Skirmish (IV)

The sun was almost setting over Fuyuki city.

Dojima Ryutaro inhaled one last lungful of smoke for the cigarette in his mouth before crushing it into the portable ashtray he carried with himself.

As he leaned against the wall, he looked at the passersby. Normal people going about their lives, completely ignorant of the fact that they stood on a battlefield.

Dojima was one of them, until he stumbled on the hidden world of Magi and supernatural entities.

Part of him wished he had never found out, so that he could return to a life that made sense. Another part of him was glad that he had seen the true face of the world, because with that knowledge he could protect the people he had sworn to protect.

Even if the limit of his contribution was acting as bait for a blood-sucking ghost summoned from ancient times.

Indeed, life was so much simpler when the worst that could happen to him was being shot by a perp. At least with those he could shoot back.

Still, he would do what he could to help Shirou and his allies solving the situation. It was the least he could do, both as a cop and as a father.

Putting another cigarette in his mouth he pushed himself away from the wall and started walking in the direction they had agreed upon.

His feet took him to a remote, dead end alley. A space between two building where nobody had any business going.

At the end of it he found a pile of empty cardboard boxes which had taken more than their fair share of rain.

Without hesitation he tossed them aside, to find hidden underneath them an inconspicuous black back. A textbook dead-drop.

He felt just how heavy it was as he moved closer to the light, where he unzipped it and looked at the contents.

The first thing was a small notebook, which he quickly flipped through. At a first glance it was some sort of instruction manual.

Immediately under it there was a coat not unlike the one he was wearing, but when he run his fingers on it it felt like some sort of finely woven mesh.

"I've left you a little bit of extra protection," Shirou had said earlier over the phone.

He quickly took it out and wore him in place of his usual one. In doing so, he revealed the thing which was hiding underneath. His eyes widened considerably as his hand grabbed a hold of it.

"And also a mean to fight back, if necessary."

Quickly looking through the description that Shirou had written in the notebook, Dojima couldn't help but grin.

It looked like, this time around, he could still shoot back.

Shirou sat on the veranda overlooking the courtyard, while the last strands of daylight struggled against the horizon, until they inevitably lost their their battle and slowly conceded victory to the darkness of the evening.

On cue, almost as if running on a finely tuned clock, the doorbell rang, signaling the arrival of his allies.

Medea went to answer and soon after the sound several people's footsteps could be heard approaching.

"Have you completed your preparations, Emiya-kun?" Tohsaka asked.

She had ditched her school uniform in favor of a red shirt with a white cross in the middle of the chest area and a black miniskirt, underneath which she had already worn the Mystic Code he had made for her, Ruby Red.

"Yeah," Shirou nodded, standing up from his seat.

"No Mystic Code for you?" she asked.

"Mine can't be worn under normal clothes. I'll deploy it as necessary."

"I see," Tohsaka nodded. "Then, shall we proceed as agreed? Saber, you'll patrol with him while Caster and I will be together."

"Understood, Rin," her Servant complied immediately.

"I'll be in your care, then," Shirou bowed slightly.

"And I in yours," Saber replied with a small nod.

"Here, take this everyone," Shirou said, handing over four devices, each with a single earpiece.

"What are these?" Saber asked.

"Custom-made communication devices," he explained. "This way we can have a five ways conversation between the four of us and Dojima-san."

"Custom made?" Tohsaka asked, looking at the device as if it could explode at any time. "If you wanted to use technology, why not regular cellphones?"

"Because in the event of a breach of secrecy, the first things to be blacked out are going to be the networks used by everyone. I'd rather not rely on a system I can't control."

"Good point," Tohsaka agreed, putting on the earpiece. Saber and Caster mimicked her with some difficulty.

"Can you all hear me?" he asked.

"Loud and clear," Dojima answered through the line.

"Yes, I can hear you perfectly," Saber confirmed. "This is pretty useful."

"Hmm," Caster murmured in agreement.

"Perfect, then let's move as agreed. Dojima-san, just walk around in the area of the park. There's very few people during the day and none in the evening. That's good both to apparently isolate you and as battlefield if it comes down to it. Tohsaka and Caster will patrol around this side of the river, while Saber and I will take care of the other. In case you are attacked, Dojima-san, Caster and Tohsaka will teleport to your location, while Saber and I will make our way to you the old fashioned way, unless the situation requires Tohsaka to summon Saber with a Command Seal. Is everything clear?"

He received a chorus of agreements.

"Alright, let's get moving then."

"Shirou, take care," Caster said. "Saber, I'm leaving him in your hands. If anything happens to him, you won't be able to afford the price for it."

"I shall protect your Master as if he were my own," Saber promised. "So long as you'll do the same with mine, Caster."

"Hmph," she scoffed and walked after Rin.

"I suppose that's the closest thing to an oath I'm going to get from her," Saber sighed.

"Don't worry," Shirou said easily. "Caster... she can't really be called a nice person, but she's someone who pays back in kind. Honesty with honesty and treachery with treachery. Trust her and she'll trust you back... after some time."

"I shall put my trust in your experience with her," Saber decided.

"I'll take whatever victory I can get away with," Shirou replied in all seriousness, which made Saber smile in amusement.

"You are quite the odd pair, you and her."

"Are we?" he asked.

"Yes. I did not think two people so different would be able to work together and trust each other so seamlessly."

"Circumstances helped somewhat, and like I said, Caster isn't a bad person if one gives her the chance to prove it."

"Maybe," Saber said noncommittally. "However, I don't believe I would have been able to trust her the way you did. Rin neither, for that matter."

"Well, there is bit of bad history between them, though it wasn't really Caster's fault."

"Ah, yes. Rin told me about the incident with Caster's former Master. I understand you played an important role in helping Rin out, back then."

Shirou shrugged. "I was just doing what needed done and helping out a friend."

"Indeed. You have little in common with ordinary Magi."

"That's hardly an achievement," he observed, making Saber's lips quirk in a half smile.

"True. Most of those I've met were... unpleasant."

"You probably wouldn't have liked dad, then."

"Hm?" Saber tilted her head. "I thought you held your father in high esteem."

"I do. I just don't think many would have found him a nice person to be around. At least, not if the people who have tried to kill me to get back at him are any indication."

"You must have an interesting life," Saber mused.

"Let's just say that I'm not familiar with boredom."

They kept having a casual conversation while they made their way toward the business district. Casual for them, anyway, as ordinary people wouldn't have reason to discuss failed assassination attempts on their persons.

Eventually they reached their destination. The tallest building in all of Fuyuki. They made their way to the top through a set of stairs accessible from a service door to which Shirou mysteriously had the key.

"You'd be surprised what the local Yakuza leadership can get you if you ask nice enough," the told Saber when she asked how he came by it.

In truth, old man Raiga thought Shirou just wanted to take a pretty girl to see the sight of the city lights from up there... which was technically correct as of that moment, but probably not what Taiga's grandfather had in mind.

When they opened the door to the roof, they were met by a strong wind, but they quickly adjusted.

As they were far from prying eyes, Saber switched to her battle garment. The metal of her battle dress fared better against the wind and in that way she would be ready to step into action if the situation called for it.

Next to her, Shirou did the same.

"Trace On! Twisted Embrace!"

From the bracelet on his wrist faint lines of light shot out and wrapped around his body in the same way Ruby Red did for Rin. A moment later, clad in black, the infamous Archer stood in place of Emiya Shirou. Saber's reaction at his getup was merely to arch an eyebrow.

"What?" he asked.

"Nothing, but I believe that Rin would have something to say about your equipment being more... fashionable, if she saw it."

Shirou snorted. "This one was made by Caster so it reflects her tastes more than mine. I would have gone for something more practical myself."

"You could make a new one for yourself, could you not?"

"Sure, but it takes a lot of time, effort and resources. Besides, I don't want to give Caster the impression that I don't like her creation enough. I'm not stupid."

"Indeed," Saber nodded in understanding. She was familiar enough of the other Servant's character to know she wouldn't take to criticism well.

"Emiya, Saber, are you there yet?" Tohsaka asked through the radio.

"We are in position," Shirou confirmed taking his bow from his shoulder and an arrow from his quiver. "I got eyes on the entire park and a good portion of the city. Dojima-san, what's your status?"

"I'm getting there now," he confirmed. "Jesus, this place is creepy as hell at night."

"I know. Alright, I can see you," Shirou said.

"All the way from up there?"

"Sure. Clear as a day. By the way, you should really stop smoking. That's not good for your health."

"Yeah, well, neither is being Servant bait. Besides, what are you, my mother?"

"Do you always get so cranky when you're under pressure, Dojima-san?"

"I swear, you are not too old for me to spank, Shirou. Goddamn kids these days."

"Are you boys done playing around yet?" Tohsaka asked, clearly annoyed.

"Yes, ma'am," both replied and returned to radio silence and their respective tasks.

On the opposite side of the city, Tohsaka let out a long drawn sigh.

"Are those two always like that?" she asked to he companion.

"Most of the time," Caster replied. "That man is a bad influence on my Master."

"Never thought I see the day when a police office would be a bad influence of anyone, least of all the protegee of a Yakuza clan."

"Shirou is... unique."

Rin regarded Caster with a speculative gaze. The Heroic Spirit had already made her feelings about her own Master quite clear.

Rin had thought that Caster confession hadn't gone well, judging from Emiya's expression after the event, but Caster looked remarkably serene despite having been seemingly rejected.

Was it merely a quirk of her character and she hadn't given up on him, or had Rin herself misread something?

More importantly, why was she giving it so much thought? Whether Emiya and Caster got together was none of her business as long as it didn't come in the way of their alliance.

However, Rin was quite curious about it, regardless of what she told herself her own personal investment. She kept sneaking glances to Caster in an attempt to divine her mood and understand how her relationship with Emiya had changed from the previous day.

Rin considered herself to be level headed and professional enough that she could work alongside a man that rejected her feelings if such an unlikely event ever came to pass, but she didn't think she could look as relaxed as Caster in that moment.

"Is there something on my face, Rin?" Caster asked, making Rin flinch. "You have been staring at me for a while now."

"I was just trying to figure your true identity," she lied.

"Hmm. Any luck with that?"

"I've narrowed the list of possible candidates a little," she lied again. In truth, Rin was fairly sure of Caster's true name. There were only so many Female Greek Anti-Heroines that could fit the description. With enough time at her disposal to brush up on Greek myths and Emiya's slip of the tongue a few weeks prior, Rin was sure that Caster was none other than Medea of Colchis.

Of course she had no intention to tell anyone other than Saber, much less Caster herself. That knowledge could be better employed if the opposing party wasn't aware they had it.

If everything went smoothly, there would never be a need to use this intel, but if things ever went sour it would be an important advantage to have.

"Well, keep looking then," Caster said, completely unfazed. Her nonchalant attitude gave Rin a moment of pause.

Was Caster really unconcerned about it, or was she bluffing? The same question could also be applied to her relationship with Emiya. How was she actually feeling about it? Was her tranquility just appearance? Whichever the answer was, Caster was a hard one to read. As expected from a first rate Magus.

The duo kept patrolling the city, exchanging a few words every now and then. They passed by a few people here and there, both in groups and alone. It was still relatively early in the evening so it wasn't strange to see people around, but Ayako had been attacked around this hour, so it wasn't exactly safe.

In truth, no one expected anything to come out of this patrol. The chances that a Servant would make a move against them at this point was too low.

There was a reason why the War didn't usually start until at least six Servants had been summoned and that was because the best strategy was always letting the competition take care of itself. The patrol was merely a ruse to show they were doing something, to shift the enemy's attention away from their true preparations, namely Caster's Grail Suppression System.

It was still a work in progress and the last thing they needed was someone messing around with that. The city was just too big to hope to come by another Servant by accident. Emiya had a better chance to spot them from his vantage point and with Dojima acting as bait.

Still, no one really really expected anything to come out of it.

Time passed. The evening shifted into the night. The streets of Fuyuki emptied until a few lonesome stragglers were left.

Salarymen returning home after drinking the evening away with their colleagues or other people working night shifts.

There weren't many, but there weren't few either and they were too dispersed for just four people to effectively watch over them.

Rider steered clear of Caster and Saber. She avoided the streets altogether and instead slipped into a house where a window had been left open.

Doors and walls wouldn't have been much on an hindrance for her, especially not while in spirit form, but an open window was basically an invitation.

The room belonged to a woman in her early twenties. She was sleeping soundly and wouldn't have heard Rider even if she had been manifested.

The Servant shifted in her physical form and leaned over her unaware prey. Despite being slowly drained of her life, she would have wonderful dreams until dawn.

Rider stopped short of killing her, shited into spirit form and slipped out undetected again.

Dawn was almost upon the city and so she quickly made her way back as quickly as she could. Shinji would still be sleeping, but he had made it clear she had to return before he woke up in the morning so that she could... attend him. In a way, Shinji was extremely lucky. He expected total subservience from her. Another Heroic Spirit would have separated his head from his shoulders five minutes after getting to know him.

Rider didn't do so herself for two reasons. The first was that she didn't really care about what happened to her body. She felt no loss at Shinji's abuse of her. She didn't have any pride worth sullying anymore.

The other reason was Sakura. For whatever reason the young woman really cared about her brother. Technically speaking, Rider had no obligation toward Sakura either, considering she had unceremoniously dumped her into Shinji's lap, but the female Matou reminded her too much of herself, from the way she loved her abusive sibling to her own sense of worthlessness and inadequacy.

Medusa felt compelled to protect her, possibly better than Stheno and Euryale. Because she knew the darkness inside of Sakura's heart and it didn't differ much from her own.

Left by herself, it was only a matter of time before she too would become a monster. To prevent a repeat of her own history, Rider would put up with Shinji no matter what humiliation he'd put her through.

She made it to the Matou residence shortly before sunrise. The house was eerily quiet at that hour, which wasn't all that surprising considering the dark secrets it was built upon. Rider could faintly sense Matou Zouken presence all around her. Despite being currently disembodied a feeling of disgust crawled up her spine.

How much of a monster did one have to be, she wondered, to give the creeps to the legendary Gorgon Medusa?

The sound of footsteps drew her attention. Sakura emerged from a door, scanning the room with her eyes.

"Rider?" she asked to the seemingly empty room.

"Yes," Rider answered as she materialized.

"O-okay. I thought that maybe..."

"An enemy Servant wouldn't make it past the Boundary Field without triggering the alarm," she explained. That wasn't necessarily true, unless the Heroic Spirit summoned as Caster was woefully inept. Assassin too should be able to come and go as he pleased. However, she wouldn't believe for a moment that Matou Zouken would be caught unaware on his own territory.

"I- I see," she replied meekly. "Thank you."

Rider did not answer and merely reverted to spirit form. Her time in this world was limited to the duration of this conflict or until she was killed. She had no illusion about how well she'd fare against other Servant, particularly limited as she was with Shinji as her Master. In light of that, iIt would be better if Sakura didn't grow to rely on her in any shape or form.

She would protect her, but there was no reason for Sakura to know. Besides, if Sakura was anything like her, she would not consider herself worth being protected in the first place.

Having come to that conclusion, she resumed her advance toward Shinji's room.

Dawn had come with no signs of the third Servant.

The Saber/Caster alliance (temporary name) didn't believe for a moment that the enemy Servant had stayed put through the night.

A suspicion that was confirmed by Dojima, who had received a call from a colleague reporting a woman hospitalized in the same conditions as Ayako.

That was cause for more than a little frustration to the detective, but the other four hadn't expected much better. It would have been a colossal stroke of luck if the enemy had immediately fallen for their trap. Even if the result within their expectations, it was with a heavy heart that they returned home that morning.

At least this more or less confirmed that the enemy wasn't out to kill their unlucky prey, but people being put into the hospital wasn't a thing that could be overlooked.

Still, who knew just how many victims there would be before they could put a stop to it.

"I'll see you later at school, Emiya," Tohsaka said as they parted ways.

"Yeah. See you in a while, Tohsaka. Saber."

The Servant of the sword, back in her civilian clothes, nodded and followed after her Master. Dojima had already left for the police station.

Only Shirou and Caster remained.

"Well, that went just about as we expected," he eventually said.

"Hm. It can't be helped," Caster agreed. In an ideal world, one could bring down their enemies in one fell swoop without bystanders being caught in the crossfire. However such outcome was always unlikely and that was why the Grail War was a terrible thing.

As frustrating as it was, they had no other option but calling it a night and go back home. They still had the entire day ahead of them and Shirou was starting to feel quite tired. He hadn't slept one minute in the previous forty-eight hours and that wouldn't change until later that afternoon.

As there was nothing he could do about it, he simply returned home, took a shower and had breakfast before setting off for school.

"Yo! Emiya!"

Shinji came up to him shortly after classes were over. His long time friend looked somewhat different than usual. He was always the cocky sort of person, but today he looked like he owned the place.

"Shinji. How are you doing?" he asked.

"Ahhh, not great, actually," he replied. "With Mitsuzuri in the hospital, I had to take over her duties at the club. It's been tough, I'll tell you that much."

"I'm sorry to hear that. Let's hope Mitsuzuri makes as swift recovery."

"Yeah, no kidding," he laughed. "So, anyway, I was thinking that this would be a good time for you to get back and get something done over there."

"Shinji…" Shirou sighed. "I've quit for a reason."

"Yeah, I know," he replied dismissively. "I'm not asking you to come back full time, but with Mitsuzuri out of commission we're really short staffed right now. I just want you to take care of the equipment after club activities are over. You should know enough about that to get it done quickly, don't you? So, anyway, I'll see you there. Bye, Emiya!"

Thus Shinji left without giving Shirou the chance to reply in any way. He could of course have refused, but with him being who he was he just couldn't turn his back on the club. He felt somewhat responsible about the situation, as he couldn't prevent what happened to Ayako.

He knew there was nothing he could have done to avoid it, but he still felt he should do something about it. Besides, if he didn't do it the other club members would suffer from it. Shinji certainly wouldn't stay behind and do it himself if Shirou refused it.

'Caster, I'm going to get back a little later today,' he said through their connection.

'Did something happen?'

'No, just school stuff. I'll be back in time for dinner,' he explained.

'Fine. Make sure you don't work yourself too much, alright?'

'Don't worry. Compared to the training I'd do at home, this will be quite relaxing.'

'Well then, get to it. The sooner you're done, the sooner you'll come home to me.'

'Yes, ma'am,' he quickly agreed.

Since he wasn't going to return home immediately he went for the Student Council room. There he could catch a bit of sleep undisturbed. Besides himself only Issei would hang around the place after classes and the monk-in-training wasn't likely to wake him if he stumbled upon him.

As he was making his way there, the school-wide announcement system sounded a chime.

"Due to the recent cases of violence around the city, all students and staff not involved in club activities are suggested to return home as soon as regular classes are concluded. I repeat: all students and staff not involved in club activities are suggested to return home as soon as regular classes are concluded."

Well, that was only reasonable, Shirou decided. With now two victims one of which a student of this school it was only reasonable to issue such a warning. It was no longer an isolated accident, so people were starting to get worried.

All things considered it was better for him to be the one closing the club after they were done training. At least he could defend himself better than anyone else on the school grounds with the exception of Saber and Tohsaka.

Feeling somewhat better about the additional chore, Shirou took a seat at one of the desk in the Student Council room and put his head down. He was asleep in a matter of seconds.

"Emiya-kun. Emiya-kun, wake up."

Shirou's eyes opened to the sight of Issei peering down on him.

"Oh, Issei. What time is it?"

"It's almost five, Emiya-kun," the student's president replied. "I was informed that you were going to take over Mitsuzuri-san duties today, so I thought it was time to wake you up."

"Thanks," he yawned. "I think I would have overslept if you hadn't called me."

"Don't worry about it. Though I can't help but wonder what you are doing at night if you are this tired during the day."

"Ahhh, well that would be a long, tedious story."

"If you were someone else, I would think you were up to no good. Regardless, you should make sure to sleep properly every night."

"Eh. I'll keep that in mind. Thank you for your concern, Issei."

"Hmm. Somehow I don't think you're going to heed my advice. Anyway, you should probably get going if you want to finished before dark. This isn't a good time to loitering around."

"That goes for you as well," Shirou replied.

"Don't worry. I'm just about finished with my tasks and I'll be heading home soon."

"Good. I'm going over to the club and wrap up this business as quickly as possible. See you tomorrow Issei."

His friend nodded and left the room. Shirou took his bag and left in a different direction.

The school was already quite empty and with the clubs being almost done with their activities it would soon become completely deserted. Shirou hurried towards the archery range, where the club members had just finished and they were going to get changed.

On the way there, he ran into Sakura.

"Oh… senpai," she said awkwardly, looking away

"Sakura… it's been a while," he replied just as awkwardly.

He felt very self-conscious in that moment. After Medea had told him that she was crushing on him to the point of swooning, Shirou had become quite aware of the way she acted demurely around him.

Sakura was shy and reserved around everyone, but he suddenly realized that her behavior was different than from anyone else.

How had he missed it all this time?

"Y-yes. Sorry for not coming over to your place anymore. I've been very busy around the house lately."

"You don't have to apologize. I've been kind of busy myself. I'm sure there will be more time to hang around in the future."

"... do you really think so?"

"Hm. Don't worry about anything. As soon as this… unpleasant business I'm overseeing is over, I'm sure things would go back to how they used to be."

"I… I really hope so, senpai," she replied with a small smile.

"Run along now," he told her, feeling a bit of awkwardness melt away. "This is a bad time to be out alone after dark."

"I know. Thank you, senpai. You be safe as well, okay?"

"Of course. I'll see you soon, Sakura."

He waved at her and she left, turning back every few steps to look at him with a stare full of longing.

'How the hell did I miss that?' he asked himself. 'Caster's right I really am dense.'

Shaking his head he entered the archery range. There was no point mulling over it. Even if he had known beforehand, and even if he had felt the same, Shirou wouldn't have done anything about it. He had pushed away Medea, or at least tried to, despite her being more than capable to protect herself.

Someone like Sakura had no business getting involved with him more than she already was as his friend.

It took Shirou the better part of an hour to run the usual maintenance on the equipment of the Archery club. He was certainly more familiar with it than any other new recruit, so it took him less than half the time it would take anyone else.

By the time he was done, however, there was already no one left on the school grounds. The sun was just about to set, casting crimson light over the city. If he left immediately, he would make it back way before it got dark.

After locking the archery range behind him, Shirou stretched out his arms. Between his high intensity training (read: get beaten up by Saber) and the lack of proper sleep he was starting to feel quite tired.

In fact he was so tired that he almost missed the figure staring at him from the edge of the trees on next to the archery range.

"... Shinji? What are you still doing here?" he asked.

"Sup' Emiya! Did you finish with the maintenance already? That's good, but if you had been just a little bit faster I might have missed you."

"You were looking for me?"

"As a matter of fact, I did. There is a certain piece of business I need to take care of with you."

Shirou's growing suspicion was confirmed when the shape of a tall, purple haired woman materialized next to Shinji. If the act itself wasn't enough of an indication, the magnitude of her presence left little doubt as to her nature.

The third Servant had appeared in front of him.

"So, Emiya, my old buddy… shall we talk?"

Shirou clenched his fist and tensed his shoulders. Well… the situation was less than optimal, but he wasn't about to look into a gift horse's mouth. If he played his cards right, he could solve the current crisis now and prevent further victims. However, if he made a wrong move, he would die in this place.

He really couldn't tell anymore whether is luck was good or bad.


AN: Yeah, I'm a dick. I leaving you hanging right here. Come on! It was a perfect place for a cliffhanger. In the next chapter will see the true first fight of the Holy Grail War. Even though it's just the opening salvo, things will start to speed up from here onward.

That said, a big thank you to my beta, Obiki Doragon for proofreading this chapter. You're great pal!

Of course I would like you to review this chapter, but in case you want to see how the fight plays out, make sure to take a look at my "pa treon [dotCOM] / neoalfa. Promises of a Wandering Hero is getting an update over there too.

Thanks for reading and see you soon.