Gathering (IV)

When Rider returned home the next morning, it was later than usual. It had taken all night and a good chunk of the morning to tame her thirst for blood.

After parking the bike in its spot, she went to the living room where she found Caster on her own. The Witch of Betrayal was quietly sipping tea while watching morning dramas on the television.

That was a surreal enough image to give Rider pause, but she was quickly brought out of it when she noticed that her portion of breakfast was still laid out for her on the table. Caster didn't seem to be interested in acknowledging her presence, or her conspicuous absence at breakfast.

Rider had been told that she was free to do as she pleased, however, she didn't think that there would be no explanation to give for an abrupt departure.

Then again, Caster knew exactly who and what Rider was. Though differently, they both suffered at the whims of the Gods. There was little explanation one had to give to the other in regards to that. However, that in turn meant that Emiya Shirou too was aware of her condition.

Considering his own interaction with a Dead Apostle, she didn't think he'd be bothered by that, but now that the cat was out of the bag she wondered what exactly had caused him to take a fledgling vampire into his home and feed it his own blood.

But that question had to wait for another time. She wouldn't be asking the Witch about that, or anything that wasn't strictly necessary. Quite frankly she didn't like Medea. They had done nothing to each other in their lifetimes but…

… how did a person with a past as dark as Caster's got to be that happy?

It wasn't that Rider was envious, but rather genuinely confused. It was starting to become a common occurrence since her… abrupt change in employers.

Nevertheless, for the time being there was nothing she could do about it, therefore Rider sat down silently and started eating the food that had been kindly laid out for her. Eventually, as she ate, she too was caught in watching TV with her fellow Heroic Spirit.

It was a strange sort of quiet acceptance the two of them shared. Or perhaps, it was just mutually ignoring each other. Originally, they were meant to fight to death. Yet they now shared the same food, the same roof and the same Master.

Honestly, Emiya Shirou seemed to exist for the express purpose of defying Rider's expectations.

Unlike Shinji, who was pretty simple to figure out how he ticked, Emiya Shirou was an oddity. For starters, he was in an intimate relationship with a Heroic Spirit. That was in and of itself a remarkable thing.

By far and large, Heroic Spirits weren't easily impressed, least of all someone like the Witch of Betrayal. What did the former princess of Colchis, a woman cursed by the Gods and scorned by her husband see in a young man like Emiya Shirou?

Admittedly, Rider was intrigued by proxy.

Speaking of her Master, she was supposed to escort him to school every day, but she had barely just started that she had already failed at her appointed task. Furthermore, she was supposed to accompany him to find Shinji after classes.

Perhaps it was high time she played a more active hand in trying to figure him out.

The school day went as it could be expected, with Shirou sitting through his classes, taking notes diligently. Compared to what he usually put himself through during the day, school counted as light work for him, if not outright relax.

It was perhaps the only aspect of his life that was even remotely normal.

Of course, with his luck he knew that too wouldn't hold for long and he had a first inkling of it when, towards the end of the school day, he heard the rumble of a motorbike coming from outside the school premises.

He tried to tell himself that it wasn't her, tried to fool himself into thinking that there to be at least another person coming to school with a motorbike.

"Yo, Emiya," one student called out. "It looks like one of your girlfriends is waiting for you."

Shirou unceremoniously dropped his head on the desk, while every other male in the classroom glared at him with murderous eyes.

Did he piss her somehow? Was this retribution of some kind? It had to be. There was no other reason that he could think of.

"Rider," Shirou said as a way of greeting. "I thought we had an agreement."

Rider looked at where she was standing, and then at the school gate behind Shirou.

"This isn't part of the school grounds, is it?"

Shirou's eye twitched. He had indeed told her that if she wanted to play watchguard at school she had to do so in spirit form. He said so because he couldn't disguise her the same way Tohsaka had done with Saber. Rider didn't look the part of a high-school aged girl at all.

However, Rider either misunderstood what he meant, taking his word all too literally, or flat out decided to toe the line with him. Perhaps this was her idea of paying him back for winning their one and only fight? It really seemed that the pride of a Heroic Spirit was not something to trifle with in the slightest.

"Just forget it." he sighed and held out his hand. "Keys."

Rider fidgeted, clearly uncomfortable with the idea of relinquishing control of the vehicle that she had come to consider her own.

"If I have displeased you, Mas- Goshu-… Shirou." she settled to say as she watched his expression become increasingly displeased with every appellative she tried, "I apologize."

"K-e-y-s," he insisted, spelling out the word slowly. He had learned one thing by hanging around Caster, and that was that if he didn't draw a line and stood by it he would never see the end of it.

If he wanted to keep interacting with multiple, strong-headed Heroic Spirits, he had to bring down the law. If he didn't and allowed things to fall into chaos he would never be able to control anything ever again. This was not a situation where he could afford to be laid back.

Rider made the closest expression to a pout he had ever seen her make so far, but she still diligently handed over the key.

He took them and put on the helmet that she had brought for him before straddling the bike, then Rider did the same behind him, wrapping her arms around his torso.

The bike sped away under the envious gazes of Homurahara's male students.

'Well,' Rider thought as her Master led the bike through the streets of Fuyuki, 'that backfired.'

She had pretended to misunderstand his command to only come to his school in spirit form for the express purpose to annoy him and see how he would react to her defiance. He had used the least amount of authority to punish her, but nonetheless he had punished her.

That was good and it raised her opinion of him.

He was strong and he was capable. She already had the chance to see that, but outside of combat he looked like one could do as they pleased with him and he wouldn't so much as stand up for himself.

That would have posed a problem. Combat ability didn't necessarily translate to capacity to lead. In fact, there was no direct correlation between the two of them. She was pleased to see that he was not spineless, and that he could and would maintain a fair amount of discipline.

She could respect that.

Whatever had to be said about her current circumstances, Emiya Shirou was a better Master than Shinji ever was, and not merely because the latter was not a Magus whereas the former was not.

To begin with, Shirou didn't see her as expendable, and if his relationship with Caster was any indication, it wasn't just because his parameter for victory included her survival until the very end.

He treated Servants as people, rather than assets. Was it because of Caster's influence over him? No, if that were the case, they would not be in a relationship at all. In fact, Caster would have already either killed him or made him her puppet.

That was the way he was.

And then there was the little vampire. That was something Rider did not understand. A Dead Apostle was a monster that fed on humans. Drinking blood was necessary for their own sustenance.

Surely he knew this, so why did he protect her? Why feed her? Why even train her? Didn't he understand that it was only a matter of time before she turned into a complete monster and and everything good he had done for her would be turned against others?

What exactly were his motives? Rider couldn't find an answer by the time they got to their destination.

"You piece of junk!" Shunji cursed as the steel spheres from his pachinko machine fell to the bottom without giving giving a single prize. "Fuck! My luck is just the worst."

Lately, Shinji had been spending all of his days like that, playing pachinko or otherwise wasting time left and right, sleeping at the place of a guy that owed him money. Without anything better to do, he just clung to the mindless amusement of these kinds of games.

Alas, his luck was never that great to begin with, so burning money in a game of chances was just another bad choice in a long string of similar calls in his life.

In any event, he was so wrapped up in what he was doing that he didn't notice the person sitting at the machine next to him leaving, and another one taking their place. He steadily ignored everything around him and just kept on playing.

Next to him, the newcomer started winning game after game at the same rate that Shinji was losing them. While his pile of steel-ball boxes dwindled, next to him they started building up like a tower.

Matou Shinji was never one to have a philosophical approach to other people's good luck and turned to give the son-of-a-bitch a piece of mind.

"Hey, jackass, why don't you go somewhere- uhk! Emiya!"

Emiya, glanced at him, as the pachinko machine paid out yet another jackpot.

"I was wondering when you'd notice me." the redhead replied, clearly having been staring at Shinji all along. "Just how long do you play this stuff each day?"

"How long have you been here? Wait… are you telling me that you've been playing without paying attention all this time?"

"Well," he said looking at the stack of steel balls he had accrued, "I wasn't really interested but at these establishments they don't take kindly to people who take space without playing. Although…"

The both looked at the owner behind the counter, who was holding his head in despair at the sight of Shirou's winnings.

"... I think they would have preferred letting me sit for free."

"Yeah, no shit." Shinji concurred. "Wait! Forget about that! What the hell are you doing here?"

"What else? I came looking for you."

"Whatever for?" he asked. "I've got nothing more left to take."

"Yeah, I'm not having this conversation in here. Let's talk outside." Shirou said, getting up from his seat and walking out.

Shinji glanced at the door, the stack of Shirou's winning that he had left behind and his own machine.

"Shit. My luck just can't get any worse today."

"How did you find me?" Shinji asked after he caught up with Shirou in the alley next to the pachinko parlor.

"I asked around." Shirou replied easily. "It's not like you were trying too hard to hide."

"Yeah, whatever." he snorted. "So, what did you come all this way for? Changed your mind about finishing the job?"

"Go back to school, Shinji." Shirou said, refusing to dignify that question with an answer.

"Ahhh? What is it to you if I go to school or not?" Shinji asked challengingly

"First, whatever you might think of me, you are my friend. If you skip any more days you'll be held back an year," Shirou explained. "Second, Sakura worries about you."

"Sakura what?" Shinji asked in disbelief.

"You know that she does." Shirou insisted. "Look, you don't want to go back home and that's fine. The farther away you stay from Magi in general the better, but that's no reason to compromise your education. If you'd rather leave Fuyuki and move elsewhere I can arrange something, but at the very least you should let Sakura know about your decision."

"What will you do if I don't?" Shinji asked, eyes unreadable as he looked away.

"Nothing. I'm not here to decide your life for you, Shinji. I'm here because I worry that you might make choices you'll regret later."

"Fuck, you're such a busybody, Emiya. Who asked you anything?"

Shirou didn't bother answering that question either.

"Well, I said what I came to say. I'll tell Sakura to bring your bag to school."

With those words, Shirou started leaving.

"What if I don't show up?" Shinji called after him, but Shirou didn't turn back and simply kept walking away. "Jackass!"

Shinji didn't see Rider, on top of one of the buildings over them, eavesdropping on the conversation. As soon as he left, she followed after her Master.

When Shirou arrived to the parking lot, Rider was already there waiting for him, leaning against the wall next to his bike and pointedly disregarding the staring passersby.

"Did everything go as expected, Ma… Shirou?" Rider asked, even though she knew full well the answer to that question.

"You might consider working on your Presence Concealment." her Master told her, regarding her with a slightly exasperated glance.

Rider, despite herself, blushed slightly at being so blatantly caught red-handed.

"My Class doesn't have that skill." she mumbled.

"Obviously." he replied drolly, then changed subject. "Shinji's fine, more or less. What he does from here onward is up to him. Either way, I hope he doesn't get stuck this way much longer."

"You... truly care about him." Rider observed.

"Yeah. Whatever might be said about him, he is my friend. It's only natural that I look after him, isn't it?"

"I… suppose." Rider conceded.

She couldn't see how to people so diametrically opposite could have become friends. Did Shinji somehow made one good call in life, or did Shirou took pity on the other boy? The latter looked more probable than the former, but Rider didn't feel that such was the case.

Either way, she didn't feel like prodding further. Twice already she had threaded the line with him today. Pushing too far would do no good. Besides, she was in no hurry to figure him out.

There were also other people that could help her in that endeavor.

All in due time.

Shinji didn't go back to the pachinko parlor. Instead he started walking down the streets, making his way through the dense crowd of the entertainment district.

He had already changed and pocketed Emiya's abandoned winnings before leaving anyway. A man's trash is another man's treasure, or so it was said.

However his thoughts weren't focused on ill-gotten monetary gains of any sorts, as much as they were mulling the exchange he just had.

Shinji didn't feel particularly touched about Emiya's interest in his well-being. He was a busybody. He had always been. Shinji had just forgotten when he learned his long time friend was a Magus. Jealousy seeped into his bones and made him blind to a lot of things.

However, that too wasn't the focus of his thoughts, but rather what he had said about Sakura.

Why would she be worried about him? If anything, she should be happy he was gone. For the longest time she had treated her with nothing but contempt at the best, and he was downright abusive the rest of the time.

Why? Why would she worry about him after everything he did? There was no reason to. Sakura wasn't like that. He knew as much.

Or did he?

The moment he learned that Emiya was a Magus, his perception of him chanced completely, becoming twisted through the lenses of Shinji's own insecurities. He might deny it to others, boasting about his status and greatness all the time, but Shunji was acutely aware of his own rotten self.

He thought that because he saw himself clearly, that he saw others clearly as well. However, he received a couple of metaphorical slaps to the face in the course of the previous days.

He had misjudged Emiya twice, thinking him harmless before and treacherous later, only to find out that he was neither.

If so… if so…

'Did I misjudge Sakura too?'

He kept playing over his memories of the years he had spent with her, looking for an answer, but it was not something that could be found within the confines of his own mind.

He melted into the crowd with only his tormented thoughts to keep him company.

At the same time, in Italy, it was just an hour before dawn but it was the arrival of the sunlight was still ways away. The rain didn't help matters either. The quiet pattering of water drops added another layer of quietness to the Eternal City.

Only the street lights and the headlights of the passing care tore through the night and cast lights and shadows over the ancient cobbled streets.

As a car drove by, it briefly illuminated a figure standing between two buildings, apparently seeking shelter from the weather. However, rather than hitting her body, the rain washed around her like she was covered by an invisible umbrella.

Caren sighed in relief as the car continued on its way, taking away its lights and restoring the darkness of her cover.

What other choice did she have but to hide like a criminal? None. Talking things out wouldn't work, she had tried aplenty. Running was her only option, so that's exactly what she did. Of course, it was only a matter of time before they took notice of her absence and sent someone to investigate.

The Holy Church didn't like not to know things, the Burial Agency all the more so. However, they would not find the answer they wanted no matter how hard they sought it. Even though Caren could just tell them, it would serve no purpose.

It never would.

"I apologize, Master," her Servant said telepathically. "This is all my fault."

"That is hardly something you should apologize for, Avenger. If there's anyone responsible for this state of things, that would be me. I summoned you, didn't I?"

"Nevertheless." he protested.

"Hush. You worry only about doing your job. I'll worry about getting us to our destination."

"It won't be easy. Japan is on the opposite side of the world, and the Church is going to keep an eye on all the methods of entry. Official and unofficial."

"Your mastery of the obvious is astounding, Avenger."

"With such a wicked tongue, Master, it's hardly any surprise you ended up summoning someone like me."

"... I suppose this is the price of my sins, yes."

"Teasing you is not nearly as entertaining if you are so meek about it." Avenger complained.

"It is not wise for people of faith to entertain the devil." Caren quipped.

"Now that's a good point if I've ever heard one. ... They are coming, Master. If you don't wish to engage them, I suggest we start moving."

"Well then, let us get going, Avenger. To Japan. To where the Holy Grail awaits."

With one last look at the lights of the Eternal City, Caren turned around and walked deeper into the alley, followed by the shadow of her Servant, both melting into the darkness and disappearing into the night.

The rain went on falling until dawn, but by the time the sun rose, there was no trace to be found of Caren Ortensia within the city of Rome.


AN: First update of 2019. Yeee. Happy New Year everyone.

The plot thickens. Caren and her Servant are making their way to Japan. It will take some time for them to get there. It will happen in chapter 51, which you can read in advance on my Pa treon. Check it out at "pa treon [DOTCOM] / neoalfa"

BONUS: Chapter 46 has been updated with the smut scene. Check the bottom of the chapter for it. On pa treon you can also find a custom artwork I have commissioned from this scene.

See you all next month!