Gathering (I)


Dawn found the Emiya household immersed into its usual peacefulness. Despite currently housing two and a half beings of terrible dark powers, the atmosphere wasn't affected much.

Rider had a hard time believing this was the home of a magus, though to be quite honest, she didn't have much familiarity with the category as a whole. Unlike those foolish heroes that came raiding her home, magi knew better than to violate the abode of three goddesses. As such, she did not know them well.

However, she was familiar with the home of Matou Zouken and there couldn't be anything father from it than that of Emiya Shirou.

Inwardly, she couldn't help but wonder which was the exception to the rule or if they were both aberrations in their own right. It was only a passing thought anyway.

However, it was one of many such thoughts in regards to her new Master. It would be an understatement to say that Rider was curious about him. Shinji had her scout him before making his move and other than being a magus and a Master, Rider had penned him as an absolutely unremarkable individual.

Even Shinji stood out more than Emiya Shirou did. For all intents and purpose it looked like he would be perfectly fine going through life without being noticed by anyone.

Yet as she came to know him, she realized she had been both right and wrong in her estimation.

Indeed, Emiya Shirou would have been perfectly fine living without ever being acknowledged. Nevertheless, she could no longer consider him unremarkable.

That notion had been utterly shattered when she took him on single-handedly. She might have been greatly weakened, but as a Servant she was still several orders of magnitude above human beings, be they magi or otherwise.

That kind of power was not something born of a whim, and thus she came to understand the first thing that made him remarkable.

Perseverance.

"HA!" Saber shouted, stepping forward and slashing her practice sword laterally.

Shirou parried with his own sword but Saber's strength was not something he could match and he was sent flying towards the wall.

He flipped in mid air and landed against the wall with his feet rather than his back. If the entire building hadn't been reinforced beforehand by Caster he would have broke through the wood and ended up outside.

Gravity warred against the inertia of his body. The moment they became equal, just before falling on the ground, he pushed with his legs and went flying back the way he came.

Saber was not caught unprepared and nibley spun out of his trajectory, simultaneously striking him down. Shirou slammed face down on the floor and bounced away like a rag doll, crashing against the wall on the other side of the dojo.

That had to have hurt, his pride if not his body. That was Rider's conclusion.

Emiya Shirou was clearly of a different opinion because he came rushing back just as fast as before, though far more cautiously than earlier.

Saber was ready for him and met him head on. Their blades clashed together several times before Shirou went flying again.

Just that morning, this scene had repeated itself more times than Rider cared to count. The difference between a human being and a Saber Class Servant was as greater than that between heaven and earth.

Yet, no matter how short of breath or how outclassed he was, Emiya Shirou kept coming back without the slightest hesitation.

On her part Saber was far from being pressured. As long as she had Mana to spare, she would never tire.

However, there was a faint smile on her face.

Shirou was not her opponent, yet he wasn't someone she could take on without focusing completely; the slightest gap in her guard would become a point for him. Saber was smiling because she was honestly having fun.

According to what she heard, Emiya Shirou had managed to score a hit against Saber only once, during their first spar when the Servant made the mistake of underestimating him.

Secretly, Rider was relieved that even Saber had suffered against him. If the so-called strongest Class got one-upped at full power, then Rider had nothing to be ashamed of for losing when she was at her weakest.

This was the reasoning she decided to adopt, anyway.

As she pondered this, the spar went on until with one last blow Saber disarmed him. His sword went flying towards the ceiling and fell on the floor some meters behind him just as he too dropped to his hands and knees, gasping for breath.

"You have improved," Saber commended.

Shirou did not answer save for a brief nod of acknowledgment. He did not have sufficient oxygen to formulate sentences. Or syllables for that matter.

Saber didn't seem to be concerned about his conditions, a clear sign that this wasn't a first occurrence by any means. She looked pleased, though for what reason Rider couldn't tell.

There was a strange dynamic between those two. Granted they were allies, but they felt close on a personal level. Was it a Master/Disciple bond? Possibly, but Rider thought there was more.

Then again, it might have been all inside her head. She was the farthest thing there is from a socialite, so she could be reading it all wrong. Alternatively, they could both just belong to the same kind of weird.

Birds of a feather flock together, as the saying goes.

Caster stood from her sitting place next to Rider and walked over to Shirou with a towel in her hands, which she unceremoniously dropped on his head.

"Thank you for the hard work," she told him. "You too, Saber."

Saber regaled the other Servant with a stiff nod of acknowledgment. Then she stepped away and sat seiza in the middle of the dojo to meditate.

Eventually Shirou regained enough breath to sit properly and dry the sweat that had drenched him.

"Looks like I've still got a long way to go."

"Don't be too hard on yourself," Caster said comfortingly. "Right now you're probably the strongest among those who are purely human."

"Strength is a relative concept. Besides, don't discount humans so easily or you might be unpleasantly surprised one day. The Church's Executors and the Clock Tower's Enforcers are notoriously powerful with their own self-empowering methods. I'm sure that even now I'm not Ciel's proper opponent even without factoring her immortality. She might have lost it now that Roa's dead, but she still has access to all of his magecraft, and she beat me like a sandbag even without using it."

"Indeed, it's never wise to think oneself the strongest," Saber said without opening her eyes. "Being sure of one's own ability is important, but overconfidence and defeat are always just one step away."

"I trust your expertise in this, Saber," Caster teased with a smile. "After all you did manage to lose against Shirou twice in the same match."

Saber cracked her eyes open and gave Caster an unimpressed stare, though she did not refute her statement.

"Caster, please don't poke at Saber's pride," Shirou reprimanded. "Besides she didn't lose to my skills but to my strategy."

"Strength alone does not a victor make, indeed," Caster nodded.

"Hmm," Saber agreed, partially mollified though still clearly miffed.

"Anyway, where's Tohsaka?" Shirou asked.

"She decided to catch up on the sleep she lost these past few nights," Saber explained. "With no Servants preying to on the people of this city, she thought it would be best to recuperate her energy."

"Not everyone is a machine like you Shirou," Caster observed. "Human beings need to sleep."

"I get plenty of sleep," he objected.

"Five hours each night, tops. That's not enough sleep by far, even without considering how far you push yourself during the day."

Shirou shrugged. "I don't feel tired though."

"Like I said, you are an exception," Caster insisted lightly.

"I too did not have much use for sleep in my life," Saber joined in.

Caster snorted. "Yeah, you two are exactly the same type after all."

"What's that supposed to mean, Caster?" Saber asked sharply.

"That you have similar characters," she explained. "You are both the type of person that won't rest until there's something left to be done."

Shirou and Saber looked at each other, tilted their heads minutely and shrugged the same way as if to agree with each other that Caster's statement was correct, or at least not worth rectifying.

Rider was almost amused.

Indeed, birds of a feather do flock together.


Later that morning, when Satsuki went to school with Shirou, she couldn't have told just by looking that just the previous day in this very same place Shirou had fought for his life against a legendary being, and neither could the other students.

There truly was a different world hiding right next to the one she used to live in and now that she had been forcibly dragged into it, she missed the days when she didn't know about it.

Satsuki did not commiserate herself much. All things considered, she had been extremely lucky. She lucked out of becoming a mindless zombie. She lucked out on not having to figure things out on her own and she lucked out in not being killed twice the same night.

Most of it, she owed it to Shirou, which was the reason for her conundrum.

Satsuki liked Shirou. It was inevitable. He was kind, strong and attractive. More importantly, he was the reason why she felt any measure of safety in this strange new world.

Satsuki would have no problem admitting to herself that she had a bit of a hero worship in his regards. She would have considered following through with her feelings if she didn't think she was enough of a burden already or if he showed the slightest reciprocation.

Of course, all of it was completely moot since he was already in a relationship with Caster. Even if she someone managed to gather the resolve to fight for him, she didn't think she stood much of a chance.

Caster and Shirou knew better; they had a longer history together. However, all of it paled before Caster herself.

The word beautiful didn't do the Witch any justice. She was refined and exotic, not to mention incredibly smart, knowledgeable and powerful.

With those qualities, Satsuki was not surprised in the least that Shirou had fallen in love with her or that Caster reciprocated in kind. They were both extraordinary individuals, whereas Satsuki was plain and boring.

Needless to say, the vampire felt very much like an unnecessary third wheel.

She really felt the need to get out of the way as soon as possible, both so that she could stop consuming Shirou's valuable time and resources, but also so that she could move on from him.

It didn't help much that she regularly fed off him. Drinking someone's blood was a fairly intimate act, no matter how she looked at it. It was really quite awkward for her.

"Shirou, are we going to train this afternoon?" she asked.

"Of course, if you're up to it," he readily answered.

"Four Servants have already been summoned. Tohsaka-san said I could stay in Fuyuki until the sixth. I must become strong enough to stand on my own before then."

"You're right," Shirou agreed. "It's better if we get as much training in as we can. Hmm.."

"What is it?"

"Would you like to try your hand at fighting against a Servant?" he proposed.

"... eh?"

"Think about it. There's very few things in this world more powerful than a Heroic Spirit incarnate."

"Are you kidding? Even you can't really keep up with them," she objected wide eyed

"It's different," he shook his head. "Even if I were to assimilate their skills perfectly, I can't be their proper match because my body is human. Even with magecraft, I can only go so far."

"But my body is not human..." she pondered.

"Exactly! Unless you have a special affinity like me there's only so much skills you can acquire in a short amount of time. However a few weeks of training against Servants would be more than enough time to make you prepared for combat in general terms."

"Do you think Saber would be willing to train me as well?" she wondered.

"I can certainly ask, but Tohsaka might have something to say about consuming her Mana to train a Dead Apostle. I think that she would rather not acknowledge your existence at all if she could."

"I don't think I could learn much about fighting with Caster as my opponent."

"True. Caster would just put herself out of your reach and bombard you with spells. Although there is some merit in learning how to survive that, it's not really what we're looking for."

"So much for that plan then."

"I could always ask Rider," he said after thinking for a moment.

"Do you really think she would agree?"

"I'll give her a few days to get used to her new circumstances, then I'll ask. Right now I think she's just going with the flow because she doesn't have much of a choice. In the meantime, we can still train with each other. You've gotten much better lately. I can't pull my punches anymore with you."

"Puh~lease. If you came at me like you do against Saber I'd be toast."

"You don't give yourself nearly enough credit. You are already an opponent I can't take lightly and I've been training for almost ten years now. Don't sell yourself shortly."

"It's only because I'm an Apostle," she replied, avoiding to use the term vampire where she could be overheard.

"Even so, your improvements are of your own making. There's no need to be so modest."

"I don't want to hear that from you of all people," she retorted, puffing her flushed cheeks and kicking his shin lightly, which made Shirou laugh.

Satsuki saw his smiling face and looked away. At least she was already flushing, otherwise it would have been awkward.

Shirou noticed her reaction, but it took him a moment to figure out the reason for it. When he understood he too looked away, making a complicated expression.

It was regrettable, but he couldn't answer her feelings. He could only hope she would one day meet someone who could.

She deserved that much.

They didn't speak anymore for the rest of the morning.


The first thing that Shirou's noticed was Shinji's absence. He wasn't all that surprised though. At the best of times, Shinji wasn't one who took defeat gracefully and this defeat was made even worse by the hopes it crushed.

Not coming to school the next day was the least Shirou expected from his friend. He still considered Shinji as his friend, though Shirou acknowledged that this might be entirely on his part.

As much as he wished for Shinji to fulfill his dreams, Shirou couldn't allow the Grail War to play out. Even if the Grail had been working properly, he still would have worked to put a stop to the conflict simply because he couldn't accept the possibility of another tragedy happening again.

Regardless of that, Shinji's absence and Ayako's hospitalization meant that the Archery club was without any sort of leadership. Although he had more important things to attend to, it seemed that it fell upon him once more to see that everything was in order with the club.

At the very least, he would have to find someone that would keep things running temporarily. He was already no longer the captain, but most of the members would acknowledge his words because they knew him. The rookies would simply go along with their senpai as they were used to do.

At least for one day, he would have to take on this responsibility one last time.


Somewhere else, in a different place of the same building, Matou Sakura was wriggling her hands under her desk.

Shinji had not returned home the previous night, and he hadn't shown up at school this morning either. With this being the Holy Grail War there was more than enough reason to be worried about his life. Sakura knew that Rider would protect him, but what if she was defeated?

The previous day she heard Shinji say that they would be meeting with Shirou to discuss an alliance and then he just didn't return.

What had happened? Did they end up fighting? Did Rider lose?

... Did Shirou kill Shinji?

'Of course he did. He's a magus. They are all the same. But he's not like them. He's not. And Shinji's his friend. And Rin is my sister, but that doesn't stop her from pretending we're strangers. Magi care only about Magecraft. They care not about friendship and family. Certainly they care nothing about me. Senpai cares. I know he does. I like to think he does at least.'

Throughout the morning she paid no attention whatsoever to her classes. She kept playing her morose thoughts over and over again; her wishes warring against her direct experience in a vicious cycle.

When the last bell of the day rung, she almost forgot that she had archery practice. She stumbled to the club out of habit rather than any will to participate in the club activities. Most of the club members were already gathered there.

For a brief moment, she was surprised to see that they had organized themselves neatly despite the Captain and the Vice-Captain being absent, but as she stepped into the building she understood immediately who had taken charge of the club.

"Don't tense your shoulders that way," he said to a freshman. "Picture the arrow piercing through the target inside your head with as much clarity as you can and then release."

After a moment the freshman let the arrow loose and it struck the target at the other end of the range. It was far from being a bullseye, but it was certainly better than anything he ever done before.

"Good job," he commended. "Try again, and don't forget that it's inside your mind as much as it's out there."

"Thank you, Emiya-senpai," he replied with confidence.

Shirou stepped back and turned around. In that moment their gazes met.

Sakura felt her heart jump into her throat. She didn't know what to expect. She didn't know what she would see into those familiar eyes that she only recently realized she didn't really know at all.

Would they turn into the cold eyes of her sister? Would they shine with the glint of a calculating murderer? The moment seemed to stretch into infinity.

And then he smiled.

"Hey, Sakura," he greeted her as he always did, with a distant but all too real warmth. "Go get changed. It's already late."

"Oh! Y-yes, right away, Senpai," she replied and quickly headed towards the changing room, closing the door behind her. She leaned against the door and put a hand on her chest to placate her racing heart.

She was afraid, and hopeful in a way that she hadn't been in far longer than she could remember. She wanted him to be the person she wished he was and at the same time she feared he would be the exact opposite. This juxtaposition was breaking her from the inside out.

She changed mechanically, and then stepped onto the archery stage with the other club members and took her place with them. For the next few hours she tried to put all of her focus on shooting arrow after arrow, but her performance was abysmal. She just didn't have the presence of mind to hit the target.

"Something's wrong?" he asked as he approached her from behind. Sakura's shoulders tensed. "Wanna talk about it?"

She lowered the bow, but she didn't turn to face him.

"Nii-san didn't come home last night," she told him.

"... he didn't?" he asked. There was genuine surprise in his voice and Sakura couldn't put into words the relief that swept over her at hearing his tone. She squashed that fledgling hope down. He was still a magus. Deception was their primary trait.

She did however turn around to face him.

"Did you see him yesterday? He said he would be meeting with you."

"I did. We met. We had a… bit of a argument and then he left alone. I thought he went home but…."

"Alone….?" she couldn't help but ask.

"We should talk about it later," he replied, glancing around. "Please stay behind after we are finished, then we'll talk."

Sakura bit her lip. To trust or not to trust? Such was her dilemma. Should she choose hope and risk it being crushed or should she just embrace despair and be done with it?

'I want to believe in him,' she decided. "Okay," she replied meekly.

"Thank you. Now go back to your practice. Don't hesitate to ask if you need help."

"I won't. Thank you senpai."

He stepped away and moved to the next club member. Sakura watched him for a moment longer before picking up her bow and nocking another arrow.

This time, she hit the target every time without fail.


Later, after practice was over and the club members had all left, only Shirou and Sakura stayed behind to clean up. A curfew was imposed In the wake of Rider's exploits, and the school quickly emptied as soon as club activities were over, therefore the sun was still quite high in the sky.

Shirou and Sakura were sitting side by side at some distance from each other, with their legs dangling off the archery stage while they run maintenance on the bows.

The silence was not unpleasant, but there was was some tension. Eventually, Sakura broke the silence.

"Senpai…. what happened yesterday?"

Shirou exhaled and put down the bow he just finished checking. "Do you know about what's going on?"

"... The Holy Grail War," she replied.

Shirou nodded. Of course, if Sakura was aware of Magecraft as much as her brother and with Shinji himself having been a Master, the chances that she didn't know about the Grail War were slim. Still, he preferred she confirmed it herself.

Shirou was both relieved and worried about her involvement with the War, no matter how remote.

"Shinji approached me and asked for an alliance. More like demanded, actually."

Sakura did not say anything and her silence prompted Shirou to continue,

"I refused. Not because I didn't want to help Shinji, but because we're shutting down the Grail. The less you know the better off you are, Sakura, but the fire from ten years ago was also because of the Grail."

Sakura's eyes widened, but she nodded in understanding. She knew what that even meant to Shirou and therefore she realized that he probably wouldn't have any love to spare for the thing which had caused it.

"Shinji didn't really take my refusal well and we ended up fighting. With Megissa… with Caster's help I managed to take Shinji's Servant from him. After that I explained my reasons to him he just left."

"... was he hurt?" she asked.

"Only his pride, I think," Shirou smiled ruefully. "I thought he would return home but it's not so strange that he didn't, considering what he told me about your family."

"What… what did he tell you?" Sakura inquired. Her voice was full of apprehension.

"That it's tough for the both of you. That not having the talent for Magecraft in a family of Magi is… difficult. I must apologize, by the way."

"For what?"

"All these years, I never realized what you were going trough. I knew that the Matou were a line of Magi, but I thought that because neither you nor Shinji were Magi yourselves you would be spared from the ugliness of the Moonlit World."

Sakura looked away. "It's… it's nothing. It's nothing you should apologize for in particular. Nii-san… he's just bitter about it. Personally… I never wished to be a Magus."

"I'm glad to hear you say that," he confessed. "When Shinji told me you knew, I was really worried. I didn't want to hide it from you. I didn't want you to think that I was lying to you."

Sakura was silent for a long time, facing towards the targets at the end of the archery range.

"Rider is with you then?" she decided to ask after a while.

"Yes. Have you met her?"

Sakura nodded. "She… she was nice to me. I think..."

"What is it?"

"I think Nii-san made her hurt Mitsuzuri-senpai and another woman for their Mana."

Shirou didn't say anything, but his silence was damning. He was always the first to jump to everyone's defense and if he didn't do so was because there was nothing to defend to begin with.

Sakura shook her head. "Please, don't blame her. I don't think she would have done it if she could have avoided it."

"I know," Shirou agreed, smiling. "But thank you for speaking in her defense. I think she would appreciate it. For what's worth, I don't think Shinji would normally do things like that either."

"W… what makes you think that?"

"Well… he's my friend for starters and I like to believe he's generally better than that. Besides, power has a way to twist human nature," he explained. "It's like gravity, I think. It pulls you down and unless you are ready to deal with it, it crushes you. It's why I would have preferred neither you nor him would have anything to do with Magecraft at all."

"Does it burden you to be a Magus?" she asked.

He shook his head.

"I'm not really a Magus. I do use Magecraft, yes, but to me it's a mean to an end, not the goal itself. Besides, I chose this path myself. It wasn't pushed onto me."

Sakura nodded in understanding, if only because she knew the opposite end of the spectrum.

She also finally felt like she was reconciling her experience of Emiya Shirou with the image she held of Magi. If he wasn't a Magus, but simply someone who used Magecraft then there wasn't any intellectual conflict to address.

She would have wanted to ask what his end was, if Magecraft itself was not it, but truth to be told she felt she already knew. She knew because she had seen it, seen him, for years.

That stubborn, gentle boy who came to her defense so many years ago, getting up no matter how many times he was pushed down was still firmly set into her mind.

He spoke before she could say anything.

"I'll find out where Shinji went. I'm not sure I have any right to tell him to go home, but at least I'll let you know where he's at."

"Ah, thank you, Senpai. Sorry for bothering you all the time."

"You never bother me Sakura. Please, remember that. Well, I'm about done here. Can I ask you to close the club after me?"

"Of course. I'll be done in a few minutes as well anyway. Please take care on the way home and… with everything else."

"I will. Thank you, Sakura. Once I get this mess sorted out, things will go back to normal."

"I'm… I'll look forward to it," she told him honestly.

With those parting words, Shirou stood up and left. Sakura finished with the maintenance feeling better than before, though still obviously worried.

She couldn't wait for the day when they could be together like they used to, even if they could never be more than that.

After she was done at the club, she locked the door and made her way back towards the Matou household. By the time she got there, the cheer that she had gained had already bled away and her face returned to be that of an emotionless doll. That of Matou Zouken's pet.

In her heart of hearts, Sakura knew that she would never truly escape this place, but she would not let this taint the one thing in life that made her feel human. She could not show any happiness on her face, least Zouken sought out the cause of it and destroyed it.

This much, at least, she would definitely protect.


XXX


AN:Not much to say about this one. It's a transitory chapter all around, but don't forget to review.

On a separate note, this month winner of the update poll I hold on my pa treon account is "On Wings of Steel" my own shot at a Sekirei Crossover, so that's what I'm going to work on next. Expect updates sometime in the future (or check pa treon / neoalfa)

Many thanks to Obiki Doragon for his priceless help as editor.

See you all soon.