move her legs as she struggled to an upright position. "How dare you!"
"I waited until the duel was over," Rin announced, already striding over to where the two of us were laying on the ground.
"That is true," Saber bit her lips, giving me a tight look. "But was it necessary to strike with such force?" I twitched, still heaving, but there really wasn't anything left in me at this point. I scrabbled at the ground, trying to get back up, but fell back over as I lost my balance.
Right. I only had one hand. The thought only seemed a distant curiosity, something that just drifted through the malaise of my existence.
"You're one to talk," Rin shot back to the swordswoman as she glared at Saber. Despite her tone, she reached down, one hand coming to rest on the wound in Saber's stomach. Saber twitched, but then she started to move her legs as the magus gave her the energy she needed to heal. "You cut his arm off!"
"That was a duel! It would have been disrespectful to fight with less than my utmost strength," Saber sounded defensive, glancing away sharply. "I would have supplied Avalon with prana later to heal it!"
"And he'll get over the Gandr just fine with enough time," Rin threw back at her.
I could barely follow their words. My body twitched and shook as I tried again to push myself back up. I managed to make it to all fours, all threes I corrected myself deliriously, but a particularly strong convulsion shuttered through me, and I collapsed back down on my face. The ground was muddy, a mixture of vomit and blood from my wound making the dirt viscous and splattering over my clothes.
"Are you still trying to get up?" Rin demanded, pulling the now fully healed Saber to her feet. "I forgot how stubborn you could be sometimes."
My consciousness was fading, but I managed to lift my head, and even if my vision was blurry I think that the magus looked exasperated. It was getting harder and harder to think as the curse continued to eat away at my thoughts, replacing them with just more feelings of illness. I… what had I been doing? Why was I trying to get back up?
"Another one will put you out for sure." The blur in front of me raised the blob that should be an arm. "Don't worry," she reassured me. "When we're back in London I'll make it up to you. I should have a nurse outfit somewhere." I listed, nearly rolling over but managing to at least stay in position at the last second. That didn't sound so bad. Maybe it would be alright if I were to lie down after all. I… it hurt to be awake. Those two… I knew those two. They would take care of me…"I'll even see about arranging visits to those aliens of yours sometime," she added, her tone grudging. "I guess I owe them that much. You'll see. Everything will work out fine."
'Those aliens of yours'. The words hit me, slashing through my vertigo like knives. I grit my teeth, and forced myself with the concentration only those who have trained to wield magecraft could pull up. My flock. Their faces flashed through my mind, all of them, and panic struck me with sudden clarity.
If I left now, then there's no telling what my flock would do. They'd try to get me back, and that wouldn't end well. MBI would never let them out of the city, would kill them for sure. So would the Clock Tower. I had to keep them safe, had to protect them, had to save them. I couldn't lose here. Not with what was at stake! No matter what!
Even as I heaved, I grit my teeth and looked up. It hurt to focus, but I was used to hurting, so that didn't matter. I forced myself to meet Rin's eyes, the glow of her crest casting shadows over her face, a sphere of something black and spherical, a Fin Shot already forming on her finger aimed at me.
"Rin," I rasped through an aching throat. "Premature gloating… is prohibited."
Something formed behind me, something dark and terrifying. Rin flinched back, the shock of seeing my Asura projection so great that her arm jerked. At my side some of the foul mud splashed, a smoking crater where her last Fin shot had missed me digging into the ground. The sheer shock of seeing the manifestation from me of all people caused both the magus and the King to freeze as something they had no way of being prepared for blindsided them.
I always knew that would come in useful someday.
I tried to launch myself at Rin, but my body was still barely functioning. I managed to lurch myself upright, but after that all I could do was stumble on the unprepared magus, my remaining hand flailing drunkenly. I managed to grab her, my palm striking her face, but after that I just barreled into her, knocking both of us to the ground. I spasmed, barely able to keep myself on top of her as we hit the ground. Rin yelped, and instinctively struck out at me, her elbows digging hard into my side as she unconsciously found herself resorting to her martial arts training at the sudden contact.
I grunted at the blows, her well-aimed attack striking at my floating ribs. The pain was nearly unnoticeable, seeing as just about everything hurt at this point. I forced myself to ignore it, forced myself to focus on my hand, still clutching her face. My finger moved, traceries of light on it as it scratched at her forehead, and I realized I was mumbling as I traced runes…
There. It was done.
One moment Rin was pounding on me as I lay on her, then I felt her body stiffen. Another shudder went through me, though this time it had nothing to do with the magical sickness ravaging my body. I flailed, feeling Rin under me doing the same, and finally regardless of my will or my condition, I violently pushed away from her, flopping face first back onto the ground.
"Rin! Shirou!" Saber sounded panicked, the swordswoman darting to both of us. "Are you alright?" I felt gentle, cool hands lift me from the muck, supporting me as I managed to make it to a sitting position. I heaved for air, grateful for the aid. The ground around us had grown muddier and muddier and that last spurt had taken more out of me than I think I could manage again soon. I very well could have ended up drowning before I would be able to pull myself out.
Behind me, I heard several strangled choking noises from Rin, but I didn't look.
I couldn't look.
"Rin, what is the matter?" Saber demanded, giving a worried glance behind me, though she didn't move away from supporting me. She glanced back at me, before her eyes went down to the stump of my arm. It was still bleeding, no one having had time to do anything to treat it in the rush of confused events. I could make out Saber biting her lip worriedly, before I felt one of her hands reaching out to cradle my new stump. The cool feeling of prana entering me nearly made me shiver, but it was enough to stop the bleeding at least. It seemed Saber was returning some of the prana I had given her last night, flooding it back into Avalon as the sheathe started to do what it was made to do, it's true owner once more with it.
"I," Rin got out, sounding frustrated, nervous, and a little frightened. "I can't talk to Shirou!" she yelped, sounding surprised. "I can't talk to Shirou but…" she trailed off again, another strangled noise coming out. She trailed off into silence for few moments, and then she spoke again, tone clinical as she apparently came to a conclusion. "Saber, ask Shirou just what the hell he did a second ago?"
Only a few seconds, and she already managed to find a loophole. Stupid, brilliant Rin. It was almost enough to make me jealous at times.
"Why can you not just ask him yourself?" Saber demanded, her head flicking back and forth between me and the magus behind me.
"I just can't," Rin responded, frustration obvious.
"Saber," I began, voice still raspy as I shivered. "Tell Rin that it was a geas." Saber looked confused, not understanding why I was addressing her instead of Rin directly.
"Saber, tell the blockhead I already figured that out," Rin didn't even wait for Saber to relay my message. "Ask him what type of geas is it? And how the hell he managed to make it stick!"
"Ah," Saber began, sounding confused. She looked cute like that, I noted deliriously. No wonder Rin always teased her so much. "Shirou, what type of geas have you cast?"
"I've made it so that Rin could never deliberately seek me out, or attempt to contact me," I told Saber. I felt… tired. Not just in the sick way, but emotionally. I think that might be the first time since the fire that I had that feeling. "Now the Clock Tower won't be able to force her to come after me again, or punish her for failing." I closed my eyes, and swayed. I nearly fell backwards before Saber reached out to catch me, but instead I felt my back come to rest on something else. Rin's back, I realized a moment later, and jerked away instinctively. "And I made it stick the same way I make my death match stick: by casting a geas on myself. So long as I never do the same, both of us will be affected."
Geas were complicated things. Most of the time, they could only be made temporary, but there were a few conditions which could change that. If a person agreed to allow a geas to be cast, then something more permanent could be enforced. However, if a magus was willing to impose an equally stringent condition on themselves, than they could empower the one they cast on another.
Cu Chulainn had been famous for using those kinds of geas, but there had been other cases of it I had drudged up while reading up on his legend. Saber had also mentioned the identity of the Fourth War's Lancer, Diarmui Ua Duibhne, and when I had read his legend I had learned that geas had been used on him too, geas strong enough to force him to betray his lord and permanent enough to last the rest of his life. Figuring out how had been the very basis for my Workshop's defenses.
Really. Matsu's search engine might work a little too well. It had only taken me a night to manage to design two full new mysteries, albeit mysteries very close to ones I had already developed.
And so in order to save Rin I just had to force myself to never be near her again.
I felt sick. It wasn't just the Gandrs, either.
"He did it," Rin muttered, shock in her tone. "He said that he would save us, and he actually managed to do it." She laughed bitterly. "Unless you're willing to grab him, Saber? It shouldn't be that hard to take him back after those Gandr. A baby could probably beat him now."
"Rin," Saber murmured, sounding uncomfortable. She glanced down, eyes scrunching shut. "Even so, he did win our duel," she reminded the magus. Her honor as a King and Knight would not allow her to betray the result of the duel.
"Thought so," Rin muttered, still laughing bitterly. "Well, I guess I should have you congratulate him, Saber." Her tone hitched at the end, and this time Saber did move out of my line of sight, one hand still supporting me while the other presumably went to comfort Rin. I wished I could do the same, but that wasn't possible anymore.
For a moment, the tableau held. Then I heard a rustling sound behind me.
"Saber," Rin's voice was calm, professional sounding. There was no trace of hitch in her voice now. "Tell that blockhead that I love him, and I want him to be happy." Immediately after she finished talking, I heard footsteps as the magus began to walk away. "And tell him to pay more attention to ley lines," her voice growing distant. "Honestly, it's just like before, with me. Rude, stubborn blockhead."
"Rin," Saber's voice was pained, and I didn't want to imagine what Rin looked like right now. For all that she could pretend to be strong, that she could hide her feelings better than most, I knew Rin well enough to hear the finality in her voice, the resignation. She had lost, and now, her pride demanded that she at least lose with dignity. Saber came back into my line of sight, her jaw clenched tight as she gave me worried look, as though unsure of what to do. "Shirou."
"It's alright, Saber," I told her softly, before a wracking cough hit me. I shivered, wondering if I had a fever, before deciding muggily that the very fact I had to ask myself that after taking three Gandr was probably a sign of just how sick I was. That didn't stop me from smiling at the swordswoman. Even though she was contracted to Rin, Saber had always considered me her first Master, her true Master. "Go with her," I told her. "Look after her. I can't anymore."
Saber hesitated for only a moment, before her expression changed to resolution. "Yes," she nodded firmly, and then she too was gone, her cool fingers disappearing from my back. I slumped to the side, listening until I couldn't hear them anymore.
I was alone.
Saber and Rin were safe from the Clock Tower now. Rin would be able to follow her life calling as a Magus, her lineage preserved, and Saber would be there to protect her and stand by her. I would be able to stop the Sekirei Plan and protect both the species and the planet as a whole by safeguarding the Jinki.
All it took was me never being able to see either of them again.
I was missing an arm. I was covered in blood, and vomit, and mud, every bit of my body aching and in pain. I realized that yes, I really had soiled myself, and from the way my stomach was churning it might not be a singular instance.
Yeah. That was how a victory like this should feel.
"I never wanted this for you," an unexpected voice said gently.
"Wanted what?" I gasped out, stumbling. I tried to reach out to brace myself, but I realized too late that I was trying to brace myself with arm that wasn't there and stumbled, my stump striking the wall and scratching against it. I grimaced, more lances of pain shooting through my body to add reinforcements to the already legion agonies I was feeling. It was so bad that I swear I actually heard something scraping, and I wondered if I had just ground my bone against the brick wall I nearly collapsed on.
It had taken me nearly all my concentration to force myself to my feet and leave Osaka Park. I had almost forgotten to retrieve my arm before I left, but I had remembered to grab it at the last second. I didn't want to leave something like that lying around where someone could find it and report it to the police. I had also almost forgotten to use a rune to try and make myself unnoticeable too, for that matter.
Then again, maybe I didn't need to. I couldn't even imagine how I looked, covered in so many bodily fluids and mud, holding one of my own limbs, probably so sickly that I had long since passed 'death warmed over'. I knew my own countrymen well enough to know that when someone looked like as much trouble as I did, the first inclination was to look somewhere else and hurry away quickly.
I wondered if this was how Akitsu felt, way back when I first found her?
"This," the speaker continued, and I glanced blearily over to where Kiritsugu was standing. He looked sad, but resigned, just like the night he had died, and was wearing his familiar scruffy too long coat.
Great. Now I was hallucinating.
"Gotta be more specific than that, dad," I muttered, lurching back to my feet and continuing to force myself to put one foot in front of the other. I left a stain of red on the wall behind me, and I felt as new drops of blood started to leak from my arm after the sudden pressure jostled whatever healing Avalon had managed to do to it back open.
Great. Now I was talking back to my hallucinations, I blearily realized. It felt vaguely amusing to me for some reason, so I started giggling.
"I never wanted you to suffer," Kiritsugu, or the delusion of Kiritsugu, explained. "When I found you back then, I just wanted to save you, to give you the chance to live the life that you wanted to lead."
"This is the life I want to lead," I told my father, before I had to clutch my stomach as it heaved again. My throat was already burnt from all the stomach acid that had gone through it, and it hurt again as more came up.
"I know," Kiritsugu nodded. He was walking beside me, eyes distant as he gazed at the horizon before him. "Even though I wanted you to lead your own life, when you told me that you would be a super-hero in my stead, I couldn't help but feel proud despite knowing what it would put you through."
"You were right," my eyes stung as sweat dripped down into them. I tried to scrub them clean, but ended up poking myself with the fingers of my severed hand as I forgot that I was still holding it. "It is hard when you grow up to be a hero. No matter how much I try, I can never seem to save everyone."
"You knew that, even back then," Kiritsugu chided me gently. "In the end, you have to choose."
"But it's so hard to decide, sometimes," I felt like I was back on the porch almost. Like it was just the two of us having a moon viewing, just like in the old days.
"Maybe," Kiritsugu agreed. He started to drift behind me, though it couldn't be that he was having trouble keeping pace with me. A toddler could probably keep pace with me. I stumbled again, and this time I just grit my teeth and kept propping myself on the wall with my stump as I forced myself to move. "Sometimes, it's easy. Just choose what will make you happy."
"Happy?" I repeated, not sure why that word in particular stuck with me. I swear, that grinding noise was getting louder. I wondered if maybe I should just call a cab, before remembering that I didn't have my wallet. Or my phone. And that no cab in the world wouldn't take one look at me and change directions from 'home' to 'nearest medical or police facility I can find'.
I couldn't have that. Even as my head throbbed and my throat twisted, I knew that I couldn't have that. I just had to make it back to Izumo House. Just keep thinking about Izumo House, and my flock. Homura and Akitsu must be worried by now, and I didn't want to break my promise to Kuu. If I wasn't there, Musubi and Tsukiumi might slack off in their chores too, and god knows what Matsu or Kazehana might get up to…
I grit my teeth, the thought of my flock helping me concentrate, helping me focus. Just had to keep moving.
"Happy," Kiritsugu was behind me now. Or his delusion was behind me. Or I had just stopped the visual and skipped straight to purely audio hallucinations? "Like you are there."
The word 'there' just brought more images of Izumo to mind, and I shook my head, trying to focus. Just think of one foot. Think of putting it in front of the other. Focus, Shirou.
"You aren't here," I told my father. This, this whatever it was, was just distracting me. "You're dead."
"So is Minato Sahashi," Kiritsugu's voice sounded wrong, too soft and high pitched.
I grit my teeth. I couldn't spare any more attention to him. Even if Minato Sahashi had accepted his death, Shirou Emiya hadn't yet. The voice behind me faded, disappearing.
It was blessedly silent for a bit. No delusions, no hallucinations. Even the sounds of Shin Tokyo seemed strangely muted. The only thing I could hear was my harsh breathing and that weird scraping noise as I dragged my stump along the wall, using it to keep me up. I pitied whoever would be responsible for clearing off the large smeared trail of blood I was leaving in my wake.
It was silent, until the one voice I most certainly did not want to hear, not in the best of conditions much less the way I was at the moment drifted to my ears.
"Well, well," Karasuba said from behind me. "Isn't this a pleasant surprise?"
Maybe, I thought to myself hopefully, this is just another hallucination?
"It looks like you've been having quite a good time lately," the Black Sekirei continued, sounding like she was closer this time. I tried not to shudder, but my fever made the effort a lost cause. She seemed to notice the motion, and I heard her soft laughter.
Alright, probably not a delusion. Maybe if I just kept quiet she wouldn't notice me? She might mistake me for some poor bum or something, and walk right on by. Yeah. That might happen.
And the fact that I actually just entertained that thought seriously was even more so than earlier probably indicative of how poor my mental state was at the moment. Though the hallucinations should have been proof of that too…
"Oh?" Karasuba was still laughing gently. "Ignoring me, Minat-"
"Emiya," I snapped blearily, reacting automatically as the damned alien just kept screwing with me, my remaining hand lashing out and throwing what it was holding at the walking genocide, even though I knew she would only end up dodging…
The thought was interrupted by a strange smacking noise, and I looked back, putting my back to the wall to support myself as I half turned around to see what that strange sound was.
Yes, it was Karasuba, I noted through the haze in my vision; or at least a particularly specific delusion of her. The Black Sekirei was in her uniform, grey coat hanging off her shoulders like normal with one hand on the hilt of her nodachi, but for some reason she seemed surprised by something, eyes open and actually blinking in bewilderment as she stared at something on the ground in front of her. Also, for some reason she had a strange red patch on her forehead…
"Did you just throw your own severed arm at me, Shiroi-chan?" she finally asked, sounding as though she was honestly confused. I blinked and looked down, realizing that I had forgotten until she pointed it out that the thing I was holding was exactly that.
"Huh," I rasped out. "And it worked too. Who would have thought it'd be that easy?"
Karasuba blinked one last time, her eyes coming up to meet mine, before she suddenly snorted gently, one hand coming up to cover her mouth as she closed her eyes and began laughing. It was a surprisingly nice sound, not like her usual chuckle but an honest noise of amusement, and I realized that she was actually kind of cute, when she wasn't being a bloodthirsty murderess.
Man, I must be even sicker than I thought if I was actually thinking of Karasuba as cute.
"Oh," she finally trailed off, her expression returning to a more normal one for her, her eyes lidded and her benevolent smile a little wider than usual. "Oh, only you, Shiroi." Casually, with the hand she had used to cover her mouth she reached down picking up the limp segment of arm. She didn't seem the least bit concerned over handling a disembodied portion of another person's body, but then again she probably dealt with that kind of thing a lot.
"Whatever," I sighed before pushing back up, propping myself against the wall and turning to continue my journey home. Karasuba apparently didn't know a dismissal when it left a blood trail behind it, and I caught sight of her from the corner of my eye as she pulled even with me, walking slowly so she could maintain my pace.
"My, my, my," she instead tried to start up a conversation. I wondered blearily if the next time I had to vomit I could aim it at her. "It looks like you've had quite an adventure," she sounded casual, completely at ease. "What have you been getting up to, Shiroi-chan?"
I considered telling her that my old exes had been in town, but decided against it. She did work for MBI, after all, and word might get back to Takami if I did. At least, I think that was the reason that I didn't tell her the truth. It seemed like the best one I could come up with at the moment, anyway.
"You know, I can't really remember," I instead told her. "After the thirteenth shot, it's all just a big blur. I do remember the bartender saying something about fishes, though why he would tell me to 'get trout' I just don't know. Or maybe it was 'get out'…" I shrugged, trying to feign obliviousness, but the move affected the stump on the wall, and I staggered, nearly falling before I managed to right myself.
"Really?" Karasuba seemed amused by my ridiculous story, but didn't pry any further into it. At least, I thought she wasn't until she continued. "You know, this might surprise you but just a half hour ago or so MBI had another issue with their satellite cameras."
"Do I look like I would even begin to care about something like that right now?" I muttered, feeling another heave in my stomach coming. I tried to decide if aiming it at or not at Karasuba would be the best move, but it ended up being a false alarm.
"It's strange," the Black Sekirei continued as though I hadn't spoken. "But it seemed to be centered around this one particular area. One 'Osaka Park'."
I didn't have a smart mouth return to that, but my stomach flip-flopped again, this time metaphorically. Matsu. She must have done something, probably interrupted the footage like I had had her do before when the Fraga had attacked.
"So, naturally, when they dispatched me to go check it out, imagine my surprise when I find my dear Shiroi-chan in the area." Karasuba shook her head, still smiling but trailing off after she voiced her suspicions.
"Wow," I said bluntly. "What a coincidence." I tried to focus, to straighten my thoughts out. It was hard, even harder than earlier when I had managed to place the geas on Rin. I was definitely getting worse. I had to make it back to Izumo, and fast.
"Yes," Karasuba agreed with a nod. "Coincidence." I tensed, waiting for the first move, but none came. The two of us were still, me needing all my concentration to stay upright for a sudden attack, no longer walking forward, but nothing happened.
"Aren't you going to attack?" I finally asked, peering suspiciously at the still calm Sekirei beside me.
"In your present state?" Karasuba smirked. "I think I'll pass. It wouldn't be any fun right now."
"You should have used a lance," I told her, thinking back to just how similar Karasuba and Cu Chulainn were at times. The Black Sekirei just raised an eyebrow at me, not voicing her confusion but a question obviously on her mind. I ignored her, and turned to try and continue my trip.
I made it one more step, and then one of my legs went out on me. It just didn't have anything left in it. I stumbled, and would have ended up face first on the ground, but a strong hand found the bicep of my good arm, gripping me firmly but gently as it supported me.
"Well," Karasuba smiled at me as she caught me. "This won't do at all. You just won't be any fun like this. I suppose I better bring you back to MBI. I'm sure Takami would be able to cook up something to get you back in shape to play with me again later."
"No," tried to snap, but it came out a gasp, and I shook again as another fever shiver hit me. I tried again with moderately better success. "No hospitals! No MBI!"
My head was spinning, so fast that it for some reason made me think of my old washing machine… why would I come up with that kind of comparison? No, focus! Even with me concentrating all the skills of self-control a magus needed to survive, I was still starting to slip into true delirium. Despite my growing disconnect from reality, I knew that I couldn't go to a hospital or to MBI. The reason I couldn't was fading in and out, but I knew it.
"Take me to Izumo house," I ordered, before shaking as more lung wrenching coughs settled on me.
"Oh, I don't think that would be the best idea," Karasuba seemed amused by my reluctance, before she paused. "Then again…"
I felt her fingers touch me, trailing across my stomach where the wound I had gotten in the Third Match had disappeared from. It sent a shiver through me, or maybe that was just the fever. I tried to brush her away, but when I didn't touch anything I shakily remembered that I didn't have that hand anymore.
"Stop tha…" I tried to tell her, though despite my attempt at being stern I found myself slumping against her more. Karasuba didn't seem to mind. Though her eyes sure had gone wide for some reason…
A grip like a band of iron, nowhere near as gentle as the one on my remaining arm, clamped around my stump. I groaned, but the Black Sekirei ignored it.
"Well," she murmured, sounding intrigued. "Well, well, well." The painful grip vanished, and Karasuba grinned like that one cat, the one whose name escaped me, the one from that book…
What was I thinking about again? I forgot.
"You know what," Karasuba declared, and I struggled to look up at her. "I haven't seen Musubi for a bit. Tell you what, Shiroi-chan. Double the tarts you owe me, and it's a deal."
"Deal," I agreed, trying to offer my hand for a shake, before realizing that it was still missing.
I didn't remember much about the trip back after that. I was fading in and out pretty hard by that point. I think at one point I might have vomited on Karasuba. Or maybe I didn't. It's hard to tell. She doesn't seem like the type to take that kind of thing lying down, and since I was still breathing when we finally reached the gate to Izumo House maybe I had aimed somewhere else.
"You!" The voice that lashed out like a whip was enough to jerk me back to semi-awareness. I glanced up as best I could to see a number of blurs in front of me. They seemed familiar, but it took me a moment to get their names again. That one, the one who just spoke. That was Miya I think. "What do you think you're doing here?"
"Oh? Just returning a lost puppy," Karasuba. That's the one who was speaking now. I came a bit further back, and managed to take stock of my position. At some point the Black Sekirei had draped my good arm around her shoulder, one hand grasping my wrist and the other my waist as she half supported half dragged me along. She didn't seem to be having any trouble with it, so I guess that's good. "Why don't you come over here and take it, Musubi-chan?"
"Shirou-sama!" Musubi, I identified her as the pink blob slowly. "Karasuba-sama! Musubi wants too, but she can't at the moment! Can you bring him in here?"
"Can't?" Karasuba sounded dryly amused by the response. "Why not? And no, I can't come in. Miya already said she wouldn't let me, and I'm not here to pick a fight today."
"Oh yeah," I tried to say, but I think I slurred the two words a bit too much to be recognizable. I tried again with moderately more success. "Lean that way."
It was easier not to make full sentences. I felt my body sway, when I was close enough I swept with my stump, striking the section of the gate where I had inscribed my runes earlier. I swear, I heard another one of those scraping noises. It seemed louder this time.
A half second later, something soft and warm hit me. It jingled, the sound of a chain being shook, and was familiar, but it pulled hard and it made me dizzy.
"Akizu," I slurred, not able to properly pronounce the name of the snow woman as she yanked me away from the Black Sekirei. "Not so hard…"
"Shirou!" Another one… that one used to be a man! Kagari… or was it Homura? I'll figure out which one it was later. "My god, what happened to you?"
"Where are Rin and Saber?" Tsundere demanded. Wait. That wasn't her name, was it…
"It's official," I managed to get out. "We broke up."
"He's burning up," something white with glittery things on top declared. "We need to get him to a hospital!"
"No! No hospitals!" I tried to get that out, but wasn't sure how much success I managed.
"You should listen to him," Karasuba, I could still identify her at least. "In this town, a hospital is probably the last thing he needs like that."
"What is that?" someone hissed, and I heard exclamations I just couldn't associate with names from a lot of the blurs around me.
"Well," Karasuba declared, sounding satisfied. "I'll just be heading off now."
Someone was touching me, but suddenly in one of those fits of fever clarity I realized something.
"Karasuba!" I snapped, managing to prop myself up as reality managed to come into reasonable focus. My flock was around me, Akitsu having taken over Karasuba's former position of holding me up. I could make out Musubi and Tsukiumi in front of me, and Kazehana to the side. The water user and the wind user were pale, both of them looking at my stump with nervous expressions. Musubi looked a bit upset, but seemed to be handling it better than the other two. Behind me I could hear tapping, so I assumed that was where Matsu was. I couldn't see Kuu at all.
The Black Sekirei paused. It looked like she had been turning around to leave. She hadn't taken even a step onto Izumo property, and directly in front of her, blocking the entrance were Homura and Miya. The fire user was wavering, and I thought it was just my magical plague causing it before I realized it was most likely her fire power. And Miya was clutching in a draw position…
Wait. That wasn't a sword. That was a broom. Weird.
"Well, Shiroi-chan?" the Black Sekirei prompted me, smiling innocently all the while. I struggled, and managed to push myself up, off of Akitsu. I heard a few gasps, but managed to make it to where Homura and Miya were standing sentinel.
Well, make it as in I ended up staggering until I fell on Homura. She felt hot for a moment, but when I fell on her the heat disappeared, and then she felt cool.
"Damnit, Shirou! Don't move!" Homura growled, but I focused on Karasuba.
"Give it back," I tried to order her, but it came out more like 'gi'I'ack'. Still, she seemed to realize what I was asking for.
"Oh?" She sounded genuinely amused at the order, her smile widening. "Give what back?"
I tried to glare at her, but it was probably pretty pathetic at the moment. I didn't have much energy left in me for playing games, so instead of arguing I just reached over, and clumsily took Miya's broom. The landlady resisted for a moment, and then seemed to realize that it wasn't a sword she was holding, and quickly let me take the broom. I swear, I think she might have been blushing for a second. I took the newly purloined cleaning implement and tried to throw it at the Black Sekirei. It flopped down pathetically a few feet in front of her, rolling as it landed until it tapped the edge of the amused Karasuba's boots.
"Emiya-kun," Miya groaned, a hand coming up to press on her forehead, though whether it was in embarrassment for threatening someone with a broom or embarrassment at my pathetic attempt at an attack I couldn't tell.
Karasuba on the other hand looked at the broom for a moment, and then gave Miya a sly look. She reached down with one hand for the pathetic projectile, the other reaching behind her and beneath her coat.
"I suppose that's a fair trade," she admitted casually. "Takami probably wouldn't have liked me holding on to this." With a shrug, she tossed my severed arm that she had been holding onto so that it would land at my feet as well. Beneath me, Homura hissed, her body heat increasing dramatically. "See you soon, Shiroi-chan."
"You," Homura growled, and I think I might have seen Karasuba's coat start to smolder. However, that was it.
I was back in Izumo House. I could rest now.
I think I heard a few more shouts, but the darkness took me too quick to understand any of them.
I don't remember much of what came next. I remember being hot, and then being cold. I think I remember a spoon, and the taste of soup. I do remember vomiting a few more times. A few times, I thought I saw Kirei, that crooked priest leering at me, other times, Gilgamesh, the King of Heroes ranting.
I think I thought I saw that cat too. The one from that book I couldn't remember…
Then, as though a switch had been flipped, suddenly everything snapped back into clarity. My eyes shot open, only to close again as I groaned, the light in the room hitting them like daggers even though there really wasn't much of it.
"Freaking Gandr," I muttered, trying to reach up to massage my head with both hands. One of them made the trip, the other just jerked, being brought up short. I managed to crack my eye open to check on it, and found myself staring at bulge being covered by a white sheet that was significantly smaller than I remember my arm being.
Oh, right. Stump.
"That's going to take forever to heal," I muttered, tugging at my damaged arm, frowning as I realized that it was apparently being restrained underneath the white sheet draped on it.
"Oh?" a new voice interrupted my thoughts, and I blinked again, trying to peer out from beneath half closed eyes as I took stock of the situation. "Are you awake, Lover-kun?"
"Kazehana," I muttered, letting my head sink back on my pillow. "Tell me I don't look as bad as I feel."
My body wasn't in pain anymore, but it ached at the memory of the feeling. A normal Gandr can make anyone feel weak. It was a curse meant to worsen a person's condition. One of Rin's Gandrs could put the healthiest of specimens down. Three of them?
Might as well just infect me with smallpox, the black plague, and malaria simultaneously. What the hell had she been thinking? That would have been enough to kill just about anyone on the planet.
Well, not me, as evidenced by the fact I was still breathing. But the vast majority of the population would probably have been undone by that much concentrated magic illness.
"Ashikabi-kun," the wind user's voice sounded relieved, but still restrained. I managed to crack an eye open, only to find my vision dominated by soft brown as I looked up into the entirely too close eyes of my Sekirei. "How are you feeling?" I felt soft fingers pressing against my forehead, and I almost sighed at the gentle touch.
"Better," I admitted, before trying to push myself up on my elbow to a sitting position. I was intercepted before I had made it more than an inch up by another touch, this time firm as Kazehana moved her hand from my forehead to my chest and pushed me back down. For a moment I tried to resist, to force myself up, but I was still feeling weak from the Gandrs and Kazehana seemed willing to use some of her Sekirei strength to keep me lying down.
Finally, with a sigh I gave in to the inevitable and let myself be forced back. Since it didn't look like I was going to be getting up anytime soon, I instead decided to try and take stock of my surroundings.
I was in my room, that much was obvious. It was dark, a little light coming in from the window though none was turned on, so it was a safe guess that it was night out. I was in my futon, the sheets having originally been pulled up though they had fallen down when I had tried to move, exposing my bare chest. I realized that I was wearing some pajama bottoms, but nothing else. The room had a lingering scent to it, one of sweat and sickness, but I was clean at least. Kazehana was kneeling next to my futon, but behind her were a few pillows that she had most likely been leaning on. Beside her were a set of ever present bottles, the scent of sake coming from a saucer near them, and a little to the side of that was a large bowl with several towels next to it. I realized belatedly that there was a cool weight on my forehead, and with my good arm I reached up to touch it: another towel.
"Stop playing with it, Lover-kun," Kazehana ordered, her tone not ungentle. "You have a high fever." Despite her words, once it was proved I was able to use complete words and sentences again the Sekirei sat back, reclining on the stack of pillows and reaching for her sake again. It was dark, but I could make out a sharp look as she watched me closely.
"Not anymore," I corrected her, tugging the moist towel away, running my fingers against my forehead to verify what I was saying. I was never too good at judging temperature just by touch, but I felt normal, at least to me. "Illness caused by magecraft generally don't last longer than the curse, and it looks like this one has finally run its course. I should be fine now."
Kazehana relaxed almost imperceptibly at the words, though I found myself wincing as I spoke them. The hand with the towel came down to lightly probe my throat. It was sore, probably an after effect of too much gastric acid coming back over it. Even if the illness itself is gone, it would still probably take me a day or two to recover back to full health. Especially with my arm…
Speaking of my arm; I lifted my left arm up as much as I could, pulling it tight against whatever was holding it down. I could only get a few inches of clearance from whatever it was that I was strapped to.
"Why am I tied up?" I grit out, and I realized my voice was scratchy, and it was hard to raise it.
"So that when you woke up I would be able to take advantage of you without you being able to escape," Kazehana purred, leaning forward as she did so as she struck a playful pose, and even in the dark it was enough to make me blush.
"Er," I managed to get out, looking hurriedly around the room for something to distract myself with. I found it almost instantly. "You'll wake up Akitsu and Homura!"
It was a testament to how out of it I was that I only now realized that yes, it wasn't just Kazehana and I present. Akitsu was kneeling in the corner, her back to where the two walls met. She had her hands on her knees, and for a moment I thought she was carefully watching the entire thing like she normally did, but then I caught sight of her bowed head as it swayed lightly and I realized something.
"She can sleep in that position?" I muttered, wincing at the thought. By the time she woke up her legs were going to be so numb that moving would take at least a half hour. Beside the snow woman was Homura. She was leaning with her back against a wall, one leg pulled up so she could wrap her arms around it, and her head was down, forehead to knee, as she too seemed to be sleeping.
"Oh?" Kazehana sounded delightfully scandalized, though she kept her tone low, presumably to not wake up the other Sekirei. "You want them to watch? You naughty boy!"
"What?" I blushed a little harder at the implication, before scowling. "I thought that was your particular kink. Tsukiumi still hasn't forgiven you for that time."
"I was reacting!" Kazehana frowned, and I was happy to note that it was her turn to blush slightly as she remembered the time she had peeped on Tsukiumi and I, peeped and even done other things as well. "Ne, that was all your fault for being so irresistible, Ashikabi-kun! Besides," she leered playfully, "if you two had just kept going I might have been able to slip in halfway through! See what you lost for being prudish?" She flaunted again with admirable skill. Cleavage that deep should not exist in reality.
"Urk," I turned away, deciding that it was safer for me to focus on the missing body part than the two very real and very tempting ones being presented. "How long was I out?" I asked, letting my attention fall on other less savory matters.
"It's been four days, Shirou-kun," Kazehana's voice also got serious, and I heard her next gulp of sake clearly. "No matter what treatment we tried, you just wouldn't get better. We were getting very worried, you inconsiderate man."
I winced at the gentle chiding, knowing how hard that must have been for them all. I had walked away from them, going to a fight which I might not return to them from, only to show back up on the arm of one of our most dangerous enemies, missing a limb, and stricken by plague.
Yeah, I deserved that title right now.
"So are you all taking turns watching me?" I asked, realizing that it wasn't coincidence one of my flock had been there right when I woke up. "It's your shift out of the three?"
"Not quite," Kazehana admitted, and I felt something warm settle near me. I glanced over to see that Kazehana had abandoned the pillows so she could sprawl out beside me, close enough for me to feel her warmth but not touching. It put us at an intimate distance, and I felt something tight in my gut form as I swallowed. "It's my turn out of the rest. We were all looking after you at first, but finally Miya put her foot down. We've been taking turns. But those two wouldn't leave, no matter what Miya did."
Her voice was softer than before, gentler, and I felt for all the world like I was having pillow talk with the alien next to me, not checking up on my alien harem after having engaged in potentially lethal combat.
"Those two," I sighed, giving Akitsu and Homura another look. I expected that kind of thing out of Akitsu, honestly, but that Homura was doing it too now…
"You really worried them Shirou," Kazehana used my name without honorific rather than one of her nicknames for me, and I swallowed again, finding myself completely unable to identify the reason for the way of address.
"Worried enough that you tied me down to keep me from escaping?" I tried a joke, jerking my stump again. Rather than joking back, Kazehana shook her head seriously.
"You were thrashing sometimes," she explained, reaching over my body for the cloth on my stump. It meant parts of her brushed against parts of me, and I swallowed again. "We didn't want you to hurt yourself any more."
"Hurt myself more?" I began, but when the Wind Sekirei pulled the cloth concealing my left arm away my eyes widened, then narrowed. "Oh."
My arm was being restrained, a leather cuff having been secured to the bicep and then bolted to the floor in a move which must have pissed Miya off something fierce. However, it was the stump itself which caught my eye.
Jutting out of the flesh where it had been cut off were the gleaming tips of dozens of swords. Some of them were longer than others making the stump an irregular field of sharp tips, and lacing between and around some of them were strands of dull red, muscles and flesh I realized, growing back around the foundation the blades made.
It was a disturbing, but not unexpected sight. I had always known that having a Reality Marble was a mark of being abnormal. After all, it was at its very nature a perception so alien from reality that it could alter the world around it. For a human to develop something most common in elementals, demons, and the most ancient of Dead Apostles, it was a sure sign that there was something wrong with them, something different.
In the end, having a Reality Marble meant I didn't think or perceive the world as a human. Seeing my body like this, the proof of my strangeness manifested physically…
Maybe my Sekirei weren't the only ones who deserved the appellate Not Human.
"Well, this is a bit new," I finally allowed, and as I watched one of the blades quivered, before extending out from the rest by a half inch. The part of the blade that had been even with the rest was red as it pulled more of my recovering flesh forward, advancing the healing state of my arm just a bit more. I raised an eyebrow, and despite the twisted nature of what I was seeing I couldn't suppress a twinge of magi curiosity. This was obviously some mixture of both my Reality Marble and Avalon's presence in my body. I'd never seen a wound heal like this before, but then again this was my first dismemberment. I wonder if all lost pieces would recover like this…
I shook my head quickly when I found myself contemplating removing a finger or toe later to double check. I wasn't that dedicated a magus, after all.
"We were going to take you to a hospital," Kazehana had pulled her arm back, and was using it to sip from her cup while she propped herself up with her other arm, looking at my arm with a measured gaze. "But Karasuba was right: if we took you to a hospital like this, there would be no way that MBI wouldn't find out about it. And if they did…"
"Yeah," I nodded letting my recovering stump fall back to the ground with a sigh. "They'd probably chalk it up to something Sekirei related, but that might be even worse, all things considered." Then another thought hit me, and I shuddered. "And god knows what Takami would do…" I trailed off, yet another thought topping the previous one. I must still be a bit out of it if I missed it when Kazehana brought it up. "Karasuba saw?"
"Mmhm," Kazehana wrinkled her nose a bit. "There was no way Crow-chan could have missed it. They were pretty obvious, even then. When you undid your magic, you had enough pointy ends to even cut the gate."
So that was what the weird scraping noise had been when I had been using my stump to support myself. I was actually curious just what anyone who came across blood stained scratches trailing down several streets would think, finding something so gruesome.
"What did she do?" I asked, focusing less on my wandering thoughts and more on the fact that Karasuba, the Black Sekirei, had seen with her own eyes evidence of magecraft. And on me of all people! "Has MBI started to move?" If she reported this to her superiors…
"No," Kazehana shook her head. "Matsu has been keeping an eye on them, and so far there's no evidence that they have any idea what happened."
"That…" I trailed off trying to understand why the chief enforcer of the Disciplinary Squad would keep something so important from her bosses. All the answers I came up with set me with even more chills. "That's pretty damn ominous."
Karasuba knew that I could grow swords out of my freaking body. She might not know how and why it happened, but for a swordswoman obsessed with violence and who had already targeted me in the past, I didn't think she was keeping a secret out of the goodness of her heart.
The next time we fight would probably be a lot less pleasant than the first time, and considering that she almost killed me with one hit the first time, my chances of making it through that battle without having to resort to my magecraft were dwindling to the point where even eye of the mind was having trouble coming up with a way to victory.
"I bet Crow-chan is going to flirt extra hard, next time she shows up," the tipsy Sekirei managed to sum it up pretty easily, though she was pouting as she did so. "Why doesn't she go get lovey-dovey with her own man?"
"Because her Ashikabi is gay," I supplied for Kazehana, and she rolled her eyes at the blunt statement.
"Then she should of thought better about passing up on her first chance," she declared. Then she paused, and when she spoke again her tone was softer. "But I suppose she wasn't the only one passing up on their firsts."
I went quiet at Kazehana's choice of words, and even someone as oblivious as me could understand that we weren't talking about Karasuba anymore.
I had been selfish. I had had a chance to let things go, to let them resolve themselves in a way that everyone could live with. And instead I had risked it all, put myself in a position where I might lose, where I probably would have lost if things had gone even a little differently. And my flock new it. They knew that I might have gone to a place where they wouldn't be able to follow anymore, had had to struggle with the thought that maybe I might have had to go with Saber and Rin, my human lovers. Maybe they had even had the idea that maybe I would lose on purpose, that I would deliberately chose my past loves over them.
Even more than when I had first found out about the nature of the winging ritual and lashed out at them, I had probably hurt my flock profoundly, for my own ignoble reasons.
"How bad is it?" I asked Kazehana quietly. She raised a delicate eyebrow at me, and I forced myself to elaborate. "The others. You too. How are you all doing?"
"You spent the last four days delirious, and had your arm cut off, and you ask how your Sekirei are?" Kazehana sighed, taking a sip of her sake. "Well, Lover-kun," she continued, her tone taking on a teasing note as she winked at me. "We were all a bit upset at first, but Matsu managed to hack MBI's satellites in time. It was much harder to be angry with you after seeing that."
"You didn't let Kuu watch?" I asked, worried about the younger Sekirei being exposed to that kind of violence.
"If we had known how it would have turned out, we would have covered her eyes," Kazehana admitted sheepishly. "But it was all over so quick that we didn't have time." She sighed. "Poor thing cried, but she got over it. After all, things are alright now."
"I'll have to make it up to everyone," I decided, wondering how I could try to make things right. I opened my mouth to continue, but froze when Kazehana put a finger on my lips, silencing me.
"Ashikabi-sama," Kazehana began, her voice gentle but stern. "There's no need to make things right." I raised an eyebrow, unable to believe that things were really well. "We watched you strike down your old lover, and then attack the other. Then we saw you crawl, bleeding and sick, to come back to us. That is all the proof we need." She took a deep shuddering breath, and I had to look away and blush at what it did to her bust. When she continued, the blush only deepened at the sultry tone her voice had taken. "Oh, Ashikabi-sama, you have no idea what that means to us."
I couldn't help shaking my head at her words. If I had pulled a move like I had with my flock on Rin and Saber, there was no way they would be nearly so forgiving afterwards. Then again, I was starting to understand the Sekirei more. For them, I suppose the way they saw the fight was probably just as Kazehana summed up.
Not Human. Then again, right now I didn't feel much like I could point fingers at them at this point. I felt something twitch in my arm, and wondered if that had been another sword growing out of me.
"We should be asking you if you're alright, Lover-kun," Kazehana continued, pulling her finger away as she reached again for her cup. Her eyes were searching as she studied me.
"Well, another day or two and my body should be back up to normal," I hummed, closing my eyes and shifting as I tried to judge how much damage the sickness had done. I isolated a stinging in my side, and realized that at some point before they had tied me down I had probably scratched myself with my recovering arm. "I've never lost an arm before, so I have no idea how long that will take, but after its finished Avalon should be able to work on the rest of me quickly enough."
"I wasn't asking about that," Kazehana sighed. She gave me a gentle look, her gaze sympathetic. "Was it hard, Shirou?"
"Was what hard?" I asked mulishly, pretending I didn't realize the underlying question. Kazehana seemed to understand my reluctance, but asked again anyway.
"Was it hard, leaving your first loves?" I closed my eyes briefly, but when I opened them Kazehana just continued to smile. "You know, Shirou, that if you had just let them go, you would have been able to see them again someday. Even we, your Sekirei, could see how much you all loved each other. We wouldn't have begrudged you, if you were to meet up again. It would have been so romantic, both us and them on the run, spending just a few moments being reunited with each other, only to have to separate soon, and spend the time until you next met longing for each other!"
"Kazehana," I sighed, wondering yet again just how she could make everything that happened to her sound like something that came out of a romance novel. She was even squirming a bit at the thought, yielding again to her childish joy of all things romantic.
"But you didn't do that," she continued after one last gushing sigh, her tone serious yet again. "You chose to make the separation permanent, to give your old love closure and let them move on."
I didn't know what to say to that.
She was right, after all.
It could have been like she said. I didn't doubt that after my flock and I managed to escape Shin Tokyo with the Jinki that I wouldn't have been able to find Saber and Rin while on the run. We wouldn't have been able to stay together for too long, not without making ourselves too tempting a target for the Clock Tower or bounty hunters, but we could have been together for a bit before separating again. Tsukiumi, arguably the most jealous of my flock had been willing to share, and even Rin when she thought she had won had seemed willing to let me spend time with my aliens even if I would be spending most of the time with her and Saber in London.
"They deserved better than that," I muttered. "It would have been selfish, to make them live their lives like that. It would have been selfish to make you all have to live like that too."
In the end, this wasn't some damn eroge or manga, no matter how much my life tried to be like one or how much my sister relied on them. There's more to life than just love, no matter what the Sekirei as a species might feel. There were duties, and obligations, and choices in life that sometimes mattered more than just who or how many you could be with. Rin and Saber had more to their lives than just me, and if I was going to hold them back from that then it would be better to leave completely.
I guess I understood those wishy-washy harem protagonists a lot better now, though. It was painful, making a choice to end things.
But I guess I was familiar with making painful choices. You can't save everyone, and love isn't enough, in the end.
"It will get better," Kazehana supplied, and I shot a look at her, wondering how she knew what I was thinking. Her smile was a touch bitter. "Sometimes you'll think of them, and it will all come back. But as more and more time goes on, you'll think of them less and less. Finally, there will come a day when even if you think about them, it won't hurt anymore." She sipped her sake again. "Trust me, Shirou. I know."
"I suppose you do, don't you," I murmured. It was easy to forget sometime, beneath all her flirting and light heartedness, that this was a Sekirei who had chosen an Ashikabi before, and been rejected by them. For a species devoted to their Ashikabi, it must have been the most painful thing that could happen to her. She had spent years afterwards, drinking to help ease the pain, though I guess nowadays it was more drinking out of habit than anything else.
Still, her words did make me feel a little better. I smiled at her, thankful for her comfort, even if it still hurt. "Thank you, Kazehana."
She closed her eyes, a shudder going through her frame. When she opened them again, they were lidded, and piercing, and the look in them made me swallow. I was suddenly very aware of just how close the two of us were, and how similar are conversation was to pillow talk.
"I love it when you say my name," she whispered, her voice throaty despite that. "Let me tell you something else, Shirou: sometimes the best way to get over a lost love is to find a new one. But then again, you already have."
"Kaze-" I cut myself off with a sharp breath of my own as the mature woman next to me rolled, closing the distance between us until there was none. She propped herself up on her hands so she could hover over my torso, but her legs and hips pressed against mine.
"Say my name again," she moaned softly, her hair falling like a curtain around us, another shudder going through her. I swallowed, and my tongue was suddenly too thick for me to follow her order. She didn't seem to mind, her eyes bearing into mine with an intensity that made feel like a small animal before a predator. "You worry about us, protect us, and even chose us over your first loves," she whispered, a hand caressing my cheek. "We Sekirei need someone like you." She smiled, starting to close the distance between our faces. "But then again, perhaps someone like you needs us Sekirei, too."
"Kazehana," I whispered, and she shivered again. "We shouldn't be doing this right now. Akitsu and Homura are here…"
"And if they wake up they can watch," she interrupted me. "For now, it's Friday, and Matsu already said you could be mine for the night."
I wasn't really able to say anything else after that.
I thought I was familiar with sex. I'd had it before. Yeah, I hadn't had as many partners as some, but I had been pretty frequent with them back before the whole being hunted had limited my options. Even after I had made a freaking harem, though I hadn't been too quick about it I had had a little, and the two experiences had shown me a bit of diversity in just how sex could be.
Not to mention how persistent Matsu had been in trying to expand my repertoire of technical knowledge of fetishes. I had no idea so much porn existed, but it was the internet, after all.
All of that had left me pretty certain that I knew what sex was.
Then I was with Kazehana, and I learned that I had no idea why some people used the term 'lovemaking' before this day.
I was still pretty weak from having spent four days on my back, and one of my arms wasn't in any condition to contribute, but I think even if I hadn't been Kazehana would have still taken control like she did. I tried to contribute, to use some of the experience that I had garnered over time, but she would have none of it.
Our mating was slow but deliberate We never even fully stripped, Kazehana simply pushing any obstacles to the side before she began. I was used to having, well control I guess would be the best word for it, of couplings. It had been my nominal duty, after all, to be able to read my partner and time our climaxes back when I had been perfecting the art of tantric rituals.
Kazehana would have none of it. She set the pace, and seemed to delight in not letting me take the lead. She moved on top of me, and this time it was me who had someone who seemed to know my body better than I did as she found ways to drive me. She didn't seem to care that I probably wasn't giving her as much pleasure as she was giving me, in fact she seemed to get pleasure simply from giving me pleasure.
When I climaxed so did she despite the fact that all my experience told me she shouldn't be near that point. It was as though she climaxed because I climaxed, as though just the fact that I did so was enough to set her over the edge.
And then, both of us gasping and trying to keep from making too much noise and waking up the sleeping sentinels in the corner, Kazehana having collapsed on top of me at her own orgasm, despite that that should have been the end of it she managed to start it again.
It came to me as an epiphany almost, after she managed to coax me three times before she was finally satisfied, laying on top of me with the two of us still joined as she succumbed to sleep. It was a metaphor, almost, for what it meant to be loved by a Sekirei.
The love of a magus was a measured, cautious thing. There was always a distance, a gulf brought about just by being a magus, from having to constantly measure the world around you, analyzing everything no matter the situation. It was still love, but it was a distant kind of love. The love of a King was like that too, I suppose: always maintaining dignity, always standing above others, looking down on them. Even if it was still love, it was the love of someone who was used to being distant, an objective sort of love that might be echoed in how a King felt for their kingdom as a whole.
Sekirei though, the love of a Sekirei was all consuming. When they loved they gave away everything, a devotion so thorough that it had frightened me in the past. It still left me in awe, even now, but it was also… comforting almost, in a way.
I think maybe that was what Kazehana had meant, before when she told me that someone like me needed the Sekirei too. Rin had thought so, when she had decided to leave me to my flock, and Saber had agreed as well. They had been willing to let me stay here despite our relationship because they thought that my flock was helping me in some way, changing me.
I still didn't think that there was anything wrong with me, but maybe they were right.
In that fight, there had been a moment when I had been willing to give up, to go with Saber and Rin again. But then I thought of my flock, and had found the strength to finish it.
I suppose in the end, I had made a choice. I sleepily thought of the hallucination of Kiritsugu. Maybe my subconscious had already known.
I was happy here.
With that last thought, I let myself fall asleep. Tomorrow would be busy, so best to rest while I could.