Gathering (II)

Shirou returned home from his self-imposed shift at the Archery club, greeted Medea who was working on making dinner and headed towards Rider's room.

There, he knocked on the door and waited.

A moment later the door slid open and he found himself staring at the blindfolded face of the Gorgon Medusa.

"Yes?" she asked shortly.

"Sorry for bothering you. I just wanted to ask if you had any idea where Shinji could have gone other than back to his house."

Her unseeing eyes seemed to bore into him. "Why do you wish to know?"

"He's been missing since yesterday, and Sakura is worried. She says hi by the way."

Rider looked perplexed. Her lips parted as if she wished to say something but didn't.

"I would not know," she elected to say instead."Since my summoning, Shinji never showed me or mentioned any other place of interest beside your school."

"Hmm. A shame; maybe he went to the church. Technically speaking, that's safe haven for any Master or former Master."

"Technically?" Rider inquired.

Shirou shrugged. "I don't trust the priest over there. He was a Master in the previous war, therefore I know that the Church isn't as impartial as they want the contenders to believe. However Shiji is not longer a Master or even a Magus for that matter. He would be of no use whatsoever for any machination the Church might have going."

"Will you go looking for him?" she asked.

"Yeah. Shinji is my friend, one way or another. Besides I promised Sakura that I would. I better get going if I want to get back in time for dinner. Thank you, Rider. I'll see you later."

He turned around and left, stopping and turning just a few steps later.

Rider stood right behind him.

"What is it?" he asked.

"I will come with you," she replied emotionlessly.

"I have nothing against it, of course. But why?"

"You are my Master," she told him, matter of factly. "It is my duty to protect you."

"I don't think I'm heading into a fight. I'm just going to ask if Shinji is over there."

"Then there should be no objection to me coming with you, is there?"

"You're free to do as you want either way."

"It is decided then," she confirmed. Shirou shrugged and continued on his path.

"Caster, Rider and I are going out," he said almost casually. "We're heading to the Church to see if Shinji is over there."

Caster put down the ladle she was using and turned to look at him. "Are you sure that's wise? I believe you said that Kotomine couldn't be trusted."

"I have no intention of trusting him," he admitted. "But by now he must know about me since I cooperated with other people from the Church. I might as well show up on his doorstep and see how he reacts."

"Seizing the initiative, huh?" Caster wondered. "Very well. I will be keeping an eye on you through our bond. Rider, I can be there in the blink of an eye if needed, but numerous things can happen in that time frame. Make sure to protect him properly, or else."

Rider's only sign acknowledgment, if it could be considered that, was shifting her weight from one foot to another. A moment later she disappeared with a mystical sound, having shifted into spirit form.

"I'll be going then. I should be back in a hour."

"Be careful and don't be late. More importantly, don't get yourself into trouble."

"Of course, you don't need to worry about me."

"I'm afraid I must," she objected, putting her hands on her hips, "because you don't do it nowhere near enough. Get going, now. Otherwise you won't be back in time."

"Fine, fine. I'll see you later," he conceded, turning to leave.

Rather than heading out on foot, he went to the shed. There he approached a shape covered by a blanket, which he immediately pulled off, revealing the motorbike underneath.

It had been quite some time since he last rode it. Not since the night when he stormed Guildford mansion. It felt like an eternity ago, but it was just a few months.

So many things happened in the meantime that it felt like years. A few weeks could be more meaningful than some decades. A few moments could be worth an entire lifetime.

With a self-deprecating snort, he banished those thoughts and pushed the motorbike out of the shed, grabbing a jacket and an helmet on his way out.

As Archer, he could forgo traffic rules without repercussions; as Emiya Shirou not so much. He even got himself a driving license, although a fake one.

He never went to driving school after all. If Dojima ever found out, he would be apoplectic.

He had almost reached the gate when Rider materialized in front of him, making him stop in his tracks.

"What's wrong?" he asked. Rider did not answer, but even through her blindfold it was obvious that she was staring at the motorbike. Her unspoken feelings were obvious even to Shirou. "Ah, do you want to drive? Sorry, but a woman with a blindfold riding a bike would attract way too much attention at this hour."

"Would it be better at a later hour, then?" she asked, failing to mask her eagerness. Riders do want to ride, after all.

"Uhhh, sure. I assume you don't actually need to see, so we should just get you an helmet of your size and some clothes less, uh, eye-catching."

"I require no such things."

"But I do," he firmly replied. "I'll ask Caster to make some other clothes for you as well."

"Is there something wrong with my attire?"

'Nothing and everything at the same time,' Shirou would have wanted to say.

"If you plan to go out in your physical form it's necessary for you to blend in. There's already way too many rumors going on about me. I would appreciate if you didn't add to them."

Rider tilted her head quizzically. It was the most genuine expression Shirou had seen her make thus far. She only lacked a question mark over her head to make the picture complete.

It seemed that she was not aware of herself or the effect she could have on men.

Why did a dark beauty like that have to be so innocently naive? If there was a book of rules somewhere, that had to be a penalty! It had to, damn it!

Shirou shook his head to dispel those thoughts. He was starting to sound like Taiga inside his own head and the world could not have that.

"Anyway, that's how it is. You can borrow the bike as long as you keep a low profile."

Rider nodded and returned to astral form easing Shirou's burden. He was having a hard time knowing where to look around her, which is why he tried not to look at her at all.

It was barely twenty four hours since they met and he was already having a hard time dealing with her.

He could train all he wanted, but women were always going to be his weak spot. He accepted as much.

That didn't mean he liked it though.

The motorbike roared its way towards the Kotomine Church, nimbly moving throughout the slow traffic. Few people paid it and its rider more attention than necessary and it eventually reached its destination shortly after dark.

Shirou parked the bike and brought the engine to a stop just outside the gates.

It was his first time coming here, even though he always knew of this place. Kiritsugu had warned him to stay away from Kotomine Kirei as he was a dangerous man in many ways.

Shirou never questioned that order, perhaps the only one Kiritsugu ever gave him. Until now there had never been a good enough reason not to heed it, so he kept his distance.

Now, he had both cause and confidence to step through these gates for the first time.

Even from the outside, he could hear the pipe organ playing a profound tune. The music didn't stop playing even when Shirou pushed the huge oaken doors open, making them creak loudly enough to be heard even above the music.

Shirou removed his helmet and put it down on one of the wooden benches that lined the church and unzipped his jacket.

He then waited for the player to finish his performance while he surveyed his surroundings.

For an alleged holy place, this church felt utterly wrong. The smell of incense didn't help assuage his feeling that something was rotting somewhere nearby.

He had yet to meet Kotomine that he was already on edge. No wonder Kiritsugu told him to stay the hell away from him.

A few minutes later, the organ stopped playing and the player turned to face him.

"Welcome to the House of God, Emiya Shirou. Ordinarily, I would ask you what business has brought you in this place, but I believe it is already quite evident."

"Is that so?" Shirou asked, crossing his arms over his chest.

"Indeed. Every Master is expected to report their participation to the Church as soon as possible, yet you have been avoiding doing so until now."

"A lot of things in this world are supposed to be one way, yet are another," he replied. "The Church is supposed to be just an arbiter, but that didn't stop it from supporting Tohsaka Tokiomi in the last conflict, for one thing. A man who is shot through the heart with a high caliber gun is supposed to stay dead, for another."

Kotomine smiled a knowing smile. "It is said the ways of the Lord are infinite."

"They say the same thing about the Devil's," Shirou rebuked.

Not even thirty seconds into the conversation and Shirou had already burned all the bridges. He too was surprised by it, but he couldn't help it.

He didn't like Kotomine Kirei. At all.

It was a first for him. Shirou could get along with anyone otherwise he couldn't be friends with someone like Shinji. However Kotomine was a completely different thing.

His mere presence sent alarms blaring inside his head and not just about the danger this man posed.

Shirou had always been good at detecting things that were wrong with the world and Kotomine Kirei gave him the shivers more than anything else ever did.

"Since you don't seem to keep the Church's role in this conflict in any regard, what is that has brought you here?"

"I'm looking for someone. Matou Shinji. Is he here?"

"What business does the Master who took away a Servant have with the man he took it away from? No conflict is allowed in this place and any Master who has lost the right to fight will find protection here, under the Church's aegis, should they want it. In light of this I suggest you consider your answer and your actions carefully."

The warning couldn't have been more obvious if he had highlighted it in a bright neon color.

Rider materialized behind Shirou, matching the veiled threat with a greater one.

Shirou held up his hand. Rider looked at it and dematerialized again.

"My apologies," Shirou said. "It was not my intention to be confrontational. I did not come with ill intentions, neither towards you or Shinji."

Kotomine let out a soft snort. "I suppose I shouldn't have expected any less from the son of a man I tried to kill. Your opinion of me is understandably colored by the retellings of your father."

"No, I believe that I just plain don't like you, Kotomine Kirei. My instinct never steered me wrong and right now it's telling me that you are not to be trusted. At all."

"Hmm, I see," he acknowledged as if it wasn't about him that Shirou was talking about."Well, there is not much I can do about it either way."

Shirou too shrugged. There was no reason for them to trust each other. He said what he felt because he'd rather they knew where they stood in regards to each other. Emiya Shirou would not turn his back on Kotomine Kirei and any attempt of the latter to position himself there, both physically and metaphorically would be met with hostility.

"In any event, Matou Shinji is no longer in this place," Kotomine pressed on. "I'm not privy to his whereabouts. He not only lost his Servant but his Command Seals as well. Without being a Magus he stands no chance of gaining another set. Therefore he would be in more danger here, should a rogue Master decide to disregard the sanctity of this place, than any other random place in this city. For additional safety, I advised him to leave Fuyuki city for the duration of the War. I do not know if he elected to follow my suggestion or not."

Shirou let out a long drawn sigh.

"I see. That was a good advice. Well, it's too bad he isn't here, but there's no use mulling over it. I'll look for him elsewhere. If by any chance he drops by again, please tell him I've been looking for him," he said as he made to turn to leave.

"Now, why would I do that?" Kotomine asked with a faint smile on his lips.

Shirou stopped in his tracks and sent the priest a mild glare.

"Well, Shinji is my friend so I worry about him. Chances are that if I don't hear from him anytime soon I'll start turning every rock under which he might be hiding to find him, and while I'm at it I might as well start with the most promising rock in the neighborhood."

"I see," Kotomine replied now entirely unamused

"Just putting it out there for the sake of transparency," Shirou added with a nod. "I'm not looking for trouble, Kotomine, but I can I provide them if needed be. Stick to your role in this war and you'll have none from me."

"What if I don't?"

"I'm afraid you'll have to find out for yourself. Good evening, Kotomine."

Shirou turned and left the building. He could feel Kotomine's piercing gaze on his back all the time.

'Shirou, what the hell was that?' Caster, who had been listening to the entire exchange asked. 'That wasn't like you at all.'

'Ahhh, sorry about that. I don't know why but I get irritated just by looking at that guy.'

'Oh, I'm not complaining. It was pretty hot seeing you threaten someone for a change. I was just wondering what brought it up.'

'Something's not right about him, and I'm not saying it just because I can't trust he'd be a fair arbiter of the War. He's just…. wrong."

"Well, I'm all in favor for not trusting him,' Caster agreed. 'If someone like you who'd let even a random stranger into his house feels like that about someone, then there has to be something really fishy about them.'

'I'm not sure how I should feel about that statement,' Shirou commented. He wasn't that bad, was he?

Caster response was a mental giggle. Shirou shook his head and returned to his bike, turned it on and made his way back home.

After Emiya Shirou closed the door behind himself on his way out, Kotomine let out a soft snort.

Emiya Kiritsugu's son couldn't be more different from his father if he tried. The Magus Killer wouldn't have shown his face in front of someone he was actively hostile to, whether he had a Servant or two at his beck and call or not.

Kirei knew he was a fair judge of people. He knew Emiya Shirou's threat was not empty, but he also knew it wasn't delivered just because he had two Servants while Kirei had none.

That man would have delivered the same threat even if the roles had been reversed.

It wasn't a threat made out of arrogance, but out of confidence. It wasn't even confidence born of the fact that he could see it through, but rather that he would regardless of the circumstances.

Interesting. Such a honest and straightforward man... Kotomine didn't mind if he won the Grail. It would be worth seeing his face twist in despair in proportion to how much his wish would be.

Of course, he would have to win the War first and while Kotomine didn't mind if that eventually happened, that didn't mean he would just stand aside and watch things unfold.

He rolled up his sleeve and showed the array of Command Seal that covered his arm.

The only thing he required was to get a Servant himself. All he needed was an opportunity. All it took was a Master naive enough to leave their back exposed around him.

Then things would truly become interesting.

Later that evening.

Taiga came to a full stop as soon as she entered the living room.

Sitting at the dinner table along with Caster, Satsuki and Shirou there was a new person she didn't recognize.

"Uhhh, Shirou?" she asked hesitantly. "Who is this?"

"Oh, right. You two haven't met yet. Taiga, this is Servant Rider. Rider, this is my guardian and foster sister, Fujimura Taiga."

"Rider? Wait, isn't she the one who put Mitsuzuri-chan and another woman into the hospital? What is she doing here?"

Shirou run a hand through his hair and sighed.

"Long story short, her Master had her feed on people because he couldn't sustain her otherwise. We met and we fought. With Caster's help I severed the contract she had with her Master and made her into my Servant. No more hurting anyone. End of story."

"I feel like you're purposefully leaving out something important. Who was her Master?"

"... Shinji."

"Shinji? Like in Matou Shinji? Your friend Matou Shinji?"

"Same guy," Shirou admitted.

"What the hell? He was a Magus too? Is Sakura into it too?"

"Calm down and get seated already. No, Shinji's not a Magus but his grandfather is. The Matou family, formerly Makiri, is one of the three founding families which made the Grail Ritual. However their aptitude for Magecraft run out a couple of generations ago. I thought that meant only Zouken could be a Master but I was clearly mistaken. I'm unsure why he let Shinji take part in the war at all, seeing he couldn't be a proper Master, but I'm not even going to attempt figuring out what's going on inside the head of an ultra-centenary Magus. They have lost their Servant and therefore they are out. Let's let the bygones be bygones. No one got permanently hurt anyway."

"Oh, alright," Taiga agreed somewhat meekly and a bit overwhelmed by the sudden turn of events. "Is that why Shinji didn't come to school today? What did you do to him?"

"Nothing other than explaining to him all the reasons why the Grail War is bad business to be involved in," he replied. "He's got a few issue with not being a Magus so he didn't go back home either. He should be fine but Sakura's worried, so I'm looking for him."

"I see. Sakura knows about Magecraft too then?"

"Yes, but please don't mention it with her. Shinji told me it's a very sore topic in their family."

"Oh, alright. Sheesh, sometimes I feel like everyone always knew about this stuff besides me."

"Trust me, there's nothing good about being involved with Magecraft. The less you know about it, the better off you are."

"Yeah, no kidding. So, Rider huh?" Taiga said, examining the Servant from head to toe.

The Servant was unperturbed by the attention and continued eating as if the conversation wasn't about her.

"I really worry about you Shirou."

"You don't have to. The Grail War is a terrible thing but we have it under control."

"That's not what I'm talking about. I'm worried because you keep bringing strage women home. A witch, a vampire and now... whatever she is. Now that I think about it, there's Sakura, Tohsaka and Saber too. Are you trying to start a harem?"

Shirou almost choked on his food. Caster's shoulders trembled in mirth. Satsuki was embarrassed and wide-eyed.

"Cough! What?" he blurted out, red faced. "Are you out of your mind?"

"Nuh-uh. I'm not the one living unsupervised under the same roof with three people of the opposite gender. I'm your guardian, you know. I'm not supposed to let these things slide."

Caster laughed out loud. "Oh, Taiga, you don't need to worry. Shirou is absolutely harmless in that regard. I don't think he would so much as hint at being interested in a woman unless she gave him a writ of permission... or unless she showed up naked in his room at night."

"That's an oddly specific example," Taiga observed, narrowing her eyes. "Did you-"

"Enough!" Shirou hissed. "The dinner table is no place for this sort of conversation. Taiga, I remember clearly telling you I'd wash your mouth with soap if you suggested I'd take advantage of anyone under my protection. Are you looking forward to snorting bubbles through your nose anytime soon?"

"You wouldn't!" Taiga yelped.

"Try me!" he taunted.

"... he did threaten to flip a building upside down earlier," the until then silent Rider piped in. "I believe he was being serious and possibly quite literal."

"I was," Shirou nodded. "So, do I have to get the soap bar or what?"

Taiga smiled. "The miso soup is delicious today. You've gotten a lot better at cooking Japanese recipes, Caster."

"Why, thank you, Taiga. I'm glad you like it," the witch replied with an understanding grin.

Shirou snorted and returned to his own meal, nodding his head in Rider's direction in gratitude for the assist.

Rider didn't seem to acknowledge it in the slightest, but under the artificial illumination of the living room one might have been led to believe that her lips were curved ever-so-slightly upward.

A trick of the light and nothing more.

Later, after he had his belated training session with Satsuki, Shirou sat in the bathtub soaking his tired body in blissfully warm water.

The past week had been particularly taxing, physically, mentally and emotionally. Shirou was much like a machine in many aspect but he was still quite human. Regardless of how much sleep he actually needed, he still required some downtime.

Now that the crisis following Rider's summoning was resolved, Shirou could look forward to some quieter days during which he could focus on training and making Mystic Codes.

He had a few projects he wanted to complete that could be useful in the War. He still had to look for Shinji, of course, but he still had a few minor informants around town that could keep an eye out for him.

Taiga said that the men from Fujimura Group would do the same, so there was a fair number of people on the case. An additional sets of eyes wouldn't make much of a difference in this case and now that the Church had been ruled out there was no other place where only he could safely tread.

Shinji would be found in a couple of day at worst, if he didn't decide to come back home on his own even sooner.

With that worry out of his mind he allowed himself to relax.

And of course someone decided to walk into the bathroom right that moment.

"May I join you?" Caster asked, closing the door behind herself with one hand while holding a towel in front of her body with the other. The cloth did little to conceal anything the way she was holding it.

Clearly, protecting her modesty was not what she was trying to do.

Inside the tub, Shirou sat up straight, red in the face. "Medea? What are you doing? Wait, I'm almost finished. If you'd give me only a minute -bwah!"

Medea had thrown her towel right in his face, obscuring his vision and making him fall back down inside the tub. When he finally got it off his face, Medea had already one foot into the tub between his leg.

"What are you doing?" he hissed, but rather than answering Medea turned her back on him and sat down between his legs, leaning against his chest.

"Ahhhh," she sighed, snuggling further against him.

"Medea, what?"

"What's wrong, Shirou?" she asked casually. "I thought we were already past this threshold. Do you still think I'm teasing you?"

"I know you're teasing me," he replied through gritted teeth. "Otherwise you wouldn't have shown up out of the blue."

"Hmm... I guess you've got me. Still, I expected you would have gotten used to see me like this by now."

"There's no way anyone could get used to something like that. To someone like you."

He didn't mean it as a compliment. In his mind that was a simple fact and she was just being preposterous.

Medea giggled. "You're a such a dummy, but I suppose that's why I like you."

"Yeah, well, I'm not about to complain about it if that's how you put it."

"As you should," she approved. "Though I must say I am a little bit jealous. You and Rider seem to get along quite well already."

"You and I must have a very different definitions of getting along, then. All I can say is that she doesn't look like she wants to kill me. For now."

"Considering that she was trying to do exactly that only yesterday, that's a marked improvement as far as relationships go."

"I guess I can't argue with that." he acquiesced. "Anyway, what brought this on? I mean, I'm not complaining about the situation. It's just a bit... unexpected?"

"Well, with everything that's going on, when else am I supposed to spend some time alone with you? You're either at school or training or out doing the Church's dirty work. I mean, we've just gotten together, but it's not like you aren't like this all the time anyway. I'm not complaining, mind you. I knew what I was getting myself into, but you can't blame me for capitalizing on every opportunity I've got."

"I'm not blaming you. Sorry, that was thoughtless of me. It still doesn't come naturally to think that you'd want to spend time with me."

"It's alright," she replied. Her hand sought and found his in the water. She intertwined their fingers together and brought his hand to rest on her stomach. "I'm glad that we can talk about it. It's not something I'm used to either."

"What isn't?" he asked.

"Being heard. Ever since that day only my threats ever got through to people. I'm not really used to... just being acknowledged."

"I'll always acknowledge you," he promised.

"I know. You always did, since the very first day. You always saw me as me, and not as Guildford's Servant or as the Witch of Betrayal. I'm really thankful about that."

Shirou would have wanted to say that it was nothing, but even though it might have been such to him it meant a whole lot to her.

"You're welcome," he told her, putting his other arm around her and holding her close.

They stayed like that for some time, basking in the warmth of the water and in that of each other's bodies.

As he sat there, more content than he had ever been in a long time, Shirou pondered that even making just a single person happy was not a bad way to live at all.

It was almost a shame that it wasn't going to be his life.

Still, although he couldn't devote his life to her that didn't mean he couldn't make her happy while he was there.

A plan started to take shape into his mind. It looked like he would have to ask for old man Raiga's help one more time.


AN: This chapter is mostly transitional, but at least we have a first meeting between Shirou and Kirei. They are like water and oil, these two. And for good reason at that.

Alright, this is it for this month. See you in while.