Rusty Heart (VI)
(Published: 05.28.13 - Beta: Obiki Doragon)
Shirou Emiya was a fairly quiet man all around. He hardly ever lost his patience but when he did it was better being as far away from him as possible.
Particularly, that night, Shirou hadn't lost his patience. He wasn't even annoyed, to be honest.
He was, simply put, fucking pissed!
"Trace Bullet: CONTINUOUS FIRE!"
Blades of all kinds went flying from behind his back like bullets from a machine gun, hissing through the night and striking his target with pinpoint precision. Blood erupted where steel pierced flesh but the wounds inflicted served to halt the creature's advance for a moment before the cuts regenerated.
He knew that the situation wasn't good, as it hardly could be when a Dead Apostle Hunt was called, but there had to be limits to how bad it could get; yeah, not likely. Save for some notable exceptions, Dead Apostles were a fairly nefarious bunch of people, if you could even call them that. It came with feeding on humans' blood, Shirou supposed, but some of them were severely twisted individuals even before being turned, or in the case of some magi, before turning themselves into one.
This particular case belonged to the latter category. This magus, already a Sealing Designate and by extension someone hunted by any other magus affiliated with the Clock Tower, decided that turning himself into a vampire was the next logical step to advance his thaumaturgy.
The sick bastard's Sorcery Trait allowed him to transplant organs between living beings, which included himself, without fearing rejections, but the asshole took it up to eleven by using his power to assimilate his prey into his own body, simultaneously absorbing the blood he needed and acquiring "spare parts" for himself.
In fact, barring strange abilities gained by other means, Dead Apostles usually were just highly enhanced humans with a thirst for blood and that could be killed just like any normal human. Therefore it was a logical conclusion, in this twisted magus' perspective, to get a few spare organs for his body in case some of them were destroyed.
Hearts, lungs, liver, kidneys, Even the brain had become replaceable and so he-ittook another person's organs, then another's, and then another's and so on. When the Enforcers from the Association showed up and had cornered him, he let his ability run wild.
To say that there wasn't a single living soul left would have been a blessing in this case, but sad truth was that the inhabitants of the city were pretty much still alive, though joined into a single body like a shapeless mass of flesh, slowly being turned into Ghouls as the curse of vampirism spread from the magus original body through the now shared blood stream.
And they screamed. Gods, they screamed. They called for mercy, for relief and for death.
They couldn't be saved. Their bodies had been twisted too much, deprived of this or that organ surviving in atrocious pains only because they were sustained by the yet untouched organs of the next unlucky person.
Help me. Kill me. I don't want to die. I don't want to live like this. Help me. Run away. Die.
They were beyond salvation. Shirou knew as much, and he would have ended it already if he wasn't trying to buy time for the team of Enforcers who had gathered without truly knowing the magnitude of the threat.
"Pull back," he called out as the last wounded Enforcer retreated pat him.
"Emiya, you can't hope to stop it on your own," the less injured of the lot said. "We're staying."
"Just get the hell out of here," he snapped angrily while his sword impaled the tendrils of flesh that were trying to reach for him and the rest of the Enforcers. "Run and don't look back!"
"You'd better not get yourself killed, Emiya!"
The enforcer ran, joining his retreating companions. Their Magecraft granted them enhanced bodies that could run faster than normal human possibly could, but having to carry their wounded comrades slowed them down considerably, though not having to restrict their abilities to prevent witnesses somewhat countered that.
Still, it took them a little over a minute to evacuate from the empty city and get into the forest that surrounded it. When they got there they stopped to catch their breath. If'Garden of Blood'followed them all the way there the vegetation would hinder it.
From their position the small town could no longer be seen. The only thing visible besides the trees was the rim of gold of the dawning morning.
The Enforcer glanced at his wristwatch, one of the few pieces of modern technology a proper magus possessed. It read four in the morning; far, far too early for the Sun to be peaking at the horizon, and from the wrong direction too. To confirm that it wasn't the sun, the light soon subsides and after a moment it faded completely, plunging the forest into complete darkness and silence once again.
A comforting silence; The screaming of hundreds of tormented souls that had plagued their ears could no longer be heard. He… he actually made it. The Enforcer didn't know what kind of Mystery Emiya had pulled out of his ass to dispatch'Garden of Blood',but somehow the runt had in store something big enough to wipe him out in one go.
Damn, that was a blow to their pride. If he had something like that from the beginning, chances were that they had only hindered him. The second 'Magus Killer' certainly lived up to his father's name.
"I'm going back to assess the situation," he addressed his comrades and without waiting for acknowledgement he run back toward the last place where he saw Emiya. He didn't particularly care about the guy, having considered him a little more than an arrogant upstart until that moment, but well, they wouldn't have survived without him. His pride as a magus required that he at least made sure he did the same as well.
He ran fast as he could in the opposite direction as before, turning sharply around a corner expecting to see… what the hell?
'Garden of Blood'was gone for good, that much was certain, but so was the portion of the city where the Dead Apostle used to be and there, right where the smooth asphalt stopped and the mass of ruins begun, was the Magus Killer, kneeling on the ground and holding his left arm is it was wounded or at least in great pain.
"Emiya, oi, Emiya; are you alright?"
The young man sharply turned his head in the direction of voice, his gray eyes settling on the Enforcer's.
"Didn't I-," he gasped for air, "didn't I tell you not to come back?"
"Don't mess with me kid. I couldn't just leave you here after you pulled our asses out of the fire. Are you wounded? What's wrong with your arm?"
"My arm is… fine," he replied, standing back on his feet. "I just swung a sword a bit too hard."
The Enforcer removed his gaze from the Magus Killer to look at the devastation before him and swallowed. "Swung a bit too hard, have you now?" he shook his head. "You are one crazy motherfucker, Emiya, I give you that."
"…What now?" the redhead asked, ignoring the praise that might as well be an insult.
"Now our job's done and we can let the higher ups deal with the fallout. Risking my life to hunt Dead Apostle is one thing but dealing with the paperwork? That's way above my pay grade."
"… In the end I didn't manage to save anyone," Emiya said dejectedly, looking at the battlefield.
"And what are we, chopped liver? The Enforcer asked sarcastically. "Trust me kid, we wouldn't have gotten half of us out of here without your help. And I don't mean half or numbers, that would be your average Apostle Hunt, I mean half of our fucking bodies. I don't know you, but that makes me feel pretty much 'saved' right now. Isn't that good enough for you?"
"I guess that counts for something," Emiya smiled wryly, though his eyes were still tinged with sorrow. Was this guy actually a magus?
"Come on, we did all that was in our power and beyond. That motherfucker was almost up to an Ancestor's level having an ability that fucked up. How did you take him out anyway?"
"You don't really expect me to answer that one, do you?" One of Emiya's eyebrows rose to his hairline.
"Eh, it was worth a shot," the Enforcer admitted shamelessly with a shrug. "I was hoping to catch you off guard, but I guess it would have been too easy. Well, we're done here. Now it's time to say goodbye to this hellhole and get back home. I can't wait to lay back and relax for a while. Don't you as well?"
"Relax?" Emiya asked as he started walking after the Enforcer. "I have to study for my entrance exams. The university isn't going to open up for me just because I ask."
"University," The Enforcer trailed off and then chuckled. "I give up on figuring you out, kid. A magus going to a university, what is the world coming to?"
"Hey, I have my own ambitions, you know?"
"Yeah, yeah, whatever; university, and Zelrecht actually is sane!"
The Enforcer ignored the younger magus' protest, satisfied with himself that he managed to clear Emiya's golden eyes from the sadness of all those lost lives. For a person who bore the name of Magus Killer he was far too much of a good guy.
The trip back home was fortunately uneventful, but Shirou didn't manage to catch a wink of sleep. In spite of the Enforcer's words and contrary to his apparent cheerfulness during the voyage Shirou couldn't be happy with the outcome of this assignment, even if he was glad that the Enforcers suffered no losses. Then again he wouldn't probably ever be satisfied if even a single life was lost. In the end, that's just how he was.
However he forced himself to put it all behind him. Those people were condemned before he even got there and killing them had been an act of mercy in every way. Yet, sleep eluded him like a whimsical lover and it was perhaps a good thing, everything considered. It was hard to say what kind of dreams he would have had if he managed to fall asleep.
One plane and one car ride later, Shirou was again in front of the steps of the Hinata-sou, not even forty eight hours after he had left, though he felt like he had been fighting for over a week considering ow exhausted he felt. His Prana was at an all-time low and even what he had stocked had been consumed. Two frigging moths worth of Prana gone in one sitting, Not that he complained or regretted. If he didn't resort to that he wasn't sure he could have won, even if he deployed his Reality Marble.
"Even now I can't really do anything without your support," he muttered to himself as he climbed up the stairs to the inn. He still had to open the front door but he could already tell that something was wrong. The tenants were discussing in the dining room, judging by the direction of their sound, and quite animatedly at that, judging by the sheer volume of their voices.
Silently, he let himself in.
"We have to do something!" Narusegawa all but shouted slamming the palm of her hand on the kitchen table.
"Whoa, there Naru," Kitsune held both her hand up in a placating fashion. "What do you expect us to do? They're her family and she went with them willingly. What right do we have to stick our noses into her business?"
"Yeah, willingly, right," Narusegawa snorted. "Did you even see the look on her face when she left with them?"
"I-I agree with Naru-senpai," Shinobu intervened timidly. "Maybe we can't have a say in whatever is going on with her family, b-but at least we should let her know she has our support?"
"Yeah," Suu agreed with her usual cheerfulness. "Besides I always wanted to visit Motoko's place."
"Well, that settles it," Narusegawa decided, "we're going to Kyoto."
Ah, so that's was the problem. He had to know that if something happened it would when he was otherwise occupied. He was actually very lucky when it came to extraordinary or supernatural things, pulling off and surviving feats that would have killed anybody else twice over, but everyday life? That was an entirely different matter.
"You're doing nothing of the sort," Shirou declared flatly, entering the room and letting his presence being known.
"WAAAAH!" the girls, with the exception of Suu, shouted in surprise.
"E-E-E-Emiya-san, you're back!" Shinobu observed as a manner of greeting.
"Don't do that!" Narusegawa and Konno opted to say instead, glaring at him.
"Sorry," he scratched his head. "I'm a bit tired. I didn't mean to scare you."
"Yeah," Konno agreed, recovering from the shock, "you kind of look dead on your feet. Had rough day at work?"
"Forget about that," Naru cut in. "What did you mean before?"
"I mean that you're not going at Motoko's place. The situation is already complex as it is without you adding any more drama to it."
"Like I care what you think," the brunette glared. "But, I'm not leaving my friend fend for herself."
"I didn't say that she would have to be by herself," Shirou shook his head. "You're staying; I'm going."
"Wait, wait, wait," Narusegawa held up her hand. "Why you and not us, we've known her for far longer than you have."
"Because I have a responsibility that you don't have," he explained. "Regardless of who was correct in our argument; I took away her sword. Until she finds her reason to hold it again I have the duty to see that she's in good health."
"That's just your own reasoning with no actual basis in the real world," Narusegawa flat out declared. Shirou blinked. She had figured him out immediately. Most people were usually stumped by his twisted reasoning but she had nailed him on the spot.
"Yeah," he admitted. "That's entirely my selfish reasoning. No one asked me to do anything and I didn't promise anything to Motoko or her family either."
"Fine," Narusegawa snorted, crossing her arms over her chest. "Then my selfish reasoning says that I have to stand by my friend. Who's with me?"
Three hands went up.
"…Fine, suit yourself," Shirou sighed resignedly. "I'm too tired to argue anyway. I leave in half an hour. If you want to come with me, be ready by then."
He left the room without waiting for confirmations. Frankly, it was better if they didn't come but he really had no valid argument or any authority to make then stay. Hopefully this matter was nothing out of the ordinary, but Shirou knew that he wasn't that lucky. 'Damn your E ranked Luck'
"Well, that was new," Kitsune commented when she was fairly sure Emiya was out of earshot. "It's the first time I see him being that impatient."
"So?" Naru asked. "What do you care?"
"Nothing, just wondering what could have finally tried his patience like that. Even when he argued with us he was pretty much calm and level headed."
"Yes, well, we have more important things to worry about than that man's ego right now. I'm going to get ready."
"Me too," Shinobu chimed in.
"Yay, field trip!" Kaolla cheered, darting off the room.
"Well, no use in staying here if all the fun is going to go to Kyoto," Kitsune agreed.
"We aren't doing this for fun, Kitsune," Naru said flatly.
"I said that it's going to be fun there not that we're going because of it."
"…You're thinking that Emiya is going to do something crazy again, don't you."
"I'm totally sure of it," the resident fox grinned broadly. "I ain't gonna miss that for any reason in the world."
"Gods, you're insufferable sometimes."
"Oh, you love me and you know it."
"Just go get yourself ready," Naru sighed, though she didn't deny Kitsune's claims, "least you want to lose your 'fun'."
"Heavens forbid," Kitsune exclaimed in mock indignation before running to her own room.
None of them truly understood how complicated the situation actually was. They would soon be enlightened on the harshness of their friend's life.
Shirou entered his room, threw away is luggage and retrieved Shisui from its resting place. Slowly he slid the sword out of the scabbard, staring at his own reflection on the steel blade.
"This is what you want, right?"
A faint hum answered his question. He already knew what Shisui wanted: to fulfill the purpose it had been created and wielded centuries before, to accompany someone worthy of being the heir to the Shinmei-ryu. Because of this reason it sang in Shirou's hands and because it was what Motoko truly wanted for herself, he had taken it away from her. A painful but needed step for the teenage girl to grow as a person before walking the path of the sword, a necessary challenge that even Motoko herself had understood.
They never really did speak of it but Shirou knew that the raven haired girl had realized that what Shirou meant by "living as a woman" was actually developing her own strength instead of seeking it into a weapon. He had happily watched as the person filled with anger and hostility had faced her fears and tried to improve herself in everyday life, blossoming into her own potential.
It was too soon yet, but there was no more time. No, perhaps there was no better time than this. This was the last challenge that Motoko needed to undertake in order to test her convictions. If in spite of whatever Motoko's family had in store for her, if she decided to keep walking the path of the sword then he would do his utmost best to see this wish fulfilled.
With a soft click her sheathed Shisui once more and then put it into a white satchel used to carry bokuto and shinai, and flinging it over his shoulders. As he left the room he grabbed his bag before heading out.
In spite of their last minute decision, Shirou and the girls managed to board the next bullet train. During the trip, Shirou pondered over his decision to interfere with the internal dealings of the Aoyama family. Like he had said to Narusegawa, he had made no promise whatsoever. Even if the current situation could probably be blamed on Motoko losing their duel it was still not his responsibility to see that she was fine with the outcome.
It was, he privately agreed, his own selfish wish to help that drove him. He was aware that he had no way to know beforehand if his intromission would improve or worsen the situation. With sad finality he had to admit to himself that Kirei had been right about him all those years ago. His wish to help someone was undeniably the same as wishing that someone would be in danger of damnation.
He wanted to be a hero, right. The notion was almost laughable. He was far too selfish to consider himself one. And yet, for all his admitted selfishness he could not come to believe that wanting to help other was wrong and so he was caught in this inescapable paradox.
Whether that left him as the good guy or as the bad guy, he didn't really know. All he could do was yet again chase after what he considered right, hoping to be able to save at least one person.
At least one life saved.
Just one life saved from the darkness.
"-ya-san," Shinobu's voice reached out to him and Shirou's eyes snapped open. Unbelievably he had fallen asleep.
"Sorry, Shinobu, I dozed off."
"Don't worry. You must be tired from work. I'm sorry to wake you up but we're almost there."
"Thank you," he shook the cobwebs out if his head. "I'm fine now. Let me get my stuff before the train stops."
He stood and retrieved his bag, filled with the same essential things he had brought on the Apostle hunt as Motoko's sword. Perhaps there would be no need for Shisui at all, but the magus knew that this blade had more reason to be involved with this situation than he himself had. Bringing that sword was perhaps enough of a reason for him to travel all the way to Kyoto.
The train stopped and they stepped into the crowded station at dusk. The setting sun tinged the city with crimson rays, almost like a bad omen. Shirou shook those thoughts from his mind. He was worrying needlessly and being overly melodramatic. There was no reason to believe this entire situation wouldn't blow over with a nice quiet talk.
'Bullshit,' HIS voice said.'You know all too well it's not going to be that simple.'
'Shut up,'he snapped back and it took an actual effort not to say it out loud. Still, the observant Shinobu seemed to have noticed his inner turmoil.
"E-Emiya-san," the brunette stuttered. "Your eyes…"
"What's wrong with my eyes?"
"They're… no. It was just a trick of the light."
Shirou looked away and rubbed the bridge of his nose. He was too tired and too disappointed with himself. In days like this, when his resolve and mind wavered it was exceedingly difficult to keep HIM at bay. The annoying bastard.
With the address it wasn't much difficult to locate where the Aoyama lived, but it took them a good half an hour to reach the place. And what place it was.
The Aoyama compound was, to put it simply, humongous. Situated in one of the oldest part of the city, the family private residence was at the top of an hill covered by a forest. The propriety, however, extended all the way downhill where the public area composed by several dojo and other traditional Japanese establishments were situated. The girls were understandably slack-jawed at the sight and in a different situation Shirou too would have been slightly taken aback at the sheer amount of wealth. However, his attention was swayed by another matter entirely.
"This is bad," he murmured to himself. He had always been good at detecting unnaturalness and this place just felt wrong. Not quite'Bloodfort Andromeda'wrong, but still wrong enough to make him slightly nauseous. It wasn't any form of Magecraft, as it was toorawand unchecked to qualify as such, but the place just reeked badly, as if the atmosphere had been exposed to something on the verge of rotting, if not quite rotting yet. It was the smell of a festering wound.
This was so not going to be a simple matter. Not by a long shot.
Motoko sat in the room she had been given, sitting seiza while wearing only a white hakama, left alone to meditate in preparation of the upcoming family council.
All the elders had been called to attend, which meant that he as well was going to be there. Not that she expected anything different, that monster would no doubt take great pleasure in seeing her shamed.
She knew that this situation was exactly what he had been waiting for since that day, twelve years ago. Well, he finally got what he wanted but she wouldn't give him the pleasure of showing him any emotion. She no longer was the little girl who had taken up the sword because she had nowhere else to hide.
She was a woman now. She was a woman and she would live as one.
She tightened her fist resting in her lap. She knew where this would go. It was what she expected years before if she hadn't been so adamant in choosing the way of the sword. She could still remember clearly how he opposed the idea of her actually wanting to compete for the title of heir. It was only because aneue had interceded for her that the council finally accepted her wish and allowed her to continue practicing the family style.
In hindsight it had been as much as a salvation early on as it had been a damnation afterward. Ultimately, like Emiya pointed out, she had been just running away and now her past had finally caught up with her. Well, no more running for her, now.
She knew already what the decision of the council would be in light of her loss of Shisui and she knew that even her sister's intervention would not change the outcome this time.
However, that didn't mean she would just accept that decision and comply with it. There is always room for a choice if one is willing to live with the consequences. It would be difficult without a doubt, but this time she would not shrink away.
Now that her resolve was made all she had to do was to wait until it was time to act upon it.
The situation was not good, Tsuruko thought to herself as she took a stroll through the streets of Kyoto to clear her mind.
Ultimately it couldn't be helped. She knew that this day would come sooner or later, but she had hoped that by then Motoko had actually grown past her trauma and embraced the way of the sword in its fullest, unlocking her true potential or, failing that, learned how to live without having a sword constantly by her side.
Ironically, that was what really made Motoko look past the edge of her blade was the same thing that propelled the situation past the point of no return. She didn't hold anything against Shirou for acting as he did. In fact he had shown much more restraint than most other people would have in the same situation and ultimately he had acted out of Motoko's best interests.
It didn't change the fact that Shirou's help had indeed thrown Motoko past the edge of a very high cliff and it was now up to her to sustain the fall. Tsuruko would, of course, support her sister as much as possible but in the end she had no actual authority over the council. The heir was a prominent figure in the Aoyama family, no doubt, and her word would certainly be kept in consideration, but it didn't change the fact that Motoko's own recent actions had declared her not fit to be a challenger for the title.
Now the event of twelve years ago would restart once more and Motoko would be condemned to walk a path she neither chose nor liked and Tsuruko could do very little to prevent it. It was already decide even if judgment still had to be passed and no one inside the family could or would do anything about it.
If there only was an outstanding external factor she could pull in to tip the scale in Motoko's favor then the outcome could be different, but what and where could she find such a thing and in such a short time?
As she racked her brain searching for a solution, Tsuruko stepped on the street that led up to her family grounds, her eyes meeting the figures standing before the gates and looking up at the Aoyama's property.
And then, in spite of the gravity of the situation, Tsuruko's lips curled up in a smile.
"Ara, we weren't expecting visitors at this hour."
A known voice distracted the magus from his nefarious thoughts. Shirou Emiya turned to look at Tsuruko Aoyama. It took once glance to the glint in her eyes to know beyond any doubt that she was up to something. Then again, she was always up to something when he was around.
"Good evening, Tsuruko-nee," he greeted warmly and the girls did the same. "We're sorry to drop in unannounced, but we were hoping to see Motoko. She left in quite a hurry so we wanted to make sure she was fine."
"Oh, my," the raven haired beauty laughed. "It's a relief to know she had made such good friends during her stay at the Hinata-sou, but I'm afraid that she's currently unavailable."
"Oh?" Shirou cocked his head. "And when exactly is she going be available again?"
"Hmm, I'm not sure exactly," Tsuruko replied in a casual tone, "but you will certainly know the moment you'll receive the invitation to her marriage."
A moment of silence went by, and then Shirou's eardrums sent a signal of agonizing pain to his brain.
The sound was high pitched as it was loud, and it came simultaneously from three different voices. Shirou just cringed, not so much at the bombshell Tsuruko had dropped like it was yesterday's weather report, but at the sheer volume the tenants used to convey their shock.
"M-m-married?" Shinobu shrieked.
"To who?" Narusegawa and Konno asked simultaneously.
"Is marriage good to eat?" Kaolla cued in.
"Small details such as the date and the husband are yet to be decided, I'm afraid," Tsuruko explained as if it was something trivial, using words that clearly outline the arranged nature of the wedding-to-come, "though if you call tomorrow there is probably going to be more to say on the matter."
This meant that such decisions were likely to be made that night. But why was she telling them such a thing? Even if the Aoyama lived pretty much secluded, Tsuruko wasn't a hermit and she was bound to know that something as an arranged marriage would upset them.
… Unless she was trying to goad them into doing something about it, perhaps interfering with it to the point of stopping it from happening. Forget about Konno, the real fox here was Tsuruko.
"No way," Narusegawa protested. "An arranged marriage in this day and age, you've gotta be kidding me."
"Why is she even getting married all of a sudden?" Konno asked, glancing at Shirou. "That's because of that duel, isn't it?"
"We're not going to stand for this," Narusegawa continued vehemently. "We're going to see Motoko, right now."
"As I said it's not possible at the moment, but I'll make sure to convey you're well-wishes. Motoko will be overjoyed to know you care about her so much. Now I really must leave you, there's a family meeting I have to attend in a couple of hours and I'd like to prepare. Such formal events are quite taxing after all. Good bye and thank you for coming."
"Wait," Narusegawa run after Tsuruko, who had walked past the gate that opened to the stairs that led uphill. The brunette was halted by two mendacious looking men wearing a black kimono who stood guard at each side of the gate. Neither of them reached for their katana but their expression made it pretty clear that they wouldn't allow her to move past that point. "I said wait! This isn't fair on Motoko. What has she done to deserve this?"
"It's merely the way of our family. You wouldn't understand."
"We won't accept it!" Narusegawa shouted.
"Then do something about it." Tsuruko replied, but her eyes weren't set on the other girl but they were rather locked on Shirou, whose hand was clenching around Shisui's clothed hilt. The redhead magus could discern a challenge from an invitation and he was sure that her statement counted as both.
Shirou Emiya's eyes narrowed.
Tsuruko Aoyama's smile widened.
The swordswoman then spun around and resumed her climb, ignoring the shouts of outrage for the brunette that continued until she was out of sight.
"Let's go," Shirou declared after a moment.
"What? Are you just going to give up like this?" Narusegawa shrieked. "Weren't you the one who said you had a responsibility to see that Motoko was fine?"
"Then what do you propose we do? Storm a place full of trained sword users and kidnap her? Even if I agree with your opinion that's a crime, you know? Motoko is still a minor and she didn't object to be taken here either. So, what do you think we should do?"
"I… I… I don't know," she admitted resignedly. "I… we can't just let Motoko face something like this on her own."
"… For the time being, We have to go find us a place to stay for the night. It's a bit late to go back and we just arrived anyway. Let's wait until tomorrow at least. Something might chance in the meantime."
"Fine!" she scoffed, not all too pleased with their inability to make a difference. "I packed a change of clothes in case we had to spend the night out anyway."
"Good thinking," Shirou agreed. "Do you have everything you need or should we shop for something before?"
After getting confirmation that they all came prepared for the eventuality of not returning home for the night, Shirou looked for a cheap inn and led them there.
By Tsuruko's admission, he had two hours to come up with a plan and enact it. Therefore, keeping in consideration the law of Murphy that seemed to plague his life almost constantly he decided to cut that time down to a hour, just enough for the sun to slip completely past the horizon and for the city to be covered in darkness… and for him to take a shower.
He needed one very badly for a number of reasons that went from washing away the tiredness to getting rid of his body odor. Let it be known that even the strongest warrior didn't come out from a fight smelling like roses. Not even with Magecraft.
An hour later
They managed to find an inn just a short walk away. It was a small ryokan, as expected from the most traditional part of the city, where the Aoyama compound was situated. It didn't have showers but it had an onsen, which was much more welcome to Shirou's tired body. Avalon made wonders for his wounds but it had no effect on tiredness and soreness. Ten minutes in the hot water was enough to make him recuperate a bit of his vigor.
Once he was done he dried himself quickly and changed in something more appropriate for the coming challenge. There was no doubt in his mind that the situation wouldn't be solved with just a talk, but rather with a talk preceded with lots of fighting, more talks and probably more fighting. That's just how things went around him it seemed.
He never really worked in optimal situations but this time around things were even worse. He was about to attack a place he didn't have any information about. The layout was unknown and even scouting using reinforced vision wasn't particularly useful considering the vegetation that covered the hill and by extension the buildings. Essentially he was about to storm an unknown location, filled with unknown numbers of hostile forces and with an unknown level of skills.
On top of that he had to avoid using his most esoteric abilities, to protect the secret of Magecraft, all the while trying not to kill or harm seriously people who were just protecting their homes from an armed intruder and somehow convince Motoko's parents, guardians or whatever not to go ahead with an arranged marriage because he said so.
Holy shit, he was really, really bad at doing heroic stuff.
'I told you so.'
'Wouldn't that count as masturbation?'
Shirou stopped what he was doing and took a deep, slow breath. That last line he had imagined it in Rin's voice and that was way worse than having his own doubts and low self-esteem rubbed in his face, mostly because that was exactly something Rin would say and that was a disturbing thought in its own right.
Rin was in London and the annoying bastard was back into the cage of his own choosing. The ghost of his memory was the only thing of him that was left behind, nothing but a figment of his imagination.
'You just keep telling yourself that.'
He decided to ignore the phantom of his potential future self and went to get ready. He hadn't foreseen a fight so he hadn't brought any defensive equipment, but then again when did he need to bring any equipment at all? He was his own armory and what he didn't have he could make himself on the spot.
Anyway he discarded his civilian clothing for something more adequate to the situation: a black, form fitting sleeveless shirt and a pair of brown, baggy pants. A good balance for inconspicuousness, mobility and stealth; the final touch was a pair of fingerless gloves with a steel plate on the back of the hand as a last resort to stop a weapon that slipped past his guard.
Actually, the last item was mostly for deception purposes. His toughest armor wasn't above his clothes but rather under his skin, but he needed at least something to use as an excuse if he wasn't cut too deeply if he ever had to deflect a weapon using his body. It couldn't justify half the things he could survive but people's tendency to rationalize what they see made up for it most of the time.
Now that he was a bit more lucid, a bit more rested and a bit more prepared he could go ahead stick his neck in yet another potentially lethal situation. … Seriously, even he had admitted that it wasn't a wonder anymore why his lovers were constantly worried about him. Next time he went back to Fuyuki or London he would bring the girls flowers, sweets or whatever they liked more. They certainly deserved all of those and more for putting up with him all the time.
But those were thoughts for another time. Now he had to focus only in solving the present situation, possibly without killing anyone and without being killed. Even though his complete disregard for his own life hadn't changed he didn't really want to trouble other people with his death if he could.
Besides, they would inevitably grieve him and that notion, almost completely alien to him who was still struggling to value his own life at all, was the only thing that restrained his most suicidal behaviors. That and the fact that he had yet to become the hero he promised her he'd become.
And he was again getting distracted. The Magus Killer shook his head one last time. Now he had to focus on the coming task and nothing else. Needless distractions would only serve to increase the already high chances of something going wrong.
Taking Shisui, still wrapped in the white cloth, Shirou left from the window so to avoid being see by the Hinata girls. The last thing he needed was to protect them while he went about this business. Without looking back he slipped into a back alley and unseen he made his way to the streets of Kyoto.
Naru walked out of the onsen, toweling her still damp hair, along with Kitsune. Soaking in the hot water helped to partially melt her frustration at the current situation but it hadn't offered any solution.
Motoko was going to get married because of some old-fashioned family custom and only because she had lost a duel. It didn't sit well with her that a woman, any woman, could be treated like a good to trade. Did Motoko's feeling matter so little to her family that they had no problem in giving her away to a man she hadn't chosen? Even if their opinion of men, both hers and Motoko's, had taken a beating recently it didn't change the fact that she didn't trust them on a general basis and with some good reasons.
Okay, maybe Emiya had shown that he wasn't a Grade-A asshole and a pervert, which was good. Statistically speaking it was bound to happen that a decent person would come out of the lot, but ultimately it was better to keep men at a distance until their true character was ascertained. With the wisdom granted by hindsight it was a bad idea to trust a man just because he appeared to be nice and trustworthy.
But Motoko was being deprived of this option. Even forgetting that forcing a person into marriage was illegal, something that could be hard to prove, especially if Motoko agreed with it, it just wasn't right to force a woman to be with someone she didn't care about.
And yet she didn't know what to do about it. The discussion she had with the girls while bathing didn't produce any viable course of action to stop this madness and even the usually reliable Kanrinin seemed stumped as to how to proceed.
That didn't mean she was about to give up, of course. Even if she had to stay up all night she would come up with a solution and even if they couldn't get any saying in the family meeting that was going to take place they could at least do something afterward. It wasn't like Motoko was going to get married tomorrow anyway.
"Shinobu, could you please tell Emiya-san to join us, I want to discuss with him what to do about Motoko. He gave me the impression he had at least an idea earlier."
"I'll go right away," the younger girl agreed, immediately heading for his room. Naru went to the room she shared with the other girls and not a moment after she had gotten there Shinobu came back running with a look of worry on her face.
"Naru-senpai, Emiya-san is not in his room."
"Did he go for a stroll in a moment like this?" she frowned.
"I-I don't think so. I didn't see Motoko-senpai's swords anywhere in his room either."
"… Wait, why would he take the sword…?" Mistune trailed off, her eyes widening. "You don't think he really went to…?"
"Oh, that utterly, unbelievable asshole," Naru groaned, "Come on, we're going after him."
But Naru had no intention to listen to any protest. She came to Kyoto to help a friend and she would be damned before she would be left behind while that man wanted to play macho all on his own. She didn't need to look back to know that Shinobu, Kaolla and Mitsune were following shortly behind.
The road that led to the Aoyama compound was pretty much secluded and trifurcated probably only by those who either lived in the area or that had business with the Aoyama themselves. They didn't run into anyone until they reached the gates where the guards stopped Naru from chasing after Tsuruko, a little over an hour later. They were still there if fact, by each side of the gate…on the ground…and unconscious.
"Eeek!" Shinobu shrieked at the sight of their eyes, rolled in the back of their heads and the foaming mouths.
"Oh shit," Kitsune preferred to say instead. "He actually did break in."
The gate was left wide open and the long flight of stairs disappeared between the trees and the darkness of the moonless night.
"… Let's go," Naru declared after a moment of hesitation.
"What? Are you kidding? Naru, If Shirou is really going to kidnap Motoko we're going to be considered accomplices when he gets caught. There's jail for kidnappers, you know?"
"I know, I know, I know," the brunette replied, annoyed. "I just… I just can't trust that man to get things right, alright? Besides it's not like we attacked anyone and the gate was already open when we got here. I'm sure no one would blame four girls of harming anyone, right?" Come on, let's go."
She started running up the stairs, again not waiting for an answer from her friends. Even if she had to go alone she wouldn't leave Motoko's future in the hand of a man. Not if she could help it.
Shirou's feet made nearly no noise as he run at high speed through the mostly empty streets of the old part of Kyoto. He took a not straight path to reach his destination, trying to avoid being seen as much as possible for while he wasn't using any enhancement yet he was still a suspicious looking figure.
His legs carried him almost effortlessly through a maze of back alleys, taking him to his intended destination in a matter of minutes.
He realized his mistake as soon as he stepped within the boundaries of that decaying-smelling area, but it was too late to rethink his course of action now.
He had heavily underestimated these people ability to perceive changes in the atmosphere. The unnatural aura of that was quite peculiar and the people who lived there were highly attuned to it. Consequentially even a minor disturbance was immediately perceived in a great radius. Actually he wasn't even in sight of the gate that the guards had already drawn their blades, waiting for him to show up.
Admittedly he could have ignored them, jumped past the wall that surrounded most of the property and made his way through the woods, but it would have only made things more difficult. These people could pinpoint his location with certain accuracy and knew the lay of the land better than he did. Hiding was therefore pointless and doing so among the trees where speed and mobility were impaired was not a good idea. Not when they were as fundamental as when facing multiple opponents.
Therefore he made the split-second decision not to bother hiding at all and taking the shortest path ahead instead, past the guards and beyond the gates. Conflict was likely to be unavoidable at this point, but what hell, he had been in worse situation with far less resources. Then again, few things ranked up to 'scary' anymore after standing up to Zeus' enraged son. He was more worried for the wellbeing of those people he'd have to fight rather than his own, but that too was old news to anyone who actually knew him.
So, without so much as a clue as to where he was actually headed, Shirou decided to stick to his usual course of action: winging it!
The guards at the entrance where in dreamland before they even caught a glimpse of his face, poor guys' ego was going to be more bruised than the place where he had struck them, but one doesn't really worry about politeness when he's sticking the hilt of a sword in someone else's gut before breaking into their houses, right?
He pushed the gate open and with a slight Reinforcement he ran up the stairs. If he was lucky enough he would still manage to ambush and overpower whatever opposition he was bound to find on his way and maybe rough them up some of them for information on Motoko's location.
Just a normal moment in the life of Shirou Emiya, or as Rin liked to call him, that idiot.
"Stop right there, intruder!" Random swordsman #3 demanded upon seeing Shirou running in his direction. The hapless fellow's sword was halfway out of its scabbard when Shirou's fist connected with his stomach, causing him to let go of his weapon and folding like a single pair, seven high.
Shirou caught the man by the collar of his kimono and stared him square in the eyes.
"Motoko Aoyama. Where is she?"
"At this hour," he gasped for breath, "she's already at the meeting. You'll find her in the only building on the second clearing straight ahead."
Shirou blinked. Seriously, a hardened swordsman giving away the information he needed without needing to break a single bone or even use what little hypnosis he could perform? It smelled awfully like a trap. The man seemed to understand Shirou's reluctance to take this information at face value and smiled maliciously. "Our strongest fighters are gathered there. It's the lion's den you're heading into. There's no need for me to point you anywhere else but toward your own death."
Ah, that made more sense. For a moment Shirou was actually worried things were going his way for once. He wouldn't have known how to deal with that.
"Thanks," he replied honestly, shortly before knocking the lights out of him with a well-aimed punch. He placed the now unconscious man on the ground as gently as he could and then resumed his run.
Second clearing up ahead, second clearing up ahead, second clearing up ahead. … Hm. Didn't that mean there was going to be a first clearing up ahead or something?
Right on time, said clearing opened up before him a few steps later. Shirou was greeted by at a group of at least thirty men and women of sharp eyes and shaper blades.
The redhead skidded to a halt practically in the middle of the lot. They immediately moved to close the way he had come from.
"If I ask real nicely, would you let me through?" he asked politely. As politely as a armed man trespassing in someone else's property could, anyway.
"Get him!" one shouted.
"Didn't think so," he sighed resignedly. Then all hell broke loose.
A knock at her door snapped Motoko out of thoughts.
"Imouto," her sister voice called, before opening the door. "It's time."
Motoko, still sitting on her heels opened her eyes and started at her aneue firmly.
The younger sister could see a spark of satisfaction in the other's eyes. She had grown, yes. Forcefully, but she had grown. She no longer allowed her fears to dictate her choices and she wouldn't let anyone but herself determinate her future. From here henceforth, even if both paths were not of her liking she would at least walk the one of her choosing.
She followed her sister along the familiar corridors. It had been years since she had been in this place and she hadn't missed it in the slightest. Perhaps it was hypocritical of her, not wanting to reject her heritage but at the same time not wanting to embrace it either.
It would all change now, though. Her decision was made and while it was the same as twelve years before it was not for the same reasons and it would certainly not bear the same results.
Somehow, Tsuruko seemed to read her thoughts and stopped before they reached the meeting room.
"Imouto, don't give up hope yet. You are not alone in this endeavor."
"Aneue," Motoko smiled, "this time even your intercession won't save me, but it is fine. I will not shy away from the consequences of my choices."
"You truly have grown Motoko," the elder sister returned the smile, "but you are mistaken. It is not me who will be by your side this time."
"Who else could stand up in my defense in a moment like this, aneue?" the younger sister inquired. Try as she might she couldn't imagine anyone who would support her cause. No one did the last time and they certainly had no better reasons to do so now.
"Who knows?" Tsuruko said mysteriously with an amused smile. "A hero might show up at the last minute."
"A…hero," Motoko frowned. "Aneue, have you been reading those cheesy novels again?"
Tsuruko answer was just a wider smile, before she scolded her features and pulled the door open walking in the wide room used for the family gatherings. Motoko was about to follow but she stopped in her tracks, turning her head slightly to the side.
For a moment she thought she heard the sound of clashing steel in the distance. She shook her head. It must have been her imagination.
Naru had far more stamina and strength than the average girl who spent most of her times on books, but even then the steep, seemingly never-ending flight of stairs was more than she could take in one go.
The initial sprint turned into a slow climb and ultimately slowed down to a walk. The other girls were behind, but not too far.
They had passed another unconscious man on the way up, but after checking that he was alive and breathing they left him there and continued up.
"How long… do these… goddamn stairs… keep going?" Kitsune complained, catching up with her.
"I can see a landing up ahead," Naru replied.
With a last effort they reached the landing, where the forest cleared into an opening with several buildings. There, upon putting simultaneously one foot each on the last step, they froze. A good minute later Shinobu caught up with them along with Kaolla, who had obviously stayed behind with Shinobu judging by the way she bounced around.
"Naru-senpai, Mitsune-san, What's wrong-!"
Much like the older girls, Shinobu stopped in her tracks as soon as her eyes settled on the scene. Even Kaolla seemingly restless bouncing reached an abrupt end.
"H-H-H-H- Holy shit." was Kitsune descriptive comment after a good minute of staring in disbelief.
A warzone, it was the best way to define the place they were staring at, a bloody warzone. Bodies lied scattered around, a few were even hanging from a fairly high tree branch. Some of the walls of the buildings had holes in shape of a person, as if several people had been flung at high velocity through the wooden surface.
There was no noticeable blood anywhere to be seen and the bodies groaned and moaned in pain so they were very clearly alive in not all that well.
"No fucking way," Kitsune continued. "This… this can't be the work of a single person. An army! He must have brought an army or something."
"… Monster," one of the fallen swordsmen groaned. "That guy… is a monster."
A moment of silent disbelief fell upon the group of four girls, which was abruptly interrupted when a lightning struck the ground higher up the hill.
"Kyaaa!" they shrieked simultaneously. They looked to the sky, but there wasn't a single cloud from where it could have originated.
A second lightening followed and a third answered a short moment later. They didn't come from the sky but they seemingly originated from the ground and rose up like pillars. The sounds of explosions followed the show of light and the sound of clashing steel echoed thunderously in their ear.
"No, seriously, what the ACTUAL FUCK IS GOING ON UP THERE?" Kitsune exploded. Naru was pale as a ghost and Shinobu was clutching Kaolla for dear life. Even usually unshakably cheerful girl had a look of fear in her eyes.
That was a question all of them would have wanted to be answered.
Shirou panted heavily. The battle had continued on the way up as more people joined the fight. They weren't half bad with a sword and it showed. If it wasn't because he was so used to fight things beyond the scope of humanity he would have lost in a heartbeat.
Normally, a single person fighting several opponents had the opportunity of using friendly fire at his advantage, using the enemy's numbers against them. In Shirou's case that too worked against him, as he was actively trying not to harm his opponents. He was forced to take a few hits that would otherwise have struck another person. It was nothing major, thanks to his Reinforcement of his clothes and body, but he was still bleeding from several cuts and more importantly he was running out of stamina.
He was almost there though. He could already see the second clearing opening up ahead and the enemy's numbers were starting to dwindle.
With a last effort he knocked down the two swordsmen that were trying to slash at him from the higher ground, pushing past the last steps of stairs and finally landing on the second clearing.
"Almost there," he wheezed, short of breath while five more warriors run toward him, swords in hand. "Great, there really is no rest for the weary." He clutched the still sheathed Shisui tighter and stepped toward the incoming danger.
Motoko sat in the middle of the room.
Behind her sat the senior instructors, most of whom belonged to branches of the main family, while Tsuruko sat to the side in the spot reserved for the school's heir. At the end of the room there was a stage, slightly higher than the rest of the ground, with four cushions placed on it. The spots reserved for the elders.
A door to the side opened and four figures clad in simple yet refined black kimonos entered. Motoko's eyes fixed onhimand didn't let go for a single moment. Her heartbeat accelerated and the old fear rose up to her chest.
They sat in their places and for the first time in years they eyes met.
"Motoko," he greeted emotionlessly.
"Chichiue (father)," she replied coldly in a plain voice. Her voice didn't waver nor did her gaze. One minute became two and he finally looked away, shame reflected in his eyes. A small victorious smirk appeared on Motoko's lips. It was a small victory, but it was a victory nonetheless. The second one she had been granted in twelve years.
Another of the elders coughed and the attention was restored.
"Motoko," the aged swordsman began. "Twelve years ago you sat before this council and declared you would have followed the way of the sword, despite the fact that a suitable heir had already been selected. In spite of the law of this family, which states that when two children are born in the main family one only has to inherit the secrets and other has to continue the bloodline, we have graciously conceded you the opportunity of proving yourself worthier than your sisters to become the next heir. Do you recall this, Motoko?"
"Hai, esteemed elder. I do remember it clearly."
"Now, not only it has come to our attention that your behavior outside of these grounds was reason of shame to our name but you have also forfeited your right as a swordsman and lost a precious heirloom in a duel against a stranger. Is this correct?"
"Hai, I now realized that in hindsight that I have not been prohibited from practicing the way of the sword permanently, but only until I found a true inner balance."
"Regardless," the elder pressed on, waving off her excuse, "you don't deny that you have challenged a far superior opponent merely to satiate your personal pride and lost both your honor and a token of your legacy, do you?"
"To my great shame," she cringed, "I do not."
"Very well, Motoko Aoyama, in light of your recent behavior and misdemeanors this council has found you unsuited to challenge your sister for the title of heir. Therefore from now henceforth you are prohibited from practicing the Shinmei-ryu. As the second born of the Aoyama main branch, your duties toward this family are those outlined by our clan's laws. A suitable husband will be chosen for you within the next three weeks and you will join him in marriage as soon as you reach the age of majority."
That sentence was exactly what Motoko knew was coming. She knew this day would eventually come if she failed to surpass her sister and there was one only possible answer she could give. She closed her eyes, gathering her strength for a moment.
"Esteemed elders" she opened her black yes slowly. No uncertainty could be found within them. "I refuse."
A collective, sharp intake of breath answered Motoko's proclamation. Even the elders were taken aback with the only exception of her father. He of all people would have known she wouldn't accept such a fate, but what he didn't know, and it showed in his eyes, was the lack of fear in her that would have caused such a decision in the past.
Yes, this wasn't running away any more. This time for real…
"I will walk the path of the sword," she declared unflinchingly. They were the same words she spoke twelve years before and yet they had an entirely different meaning altogether.
"You reject the judgment of this council?" the elder hissed with narrowed eyes.
"Do you know what it entails?"
"Permanent banishment from this family," she replied.
"Even knowing this, you will follow through with this decision?"
"Yes. For the first time in my life I know what I want. If this means that I will have to face the future on my own then so be it."
"Then-" the elder's attention was drawn to the shouts and noises coming from the courtyard. "What's with this racket? Find out what's going on and out a stop to it."
A man at the end of the room stood, bowed and left to carry out that order.
"As I was saying," he resumed "if that is your decision you will be struck form this family. As the law of this country dictates we will provide for you until you reach the age of majority after which we will cut all ties with you. In addition, starting immediately, you will no longer bear the name of Aoyama and will use your mother's maiden name. Do you acknowledge this?"
"Hai," she replied simply.
The elders looked at each other, whispering something, before nodding. The spokesman for the elder stood and regarded her with a haughty look.
"Aoyama Motoko," he began, "with the authority bestowed me by this council I hereby ba-"CRASH!"-BUH!"
The outer wall exploded in a shower of splinters and the body of the instructor who had left just moment earlier flew in from outside, slamming against the elder and sending both crashing on the wall behind in an almost comical fashion.
With the exception of Motoko and Tsuruko, who was hiding her broad smile behind her sleeve, everyone stood and reached for their weapons. Countless hisses accompanied an equal number of weapons unsheathing.
Then, from the hole in the wall, the last man she expected to see in that place walked in almost casually.
In his hand was the familiar form of Shisui, clad in a white satchel ripped in various places. His black shirt was cut on the chest, a faint line of blood dribbling down his skin, hinting to a barely avoided blow. His forehead was marred with sweat and his breath was ragged, a clear sign of the battles he had to go through to reach that place.
Shirou Emiya stood in a room filled to the brim with the most skilled fighters of the entire clan and yet his gaze didn't linger on their hostile forms, quickly scanning the crowd and settling firmly on her
His golden eyes found hers and his steely expression softened in relief at seeing her well.
Motoko's heart suddenly lurched in a way she had never experienced before while an foreign warmth rose to her chest and cheeks.
"What did I tell you, Motoko-chan?" Tsuruko whispered conspiratorially. "Sometimes a hero shows up at the last possible moment."
Motoko could only nod dumbly in response, far too occupied in calming down her own racing heart.
AN: Nope, sorry. I though I could finish the arc with this chapter but I couldn't do it. Next one will definitely will be the last though.