In Flight: Forty Second Wing
Author's Notes: Well, here it is, the next chapter of In Flight. There was a bit of a delay for a number of reasons. First, I ended up getting promoted at work, and training for the new position sort of screwed my schedule all kinds of up. More money is good though. More money is always good.
Second, I FINALLY got someone to lend me a psp long enough for me to play Fate/Extra, and consequentially ended up marathoning it every chance I could so I could get as much of the game finished as possible before the loan was up. I got the Saber and Caster routes done, but I didn't really mind missing out on Archer. The new characters with their new plots was more important. Also, the part where Assassin compares Tamamo to Daiji and she flips out on him was awesome. Someone should make a Servant spread for Daiji.
Anyway, the biggest delay was the fact that I had to rewrite this chapter like three times. It just wasn't flowing the way I wanted it to, and I kept having to change it until I got something more natural.
Anyway, on with the review response.
For obvious reasons, the reviews were pretty diverse after the last chapter. That didn't surprise me. I figured that chapter would be pretty controversial. Trying to address so many different responses would take a whole new chapter all of its own, so I'll just move on to the next part.
Now, here we go...
This chapter has a lot going on in it. I'd been working several different themes, as well as subplots, and finally they all merge together into something which is hopefully both surprising and yet properly foreshadowed at the same time. Let me know the general consensus in reviews, would ya? Is it the kind of thing that makes sense in hindsight, or is it as completely unexpected and arbitrary as Gilgamesh's first scene?
The first part of the chapter is something of a breather. I had considered having a full on breather episode, but found that unless I was going to spontaneously create a new subplot or something I just didn't have enough material to make a whole chapter like that, so I ended up making this just a long chapter.
Originally, it was going to cliffhang right after Minaka's reveal.
Which is the second part I want to address. It was always planned that Minaka would be a part of the Clock Tower. I had tried to hint at it, subtly, but I didn't want to make it too obvious. Similarly, I didn't want to make it come completely out of left field, hence the hints in the first place.
Basically, when I first started I thought that the Clock Tower always needed a larger presence in the story. The few random encounters were enough to remind everyone that the Mage Association existed, but not having a final confrontation with them would just waste their potential. But on the other hand, having them show up without background was equally unbalanced towards the story.
Hence, those long few chapters in the middle which ended up explaining large portions of the world of magi. In particular, without Matsu and Shirou's 'date' scene, I would have been frantically lumping all the information about the CF and the CG mid confrontation between Shirou and Minaka.
Guess the importance of pacing was one of the things In Flight helped me figure out.
Anyway, with the grand reveal finished, next chapter is the dramatic conclusion, followed by what will no doubt be, in my idiom, a distant epilogue. Almost there folks!
So here we go. As always, if you have something you just want to say, go ahead and throw out a review. Any desire to discuss or hope for direct answers, the thread will be started, though honestly I very rarely make it to my forum anymore. Still, there's a chance I might arrive, and worse comes to worse you might just find someone else there to talk about the story with.
And as always, dear reader, enjoy.
"Has there been any progress, Emiya-kun?" Miya asked me, watching with concerned eyes as I finished wrapping my arm back up. Besides her I was alone at the moment, and feeling something like an intruder in the room which housed her shrine to her husband.
"Well," I hedged, shrugging ruefully. "I have fingers again. Sort of." To illustrate my qualifier, I held up my concealed left arm and flexed it. I was just finishing wrapping it up with three full rolls of bandages, needing that much cloth to fully conceal the limb. Despite my claim of having regained my digits, I had made sure to wrap all my fingers up in one bundle, an end result that looked vaguely like a mitten.
Miya raised an eyebrow, but when I curled my hand and bent my elbow, she winced as a sound like nails on a chalkboard screeched out of the bundled limb. It was enough to make me grimace as well, and I noted several places where I could feel the first layer of bandages saw and pluck against portions of my arm.
I made a note to try and keep my arm as straight as possible. I'd been going through bandages fast enough as it was the last few days.
"I see," Miya sighed, and she most likely did.
It had been three days since I woke up at this point, and so far Miya had been the only one who had been present for most of my wrapping sessions. I wasn't certain if my flock was avoiding me in those sessions because it made them uncomfortable to see my arm as it recovered or if they avoided me because they knew it made me uncomfortable to be seen like this.
Consequentially, the landlady had been the one who had been giving me a hand whenever I had to rewrap myself. Judging from how many times I saw her staring, she was finding the recovery process to be an educating experience.
"I had thought the healing process to be most uncomfortable in the past," she sighed, coming over to kneel at my side in a graceful movement. Without comment she gently took the last of the final roll from me so she could finish the last few inches. Even as she finished she held the end of the bandage against my arm, reaching for the safety pins I had been using to keep the gauze in place. "However, this does seem like it would be even more discomforting."
I grunted, letting her work as I held my arm straight. "It doesn't really hurt," I admitted. "It just feels odd. Like the area is numbed but has something sticking in it anyway."
"Which is an accurate description," Miya pointed out, giving my coverings a gentle tug before judging it sufficient. She stood, fixing the skirt of her hakama as she did so. "So you have no idea how much longer it will take before its full healed? Or if…"
"Or if it will heal at all?" I supplied for her, sighing. "I have no idea," I admitted, giving my arm a measuring look, grimacing as I did so. "I've never lost a limb before. Honestly, all things considered I'm lucky that there's any healing in the first place."
"Oh?" Miya raised an eyebrow, but offered me a hand to help me stand up. I took it gratefully, and she pulled me up with casual strength which would have been unusual from someone her size if you didn't know what she was. "I would have thought you more familiar with that level of injury, seeing as you seem to have a tendency to hurt yourself," she noted chidingly. "You seemed perfectly certain that stabbing yourself would have no negative long term affects." She still hadn't let up on that, though to be fair it had been a bit of a dramatic move. "Your countermeasures have proven effective so far. Why would they fail you now?"
"I said before that if a creature or artifact is powerful enough then it wouldn't heal completely," I reminded Miya. I stretched my legs, happy to have them feeling stronger. Avalon had been busy the last few days, and it still hadn't had an opportunity to look at some of my other injuries. It looked like I would be recovering the old fashion way from my prolonged illness. "Considering what had cut my arm off in the first place, I'm lucky that Saber was there to help."
"One might argue that if she hadn't been there you would not have needed to heal at all," Miya pointed out, but she did it without rancor. She didn't seem to have any lingering dislike for either Rin or Saber, or for my injuries. She seemed to treat it with an almost diffident curiosity, her familiar stance of non-involvement with the world extending from the Sekirei Plan to my personal dealings. Still, she did seem concerned with my recovery at least. "Though why would you think this particular incident might be different from the past?"
"Because my arm got cut off by Excalibur, the strongest Noble Phantasm in existence," I reminded her dryly. "If Saber hadn't returned some of her prana to Avalon, I might not have recovered anything at all."
"Oh dear," Miya's eyes opened slightly as she took in my explanation, giving my arm another measuring look. "Was your wound really so precarious?" She didn't seem like she doubted my explanation, more that she was just curious. At some point it seemed that Miya had come to accept my explanations of magecraft as information coming from a reputable source at least.
"A Noble Phantasm gathers its power from its legend," I told her as the two of us left the shrine room. Miya gave her husband's memorial a brief look as she did, but it wasn't her usual time for prayers. "There are people who don't know the shape of King Arthur's table, who can't recall any of the adventures of any of her knights, but they still know what Excalibur is. There probably isn't any other weapon more famous in existence."
"I see," Miya nodded her understanding, before pausing and giving me a dry look. "Emiya-kun, where do you think you're going?"
"Me?" I started to point at myself, but the shrieking noise gave me another wince, and I switched hands for the gesture. That would take some getting used to. "Why, I was just thinking of making lunch…"
"With one hand, Emiya-kun?" the landlady noted, raising one eyebrow at me as she tapped her foot.
"Er…" I trailed off, scratching my head as I did so. I gave my wrapped hand a measuring look, before shrugging. "Can I cut the vegetables at least?" I lifted the limb up hoping that we could at least find a compromise.
"Go to the living room," Miya sighed, though she had one hand up to conceal a smile and her tone had exasperated amusement in it.
"It was worth a try I guess," I gave in, cursing the string of events which conspired to keep me from my favorite past time.
"But Tsukiumi," Musubi protested sounding like a child whining to their parent for more candy. "I'll share with you on Thursday! Why can't we…"
"No means no, Musubi," the aforementioned water user declared, stomping her foot at the declaration. "I've already said that tonight Shirou and I will be alone!"
"But why?" Musubi seemed honestly confused at the declaration. "If we're both there, we can both share…"
"No!" Tsukiumi blushed a little, but otherwise remained firm. "My first time will not be with anyone but Shirou!"
"The first time, maybe," Kazehana chimed in with a suggestive lilt. "The times after that though…"
"T-that remains to be seen!" Tsukiumi stuttered a bit, but held true to the crumbling pillar of her proud demeanor.
I hesitated at the doorway. For some reason, my instincts were telling me that maybe it would be better if I didn't get involved in this conversation. I shook my head, wondering just when my intuition had evolved simply from a tool for combat to a way to navigate my flock's conversations.
Still, throwing caution to the wind, I braced myself and entered the room proper. Let it never be said that Shirou Emiya took the coward's way out.
Luckily, it looked like the three arguing Sekirei were too involved in their conversation to notice me immediately.
Musubi and Tsukiumi were standing in front of the white board, naturally, and it looked like the water user was defending it from the shrine girl. Musubi had a dry erase marker in hand, and appeared to be trying to reach behind Tsukiumi to make an addition to the schedule while Tsukiumi had placed herself before the board to physically defend it. It wasn't hard to deduce what the two were arguing about, seeing as today was Monday, and the only thing written in the 'sleep together' slot was a large blocky notice proclaiming 'ME AND ONLY ME', and signed 'Tsukiumi'.
Kazehana was verbally involved with the debate, but that seemed to be only for the sake of riling up the situation. She had placed herself with a bottle of sake at the table, along with Kuu. The younger Sekirei had some sort of game in front of her; something involved removing stacked blocks without knocking down the rest. Kuu had her tongue out childishly as she slowly tugged the newest block away. When the tower began to tilt her eyes shot wide and she reached out to try and stop the fall in what was probably a clear violation of the rules.
Kazehana beat her to it, raising a finger to point at the tower. Kuu's hair began to flutter around her, and I realized that the wind user had employed her element to shamelessly cheat. Kuu grinned, and despite the fact that this get around wouldn't last long, she began to pluck the next block out.
The only other member of the room was, surprisingly, Homura. The flame user didn't seem interested in joining the conversation, and had instead placed herself at the edge of the room near the door which opened out to the yard. She had a book in hand, something I'd seen her with a lot more in the last few days. In fact, I had seen a lot more of Homura in the last few days than I could recall seeing of her for weeks at a time in the past.
I wasn't sure if it had been the change which had left her keeping herself apart and now that her gender had fully settled she was just more active, or if she had finally decided that in order to avoid always being the last person to know something she had just decided to spend more time with the others in general, but whatever the case, I was happy to see Homura spending more time in company.
"But if we share now, than we can share twice," Musubi pointed out, still trying to get her friend to let her in for the night as well.
"And I've waited long enough, and I won't let anything stop me this time!" Tsukiumi stamped again, finally reaching the limit of her patience as she reached out to try and take the marker from Musubi. Musubi jerked it out of the way, and when Tsukiumi tried again she started to laugh as she turned to run, still holding the marker. Tsukiumi growled, and prepared to leap after her when Musubi stopped, catching sight of me.
"Ah," she began, cheerfully waving the hand with the marker. "Shirou-urk!" Tsukiumi didn't realize that Musubi had abruptly stopped, and had tackled her from behind without meaning too. They both tumbled to the floor in a confused heap of squirming limbs.
"Oh?" Kazehana purred, and Kuu yelped as the wind user stopped helping her cheat and the tower came tumbling down. "Well good morning, Lover-kun," she greeted, beaming up at me. "Ready for round two yet?"
"Not in front of Kuu-chan," I reminded her, smiling back. It was a little hard to be embarrassed by gentle teasing after we had finally been together. And that didn't even count as teasing anymore, considering some of the things she had done the last few days.
It probably shouldn't be a surprise, but the day after we had woken up Kazehana had been positively glowing. She hadn't even tried to make excuses when we were woke up the next morning to a cracking noise as Akitsu kept Tsukiumi from overreacting again, and she hadn't been shy at all to start going over the details at embarrassing volumes with the rest of my flock. Not even Miya cutting her off with a Hannya had been enough to wipe the smile from the wind user's face. More than that, Kazehana hadn't been shy about propositioning me almost immediately for another session.
I had always known that there would come a time when I wouldn't be able to fend off my harem, and god it still felt embarrassing to think of them like that, and I couldn't help but think that time might be here. I had already slept with most of my flock that was of age and properly interested, and Kazehana definitely didn't seem like she'd accept the encounter being a one time or occasional thing.
I think I might be the only guy in the world that would even complain about having a gorgeous, mature, and willing woman eager to sleep with him again. In fact, even I couldn't even think of a reason to complain.
Well, except for how soon it had been…
I shook my head, banishing those thoughts. What was done was done. Kazehana was right. It might still hurt now, but it would get better with time, and I did have them with me now.
Kazehana seemed to understand where my mind had gone, and her smile grew gentle. For a moment anyway, and then it turned wicked as she leaned back, adopting a sultry pose. I gulped, and the pose had even more affect than before seeing as I now knew exactly what was beneath her purple dress.
I think Kazehana took it seriously when she said that the best way to get over an old love was to find a new one, and she seemed determined to put that statement into practice as much as she could.
I was pulled from the disturbing train my thoughts had been starting to board when I felt a tugging at my arm. With a sigh, I lifted my left arm until it was at shoulder height.
"Kuu," I chided the little blond who had snuck up on me, and was now jumping up and down to try and get her little hands on my recovering arm. "Stop," I chided her gently. "You shouldn't play with sharp things; you might cut yourself."
"Sharp things, he says," Homura grumbled, not looking up from her book. "And I'm not even disturbed by a sentence like that. I think my corruption is complete. Who needs common sense, anyway?"
"Jiiiiii," Kuu continued to stare at my arm with wide innocent eyes, still trying to get her hands on it.
Homura had taken the last few days pretty hard. She had not been happy with me when I woke up, and had let me know that quite clearly. I didn't want to be the one to tell her, but I honestly think I saw some sort of darkness gathering when she had been yelling at me, something which reminded me vaguely of what Miya and I were capable of spawning. I think the chance that she might be developing her own mask might have either unhinged her or encouraged her to pursue that avenue.
Still, after she had gotten it out of her system, Homura had, well, for lack of a better word, taken to hovering. She reminded me a lot of how Akitsu was, back when I had first accepted the ice user as my Sekirei. The fire user tended to follow me, not as closely as the snow woman, but just as persistently. I had even seen her hesitating when I had went to take a bath, as though she was trying to decide whether or not she was going to follow me in. Homura had also taken to watching me, though she seemed to alternate between staring at me intently and realizing that she was staring and forcing herself to look elsewhere.
"Kuu-chan," I began, and sighed as I moved my arm again. The Green Girl had actually retrieved a cushion from the table and put it beneath me so she could get a few more inches of height in her quest to latch on to my arm.
"Fuuuuggh!" Kuu glared at me, crossing her arms and huffing. Kuu had been, well, peculiar I guess would be the best way to put it, the last few days. I was honestly worried for her when I first woke up. She had watched as I had taken some pretty serious injuries, and I was worried that was the kind of thing that might scar the girl. However, I didn't take in to account that Kuu had always been, well, a little different.
For all that she was a young girl, she always watched eagerly as Musubi and Miya sparred, and the only one who reacted as strongly as her whenever she saw me fight was the battle maniac Musubi.
I couldn't help but wonder if the only thing that was really keeping Kuu's appearance as an innocent was her age. What would Kuu had been like if she had been older, and not the last and youngest of her species? I also couldn't help but wonder what she would be like when she grew up: she was constantly surrounded by violence, and the biggest influences in her life besides myself was my flock.
With role models like Kazehana, Matsu, and Akitsu for that matter, just how would Kuu be in a few years?
I banished the thought. There were enough scary things out there without looking for more. Maybe Miya's influence would be enough to even the scales.
"Onii-chan!" Kuu demanded, and then the little sprite latched onto my leg, glaring up at me as she held me in biting distance. "Show Kuu-chan your swords!"
"Oh, that's just so adorable!" Kazehana laughed, and I winced at the double entendre the child had inadvertently used. God, I hope that wasn't foreshadowing or something.
"Kuu," I began, before deciding that maybe distracting the girl might be the best option. "Here," I told her, tracing another bunny doll for her. Kuu's eyes narrowed, and I gulped, wondering if maybe the ploy of distracting her with fuzzy things might have run old.
Then, it hit me.
"How about this?" I suggested, and this time I traced a big, floppy stuffed sword. Kuu's eyes widened in delight, and she snatched it eagerly. I sighed, happy at having found a compromise.
"Onii-chan," Kuu demanded again, and I wondered if my relief had been too soon. I saw her holding her arms out to me. "Pick Kuu-chan up!" she ordered imperiously.
"Uh," I managed, before giving in and kneeling down to lift the girl in my good arm. Kuu happily threw an arm around my neck, and then walloped me one with the stuffed sword upside the head. Giggling, she seemed to deem me punished enough for denying her the opportunity to fiddle with my arm, and began to waive the sword at other, more imaginary foes.
"You shouldn't spoil her," Tsukiumi snapped, having managed to separate herself from Musubi and regained her footing. She didn't seem to realize that at some point the marker had met skin and she had a big black line going down her cheek. She huffed, and then seemed to realize she was talking to me directly. Instantly, she flushed, and looked away, shrinking down a bit before sending me a look out of the corner of her eyes.
Tsukiumi had been like this the last few days as well. It seemed that Kazehana's interpretation of how a Sekirei would react to my fight with Rin and Saber had hit particularly hard for the tsundere. The water user was having trouble talking to me directly without blushing, and sometimes she would stumble or drop something if I entered the room. Added on that I think she was determined to have her first time no matter what tonight had only exasperated the condition.
It reminded me of the way Rin would…
I forced the thought from my mind. Damnit.
Anyway. I had experience with tsunderes so I knew enough to not call attention to her slips. She'd settle down eventually.
Still, even as the usual madness of Izumo House continued to unfurl, I felt comfortable. It was hard to remember when this stopped being unusual and started being the norm, but whenever it had happened it had. My everyday life with these alien girls had become something I'd come to expect, something I enjoyed even.
It would not last forever. But it would last long enough.
"Shiroi!" I blinked as Kuu chirped, and for a moment I wondered why Kuu was using my name and not her nickname for me. She did it again, sounding excited for some reason as she returned to poking my head, with her free hand and with not the stuffed sword this time. "Shiroi! Shiroi!"
"What?" I asked her gently, giving her a patient look as I prompted her to tell me why she had the sudden need to call my name, but she ignored me, still pushing her fingers against my head.
"Lover-kun," Kazehana suddenly took a startled breath, eyes widening slightly as she climbed to her feet quickly. She paced closer, giving me a cautious look, and I wondered at what had caused her sudden change in mood. "Your hair."
"What about my hair?" I asked, feeling utterly lost at this sudden chain of events. When Tsukiumi's eyes suddenly went wide, and her thumb drifted up to be gnawed at, I scowled and made my way to the turned off TV, leaning forward to peer at the blank surface and my reflection therein.
It was my turn to suck in a surprised breath, as even in the somewhat distorted image I could make out the speckling of white that had appeared in my otherwise red hair. It wasn't much now, just a thin spreading of the color, but once it had been pointed out there was no way to deny that I was starting to go grey at just over twenty years.
For one surreal instant, I imagined Archer looking back at me from the reflection on the screen, and I felt a wave of vertigo hit me. I nearly stumbled but managed to maintain my balance.
"Is it stress?" Homura muttered, and I looked up to see her much closer than she had been before. "Or was it the injuries…" I could catch sight of her narrow, worried eyes from over my shoulder as she leaned in, one hand coming up to reach for my hair before pausing as she seemed to realize that she was about to violate my personal space.
No, I realized. Not Archer. I looked around, from Homura to Tsukiumi, Kazehana with Musubi, and Kuu. Even if they weren't in the room there was Matsu and Akitsu too.
That man, Archer, had lived his life alone, with no one who could understand him to be near him. He had never had the lives and loves of these strange, infuriating, and beautiful creatures.
The dizziness left me, and I found myself smiling. I wonder what Archer would say, if he could see me now?
"Neither, I think," I responded to Homura's question, giving her a reassuring smile and refocusing again on the sight of the white, this time calmer. "It's hereditary. Takami was about this age when she started to go white too." I glanced at Kuu, briefly. "I used to play with her hair so much back than it was why she started calling me 'Shiro' in the first place. It's where I got my current name from."
"Oh?" Kazehana relaxed, a smile returning as I told a story from my childhood. The knowledge that the whitening wasn't a result of anything malign was the cue for the others to relax as well. "It looks like little Kuu-chan is just like her onii-chan then!"
Kuu giggled, still pointing at my hair as she searched for new patches of white to identify. She was joined by Musubi, both of them continuing their chant of, "Shiroi! Shiroi!"
"Hmph," Tsukiumi folded her arms, returning to her usual haughty airs. "Going white so early," she muttered. "It wasn't like I was worried or anything." She turned away, though she gave me a glance out of the corner of her eyes. "It actually looks a bit distinguished," she murmured, flushing slightly.
"Anyway," I announced, brushing aside the change in my physical features. I did have other things I needed to accomplish. Since Miya wouldn't let me cook though, I would just have to move on to the second thing on my list I needed to look into. "I need to go see Matsu for a bit," I told the group at large, before giving Kuu a smile. "It's time for me to put you down."
"Fugghhhhh," Kuu grumbled, pouting. As I moved to set her down, the little imp reached out and grabbed a strand of my hair, plucking it out petulantly.
"Ouch," I muttered, and she stuck her tongue out at me, giving me one more whack on the head with the stuffed sword.
Seriously, I think I was nervous about just how that girl would grow up.
"Ley lines?" Matsu blinked at me, giving me a curious look as she obediently brought up a map of Shin Tokyo as I flicked idly through my workshop. The search engine had brought up what little information I had that on them that had survived my older workshop's destruction. "What are those?"
"They're kind of like magic circuits for the world," I told her, flicking through the digital grimoire. "Just like the way od flows through the body in set paths, mana tends to move through nature in certain streams as well."
"Od and mana?" Matsu repeated, before holding a hand up to cut me off. "Never mind," she told me. "Matsu will look it up on her own. By why is Shirou-tan so interested in these lines now? Shouldn't he be focusing on the escape?"
"What escape?" I muttered, shifting awkwardly as I tried to manipulate the doohickey with one hand. "MBI has to do something before we can make an escape."
"They have been unusually quiet," Matsu agreed, frowning as one of the many monitors in her system flickered up with information from my database. "Which is good, since Shirou-tan is still recovering. But it keeps us from being able to get away for now."
"Trust MBI to do nothing when we want them to," Homura grunted from the door. She had followed me up to Matsu's room, though she refrained from taking a seat, instead leaning against the wall near the exit. The fire user was definitely taking over some of Akitsu's habits. Actually, it was a little disorienting, seeing as while she had taken up the snow woman's tendency, Akitsu herself had actually been up here in Matsu's room for most of the day. I wasn't quite sure why, but the former Scrapped was kneeling quietly in a corner of the room, a doohickey of her own held in her lap as she watched it intently.
I had never pegged Akitsu for the studious type, but since she seemed to have gotten a hobby I couldn't help but feel that was a good development.
"It was something Rin said, before she left," I told Matsu, and a brief look of discomfort showed on her face at mention of the magus. "When she was leaving, she mentioned that I should be keeping a better eye on them." Even if I had been slipping into delirium at the time, her words were so unexpected that I didn't forget them after I woke up.
"Well," Matsu cocked her head to the side, curiosity obvious as she prompted me. "Why would she do that?"
"Honestly, I don't know," I admitted, starting to scratch my head before the grinding noise reminded me that using my recovering hand for something like that might be dangerous. "Ley lines are only really useful for rituals, or as a method of powering long term enchantments. Neither of those are really my style of magecraft." It just wasn't relevant to my style which resolved around using my own od to create weapons. "Besides that," I shrugged again, "I don't really know where any of the local lines are. There are maps of those kinds of things, but mostly you get those kinds of things from the Mage's Association. I could try to track them down myself, but, well, I don't really know how."
"Well, then why would Rin-tan have mentioned them?" Matsu prompted me, and with a frustrated sigh, I gently tossed the doohickey aside.
"Like I said,I don't know," I repeated. "But she must have had some kind of reason for it." She had to have known that I didn't have any practical use for them, but she had deliberately mentioned them anyway. They had to have some kind of meaning that I was missing.
"Well, at least it will give you something to do while we wait for MBI," Homura pointed out. Everything else aside, we still needed to focus more on escaping with the Jinki than anything else. Now more than ever, truthfully. With Rin and Saber returning to the Mage Association, there was an ever increasing chance that someone there would be able to track their movements during their trip and locate me.
Shin Tokyo was becoming more and more dangerous with every second. The longer we stay, the more likely that an Enforcer or Freelancer would find me, or any of the Sekirei for that matter. But if we tried to leave without something to throw off MBI, than evading their forces was close to impossible.
For all the halcyon days seemed to continue, we were actually trapped between a rock and a hard place, and both of those were getting closer and closer with every second.
Looking for something to distract me from my morbid thoughts, I turned to Akitsu. The snow woman hadn't moved at all throughout the conversation, and her attention seemed to be locked entirely on the doohickey she was holding. Curious, I leaned forward to see what it was she was staring so hard at.
And promptly felt myself blushing to the very roots of my hair.
"What the hell is this!" I demanded, staring at the screen. Akitsu jumped, and glanced up at me.
"Ah," she began slowly. "Ashikabi-sama. I didn't notice you're arrival." She began to blush slightly as well, and I gawked at her.
"You didn't notice?" I demanded incredulously. She had been watching… that… so intensely she hadn't even noticed me come in?
"What is it?" Homura asked, her curiosity apparently enough to draw her over to where she could see the screen that had prompted me to react so strongly, and when she caught sight of it she started to blush as hard as I was. "That is…"
"Fuhuhu, fuhuhu," I couldn't tell if Matsu's giggle was perverted or ominous, but decided either one would sit the situation fine. "Does Shirou-tan like?"
"You," I gulped. "You made porn of me!?" I couldn't quite look away as I watched the recording of Kazehana and I from a few days ago. In front of my disbelieving eye the view changed, moving from a general shot to, of all things, a close up of… specific parts of us… at a different angle. "With close ups and editing?"
"Matsu's cameras are top grade!" she announced happily. "She's made one of each of Shirou-tan's experiments!" She paused before scowling. "Except for Akitsu-tan's. Matsu was never able to get cameras in Shirou-tan's workshop." She huffed as she adjusted her glasses, apparently taking the fact that she hadn't chronicled all of my relations completely. She brightened a moment later. "Matsu also made the soundtrack herself!"
"Sound…track?" I had trouble pronouncing the entire word at once, needing a moment to steady myself halfway through. In a spectacular example of attempted helpfulness failing, Akitsu thumbed a button, apparently taking the video off mute. Sounds of Kazehana and me in tryst filled the room, as well as a slow techno song that sounded sleazy somehow.
"Why?" I demanded, not sure what else to say at this point. I was too busy trying to come to grips with the fact that I had now unknowingly made an unofficial debut as a star of indecent cinema.
"Matsu likes watching them for ideas," she declared shamelessly. "She especially likes the one with Rin-tan and Saber-tan the most."
"Even them?" I demanded, voice going high pitched. Oh god, if the two of them ever found out, Rin would find some way to overcome my geas probably through sheer embarrassment and then she would hunt me down to end me in earnest.
"Kazehana-tan liked that one too," Matsu nodded at her words.
"And you're showing them to others!" I felt quite light headed at this point. "I… I need to sit down."
"Ah," Akitsu began, giving me a shy look. "It's okay, Ashikabi-sama," she told me slowly, trying to reassure me I think. "I had already seen it."
"Already…" I was definitely having trouble finishing sentences as the implication of what the snow woman had told me sank in. "Wait. You were awake?"
She nodded slowly, admitting that she had physically watched and not done anything when Kazehana had seduced me. Her blush grew slightly.
"So was Homura," she added a moment later as an afterthought. My head whipped around to stare accusingly at the fire user, and found her flushing as well, deliberately looking away and coughing into a fist in embarrassment.
"I didn't like it or anything," she muttered so low I barely heard her. I could only stare at her for a moment, before finally coming to a conclusion.
"I am so uncomfortable right now," I declared in a shaky voice. When I heard Musubi calling out that dinner was ready, I latched onto the chance to escape before Matsu could say anything else which would further contribute to my attempt to spontaneously combust through sheer embarrassment.
In a twist of irony, seeing as I had originally wanted to focus on Akitsu's doohickey to get my mind of the subject, I found myself focusing on the ley line mystery throughout dinner in order to get my mind off of Matsu's new perverse hobby.
I mean, what if Miya ever found out…
No, I shook my head fiercely, willing myself not to blush as I forced my thoughts back to the ley lines.
Still, as I helped to put away the last of the dishes, most of my flock already having gravitated towards the living room, there was something about the ley lines which was making me uneasy, and I wasn't sure why. Rin wouldn't have mentioned them without having a reason.
Well, maybe it had less to do with ley lines themselves, and more to do with something associated with them? Even if Rin had a purpose, it didn't mean she had to be direct about it. It wouldn't be unlike her to want me to have to work for what she was getting at, if only to make it harder for me on purpose.
I went over what I knew about them in my mind. Conduits for natural prana, used for rituals, mostly mapped by the Association, and when there was enough of them…
I froze as I made the connection.
'Honestly,' Rin had said. 'It's just like before, with me.'
Cold went through me as I realized what she had meant by that.
When there were enough ley lines in an area, the Mage Association would designate it as 'Spiritual Land', geography that was exceptionally useful for large purpose magecraft. Fuyuki City had been one such location, the sheer magic energies present enough to empower even something as ridiculous as the Grail War. And when the Mage Association had a place like that, they would designate a lineage, the Tohsaka line in Fuyuki City, as a supervisor called a 'Second Owner' responsible for the administrating supernatural activity in that area.
It was the responsibility of any magus that wanted to set up shop in those areas to seek permission from that supervisor before setting up residence. I hadn't officially done that until the start of the Grail War, when Rin had confronted me immediately after I had summoned Saber.
If I was right, if I had properly guessed what Rin had implied, than the Mage Association didn't need to search for me:
They were already here.
But that was impossible. If a magus was here, then there would have been no way that they wouldn't have noticed the Sekirei by now, not unless they were blind idiots anyway. They wouldn't stand by and let a species as new and unstudied as the Sekirei by, wouldn't let the Sekirei Plan evolve without…
Without involving themselves.
A horrifying realization went through me. It wouldn't be hard for a magus to acquire a Sekirei at all. MBI was deliberately spreading them around. All they would need to do is track one down, wing it, and then pretend to follow the plan. They wouldn't care about MBI at all, would most likely just make plans for hypnotizing them or circumventing their control. Hell, if worse came to worst, they would probably not have any problem just pretending to follow the plan until their Sekirei were eliminated, and not care too much about the loss of a curious specimen.
More and more, pieces began to click in my head, my hypothesis evolving with each second. If there was another magus in Shin Tokyo, they would probably try to acquire as many as possible. Each of the Great Ashikabi would be prime suspects then. Even dead Izumi Higa would have fit the role if I hadn't already defeated him. Any of the other Ashikabi would be suspect, truthfully. Even if they only winged one Sekirei, they could just go out of their way to capture and experiment on another's.
I went over the list of Ashikabis in my head, trying to guess from what I knew of them just which one could be a possible suspect. I started formulating a checklist of common magi traits: if they were a supervisor they would have a long genealogical lineage in the area, and most likely have respectable financial resources. With those two traits in mind, they would most likely tend to prefer an elaborate wardrobe: back when I was at the Clock Tower you could almost always tell which magi came from long lines by how fancy their outfits were, like how expensive the suit the Archibald had been wearing.
So far, just about everything I was coming up with would indicate the Ashikabi of the South, Mikogami Hayato. His profile fit, and he tended to favor elaborate suits from the pictures I've had collected on him, and he had gathered quite a number of Sekirei. He was a bit young, but age wasn't always the best indicator of potential lethalness with magi. Illya had been young too, but she had been absolutely ruthless the second time we met when she unleashed Berserker on Rin and I.
But beyond fitting the profile, I had no other way to confirm my suspicion. I had never even interacted with Mikogami, so I had no previous incidences to review to help confirm or disprove my theory. If I had talked with him, or seen him in person, he might say or reveal something which would reveal…
Just like that, as though a switch in my head had been thrown my thoughts froze.
There was someone else who fit the profile: someone who I had spoken with, someone who had twice before made references to something that could indicate knowledge of magecraft.
"Shirou-tan?" Matsu's voice brought me back to the present, and I realized that everyone in the room was watching me with concern in their expressions. I realized that I had slipped into 'battle mode', but made no effort to come out of it. "Is Shirou-tan still thinking about Matsu's videos?" the hacker asked, a note of forced joviality present as she no doubt tried to figure out why I had suddenly changed moods. "If so, he could always help Matsu make a new…"
"Matsu," I cut her off, voice cold. "I need to call Hiroto Minaka."
"What?" Matsu blinked, nonplussed at the unexpected demand. "But Shirou-tan, why would you…"
"I need to talk to him," I cut her off again. "I need to do it right now. I don't care what you have to do, get him on the phone." Without waiting for a response, not even caring if it would be necessary or not, I put my hand behind her head and pulled her into a kiss. She squeaked slightly, and several in the room made sounds of surprise as her wings erupted. I kept the kiss brief enough to supply her prana before pulling back. "Do it," I ordered her, "now."
"Y-yes, Ashikabi-sama," she stuttered, still reeling from the unexpected Norito. Her eyes fluttered briefly before closing.
"Shirou," Tsukiumi scowled, hands on her hips. "Just what is going on?"
"I need to confirm something," I told her shortly, focusing more of my attention on the doohickey in Matsu's hand. The screen flickered, briefly shifting to a series of numbers as the hacker's powers flowed into it. It would do better than my phone for what came next.
"Emiya-kun," Miya was scowling lightly. "This is unlike you."
"I need to know," I stressed the word 'need'. I needed to know I was wrong, that this crazy idea wasn't true. I had to know right now, because if I was right…
"Here, Ashikabi-sama," Matsu declared in a breathy voice, holding up the tablet so that I could face it directly. The screen flickered, and then shifted.
"…and with the project's progress, we can expect our stocks to rise by five to ten percent over the course of the next sixteen months," a familiar voice came through, and my eyes narrowed as I heard my mother in the background. The screen was focusing on a bored looking Minaka, though the Director of MBI hadn't noticed me yet. It looked like Matsu had managed to connect me to the Director in the middle of some kind of meeting, probably through a tablet like the one I was currently looking at. "Shareholders are expected…"
"Hiroto Minaka," I interrupted, and the man I was addressing blinked in surprise, jumping slightly as he searched for where the unexpected voice had come from. He caught sight of me in a moment, and after another blink he started to smile, beaming at me.
"Shirou?" I heard Takami's voice rise in surprise. "What are…"
"Ah!" Minaka interrupted her, clapping his hands happily. He didn't seem the least bit put out to have me pretty much forcing my way through his systems without warning. "Wonderful! You always cut me off before we can finish speaking!" He seemed genuinely pleased to have the chance to continue our conversations. "Tell me, have you reconsidered the offer I had Takami-kun make you? Because if so, we can have you onboard in no time! We even have some spare uniforms…"
"Hiroto Minaka," I cut him off, swallowing around a dry mouth. "I have come to request permission to create a workshop from the Second Owner of these lands."
There. Suitably vague enough that if I was wrong, I could brush this all off without having revealed anything. Minaka practically owned Shin Tokyo, so the title 'Second Owner' could fit him well enough, and no matter how important a workshop was to a magus, non-magi still used the term…
Minaka stared at me for a moment, and then he smiled.
It wasn't his usual grin. It was a slow, reserved smirk. He reached up, and tugged off his glasses, and his entire body posture changed, no longer his usual manic cheer as he leaned backwards in his chair, his demeanor changing to cold arrogance.
"Well," he declared, still smiling. "It certainly took you long enough, Sealing Designee Emiya."
I felt a cold form deep in my gut.
"You're a magus," I confirmed. Above the screen, I heard Matsu stifle a gasp, a sound the rest of the room had less success in concealing.
"Shirou," Takami spoke up again, leaning forward so that I could catch sight of her on the screen as well. Her eyes were narrow, and she had a cigarette in her mouth. "Just what do you think you're doing?" she demanded, obvious anger warring with confusion in her voice. "How did you contact this line? What are…"
"Takami-kun," Minaka interrupted her, one hand coming up to turn her chin towards him. She resisted, before turning a glare at him. "Sleep."
Just like that, my mother's eyes rolled back in her head, and her legs went out from beneath her. Minaka slowed her fall, slightly, but in a moment she had slipped out of the screen.
Hypnotism. If there was any chance of it before, any lingering doubt, that ended it. I heard a screeching noise, and realized that I had clenched both hands, including the recovering one, into fists as I saw the man in front of me so casually exercise his will on the woman who had birthed me.
"Impossible," I heard Homura choke out as she realized that the man she hated more than anyone else in the world, the man she actively blamed for the indignities her species went through, and who she frequently tried to convince me to kill, proved that he was a mage.
"I hope you forgive me if I make sure this conversation remains private," Minaka addressed me casually. "Takami is a fine woman, and a wonderful administrator, but I prefer that she remains ignorant of our way of life. You understand, of course?"
"Yes," I told him bluntly. Even if I didn't like the thought of him using magecraft on my mother, the thought of her getting involved was even worse. I noticed the way Matsu's grip seemed to be getting shaky, and reached up to relieve her of the doohickey. It wouldn't do if this conversation got interrupted due to her dropping it. I made my way to the table, picking my way through my frozen flock before placing it on the table and taking a seat. "Your glasses," I noted, nodding briefly at them. "Your trigger?"
"Indeed," he confirmed my guess about his mnemonic device for switching between his public and magus persona , his smile stretching slightly. "I considered using my hairstyle in tandem, but decided it would be in bad taste."
"I'm afraid I don't understand your meaning," I apologized, and he sighed.
"Never mind," he declared. "It was a bit before your time, and I doubt you have an appreciation of classic anime." I was honestly confused by his reference, but in the background I heard Matsu and Kazehana groan, and despite the fact that Miya was looking as serious as I'd ever seen her, even she palmed her forehead for some reason.
"Well," Matsu muttered. "At least his sense of humor is still the same." The hacker had pulled off her glasses, and had taken a seat where she could see the screen, staring with an intensity that assured me she was giving this revelation all of her attention.
"If you don't mind me asking," Minaka continued urbanely. "What gave me away? I was certain that you hadn't managed to discover my affiliation."
"A number of things," I admitted. I wasn't going to admit that I would never have figured it out if Rin hadn't clued me in. "You have the same fashion sense as many in the Clock Tower," I nodded at his pure white suit with its sweeping collar and cape. "Not to mention that you've twice mentioned the Age of the Gods." I had thought he was just being grandiose, an unaware who happened to enjoy dramatics. It hadn't even occurred to me that maybe he was referencing that era purposefully. "You certainly have the position of influence necessary to function as a Second Owner. I had thought it strange that the Sekirei hadn't been discovered by any of the organization that keeps track of the supernatural, but if you were using your influence to cover up their existence it would make sense."
"You have no idea how much effort it took to keep some of the nosier ones away," he sighed, rubbing his forehead. "Especially when a Sealing Designee decided to settle here. Thankfully you know how the Association is with the orient. I have had to deal with some of the more persistent freelancers personally." He smirked slightly, giving me an amused look. "Of course, there were also the more prominent searchers. But you handled them yourself quite well."
A chill went down my spine. Freelancers were generally tough and ruthless. They had to be to hunt down the dead apostles or Sealing Designees on their own, but they worked outside the bounds of the Clock Tower, so no one in the Association would care if a few of them disappeared. If Minaka had managed to put down people like that it meant he wasn't a minor talent. And it would explain how someone like the Archibald, or even Rin and Saber had managed to find me. The Archibald's were a powerful bloodline, and it might have raised suspicion if Minaka had openly moved against them. On Rin's behalf, she had managed to gain enough support to have even the typical fate of a Sealing Designee put aside, so moving against her directly would have brought just as much attention to him.
And after I had handled them, permanently in the Archibald's case, the only report the Clock Tower would have received was whatever Minaka felt like telling them. No wonder there was never a follow up after I had dealt with the Archibald and the Fraga.
"Thanks for that," I told him, concealing my unease behind my blank expression. Even if it had been for his own purposes, he had made my life a whole lot easier than it could have been.
"It wasn't for you," he told me, narrowing his eyes. "If the rumors about you are true, Emiya, than you would understand: nothing is unforgiveable in the defense of your workshop."
The cold in my stomach grew. "Of course," I agreed with him. "I'll be sure to avoid yours appropriately."
"That's rather impossible, I'm afraid," Minaka told me. "After all, this whole city is my workshop."
"My apologies then," I told him. "You've been unusually lenient with my presence."
"You were rather important to Takami," he admitted, shrugging briefly. "And she is rather competent. I would prefer not to have to get rid of that kind of talent. It would have been hard to replace someone with her experience, both in the business and with the technology."
"Honestly, that was the thing which threw me off the most," I told him, keeping this conversation civil as best I could. I'd had some experience dealing with magi back in the Clock Tower, and I knew better than to lose my temper so early. Most magi see that as a sign of weakness, and considering my position I could absolutely not be seen as weak. Not right now. It was hard though. My teeth clenched at the casual way he mentioned considering having disposed of my mother: a somewhat familiar feeling of familial protective rage. "Our first meeting: the very thought of a magus chiding someone for being bad with technology is ridiculous."
"Oh, I've always been rather progressive," Minaka's smile grew. "This may seem a little unexpected, but I was always a bit of a fan of the Magus Killer in my youth. The way he could accomplish so much using mundane methods…" he trailed off, shaking his head as he gave a low chuckle. "Kiritsugu Emiya was truly amazing in that way."
My jaw clenched noticeably at the reference to my father. I relaxed almost immediately, but the way Minaka's smile grew briefly let me know he caught the slip.
"So you admired my father?" I asked, and Minaka's eyes flashed briefly for some reason. His eyes briefly narrowed before he caught himself. It was my turn to enjoy a small moment of triumph, though honestly I had no idea why that comment in particular had thrown him off. "I'm certain he would have been thrilled at your success."
"Oh?" Minaka raised an eyebrow at the comment. "Really?"
"No," I admitted, shaking my head. "Actually, he would probably have killed you by now. But it didn't seem polite to say that outright."
"Your courtesy is appreciated," he told me dryly.
"What are the two of you doing?" a new voice interrupted our conversation, and I glanced over to confirm that it was Homura who had spoken up from behind me. The fire user had narrowed eyes, and the air around her was wavering with an intense heat. "Shirou, why are you having a civil conversation with that man?" Her gaze was furious, and she was glaring at the screen with unnerving intensity. I realized that most of my flock had gathered behind me so they could see the screen as well.
"Oh," Minaka spoke up. "You seem… different, Homura-kun." He leaned forward to better judge the fire user, and then he smiled wider. "It seems that your bond has had an interested effect. Congratulations."
"Shut up," Homura snapped at him, her arms coming up as though to conceal her breasts from the man. She looked disgusted, as though even the thought of the man she hated complimenting her was repulsive.
"That being said," it was Miya this time who spoke up. I glanced at the number zero one, and was not surprised to find her eyes open and her posture ramrod straight. "Homura-chan has a point." She had assumed a position at my side, where she would be visible to the screen. Minaka didn't seem the least bit concerned by the arrival of the most powerful of the Sekirei. "This hardly seems the time for idle banter. Minaka," she addressed the other man directly. "Is it true?"
"Of course," he confirmed. "While I would have probably found it amusing as joke, do you really think that I would have been able to get Emiya-kun to play along?"
"You neglected to mention your unusual talent when we first met," she pointed out, eyes narrowing as she did so. Years ago, she had made a deal with this man, after all. If she had never known his nature, had never even suspected at the existence of magecraft until it nearly cut her in half, than that meant he had managed to deceive her for decades.
I got the impression that she was definitely not happy with the fact that his betrayal and manipulation of her species had extended even further than she had ever guessed.
"Of course not," he snorted slightly. "If you suspected, it would have made things so much harder to properly study you." He put his elbow on the arm rest of his chair, propping his chin up on his open palm. "Your species is quite interesting, by the way." His smile widened. "Especially those artifacts of yours, the Jinki. Quite interesting indeed."
And that was the crux of it. That was why I had absolutely had to know if my suspicions about Minaka were true or not.
I had been so worried about what would happen if a magus were to learn about the Sekirei, about what they would do to them. I had been even more concerned about what one might do with the Jinki.
And all this time, a magus had already found the Sekirei. He had had access to them from when they were nothing more than fertilized eggs for god's sake. He had been able to study them at every stage of their development, had by their invitation even been involved in modifying them.
And he had had years to study the Jinki.
This was the worst case scenario. No, this was so far beyond the worst case that it made the worst case sound like a picnic in the park.
"And for what purpose did you keep this secret?" Miya requested. Despite her even tone, I could tell that Miya was very likely considering something drastic at this moment: the scent of her power, the scent of blood, it had grown until it was nearly overwhelming.
"What purpose?" Minaka seemed amused by the question. His gaze drifted from Miya to focus back on me. "Surely Emiya-kun has already explained why I would want to study a species as unusual as yours. It's the same reason any other magi would."
Miya glanced at me briefly, a look which demanded that I explained. I didn't meet it. I was kept all my focus on Minaka.
"The Akashic Record," I named the goal of all magi, the ideal that many who use magecraft endlessly strive for, the accomplishment that they would commit any deed no matter how foul to have.
"The what?" Musubi repeated curiously, again showing herself to be the one least affected by the dramatic revelations around her. Tsukiumi was nibbling her thumb again, Kazehana was drinking from the bottle directly, Akitsu was an alabaster kneeling statue at my left, and Homura was still shimmering. Well, Kuu was just looking back and forth between the screen and me, looking confused. Musubi's question seemed echoed by most of them, a reminder that I had only ever discussed some of the more intricate aspects of magecraft with Matsu.
Despite that, Miya reacted like she understood my meaning, and I remembered Mister Duckie and the landlady's own peeping habits. If the situation wasn't what it was, I might have been offended at having what amounted to a date between Matsu and I being spied on.
"Exactly," Minaka nodded, his tone picking up. Despite the reserve he had been showing ever since he switched to his magus persona, his enthusiasm was rising, a glimpse of his passion for his research. "Not only a new species, one with the ability to manipulate prana so effectively, but more than that: one which had interbred with humanity in the past, to such an extent that there are so many who have inherited some form of genetic information from them!"
"There are dozens of different creatures that have interbred with humanity over the years," I pointed out, leaning forwards at Minaka's excited declaration. If he was willing to discuss the fruits of his research, I might be able to get some glimpse as to the exact nature of his plans. "It's not that uncommon, especially in Japan."
"Ah, but Emiya-kun," the magus' smile grew. "Very few to the extent as the Sekirei have. Most bloodlines specifically bred to cultivate the traits of their progenitors, and thus the numbers of hybrids were purposefully kept low. The Sekirei descendants had no such goals. They simply spread, their genetic information diversifying and diminishing over the generations. But even if their descendants slowly lost their abilities, the genes remain. And they remained active, no matter how diminished."
"How can you make a claim like that?" I countered, trying to egg him on.
"For one, only those who have Sekirei descendants are capable of acting as Ashikabi," he told me. "And just look at how easily the modern Sekirei were able to find those who had that legacy? But if that wasn't enough, MBI has had its own way to check."
"MBI," I repeated, the focus on his company rather than his own research catching my attention. My eyes widened involuntarily as I realized what he was implying. "Your products!"
The very reason that I had encountered Tatami was that buggy machine designed to read DNA from nothing more than a breath. It was to be used in every airport in Japan, after all. I imagine for someone like Minaka it wouldn't have been hard to incorporate some way to check for Sekirei heritage. And how many other of MBI's products were out there? They were one of the foremost producers for medical technology. They could have unobtrusive testing methods at nearly every hospital in the world at this point.
"Exactly!" Minaka slapped his free hand down on his arm rest. "The percentage of those who have some Sekirei heritage is far higher than you suspect. And having had pure members of the species available has made it easier to identify those who have been interbred."
"Even if that's true," Miya spoke up, eyes still hard as she studied the man who had betrayed her, time and time again. "How is it your intention to use this information to achieve your goals?"
"Now, now, Miya-kun," Minaka slipped back to a more reserved expression. "Surely Emiya-kun has explained a magus' stance on mysteries, hasn't he?"
I grimaced, knowing that for now I wasn't going to get anything else out of him. It wasn't uncommon for a magus to willing share a bit of their research. After all, that was part of what the Mage Association was created for, as a method of expanding the magi's knowledge of the world. However, a magus' research and what they could accomplish with it were two different things entirely. Not even torture would be enough to get Minaka to reveal his mystery, the culmination of his research that he had obvious confidence might even be enough to open the way to Akasha to him.
"All that aside," I spoke up, willing to take the conversation in a different direction. It wasn't his mysteries I was worried about, it was his intentions. "Just what do you plan to do now, Minaka? Even if you have a way of claiming Akasha, it's meaningless if you don't have a way to defeat its guardians…"
I had meant the probe as just a way to maybe get the other magus to accidently slip and maybe reveal a bit more of his intentions, but even as I began, I froze again. It was as though just the knowledge of Minaka's nature was that missing piece of a puzzle that I had been trying to put together for months now, and now that I knew all of the pieces that had confused me for so long were starting to fall into place, the picture they described getting clearer and clearer.
"Minaka," I whispered, teeth gritting as one of the more frustrating mysteries was revealed. "You son of a bitch."
"Oh," Minaka smirked. "I had heard that you were rather dim, nothing but muscle that the Enforcers had been hoping to recruit. It seems you can be unexpectedly perceptive at times though." He must have realized that I had already figured out a piece of his plan.
"What is he talking about, Emiya-kun?" Miya prompted, eyes narrowed as she switched between looking at me and at the tablet. It looked as though she had resigned herself to not being able to lead this conversation, too unused to the diverse and exotic topics that we as magi were familiar with. Instead, she was relying on me to be able to explain just how twisted this maze of a conversation had become.
"The true reason behind the Sekirei Plan," I told her softly, face rigid as tried to mask my growing rage with my 'battle persona'. At my side, Miya stiffened, and I heard Homura and Matsu suck in a sharp breath. "It was never a matter of finding the strongest, or destroying the species, or anything like that. The whole time, it was never about the Sekirei at all: it was about the Counter Force."
"Well done," Minaka congratulated me congenially at my deduction. He looked oddly proud, as though he was pleased to have the chance to show off just how thorough his preparations were.
"The Counter Force works by aiding someone with the capability of stopping the threat," I went on. "It finds, empowers, and directs that person, whoever it may be. There's no way of telling who, or where, or even how they'd be empowered though. So in order to identify anyone who could be a threat to him, Minaka simply made and directed the best chance to stop him himself."
"But that doesn't make sense," Homura protested, and I felt the heat coming off of her as she ground her teeth in frustration. "It's like setting yourself up to fail! That's crazy!"
"No," I disagreed, reflectively tracing a copy of Bakuya and Kanshou. "The Counter Force only empowers enough to be a match, not enough to guarantee victory. And as long as you know where the blow is coming from, you can prepare for it, plan for it. You can overcome it."
I had to suppress a bitter smile. That principle was the very reasoning behind my sword style, after all. Did this count as irony, to have the same principle wielded against me? It was almost enough to inspire awe in me at the other magus' move; how brazenly reckless!
"Whatever the case might be," Miya broke in, voice colder and harder than I had ever heard coming from her. "The machinations of wizards are meaningless to me. My question is this: why did involve my feathers in this madness?"
I had the impression that depending on Minaka's answer, the number zero one might choose a response from many different potential reactions. I also had the impression that depending on his answer, those responses might be very bad for his upcoming health.
If Minaka was aware of the thin line he was treading, he gave no indication that he was concerned by it. Instead he just looked at me, and beckoned with a hand as though encouraging me to continue.
"Because the Counter Force can only affect things of terrestrial origin," I explained, never taking my eye off of him. "If his plan was to line up any potential threats to his goal, than the Sekirei were wild cards. There was no way of knowing how they'd react if they found out, or if they might be able to stop his attempt. So the best way to keep something you can anticipate in line was to just attach them to something you could see coming."
Miya's eyes narrowed, and she understood.
The first two aspects of the whole Sekirei Plan had been to get all the Sekirei winged, after all. Each and every member of the species, to have them attach themselves to a human, to find their mate. Minaka had even gone out of his way to ensure that they all found an Ashikabi, going so far as to send freaking text messages to known Ashikabi's if it looked like there might be some issue like he had with Kusano. When enough of them were winged, he had sealed down the city, making sure that every Sekirei, every potential threat, was confined in one area, the place where he could watch them, and the human's they had bonded themselves to, where he could make sure that their movements were tracked.
And now, the only member of a species which represented one of the biggest threats to his attempt at Akasha was sitting beside me, quivering with growing anger, and even then I doubted it would be enough. Minaka had to know how powerful Miya was, had to have anticipated that he might not be able to leash her so easily. There was no way he hadn't spent however many decades this had been going on without having thought of some way to neutralize her.
Without anyone knowing his goal, without anyone being able to stop him in time, he had effectively ended the threat of the Sekirei before they had even known there was a danger.
"Minaka," Miya murmured, and in that word I could hear all the frustration, all the betrayal, all the pain that she had been forced to endure all these years coming to a head. To me, the word sounded like the proclamation of a death sentence.
"Now, now, Miya-kun," Minaka repeated, 'tutting' softly. He definitely had some sort of plan, if he would risk sounding that condescending to a creature like her. "I have given you exactly what you bargained for: your feathers are free, and protected. They all have their Ashikabi, and can be with them without fear of hurting them. I have done exactly what we agreed on."
"You have used and manipulated every one of us, from the very beginning," Miya rebuked, and rather than be offended Minaka just shrugged.
"Well, that too," he admitted casually. "But I still followed through, regardless." He nodded towards me, still smiling. "And look, if you still feel you have cause to complain, I have even given you the method in which to avenge yourself. Feel free to join the Plan, and perhaps you might get that chance."
Miya's jaw tightened at the provocation, but despite his goading made no other move. I was thankful for that much: put aside the somewhat disturbing implied course of Miya of all people getting winged, by me nonetheless and all the consequences something like that might have, as it stood right now she was still the only Sekirei fully free his machinations.
My mind was already turning over how that might be used, but only in part. Most of my thoughts were focused on something else.
"Minaka," I began slowly, interrupting the magus' taunting of the alien, "you seem to have put a lot of thought into this. If you've gone so far as to prepare a counter for the Counter Force, than tell me, have you prepared for what would happen if the Force was stopped?"
The Counter Force was only the first of the defensive options available to Alaya, after all. It was the second one that worried me: the Counter Guardians.
When the Guardians moved, nothing was left behind.
"Them, " Minaka sighed, frowning slightly. "Now they, they are a bit trickier," he finally admitted. "But yes," he continued. "I believe I have prepared for them. My countermeasures should be able to deal with them."
"Them?" Musubi repeated, still sounding confused. Most of the room seemed equally unsure of just who Minaka and I were talking about, but Matsu's face was grim as she called to mind our discussion on the Guardians.
"Should?" I repeated sharply, not liking that qualifier. "And what do you mean by 'should'?"
"One in three," he admitted with a shrug. I stared at him, unable to believe what he was saying.
One in three? That was the best he could do? I mean, even coming up with a chance of stopping the Guardians was unbelievable, they were empowered by the spirit of Humanity itself…
"The Jinki," I whispered. It was the only thing that made sense, the only possibility. The Guardians were powerful, but they were of the Earth. If there was anything that could stop them, it had to be something not of the Earth.
"Precisely," Minaka agreed. He shrugged again, unconcerned as he elaborated. "All things considered, there is a chance that all this was unnecessary," he waved a hand as though to indicate Shin Tokyo, the Sekirei Plan, all of his preparations. "After all, so much of this resolves around the Sekirei. It was entirely possible that Alaya wouldn't be able to intervene at all; she does nothing in regards to the Dead Apostles, after all. Still, better safe than sorry."
"'Better safe than sorry'?" I parroted, unable to believe the cavalier way this man was dealing with the potential intervention of the Guardians. Didn't he know what they did?! No, there was no way he truly comprehended what it meant for the Guardians to move.
"The Guardians destroy everything related to the crisis, Minaka," I snapped at him, leaning forward and letting my swords disappear so I could slap my palms against the table in front of me in an effort to get across how dangerous the situation was. Around the room, many of my flock flinched at the sudden sound. "Don't you understand that? Everything! And you're still going to go through with this, even though the best you can manage is 'one in three'?"
"They would destroy all of Shin Tokyo," Matsu whispered, disbelief in her voice as she recalled my explanation of the level the Guardians operated on. "Millions of innocent people, the Sekirei…"
"It's not just that," I interrupted her, still glaring at Minaka as my voice rose. "They destroy everything related to the threat, not just the place. If the Counter Guardians ruled that the threat resulted from the existence of Sekirei descendants, than they wouldn't just target Shin Tokyo, they'd kill everyone that even has even a drop of Sekirei blood in them!"
It was a very real possibility, and just the thought of it was enough to terrify me. The Counter Guardians were Alaya's final solution, the indiscriminate destruction of all that might threaten humanity. Without mercy, without restraint, they destroyed. But worse than that was the way they manifested, as a natural disaster. It was bad enough to think what might happen if they decided that just destroying Shin Tokyo was enough to end the threat, but if the worst case scenario happened again, and they decided to target everything related to the Sekirei as well, than what would happen? Minaka had just finished describing how widespread the bloodlines really were, so how would the Counter Guardians manifest if they had to destroy such a large part of the population?
This wasn't just the about the destruction of one city; this was potentially an act which would affect all of humanity, worldwide. And if they did that, the destruction might occur in a way which might affect even the purely human populace as well, much like Vesuvius hadn't distinguished between magi and innocent when it had erupted.
If the Counter Guardians manifested at such a level, than it could mean more than just genocide, it could potentially end up as an extinction level event.
"Now, Emiya-kun," Minaka began, remaining calm in the face of my growing fury. "I'm sure that's a worst case scenario…"
I interrupted him, not willing to listen to whatever excuse he had prepared.
"No, it isn't!" I snapped at him. "I've met the Guardians before! I know what they do, I've seen it with my own eyes!" Memories of Archer flashed through my brain, searing my forehead with images of destruction and death. "Have you even considered just how bad this could be if they intervene?"
I trailed off, nearly panting with rage and fear as I demanded an answer from the other magus. Minaka waited a moment, politely checking to see if I had finished my rant.
"Yes," he finally admitted once he was sure I was done. "I have considered it."
"And?" I demanded as he stopped at that, needing to hear his response.
"That is a possibility I'm willing to accept," he informed me, calmly announcing his decision to gamble on the lives of millions, maybe even billions, in his quest for Akasha.
His words should have inspired rage, or hate, or fear, but in the face of that calm pronouncement, I could only feel a sweeping sense of calm settle over me, an epiphany that robbed me of any other potential response.
"You're insane," I said out loud my tone somewhere between disbelief and resignation. "You are really, truly, and inexcusably insane."
"Some would say so," he snorted, obvious dismissal in his tone at my accusation. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to wake up my head geneticist and continue a meeting. Is there anything else?"
"I'm going to kill you," I told him bluntly. He snorted again.
"Well then, do your best in the Plan, and maybe you'll get the chance," he told me, already reaching for his glasses as he prepared to slip into his public persona. He paused when I shook my head.
"No," I told him, still being blunt. "I'm going to kill you tomorrow, at noon, at MBI headquarters."
This time his eyes narrowed, and his expression hardened as he took in my announcement. Then he smiled, cold yet satisfied.
"Very well," he told me. "From here out, I shall interpret any movement by you as the actions of the Counter Force."
With that he reached over, and calmly turned off the camera, the screen on my end going dark.
Silence settled in Izumo, until finally Musubi raised a hand.
"Um," she began, in a normal, albeit confused voice. "Musubi is confused. What just happened?"
It didn't take long with Matsu's help to explain the situation to the rest of my flock. The hacker proved much better at explaining complex mystic phenomenon in a way that those less informed about magecraft could understand.
"This is bad," Homura finally declared, the fire user clenching her biceps with folded arms as she scowled, eyes narrowed. Across from him, Tsukiumi chewed her thumb, nodding along with her old rival.
"All this time," Kazehana murmured, staring at her bottle as though she was looking at something far behind it. It must be especially hard for her, considering her old affection for the Director. To find out that all this time, the one she had feelings for had concealed so much from her, had used her and her species so much more than she had guessed even in her darkest day.
"Well," Musubi at least seemed unaffected, as always. "What are we going to do, Shirou-sama?"
"Well," I began flatly, "I suppose the first thing to do in this situation is concede that I was wrong in at least two areas. Asama-san," I turned to the landlady. The lavenderette's eyes flickered to me from where she had been looking down in her lap, expression severe. "It looks like you were right all along. I really am part Sekirei. And Homura," I turned to the fire user, "you were right too. It turns out killing Minaka really will solve everything."
"Why does that not relieve me as much as I thought it would?" Homura muttered, wrinkling her nose at the irony of the situation.
"Is now really the time to be making such tasteless jokes, Emiya-kun?" Miya was far less amused at my concession.
"No," I sighed. Tiredly, I scrubbed a hand through my hair, pushing back my bangs. "It probably isn't."
"Ashikabi-sama," Matsu spoke up. Her eyes were closed and her eyelids flickering. She was probably still on her Norito from earlier, and she was most likely sifting through her own data, though what she was searching for I couldn't be certain of. "What are we going to do?"
I sighed, still rubbing my forehead as the Sekirei of Wisdom turned to me for guidance. "Exactly what I said I was going to do: tomorrow at noon I'll go to MBI, fight my way to where Minaka is, and kill him."
Silence greeted my proclamation, Matsu's eyes opening as she gave me a confused look. It was echoed by Homura, and by Tsukiumi to a lesser extent.
"That seems unusually blunt, Lover-kun," Kazehana was the first to speak up, looking away from her bottle. "Before, you tended to be a bit more cautious."
"Because before I had options," I told her, battle mode in place. "Right now, we don't have any."
"The situation might be more complicated than even I suspected before," Miya noted, giving me a searching look at my grim assessment of the situation. "But surely it's not as unfavorable as you seem to think."
"Indeed," Tsukiumi declared, regaining some of her usual fire. "The churl is still only a human…"
"A human who has mastered the ability to manipulate the fabric of reality at will," I cut her off. "If he's a Second Owner, he must come from a long blood line, and most likely has far more in the way of mysteries than even an average magus. More than that, he has the resources of one of the most powerful corporations in the world, enough to have bought an entire city and an army to go with it. Plus he'll be in the center of his power, a place he would where he would have had years to build his mystic defenses up."
Tsukiumi's jaw tightened as I pointed out the facts. This wasn't some fight between Sekirei on the streets, this was a battle with a magus. It wasn't a matter of matching force with force, it was a match between mysteries, where even if you have your best prepared it might prove to be absolutely meaningless compared to what the other's best was.
"If things are as unfavorable as you make them seem, then why would you deliberately seek him out?" Miya pointed out, but even as she questioned me one hand came up to her chest, perhaps unconsciously tracing the scar her one encounter with a magus had given her.
"Because there isn't much of a choice to do otherwise," I declared. "There's no telling how much longer he will need before he can complete his experiment, so he has to be killed quickly."
"If he just needs to be killed, then why are you going to do it in person?" Homura demanded. For all that she had been hoping for this, she sounded more concerned with my safety that the death of her foe. "Didn't you have plans to just destroy the tower?" she reminded me of one of my original options for dealing with the Sekirei Plan, but I shook my head.
"Not enough, not anymore," I countered. "Even if I destroyed it when it was guaranteed that he was present, there would be no guarantee that he had died. There's no way of telling what kind of protection he might have present. He could very well live through the collapse of the building, or even have some method to evacuate on hand to escape." I drummed my finger on the table as I went over the facts as much for my own benefit as for my flock. I needed to straighten my thoughts, to get all this new information in line. "Earlier, he claimed the whole city as his workshop. He must have other facilities prepared, in case something happened or even if he just had an experiment that he needed extra security around, and we have no idea where they are right now. If it failed to kill him, he could just go underground and we might never find him in time."
"So what if he just runs the moment we show up?" Homura countered, narrowing her eyes as she considered my logic.
"Then he would be leaving his stronghold, access to all his research, and all his companies resources, in the reach of someone who has the reason and the ability to potentially use it against him," I rebuked her argument. "He has to fight me, otherwise I would threaten everything he's worked for, and the best place to do that is in his own stronghold."
"So in the end, you've both pressured the other into a confrontation which neither of you want but neither of you can avoid," Homura concluded, scowling. "Shirou, you're talking about going against all of MBI at their center of power! They have an entire army, for god's sake!"
"Which they won't be able to use," I shook my head. "He'll have had plenty of time to clear out the building, and he won't be able to involve his army in this." I couldn't suppress a slightly satisfied smile. "He might have a stronghold on the city, but he can't risk having too many witnesses for the battle."
"Why…" Matsu began, eyes narrowed as she tried to grasp the tactical advantage I was referring too, and she got it before she finished the second word of her sentence. "The Mage Association!"
"Exactly," I nodded at the hacker. "He's already straining his resources to keep the Sekirei under wrap, and they spend most of their time fighting out of sight, not targeting humans, mostly keeping to the rules of the Sekirei Plan. If he tries to bring the uninitiated against me, than he risks even more people being exposed to the supernatural when I resort to magecraft."
"But if you do that," Matsu countered, eyes narrowed, "then you risk the Mage Association finding where you are, Ashikabi-sama."
"Good," I nodded my head. "Hell, I should probably send them invitations right now. If they found out that I was risking the secrecy of magecraft, than they will send the Enforcers. If the Enforcers arrive, and find the Sekirei, and find out that Minaka is involved with something which also seriously threatened the secrecy of magecraft as well, he could find himself getting his own Sealing Designation."
"You'd use yourself as bait," Kazehana summed it up, frowning as her inherent Sekirei nature caused dislike at the thought of putting me at risk. Her eyes widened a moment later as she realized the full implications. "Or rather, you're forcing him to respond to keep you from using yourself as bait."
"It really is a fight neither of you want but neither of you can get away from," Homura realized, her angry look relaxing slightly, honest surprise leaking into her face. "It's like every advantage either of you has is automatically blocked by the other…"
"The Counter Force only gives you what you need to match the threat," I reminded her. "It's up to you to use it." I relaxed slightly, still in battle mode, but growing confident that things weren't impossible at this point. "And you Sekirei are outside of the Force's reach too, so it's possible that for once in history the Force might actually have a vessel that is overpowered for the battle…"
I trailed off, jumping slightly as the phone in my pocket started to ring. Cursing, I pulled the thing out. I thought I had finally gotten myself on a no call list, and still those lousy jerks won't…
This time my thoughts trailed off as I flipped open my phone to read the text.
"Never mind," I muttered, cursing myself for the moment of overconfidence.
"'Ding, ding, ding!'" Matsu leaned over to read the message. "'It's time for the final match of the Third Phase! Participation is mandatory! Time and place is noon, right out front of MBI corporate headquarters! See map attachment for details. Prizes include Jinki, wealth, and even a coveted "get out of jail free" card! That's right, a chance at even a pass from the rest of the Plan! Details to be announced later!'"
"'Get out of jail free'," Miya repeated, sounding resigned as she palmed her face. "Oh dear."
"Every Sekirei in the Plan will be there," I agreed, already recalculating my odds. "Even the ones who don't normally fight. And I don't need that many guesses about what those unannounced details will be."
Looks like Minaka had an army after all: an army of desperate, overpowered, and violent aliens with their equally cornered partners.
"Well," Miya sighed again. Despite her words, her expression was hard. "It seems that given the circumstances, it might be best if I were to accompany you tomorrow, Emiya-kun."
Matsu sucked in a hard gasp, her glasses falling from nerveless fingers. Nearby, the bottle in Kazehana's fingers shattered as she squeezed it too hard. Behind me, a trickle of flame erupted from Homura's shoulder as her own shock cost her temporary control of her power.
I, on the other hand, had to suppress a sudden urge to vomit.
The smell of blood, so strong and so prevalent around the landlady, a smell to which I had grown accustomed to the point of ignoring, was no longer anything that could be disregarded. It was even worse than a physical smell. If I had been dropped in an ocean of blood, there would still be limits to how much my olfactory system could process. My psychic senses, on the other hand, had no boundary like that, and just the feel of her power was enough to trigger a gag.
Miya Asama, the number zero one, the greatest of the Sekirei, had just committed to openly moving against MBI. Disregarding her wish to remain a simple widow, her one desire to maintain the inn she had lived in with the man she loved, knowing full well what kind of battle awaited her, and, judging from the change in her power, fully prepared to bring the full strength of her might to bear.
I was a little scared at that moment. And hopeful, a little too.
But in the end, as much combat potential as Miya would bring, she couldn't come along.
"You can't," I managed to choke out, and the sharp look Miya gave me, the feel of that… I couldn't decide if it even qualified as blood lust at this point, it was more like it qualified as 'promise of bloodshed', whatever it was focusing on me. "You're still the only one unattached to the plan, Asama-san. And the Jinki. If I fail…"
Miya cocked her head to the side for a moment before she followed my train of thought.
Even if we knew 'of' Minaka's plans, we didn't actually 'know' them. There was no telling just what the specifics of his ritual were, or what he would need to accomplish it. Even with things looking as grim as they did, we might already have been able to stop Minaka just by following my original plan. As it stood right now, fully half of the Jinki were theoretically out of Minaka's reach, one with the Ashikabi of the South, the other three right here, in this building.
If Miya came along tomorrow, that would leave nearly a half of those artifacts alone and unguarded. If Minaka did need them, they could not be left alone.
More than that, a cynical side of me noted, we needed her away from me. The Sekirei Plan as a whole had been designed as much as a way to shackle the Sekirei as to manipulate the Counter Force, a way to bind them to human influence. Right now, Miya Asama was the only Sekirei who still existed beyond the reach of Alaya. She was a blind spot, one with terrible power and skill, and one who was now confirmed as being more than just a little committed to seeing that whatever Minaka was planning didn't happen.
Miya seemed to understand. Not just about the Jinki, but about her status as being a reserve ace.
"I am most unhappy with this arrangement, Emiya-kun," she noted, narrowed eyes as her power continued to roil around her. No one else in the room seemed to notice, and Kuu gave me a wide eyed worried look as I had to restrain a buckle. "Both with being a Jinki vault, and with your intentions for your role in the coming conflict."
Yeah, that was the insight of the former leader of the Disciplinary Squad. She definitely understood my unstated intentions. And even if she didn't like them, she apparently agreed with them.
"Look at it this way," I managed, "the only reason I saw through the Fraga's mystery was because she used it in front of me on you. It would only be fair if we reversed it with Minaka."
Miya's eyes narrowed even more, and I got the distinct impression she was very much unhappy with that answer.
"We will discuss your flippant attitude tomorrow, upon your return," she informed me. And just like that, even though her expression didn't change her power settled, and I breathed a shaky sigh of relief. "And if you fail to return, than the conversation will be far less pleasant than if you had returned immediately."
"Right," Musubi cheered, her un-phased cheer a breath of relief after a moment like that. "Tomorrow we get to fight all kinds of strong people! This is going to be so much fun!"
"Fun," Matsu muttered, shaking her head slowly as she did so. Her eyes fluttered briefly, and as though that were a signal she reached out to physically touch the doohickey, turning it off. I guessed she must have reached the end of her Norito at that point. She wiped at her eyes briefly, not returning her glasses yet, before she turned slightly to give me a slightly satisfied look. "Still at least it looks like you can learn, Ashikabi-sama."
"What do you mean?" I asked, blinking slightly in confusion at the unexpected praise. Her smile widened.
"Not once did you suggest that you were going to do this alone," the hacker pointed out to me, and I took a shallow breath as I realized she was right.
Always before I had made plans for just me, how just I would be the one to shoulder the responsibility. This time though, this time I hadn't even considered that I would be going into this alone, that I wouldn't be including my flock. It was such a dramatic change from my usual line of thought, and I hadn't even noticed it.
Was it because I had unconsciously recognized how serious the situation was, and had instinctively grasped at the necessary advantage they would present? Or was it because I had just grown so used to having them nearby that I had just started to automatically assume their presence and plan for it?
Or was it something else? Despite myself, Rin's words came back to me…
"It looks like Lover-kun has accepted the chain around his neck," Kazehana murmured, pulling a new sake bottle towards her, ignoring the broken glass from the one she had broken earlier as she parroted my thoughts, paraphrasing Rin's words from the bath. She sounded whimsical as she said them, but despite her good nature I closed my eyes briefly.
It wasn't just me anymore and now I recognized that fact, though it had taken having my nose ground in it before I did. If I went in alone, trying to protect them, and fell, they wouldn't be protected at all. These girls' lives were in my hand, and if I wanted to keep them well, I would have to keep myself well too.
Briefly, a thought flickered through my head.
'What if I just left'?
It was such a foreign thing for me to think, so unexpected, that I couldn't help but focus on it, and the idea it represented. What if I just left? I knew how to get past MBI's defenses, knew how to escape. I could be gone before Minaka even realized it, with my flock as well. My plan to steal the Jinki could still work, after all, or maybe Minaka's plot wouldn't end in the worst case scenario. Hell, if I wanted to stop him, I could always do what I had mentioned earlier, and just call the Enforcers. I could set the Mage Association on Minaka, and even use their distraction to help hide myself when we ran. For all that I was assuming that I was the agent of the Counter Force, what if I wasn't? What if one of the other Ashikabi's were the ones that had been selected, of what if the Counter Force wasn't even present, either because there was no significant threat or because the threat was based around extraterrestrial origins?
I could think of a dozen different ways this whole situation could turn out. I could escape, protecting my aliens, my mates, could trust in someone else to save the world.
And even as the thought occurred to me, I realized it was impossible.
I, as the existence known as Shirou Emiya could never do such a thing.
My ideal would never allow for such a thing. I could not turn my back on the possibility of danger that Minaka represented. It was a danger which could consume the world, which had destroyed hundreds of lives already. I as Shirou Emiya could do nothing else but respond to it, to try and save all who were endangered by it.
To do anything else was to give up, was to be like Archer. And I refused even the thought of it.
So even if it meant endangering my strange alien lovers, even if it could end my life and theirs with it, I could do nothing else but exactly what I had said I would. Risking their lives with mine, I would still follow through with my ideal.
Maybe they were right, Rin and Saber, my flock: maybe I had changed. But even if some parts of me were different now, if some of the wounds on my psyche might have healed, in the end this part of me remained untouched.
I really was distorted, wasn't I?
"I don't like it," Tsukiumi's voice cut through my introspection. My eyes shot open in surprise at her words, and I wondered dizzily if somehow, despite it being impossible, the water user had somehow heard or perceived my thoughts. Instead, I found her glaring not at me, but at Kazehana.
"What do you mean, Panty-Flasher-chan?" Kazehana asked, blinking in surprise of her own at the other Sekirei's declaration. The fierceness of Tsukiumi's retort appeared to have caught her by surprise.
"I said I don't like it," Tsukiumi repeated, stomping her foot with a huff. "Those words! Even if I understood what Rin-sama meant by them, I disagree with the way that girl said it!" She wheeled to point her finger at me, eyes blazing as she continued. "Listen to me, Shirou," she continued. "It doesn't matter to me what you chose to do, or why! Whether you want to collect the Jinki, run away, or stop the Sekirei Plan, it doesn't matter to me anymore!"
This was a far cry from the Tsukiumi of the past who had been adamant about competing in the Plan faithfully. It seems that with the recent revelations, she had decided to move on from her original goals.
"What does matter to me is that you are my husband!" she continued, nodding firmly as she did so. "I might disagree with some of what you chose to do," she admitted, "but that doesn't mean I won't support you as the strongest Sekirei! Whatever you desire to do, this Tsukiumi will make possible for you! I am not a chain around your neck. As your Sekirei I am the wings that will support you, no matter what! I will not have my love seen as some kind of hindrance!"
Her words struck me hard, and I had to keep myself from physically flinching at them. Nearby, Kazehana took a breath herself. "Well said, Panty-Flasher-chan," the wind user declared, sounding almost like a child who had just gotten scolded by an adult. Kazehana began to smile. "It really is that simple, isn't it?"
And I suppose, maybe it was. The love of a Sekirei was selfless, an overwhelming thing which compelled them to do anything that their Ashikabi requests of them, regardless of what they might otherwise wish. In the past it had frightened me slightly, to see someone so intoxicated by a feeling that it controlled their every action.
But then again, the same could be said about me, couldn't it? Was I any different, with my goal to save everyone? Did I really have the right to try and pass judgment on their nature, when mine was so similar? If anything, with that epiphany I felt like I had finally come to understand my flock:
Just like for me it was never wrong to want to help people, for them it was not wrong to do anything for their Ashikabi.
In the end just like it was simple enough for the Sekirei, my own resolution was equally uncomplicated: if I wanted to protect them, I just had to not die.
"A Sekirei declaration!" Musubi was bouncing excitedly in place, before finally seeming to lose an internal struggle as she launched herself at Tsukiumi in a hug. The blonde squawked slightly at the sudden contact, and started pulling at Musubi's arms as she tried to escape the shrine girl's embrace, but Musubi had her overmatched when it came to physical strength. "That was beautiful, Tsukiumi-san!"
"She's come a long way from 'I'll never have an Ashikabi', that much is for sure," Homura muttered, though she looked proud too, nodding her head perhaps unconsciously in unspoken agreement. Slowly, Akitsu began to clap softly as she got caught up in the mood of the room too.
"Hmmm," Matsu also seemed affected, but she limited herself to a slightly smile instead before she turned back to me. "All that aside," she continued, watching me patiently. "Do you have anything planned for tomorrow, Ashikabi-sama?"
"Actually," I nodded slowly, letting myself focus back on the upcoming conflict. "I think I do." Despite myself, I found myself smiling slightly as I once more engaged in one of my oldest and most familiar past times. "Time for a strategy session."
"Are you two still up?" Kazehana asked much later at night, peering through the door into Matsu's lair where the two of us were still hunched over glowing screens.
"Only for a bit more," I admitted, rubbing my eyes tiredly as I took a look at the clock on the bottom of my screen. It was getting late, well past one in the morning, and I didn't want to be up for much longer. I had already sent the rest of my flock to bed, wanting them well rested for tomorrow, but Matsu and I had a few more preparations to make, her in finding more information on MBI's headquarters and me in trying to figure out the best way to use that information.
Still, I was planning on ending those preparations in a minute. We would need sleep too, after all.
As though reading my mind, Kazehana 'tutted' gently, coming the rest of the way into the room and casually leaning over me as she flicked off the computer screen. "Enough," she told me gently, waving a finger at me as she leaned over. For once, she didn't take advantage of the position to try and pose for me, but even despite that I had to look away from her cleavage. She grinned, but continued on. "Go to bed, Lover-kun," she told me firmly. "You can go over this boring stuff tomorrow, before we head out."
A part of me wanted to protest, the nervous energy that only came when you knew that you were about to engage in something immensely dangerous at war with my fatigue, but in the end I surrendered.
"Alright," I sighed, pushing to my feet as I did so. Kazehana leaned out of the way, before skipping behind me and pushing me gently to the door. "I said I'm going," I muttered, before pausing as the wind user stopped at the edge of Matsu's room. "What about you?" I asked, curious as to why she was sticking around and not going to bed herself.
"I have something to talk about with Matsu," she admitted grinning as she did so. "Don't worry. It'll only take a minute, and once it's done I'll make her go to bed too. I'll probably just sleep in here tonight." Her tone turned mischievous for some reason. "Have fun!"
"Alright," I said again, as confused as to what she was planning as her choice in words, but deciding to let the two be. They were both former members of the Disciplinary Squad, so they were no stranger to battles. I trusted them not to stay up too late for something trivial.
It was only a short walk to my room, but for some reason despite the brevity of the trip I got the sudden feeling that I had been forgetting something as I walked.
It wasn't until I opened the door to find Tsukiumi sprawled out on the futon, still fully dressed, that I realized what that something was.
"Oh yeah," I muttered to myself, feeling like smacking my forehead as I stared at the sleeping woman. "That."
Tsukiumi had been pretty insistent earlier that tonight was going to be her night, after all. I had kind of forgotten it in the excitement of the day, but now that I was here I couldn't help but remember how persistent she had been in her claim.
Maybe it was a sign of how used to my flock's presence I had gotten, but I was somewhat surprised by the fact that I found I didn't mind the thought of being with the beautiful water user the night before we headed into battle. She had been patient for so long, had had to wait as I was with just about every other girl in my flock that was interested had their chance. It just didn't seem right to try and beg off at the last minute, simply because of what awaited tomorrow.
Besides, last minute encounters like this were almost as traditional as strategy meetings for me at this point.
"Tsukiumi," I whispered to her, kneeling beside her so I could shake her shoulder gently. "Wake up."
"Eh?" she muttered, yawning as her face scrunched up, resisting my attempts to wake her. She scowled, blinking sleep from her eyes as she turned to glare at whoever was disturbing her slumber, only for her eyes to shoot open when she found it was me. "S-Shirou!"
"Sorry," I apologized to her, smiling sheepishly. "I got carried away with the planning. Did you wait long?"
"N-not at all!" she hastily declared, off balanced from suddenly finding me there, stuttering as she regained her control. "We just nodded off for a bit," she hastily defended herself, recovering her poise as she sat up, glaring down her nose at me. My lips pursed at her words.
"'We'?" I repeated, wondering if the haughty tsundere had finally started to use the royal third about herself. My confusion only grew as Tsukiumi glanced around the room, and seemed surprised to find out that we were alone.
"Where are the others?" she pursed her lips, pushing herself to her feet so she could put her hands on her hips.
"'Others'?" I parroted her again, now definitely confused. "Tsukiumi, tonight was your night, remember? You said you wanted us to be together, alone."
"That was then and this is now," she shot back, scowling now as she tapped her foot. "Considering what awaits us tomorrow, I told the others that we could all sleep together as a group tonight!"
I stared at her, actually having trouble understanding her words, so outlandish were they.
"You did what?" I managed to get out after a second.
"Close your mouth," she ordered me, and I realized that I was gaping. "And I told Kazehana that I would allow them to join us so we could all be together before the battle! Kazehana agreed, and informed me that she would tell the others." Tsukiumi frowned, flushing slightly in anger most likely. "I'll admit, I did lay my head down to rest for a moment, but she should have had more than enough time to get the rest."
"But Kazehana just stopped by Matsu's room," I told her, now genuinely confused and not just startled. "She said she would be sleeping there tonight. She even told me…"
I trailed off, realizing what the Wind Sekirei's last words meant.
"That woman," Tsukiumi muttered, scowling as she glared at the door. "Even though I had graciously allowed it, she still plays around! What is she thinking?"
"I think I know," I admitted, looking at Tsukiumi, really looking at her.
This was the girl who had selflessly allowed Rin and Saber what should have been her turn, letting me have my last night with them. She had been looking after Musubi, nearly since the day the two had met. When Akitsu had had trouble expressing her wish to carry my sword, it had been Tsukiumi who intervened for her. Then there had been her words earlier, her passionate declaration of what it meant to be a Sekirei. And now, she was offering what could very well be her last chance with me alone to the others so that we could all spend that night together instead.
It looked like Kazehana had been impressed by her words, or maybe just by her selflessness. Or maybe the romance loving Sekirei had just wanted to give Tsukiumi her chance as well.
Either way, it was just Tsukiumi and I tonight; Tsukiumi, who had always looked after both me, and the rest of her sister Sekirei, even at her own expense.
That decided it for me. Tonight, it was her turn to be looked after.
"Tsukiumi," I said, but she didn't appear to hear me, instead starting to march towards the door so she could gather up the others. I said it again, catching her arm as I did so. "Tsukiumi."
"Wha..t?" she began in a stern tone, but when she turned something in my expression caused her eyes to widen and her words to trail off. I saw her swallow, her pale throat moving in what light managed to come in from off the street.
"Let's have our honeymoon," I told her, smiling as I stepped closer to her. Suddenly, it wasn't just a matter of fairness, or of schedule, or prefight traditions.
I wanted to reward her, for all that she had put up with, for all that she had done.
Tonight, I just wanted to be with my gorgeous Tsukiumi.
"H-husband," she stuttered, and despite her earlier intention to go out and gather up the others, she froze, trembling like a doe. "But the others…" Despite her words, her eyes fluttered closed and she lifted her chin as I leaned towards her.
"Tonight, it's just you," I told her, leaning forward myself.
I was with Tsukiumi.
There was no desperate underlying reason behind it, no prana exchange rituals needed to face an overwhelming foe. There wasn't any need to try and fix some crippling condition. No sudden new personalities, or visitations by the dead, or new powers emerged. There wasn't any great epiphany about the nature of a species.
We were together, just as two people being together.
I think that might have made it special, all of its own.
Though later on, when she slept happily in my arms, and I realized just why it was that Kazehana had chosen to stay in Matsu's room, I resolved to not let Tsukiumi find out about that for as long as I could. I don't think she'd take as well to having been recorded as I have been.