Black Cat's Luck (V)
Haruka's car reached an abrupt stop next to the curb in front of the stairs to the Hinata-sou. The group quickly descended, with Rider helping Motoko stand. Except for the wounded sword maiden, everyone else was capable of walking on their own. Even Shinobu, who had woken up during the trip back and was now fussing around Motoko even though she could do nothing to help.
Through all the travel, Rider had been exceedingly worried about Ilya and Shirou. If anything happened to Illya, not only would Shirou blame himself for failing to protect her, he would also go looking for the person responsible regardless if it would further break himself in the process.
To make things worse, the mastermind had managed to sneak away right under Rider's nose. The Servant hadn't given chase not because she didn't want to, but because she couldn't.
As someone with the predisposition to become a monster, Rider was quite adept at tracking human beings, but that woman had just vanished into thin air. Rider couldn't find a single trace of her presence, almost as if she had never been there.
That level of presence concealment wasn't something that could be learned casually. That woman was dangerous in her own right, hired help notwithstanding. Worried as she was, Rider felt the compulsion to go looking for Shirou with every they spent apart.
However, he had asked her to protect the girls and if anything happened to them because she didn't listen would make things even worse. She was stuck between a hammer and a hard place, growing frustrated with each passing minute.
It didn't help that they found a stranger waiting for them at the bottom of the stairs
"Who's there!" Haruka called out.
He was a short, stout man in a business suit and fedora hat, with a cane that he held with both hands in front of him. It looked more a fashion statement than a walking aid.
"Good evening ma'am. You may call me doctor Tanaka. I believe my services have been requested.
"Old man!" called out Kitsune, rushing past Haruka. "You are already here?"
From under his hat, the old man chuckled merrily up at her.
"Dear girl. In my line of business, time is usually of utmost essence. Now, then. Where is my patient?"
"Over here," said Motoko weakly. They had slowed down the bleeding, but they couldn't stop it completely. Therefore she was slowly getting drowsy.
"Please, bring her up and settle her somewhere clean and flat. Preferably on a table. Mistune, dear, fetch my equipment from the van over there," he said pointing at a side street not too far away. "I believe you already know what's required."
"Of course, I do. Naru, please give me a hand."
"I… okay," Naru agreed after a bit of hesitation.
"If anything happens, just shout and I'll be there in a moment," said Rider.
"Got it," Kitsune confirmed as she rushed to retrieve the doctor's equipment.
The rest of them went up the stairs and into the inn, where they laid down Motoko on the kitchen table after wiping it as cleanly as possible. The shady doctor then went about to check her wounds.
"Can you fix her?" asked Haruka apprehensively.
She has lost plenty of blood but she's clearly a tough young woman. She would be fine, given enough time."
"Doc! I've got your stuff," said kitsune as she dragged in two heavy-looking bags, while Naru awkwardly carried an IV pole.
"Ah, right on time. Please set up the blood for the transfusion. You still remember how to do that, don't you?"
"Who do you think I am?" scoffed Kitsune as she hurriedly set up everything necessary, while Naru between the doctor and her long-time friend looked at her friend with a baffled expression. It seemed that his side of the resident drunkard was knew even to her.
While Kitsune busied herself, the doctor carefully stitched and bandaged Motoko's wounds. The sword maiden didn't let out a single noise of complaint throughout the procedure. Rather, she made sure to observe everything carefully. This was the first time she got shot, but there was no guarantee it would be the last, considering that the mastermind had gotten away.
Everyone except Kitsune stood aside and allowed the man to work undisturbed. It took him about half an hour to finish, though it felt a lot longer for everyone involved except maybe Rider.
"All done," the doctor declared. "I recommend not putting any weight on that leg for a few days and of course taking it easy on that arm as well. Changing the bandages daily and keeping the wounds clean is also necessary, but I don't foresee any problem with that. Isn't that right, Mitsune?"
"Sure thing. I'll keep an eye on her. Thanks, Doc!"
"Gratitude is only for people who don't take cash, dear," he harrumphed good-naturedly.
"You'll have your money," said Kitsune, rolling her eyes. "Usual fare or did you hike up the prices again?"
"Since you assisted me, I'll give you a ten percent discount this time."
"Only ten percent?" she asked
"Don't push your luck with me, young lady," he scolded, tapping his cane on the floor, though he clearly didn't look upset at her attempts at bargaining.
"Fine, fine. You were always a stingy old man anyway."
"Guilty as charged," he agreed. "Now, seeing that my job here is done, I shall take my leave. I don't expect any complications to arise but do give me a call if her condition worsens in any way."
"Will do, Doc."
"I'll expect my compensation within the week, of course. No delays."
"Yeah, yeah. I know how it works," Kitsune said dismissively.
"And I know how you work, my dear girl. I have a soft spot for you, but don't be in hurry to change that."
"Don't worry. I'll have your money in time. Now, shoo. You've done your part."
"What a rude woman you've become."
"Politeness is for people who don't take cash," she replied, to which he barked out a laugh.
"I got that one coming, didn't I?" he asked rhetorically. "Have good night, everyone," he said, tipping his hat before seeing himself out.
"Kitsune, how... how do you know that guy?" asked Naru once he had closed the door behind himself. "The way you talked, it sounds like you've known him for a long time."
"Oh, it's an old story from way before I met you. I'll tell you some other time."
"How long have you been getting yourself in trouble exactly?" Naru asked.
"You should know I don't remember things that far back, Naru."
Naru shook her head and sighed. Deflecting questions with humor was a long-standing practice of Kitsune that Naru would usually tear right through. This time, however, the brunette didn't have the mental fortitude to pursue the matter any further.
The past day had been one shock after the other, and she was the end of her rope. Her hands were still shaking, and she wrung them constantly to keep them still.
"Motoko… Motoko are you alright?" asked Shinobu, clutching the hand of her dorm mate.
"I'll be fine, Shinobu. You don't need to worry. I hurt more after my daily training with Sensei, I assure you."
"We should probably get you into bed," said Haruka. "We better not get too far away from one another, so you'll be sleeping in Shirou's room."
Motoko did not protest and allowed Naru and Haruka to help her move.
Rider stood in a corner of the room and overlooked the unfolding events. Under different circumstances, she would have already made herself scarce. Unfortunately, she couldn't reasonably do that now, therefore she fully expected to be addressed at some point.
However, she didn't expect the foreigner to be the one to approach her first.
The dark-skinned girl walked up to her seemingly without hesitation and stared up at Rider with curious but unafraid eyes.
There shouldn't have been anything peculiar about this girl. Nothing about her was out of the ordinary to Rider's senses, but there was an unfathomable depth in her eyes. For a moment, Rider had the distinct impression that girl knew exactly that she was looking at.
And then she offered her a banana.
"Why are you giving me this?" she asked.
"Mother always said that we must show gratitude, or the gods will become upset with us."
Rider stared and Kaolla started right back.
Then Rider took the proffered fruit, removed its peel, and started munching on it delicately. Seemingly satisfied with her offer being accepted, Kaolla pattered away and took a seat on the couch peeling herself a banana of her own. Moments later the group of women returned, minus Shinobu who stayed back with Motoko.
They looked between Kaolla and Rider, who were similarly busy with a late-night snack on opposite corners of the room.
"What do you think happened?" whispered Kitsune to Naru.
"Don't ask me. I can't make sense of Kaolla on a normal day I don't expect to fare any better now. I don't even know where to start with that woman."
"Fair enough," Kitsune agreed.
Without paying the whispering girls any mind, Haruka approached Rider.
"Hey, I don't think we've been properly introduced. I'm Urashima Haruka. Shirou's aunt. Thank you for saving our lives."
Rider swallowed the last piece of banana before answering.
"I'm Rider. And you're welcome."
"Rider, eh? I have a feeling that that's not your actual name, but that's none of my business. As far as I'm concerned, I owe you big time. If there's anything I can do to repay the favor, just say the word."
Rider inclined her head in acknowledgment but say nothing in response. Personally, she had no investment in these people's gratitude, and she didn't think that she would ever need anything from Shirou's aunt either.
However, saying so would have been plain rude and she had even less investment in that.
Then, something registered at the edge of her perception and she tilted her head upward.
"Is something the matter?" asked Haruka.
"No," she replied, with a smile. "Everything's fine now."
The man named Tanaka adjusted his hat while he descended the stairs from the Hinata-sou. As far as jobs went, this one was straightforward and refreshing.
The twist and turns of life had him lose his license as a doctor and he ended up running an illegal clinic, which meant that he mostly treated people that would go on hurting others.
At first, that knowledge left him with a bitter taste in his mouth, but with the passing of the years he eventually became desensitized to it. Therefore, treating a young woman who didn't have the air of being a ruthless killer about her was quite the novelty.
He didn't know her circumstances, but he didn't need to. His peculiar career had taught him how to tell people apart with a glance.
His patients were all inherently dangerous, of that there was no doubt. However, there were different types, ranging from the barely restrained animal to the cold, calculating killers and everything in between.
However, no one until that evening gave him the impression of being both at the same time.
His eyes pinned Tanaka where he stood, carefully gauging whether he was a threat that needed being removed and barely holding back the decision of doing so either way.
It took him a moment to register the young woman that was being carried on his back, seemingly fast asleep, and the blood that stained them both.
"I'm a doctor," he said with a steadier voice than he thought himself able to muster. "Will my services be required?"
The man eyes softened, but they were still cautious.
"That won't be necessary," he replied. "Is anyone hurt?"
"Nothing that I couldn't handle with my meager skills," he reassured.
"Understood. I won't keep you then. Have a good evening," he said as he resumed his climb.
His words had been nothing than perfectly polite, but Tanaka knew that he would die the moment he gave this man the slightest of reasons. Therefore, he didn't advance a single step despite being dismissed, going as far as holding his breath when he walked past him.
He still did not move even after they were with their backs turned to one another. Just because he wasn't being directly looked at, it didn't mean that his every move wasn't being scrutinized.
Only when the red-haired man arrived on top of the stairs, disappearing completely from view, did the doctor dare to adjust his hat and resume his descent.
So much for a refreshing job. With a man like that around, it was hardly surprising that someone got hurt that way. People like that brought ruin along with them wherever they went. Sometimes it would get their enemies, and sometimes it would get the people closest to them.
Tanaka would have probably done Mitsune a service in warning her off, but then again it wasn't like she ever listened to his counsel. Worse yet, knowing her, it might have the opposite effect.
Ah, well. She wasn't the most responsible person in the world but that didn't mean she was an idiot. Far from it, in fact. By now, she had probably realized what sort of person she was dealing with and what kind of danger she was getting herself into.
Tanaka was certain this wasn't the last time his services would be required in this place, but he wasn't sure he would take the job again a second time. Some people he was better off staying away from, no matter how good the payment could be.
Rider was waiting for him at the door when he arrived in front of the inn. Being in physical form in this place meant that she had to reveal herself to protect the girls, which had opened another can of worms for him to deal with.
"How is she?" Rider asked.
"She has a few scratches. I got to her just in time."
There was no need to ask what had happened to the people how had hurt Illya, so she avoided touching upon the unpleasant subject.
"Who's hurt?" he asked instead.
"Motoko was shot a couple of times. She's on the way to recovery."
"I see," he nodded with a chagrined expression. "Thank you, Rider."
He pushed past her and into the building. All conversation ceased the moment he walked in.
"Shirou!" Kitsune exclaimed, jumping to her feet. "How are you? How is Illya? Oh my god, you're bleeding."
"It's not my blood. Or Illya's."
"...Oh. We-Well. That's… that's good," she replied, coming to the only reasonable conclusion.
"Are all of you unhurt? Where's Motoko and Shinobu?"
"In your room, resting. Motoko is the only one who was wounded," replied Haruka, who also approached him. "Mostly we just got a pretty bad scare."
"It's not your fault, Shirou. None of it is. The blame is all on the clan and its stupid way of doing things."
"Nonetheless, if I had not been living here, then…"
"Then we would all be dead," said Naru, who was sitting on an armchair hugging her legs to her chest. "That woman said that she wanted to kill all of us."
"What? Did she say why?" asked Shirou.
"She's got a bone to pick with Granny Hina," explained Haruka. "A bone big enough that she would go after anyone and anything that she remotely cares about."
"... Then I think an explanation is owed. If not to me, at least to everybody else."
"I agree, but…." Haruka's eyes moved to Kanako, whose hands nervously wrung the skirt of her dress. "I think it would be better to have this conversation in the morning. Also, I think that your sister too would want to hear why she was abducted. Plus, you should probably get the blood off you."
"Fine," he sighed. "Let's have this conversation later. We probably should all have a good rest anyway."
"I… I don't think I'll be able to sleep," said Naru.
"Yeah, me neither," agreed Kitsune. "I'm gonna grab some sake and take a dip in the springs. Maybe that'll relax me enough to shut my eyes. Rider, you coming?"
"I don't think it's a good idea…"
"Please, go with them," said Shirou. "I'm sure they'll be more at ease with you around. I'll keep watch over Illya, Motoko, and Shinobu."
"If you put it that way, then I don't see why not," Rider conceded with a nod.
"Onii-sama I… I'm sorry," said Kanako. "I should have told you. I should have…"
"It's not your fault, Kanako. I knew that there was more to your story than what you told me. If what Haruka said is true, then it wouldn't have made a lick of a difference anyway"
"You can't know that," she protested.
"But I do. I know people like that woman. If I defend against them one way, they'll come from another. If you let them get away, they'll keep coming back."
"So, what?" asked Naru. "Are you saying there won't be an end to it? They'll just keep coming until they finally get us?"
"No. I'm not saying anything of the sort. Don't worry. This won't happen again."
"But you just said… you… you are going to kill her, aren't you? Like you killed those mercenaries."
He did not reply.
"I'm not…. I'm not blaming you," she continued. "I know it's not your fault it's just…I never thought that… I never thought that my life would ever come to a point where someone had to die for me to live. I don't want any of this."
"Which is why you are a decent person, Naru. None this should have ever happened, to any of you. I couldn't prevent it, but at least I'm going to put an end to it."
"Yeah, you… I'm sorry. I know you mean well. I know it! But... "
"You are afraid of me."
"... yes," she admitted, her voice laced with great shame.
Shirou nodded grimly. It would have been strange otherwise. Killing a human being was technically quite easy. So easy, in fact, that even a child could do it. Even before that night, Naru knew that if Shirou wanted to, he could have harmed her any way he wanted to.
The line of demarcation was the willingness to coldly follow through with that ability. The people who could contemplate killing someone as a method of conflict resolution where all invariably individuals to be afraid of.
Until now, she felt safe in the knowledge that he wasn't that type of person. Except that he was. He had admitted that given the right reasons and not in the heat of the moment like it had been for Sarah's mother, he could very well kill another person.
Today she could rationally agree with his motives, but could she tomorrow? What could she do if in the future he decided to kill someone for reasons she couldn't approve? Could she stop him? Oppose him?
A laughable notion.
Before him, she was completely powerless to do anything. If that hypothetical scenario did not scare her even a little bit, then there would have been something seriously wrong with her.
As someone who had experienced complete powerlessness once already, Shirou could relate to Naru more than she could possibly imagine. Not that he would ever tell her, of course. The last thing she needed was to draw parallels between him and hers.
She stood up and went after Kitsune without another word and without looking at him in the eyes either. There was nothing he could say or do at this junction that would have made any difference, therefore he just let her go in silence.
"Hey, it's not your fault, alright?" insisted Haruka
"I'm going to put Illya in bed. I hope Motoko won't mind sharing a room with her for one night."
"I'm sure she won't."
"Kanako could you please help me?" asked Shirou.
"I… Yes, Onii-sama," Kanako agreed meekly.
They moved in silence especially because they didn't want to wake up the two girls who had fallen asleep next to each other. Shirou glanced at Motoko's sleeping from, noticing the paler than usual skin tone, the bloodshot eyes, and the stains of blood on her bandages.
Kanako helped him lower Illya on her futon. The expression she was making while she looked at his other sister was pretty much the same he felt on his own face in that moment.
"Illya will be fine. It's not your fault that this happened to her more than it is mine," he whispered.
"I know, but that doesn't make me feel any better. I hate it! I hate that nothing I do ever makes a difference! Not being at fault doesn't mean not being guilty!"
"Heavens, are you sure the two of you aren't actually related by blood? You certainly seem to say the same senseless stuff," said Illya.
"Illya! How long have you been awake?" asked Shirou
"Who said I was ever asleep?" she asked, opening her eyes.
"I… I will take my leave then," said Kanako as she stood up from next to Illya's futon.
"Don't! Sit!" Illya said firmly.
"There is nothing that we have to say to each other. You were right. You were right all along. Onii-sama is better off with you."
"Yes, that was never in question, you silly child. I am always right. Just as I am right when I say you are being as idiotic as I thought only Shirou could be. That's an uncommon accomplishment. Now, sit down!"
"Kanako, please," Shirou insisted.
Kanako reluctantly sat back down, though she pointedly avoided looking anyone in the eyes.
Illya pulled herself up to a seating position, reached out to Kanako, and pulled her had into a hug.
"What... what are you doing?" the black sister asked. "I don't want your pity."
"You will hardly find any pity with me, Kanako. You think that nothing you do matter, but that's patently not true. The things we do might not have the result we hope for, and they could very well end up making a situation worse than it already was. However, it's not correct to say that it doesn't matter. Just ask this guy here."
"I don't know what you are talking about," she said.
"Shirou here was told that there was no cure for my condition. That no matter what he did, I would have died. He would have nothing of that, so he threw away everything and went looking for a solution that did not exist."
"That doesn't mean anything!" Kanako protested. "He found a way to treat you in the end."
"So, are you saying that if he hadn't found it, then his actions would have been wrong? That he would have been a fool?"
"I never said anything like that."
"Then why are you treating yourself differently? Nothing you do matters, you said, but that's not the case, is it? Sometimes simply going through the motion is already plenty enough. Even if it won't affect the outcome, as long as you do what you think is right…"
"... you cannot be wrong," Shirou concluded.
"It's easy to say when the things you do make a difference."
"But it wasn't always that way," said Shirou. "There was a time when I couldn't help anyone and even now at times nothing I do seem to have a positive outcome. Even so, I never thought that it wasn't worth trying. I'm sure it sounds a lot like pointless rhetoric right now, and it won't make you feel any better. All I ask is that you give it time and don't give up on yourself."
"... you are right," Kanako replied. "It doesn't make me feel any better. Please, excuse me."
She pulled herself out from Illya's embrace and quickly left the room for destinations unknown.
"She really is like you when it comes to being stupid. There's probably no reason for me to tell you, but make sure to help her through it."
"I will," Shirou promised, and for the time being, it would have to suffice.