Innocent days (II)
Alone. Isolated. Solitary.
Those were words to Shirou that lacked their true weight; they were more akin to abstract notions than an internalized concept for the distorted boy. He was never alone, not since the Tome had conjured four knights into his life on that fateful night. It was more than just the fact that their appearance marked the end of the emptiness of his life, the emptiness that his father's death had left in his home. On that distant night he himself had changed, although it had taken him a while to notice it. Slowly he had become aware of the strange sensation that lingering in the back of his head, indescribable in normal terms. The closest he could get to describing it was as if blots of light had buried themselves into the back of his skull, spreading a comfortable feeling of warmth throughout his brain. It was the way his brain comprehended the immaterial connection between himself and his knights; capable of conveying thoughts and images between the five of them. It was a sensation that had strengthened the bonding between him and his new family, the connection growing stronger over the years as his abilities developed, through his own training and his attempt to master his newly found powers, helped by the support and guidance of his makeshift family.
The connection wasn't very precise, though. Even after four years Shirou still couldn't actually sense their presence clearly all the time. His ability to accurately pinpoint their location dropped rather fast whenever the distance between himself and a knight became too great. It was hard enough for the boy to pin down Zafira's location when the man was working in downtown Fuyuki at night. If any of his knights were to leave the city grounds altogether it would probably stretch the connection to the point that he'd never be able to find them without the use of search spells.
Even so, their connection was the ever-present reminder that, wherever they were, it was always the five of them.
At first Shirou had felt somewhat uncomfortable about the whole situation, especially in the first days where he refused to believe that he was their master, but nowadays it was a comfort to him that no matter how far they went they were still connected to him-
Until Vita's presence suddenly faded from the back of his mind without warning.
It only took a moment for Shirou to process the change. He barely took heed of the fact that he had dropped the carpet he had been carrying to the ground, instead turning around in one swift motion as he ran back the way he came. The normally careful boy showed no consideration for anything that had the unfortunate fate of being directly in his path, raw fear pushing recklessly reinforced limbs to move at unnatural speeds. Soon he was joined by his other knights as they raced out of the house. The sight that greeted them was that of a reddish hue of light escaping from the shed's open door.
Something was happening in the shed, and Vita was somehow caught up in the middle of it.
Vita blinked, slowly shaking off the stupor that had hit her as her mind finally started to reboot. She tried to make sense of the strange sensation, but all her mind could make of it was a feeling similar to standing headfirst in a chilling breeze, leaving her shivering as she bathed in the light of the magic sigil. Her surprise was soon replaced with panic, bile slowly starting to push its way up her throat as she realized that the presence of her master and those of her fellow knights were quickly fading into nothing. Something had happened to them while she had been frozen in the shed, thoughts distracted by the strange twisting effects of the spell.
"…. A trap!" Vita cried out as her panic threatened to overtake her, her worries for her family clouding her thoughts as her treacherous mind brought up the most horrible scenarios to explain what was going on, on what could have happened while she was out…
"Shirou!" She screamed, almost begging for her master to give her any sign that he was alright. She forced herself to calm down, breathing slowing down as she gritted her teeth. If this was a trap designed to hold her in her place, she reasoned, then there had to be a physical component to this barrier to keep her from actually escaping. Combined with the initial effect of the paralyzation it was something that would be enough to hold any regular mage.
But Vita wasn't a regular mage.
No matter how many traps there were in stock for her, she would break them all. After that she would find her master. She was going to break this circle apart with brute force, of that she was certain.
"...After all," Vira roared as she lifted her trusty companion, "there isn't a single thing that can stand victorious against the Iron Count Vita and her trusty Graf Eisen!"
"Jawohl, mein m-"
Graf Eisen's response was cut off as a loud bang reverberated through the shed, shaking the girl out of her concentration. A smile blossomed on her face as her master and Zafira nearly tore the doors of the shed out of their hinges in their haste to get through the doorway.
Vita couldn't remember ever feeling so happy to see her master smacking straight into the wall with bone-crunching force, the idiot failing to slow down unlike his companion. Moments later Shamal and Signum joined them in the shed, and all that was left to dampen Vita's sheer relief in seeing everyone was the nagging realization that she still couldn't sense them.
What was going on?
Her master's call pulled her attention back to Shirou. It seemed that the boy had recovered after his abrupt meeting with the wall and was now sprinting towards her without showing any sign of slowing down.
"Shirou! You can't-"
Vita's cry of protest was cut short as her master ran straight into her, his bull-rush launching both of them out of the circle and against the wall. Vita managed to swallow a cry of pain instead, hissing as the impact pushed the air from her lungs and forced it through her clenched teeth. The girl clung onto Shirou as the boy slumped onto the ground, his presence and that of the others slowly returning to her senses. From the corner of her eye Vita watched the glow of the magic circle dim, before the floor of the shed returned to normal.
"Shirou, you're being a bit clingy…" Vita whimpered, her face showing the slightest hint of a smile as her master's tight grip refused to lessen. Vita's head was propped on her master's shoulder, positioned at an angle that made it impossible for her to see her master's face. It did give her a perfect spot to see the faces of her fellow knights.
Vita noted that their expressions weren't that different from her own. The other knights rushed to her and her master, their faces showing a mixture of fear and relief.
"What exactly was that spell in the shed?" Shirou spoke, addressing his fellow housemates who were now propped around the dinner table. It was strange for them to hear him speak like this, his voice betraying the rather unpleasant mood of the normally gentle boy. He hadn't spoken a single word while thoroughly locking the shed's doors as Shamal took the struggling Vita to their room, subjecting the girl to every test she could think of.
It had been growing dark by the time the green healer had tentatively declared that Vita was mostly unharmed… as far as she could know. There had been no injuries aside from the sore spot on her back, caused by own master's rescue attempt.
"It's not a trap, at least not one that was designed to physically restrain or harm the target" Shamal answered as the medic took the word. "Vita is almost unharmed, both physically and mentally, as far as I can see. Her physical body, her linker core and her spell casting abilities are mostly unaffected. Graf Eisen reports no errors in both its firmware and software."
"I also do not believe that anyone would place a mental trap in such an unlikely place. I see no reason for the back of the shed to be guarded in such a manner unless there was something of great value" Signum added, pausing for a moment as a frown appeared on her face. "It might have been something used by Kiritsugu to protect something of value."
"I don't think the old man had anything of value in the shed, at least not while I was exploring it. He certainly didn't seem to mind me using it as my own playground."
"Perhaps this wasn't a trap to guard something." Zafira noted. "It could have been a test case of some sorts, a prototype for a new trap he experimented on in his workshop. Perhaps he was planning on used this design to reinforce the boundary surrounding this house?"
"Dad never told me about anything like that while he was alive," Shirou shook his head in response. "And I've never seen dad set up anything as complicated as this circle, even during the old man's lessons. Somehow… I don't think he made this one, at least not after I came to live here."
"There is something that bothers me," Shamal spoke up as she placed Klarwind on the table. With a tap of her finger the device projected a display of green lines and circles in the air, displaying the floor and the circle of the shed above the table. "After taking a detailed image of the inscription I also ran an analysis of the materials found in its make-up. It looks like someone carved the entire thing into the ground itself, before filled the carving with a mixture of lead, silver, iron and several other metals, but also traces of biodegradable materials. It also looks like someone used some very aggressive cleaning materials to clean the entire floor a few years ago."
"You mean like industrial-grade cleaning materials?" Shirou immediately responded, eager to jump in on the new lead. Taking Shamal's surprised look as a yes, he continued. "Back when Dad and I moved into this place most of the building was a mess with floors and walls that were still being fixed. It took months of work before everything was done. I wasn't even allowed in the shed until everything was cleaned inside…"
"Emiya Kiritsugu might not have been the architect of this spell, but if he was fine with leaving it in its place then I doubt that it was something that's capable of harming him or Shirou." Zafira added.
"It tried to do something to me," Vita pointed out, "though it failed to do anything beyond isolating me from you."
"I couldn't sense Vita at all… just remembering it makes my skin crawl". Shirou confessed, trying to shake off the strange feeling that had been haunting him. "Even though I only entered the circle for a brief moment, things still feel strange, somewhat dimmed.
"Yeah, I know, it's disturbing." Vita agreed. "Also, for some reason I get this feeling that I'm seeing.. well, more like feeling double whenever I'm looking at you, as if something is sitting right in your spot."
"You didn't tell me this before!" Shamal accused the girl. "Why didn't you tell me this before?"
"That's because you'd keep prodding my brain until it's full of holes." Vita meekly replied, trying to dodge Shamal's stare.
"That's no reason at all!" Shamal yelled her voice a mixture of anger and worry. "You still might be affected by all of this! You should at least allow me to take another look!"
"You prodding around with my brain is not going to make me feel any better!"
"Enough. Vita will stay in Shamal's room this night so she can keep an eye on her..." Shirou decided, staring at both knights until they nodded in agreement. "As for the circle itself… "
"Perhaps it was some sort of tool your father used to suppress his presence?" Signum tapped a finger on the table as she recalled the events from the afternoon. "From what happened once Vita activated it seems that the circle effectively cut her off from the rest of us, if not from the world itself.
"Too bad the whole 'glowing circle' is a dead giveaway for someone who wants to hide himself." Vita pointed out.
"I've never seen my old man use magic like that…." For a moment Shirou paused. "On the other hand, I've barely seen him use magic outside of my training…"
"You did say he had just started to teach you the basics before he passed away" Signum pointed out. "Perhaps he kept his more dangerous repertoire hidden from you, including spells like this one?"
"I suppose that could be so" Shirou reluctantly agreed, "but… dad wasn't really doing much aside from his business trips. He kept a lot of things hidden, like the fact that he was sick-"
"I sure hope he wasn't using that thing as a medical treatment or something." Vita muttered, resulting in an irritated glare from Signum. Shamal opened her mouth to add her piece, but paused as she glanced to the side of the room.
"Shamal?" Shirou notice d the blonde's strange reaction, before his eyes widened in surprise as Shamal suddenly pulled Klarwind closer, taking a good look at the projection of the circle.
"The size fits, but the environment is so unfitting…"
"-perhaps not sterilization, but isolation?"
"Shamal, what are you talking about?" Only at the third attempt did Shirou's voice get through to the healer, who quickly pulled herself out of her musings.
Shamal suddenly became aware of the fact that she had drawn everyone's attention onto her.
"I…" She stammered, "I think Vita might be right…"
"I'm-right?" Vita gawked at the healer.
"But …. You lost me." Shirou confessed after staring at Shamal for several long moments.
"The size of the circle certainly is large enough for a full grown person to lie down within the perimeter." Shamal hesitantly continued. "Vita herself wasn't physically affected by the circle itself, but it seems it did cut her off from the outside of the circle, leaving her isolated from the rest of the world. From what Shirou has demonstrated so far, outside influences can heavily affect the outcome of his magecraft if he's disturbed. From a healers standpoint I would never want to risk treating a patient in a situation when I can't rely on my tools. It's like operating on an operation table without sterilizing the environment."
"The circle cuts off outside interference…. most likely magical interference." Signum picked up where Shamal was heading to. "That's why we couldn't sense Vita; the circle was designed to keep the person inside isolated and shielded from the outside."
"When any outside interference is capable of destabilizing the healing process of my spells I'd be foolish to not set up a boundary to keep out said interference." Shamal pointed out.
"Are you saying…" Vita interrupted, the girl visibly confused by the sudden shift in the discussion. "…that Shirou's dad preformed some crazy magical surgery inside a primitive magic circle -in a shed, filled with boxes of scraps?"
"Hey, those aren't just scraps!" Shirou objected, taking the latter part of Vita's statement as a personal offense. "Besides, my dad couldn't even heal his own paper cuts; he always fumbled around with bandages. I doubt he was a professional healer of some sorts."
"It might have been used by someone else, a colleague of your father of some sorts. Even so, it is the best explanation we have so far." Signum pointed out.
"I'm still suggesting that we get rid of it though, I don't like that thing lurking next to our master when he's practicing." Vita stated, before her usual smirk finally managed to find its way back on her face "Who knows, it might just activate again when he's pulling exploding teapots from out of his sleeves."
"That only happened once!" Shirou pointed out. Even so, he couldn't resist smiling at Vita's bad joke, mostly because it was the first one she had made ever since the start of this disturbing afternoon.
Seeing the tension slip from his other knights made him realize he wasn't they only one who had needed the little pick-me-up.
"For now we cover it up again with the blanket from the shed, and stay outside the perimeter of the circle. It only activated because you discharged Graf Eisen in the center, right?"
"Right." Vita confirmed, as she nodded her head.
"We can take another look at it in a few days. For now I suggest we leave the shed locked, seeing that Shirou isn't allowed any practice at this point." Signum stared at her master, who suddenly felt the need to stretch his limbs while averting the unrelenting gaze. "W-well then…" Shirou spoke, awkwardly trieing to make his way to the kitchen, only to find both Shamal and Signum barring his way.
"Did I do something wrong?" he meekly asked as both females stared down at him.
"You used reinforcement during your little sprint to the shed, even though I forbade you from practicing it for at least another week after your little stunt with your eyes…." Shamal stated.
"But Vita was in danger!" Shirou protested. "I had to…."
"You had to jump right into what could have been a trap without even taking a single moment to take heed of your allies or your surroundings." Signum added calmly, a little too calmly. It was the small twitch of her eyebrows and the gritting of Shamal's teeth that alerted Shirou to the fact that the swordswoman and the healer might have been a bit upset about his rash actions.
Their gaze also had the unfortunate side-effect of freezing his limbs in place, making escape a non-valid option.
"I think you should continue your recovery in a calm and uneventful way," Shamal coldly spoke as Vita prodded her frozen master with her index finger. "Until I give you a green bill of health and when Signum is satisfied with your grasp of simple tactical insight you are now dismissed from any kitchen duties."
"You can't do that!" A desperate cry filled the room. It took Shirou a few moments to realize that he hadn't even gotten the chance to vocalize his reply before Vita had cried out in dismay, her face contorted by her anguish from hearing Shirou's upcoming penalty. "Who's going to cook dinner for me?"
"I will." Shamal stated as she closed the subject, walking into the kitchen while leaving behind a demoralized Shirou and a catatonic Vita. After a few moments the latter cried out in anguish before pursuing the older blond into the kitchen.
"Don't do this! I'm….We're going to starve!" Vita begged.
"My cooking isn't that bad anymore!"
It was late in the evening by the time things had somewhat returned to normalcy. Shirou simply sat at the table, barely paying attention to the heated argument between his smallest knight and the healer, who was now dominating his kitchen with a firm grip. If Taiga was to walk into the room right now it would look like any ordinary day to her, sans his cooking. But to him the mood lingering in the air felt like an imitation of the regular one, the disturbing mixture of fear and anger that had been pouring from all of them still lingering in the background even as regular life continued. They were all trying to ignore it and act normally, but everyone was still feeling uneasy.
It was hard for any of them to lie to another; they knew each other far too well.
Each of them had, even for just a moment, come to the same conclusion when Vita vanished from their senses: The most obvious thing had been to think that they had fallen under attack. Even though it had been a false alarm, their image of their careless life on earth had become strained. The incident had reminded his knights that this life was far more fragile than they would like to admit. For four years they had lived an ordinary life in Fuyuki, made friends, made memories and formed their makeshift family. It seemed that their wish to continue living like that was not so simple anymore.
Until the book was complete Shirou couldn't protect them; filling it would take him at least five more years. Would they be able to remain undetected for so long? The looming threat of the so called 'second owner', the appearance of those magical constructs and now this strange ritualistic circle left behind by his father. Somehow it felt to him that these events were signs of something to come. Perhaps it was just a coincidence, but Shirou couldn't shake the feeling that Fuyuki was heading towards something big, threatening to sweep his family along with it in its wake.
For the first time in months Shirou wished that his father was still alive to guide him.
"It's been a while Signum!"
Signum didn't look up as a familiar voice called to her from the far end of the archery dojo, filled with students practicing before homeroom started. Shamal had finally decided that her master was free to pursue his training once more and thus Signum had rejoined the practice sessions of the archery club along with him.
"Mitsuzuri Ayako?" Signum answered before even looking at the girl. Only she, her master and Taiga would ever refer to her as just 'Signum' instead of using her last name.
"Correct! It's been a while since you've been here at practice sempai. I almost feared you weren't going to show up at all…"
"Shirou was not in a state to practice any sports lately and it wasn't really feasible for me to come here alone."
"Ah, the captain wasn't really happy when our Tiger told him Shirou was sick." Ayako nodded her head. "He was rather disappointed when it became clear that Shirou couldn't participate in last week's regional competition. It seemed our captain thought the competition was already in the bag."
"I did hear you preformed rather well though" Signum pointed out. It was apparently the answer Ayako had been waiting for as the brunette's smile grew into a full-blown grin.
"It seems like months of practicing are paying off after all. You might want to get back in action yourself; I'm still planning on beating you."
Signum was well aware of the girl's competitive streak. Even so…
"Why is it me that you want to beat? Between the two of us, Shirou is still the better shooter on the range."
"No no, Shirou won't do! He'll just miss on purpose like last time. Also…" Ayako paused, the girl stalling as Signum waited for her answer.
"It's because Ayako-chan here is a bit of a tomboy who actually wishes she could act as feminine as you… or something like that" Taiga spoke, having snuck up onto the unsuspecting Ayako who shot Signum a betrayed look.
"No! I mean… why didn't you tell me she was right behind me?" Ayako cried out, before her voice was cut off. Signum winched slightly as Ayako shot a betrayed look at her before her teacher locked the girl into a steel grip.
"Now now Ayako-chan," Taiga smiled. "That's the least you should worry about right now, because Fuji-nee here just overheard you talking to Signum while using a very unpleasant name…" Taiga's voice was sickeningly sweet, her smile almost perfect aside from the small twitches at the corner of her mouth.
Signum knew exactly what it meant.
It was just a nickname, but apparently Fujimura Taiga took it rather seriously. Even her master had faced Taiga's wrath on several occasions after invoking it, and Vita alone had triggered countless episodes, just to tease the woman.
"I think I hear Shirou calling for me… on the other side of the dojo." Ayako weakly offered, desperately looking for a way to escape her upcoming punishment.
"I don't recall calling you," An unexpected voice answered Ayako' prayers. "Also, I'm standing right here."
"Emiya-kun?" Ayako squeaked as the girl finally noticed the redhead who had snuck up right next to her. "W-when did you?"
"Ah, you're finally here Shirou," Signum nodded, simply watching as Ayako shot a pleading look at the boy. At first he seemed confused at her gesture, but even Emiya Shirou wasn't dense enough to not notice Ayako's desperate expression, Taiga's twitching eyebrow and the small smirk Signum was sporting.
"Haaaa," The boy sighed, before putting up a smile as he turned towards the beast holding Ayako in her grip.
"Fuji-nee, you are going to choke Mitsuzuri-san if you keep holding onto her like that. Also, I got some leftovers from breakfast with me…"
"Shirou-kun is such a thoughtful boy!" Taiga squealed as she let go of her captive. "I did a good thing raising you didn't I!"
Shirou simply nodded, pretending to ignore the fact that Ayako had taken cover behind her rival's back, as he watched Taiga take off with the small bag he had been holding, most likely planning on devouring every last bite before homeroom started.
Shirou let out a chuckle as the sight of the retreating Taiga before turning towards the other two females. "Did I miss something?"
"Did I ever mention that you really are the best friend I've ever had?" Ayako shot the boy a grateful look, before slapping him on the back.
"Only the last three times he had to bail you out from Fujimura's wrath." Signum pointed out.
It was already growing darker as Shirou made his way through the empty corridors of the school, having left his bag in the classroom before heading for archery practice. On his way back he had ran into someone unexpected.
"Shinji, aren't you supposed to be at the range fixing the targets? It was your turn today after all."
"About that, I wanted to ask you a favor…."
Shinji stepped aside, revealing the blond freshman that had been hidden from Shirou's view.
"..Amy and I were supposed to go into town right now to do some shopping, but Sensei suddenly picked me out for that bothersome chore. You know what bad manners it would be for me to just break my promise with her. So! I was thinking, 'isn't there anyone I know who could help me out?' and there you were! I mean, you like helping people right?"
Shirou couldn't resist letting out a sigh as Shinji smiled at him. He knew that it was a bad habit of the boy, but what he said did make some sense…
"Fine, I'll take care of it. You'd better hurry though, shops close within the hour."
"Thanks Emiya!" He smirked before turning to his companion. "See, I told you he'd help me out, he's always nice like that."
"I'll pay you back another time Emiya!" Shinji yelled as he and his female friend made off. Shirou simply shrugged before heading back to the archery club. Signum would have to wait a bit longer but his knight would probably understand…
Besides, Shinji would make good on his word. They boy did pay back his favors after all.
"Oh Emiya, where's Matou?"
As soon as Shirou walked into the dojo he took notice of the people in the open space. To his surprise he was not just greeted by the familiar duo of the captain and his second but also by the sight of his guardian. Further in the back of the club sat Ayako, the girl already having started on stringing the bows that had come undone during practice.
For some reason it also felt like nobody had been really surprised that it hadn't been Shinji that walked into the dojo.
"Shinji couldn't make it, so I offered to fill in for him." Shirou replied
"I told you the boy would find a way to dump his responsibilities." The captain spoke as he shook his head. "He might have a way with people, but it seems his discipline is still a bit lacking."
"Well, we can't do anything about it right now." The vice-captain muttered, before snapping her fingers "Wait, with both Ayako and Shirou here we can take care of our other business right now."
"~Ayako-chan! Over here~" Taiga beckoned the girl, who paused her activities in response to the woman's call.
"Congratulations on becoming the vice-captain!"
"Fujimura-sensei, you're rather tactless," the captain sighed. "But… that's pretty much the gist of it."
"…Not going to give me any chance to decline, are you… " Ayako complained. She wasn't fooling anyone though, as even Shirou noticed the smile on her face.
Shirou hadn't been the only of her classmates who had expected her to succeed the current captain. After all, when not chasing after Signum or him for a rematch, she already had become the older sister type everyone could count on both in class and around the club.
Of course, the one time he had mentioned that she had been rather angry at him, mentioning something about a woman's age and such.
"Congratulations Mitsuzuri-san!" Shirou congratulated the girl, before pausing as realization hit him. "Wait, Vice-captain. If Ayako isn't the new captain, then who is?"
An awkward silence followed as both captains stared at him. When Taiga somehow failed to answer both of them turned their attention towards the only other adult in the room
"Fujimura-sensei... you told us he had already accepted…"
"He did… he just doesn't know it yet! I also failed to ask him in the first place but that's just formality now. Congratulations Shi-"
"FUJI-NEE!" Shirou cried out; not sure if he was angry, embarrassed or just plain outraged at the fact that his guardian had once more pulled off something ridiculous.
"Oh come on Shirou!" Taiga dismissed his outrage with a wave of her hand before she pointed at him. "You like helping people, you are the best shooter in the club and you already run most of the stuff I'm supposed to do. There isn't anyone better suited for the role. And we all know that if I'd ask you directly you'd try to get out of it, saying that someone else would be a better choice."
"Of course there is! I'm…"
"Besides," Taiga pointed her finger to the open door, as if her next statement was about to walk into the room. "It was Signum's idea."
"…..Signum?" Shirou paused turning his head towards the door as his eyes followed Taiga's pointed finger. His confusion only grew larger as he found Signum standing in the doorway. Shirou had already known she was outside the dojo, the short distance between them betraying her location to him even before she entered school terrain. Thus it wasn't her presence that was confusing him, but the fact that she was nodded her head in agreement with Taiga.
"…You lost me here." Shirou confessed, trying to get a grasp on Signum's thoughts.
"It's for you to gain experience."
When Shirou's befuddled look failed to disappear Signum continued her explanation. "You possess a lot of skill and knowledge, but so far you've only been using it to help others from the bottom up, supporting those on top from their backs. You should have figured out by now that people can only achieve so much from such a position. I know you dislike taking charge of other people, to lead from example and to take the reins. But it's an ability which is necessary in the world."
"But I'm fine with helping people" Shirou rebutted. "Why shouldn't someone else…"
"Because lately your actions have shown that it's far too easy for people like Matou Shinji to use you for their own ends." Signum cut him off, a hint of annoyance slipping in her voice.
" Shirou… your desire to help others is beyond kindness at this point, even for a normal person. The master of the tome is not someone who serves… but one who leads. You cannot allow yourself to be pushed around with such ease. Acting like that will only allow people to stain your ideals with their greed….
Signum's message, unheard by the others in the room made Shirou swallow his reply. Even so...
"This is just a sports club. Why are you so hell-bent on making me the captain?"
"That's right; it's just a club, so why are you hesitating? You made a promise to us and yourself that you'd master an unimaginable artifact of power, and to use its power to become an ally of justice. Why are you so desperate to dodge such little responsibility in comparison?"
"I'm… I'm probably going to end up doing Fuji-nee's share of the work along with my own as well, aren't I?"
"Uhm! Shirou-chan is such an understanding boy!" The shameless tiger smiled at him, chuckling as her prey realized that he was out of options…
"Can I dump those chores on Signum then? It shouldn't be that hard for Fujimura-sensei to make her an official assistant if she tried."
"Hmm! Our future captain has some bright ideas! This Fujimura-Sensei will work on it as soon as she can!"
"….eh?" By now Signum's expression was a mirror of her confusion.
"Looks like we'll be in your care then." Ayako smirked as she and Shirou bowed towards the confused knight. "Nice touch of delegation there, captain."
"I learned from the best." Shirou meekly replied as both students watched Signum being pulled along by an amused Taiga.
"Captain? They are making you captain of the archery club?"
The look of surprise on Shinji's face was genuine, the blue haired boy staring at Shirou as if the boy had suddenly grown a third head. Shinji's outcry had been loud enough to draw the attention of the people standing next to them on the range, making them halt their shooting as they tried to listen in onto the conversation.
A single glare from Signum was all it took to turn their attention back on their targets, the knight shaking her head at the sight.
"They also decided to make Ayako the next Vice-captain, so she will be helping me out." Shirou pointed out as said girl coincidentally walked past them, most likely planning on talking to Signum for another rematch.
"Ayako… I see. They'd need a housewife as a captain to balance out that tomboy. You'll be busy just keeping her boyish mood in check!" Shinji laughed as Ayako, who had also been listening in on the two of them, went rigid for a moment. Shirou's smile slipped a bit as the girl shot an uncomfortable look in their direction.
"You should try to be more careful with what you say Shinji. Sometimes you say things that sound rather unpleasant."
"Sorry, sorry! I'll keep that in mind, captain. Anyway, thanks for filling in for me yesterday. Did they keep you working for the entire evening?"
"Ah, we were done rather quickly actually."
Shirou watched as Shinji walked off during his answer, his friend seemly having lost his interest the moment he was off the hook. For a moment he thought of calling him back to explain what had happened, but shook his shoulders as he turned towards his own target.
"I've said this before and I'll say it again master. People like him are poisonous friends." Signum muttered, not even bothering to use telepathy.
Shirou didn't feel the need to answer her.
Shirou emptied his mind; letting the image of his arrow striking the target appear as his mind chose between the multiple paths he could follow to place the shot. He carefully allowed prana to flow into the structure of his eyes and the surrounding tissue, making sure that the reinforcement did not cause damage. After he finished his preparations he let out a sigh, the breath that he had been holding escaping from his lips as he relaxed for a moment. In response the six black wings immediately adjusted themselves to keep his shifting weight from altering his balance even as the wind tried to rip him apart.
Floating around one kilometer above a planet's surface did make hitting the target somewhat more difficult, and any regular arrow would be subjected to the wind at this altitude. The only reason he himself was unaffected was that his barrier jacket was keeping the weather at bay.
Recreating his usual bow he nocked an projected arrow into position, aiming for the small hilltop located several kilometers from his position.
At least gravity wasn't fighting against him in this particular setup.
Unlike Signum he did not calculate factors like the wind speed for correcting his aim. After all, the act of shooting was something that was already decided before the arrow even left his bow. As long as he could see a path leading to the target the arrow would follow that course, even if unknown factors affected the shot… unless his shot was actively impeded or outside his capabilities.
Thus he knew that, even before the arrow was shot, that it would fail to hit the target…
Even so, he pulled back the string as od flooded his muscles while he reinforced the bow. The power stored in the bowstring was unleashed as Shirou fired his first shot, using his augmented view to keep track of the arrow. He watched as the wind pulled at the projectile, dragging it away from his target as the arrow eventually pierced the earth, shattering on impact far off course from the gigantic bull's-eye Vita had created on the ground, courtesy of Graf Eisen's brute force.
The projectile hadn't been fast enough, unable to slice through the winds in a way that would prevent it from being made a plaything to the gales. Projecting another arrow, this time carefully altered to fit his desires, he allowed his self to fade away in the background as the multitudes of outcomes presented themselves.
Shirou picked the result that would result in the arrow hitting the target, his fingers releasing the bowstring as he unleashed his second shot. The arrow shot towards the earth as the winds toyed with its trajectory, just as he had seen. But this time all the wind could do was guide it along the path Shirou had chosen before it had even been released.
Shirou had already turned his sight away from the target by the time the arrow impacted on the outer circle of the target, shattering on impact. Instead Shirou's attention was drawn to the bow in his hand, cracks running through the material as it lost cohesion.
Once more his projection was unable to maintain itself after bearing the strain of a second shot, the structure falling apart before his eyes.
"So, this is my limit then." Shirou sighed as he folded his wings as he fell backwards, dropping altitude as he sped down towards the surface of the planet.
"Well, it isn't that much of a surprise, your projections tend to break after a while." Vita pointed out as they made themselves at home in their base camp, each of his knights mulling over a cup of tea while Shirou relayed his latest results. "I mean, even with your perfect aim and reinforcing there is simply a limit for any physical object before it breaks. My swalbenvliegen are able to adjust for wind corrections midflight and Signum's sturmfalken possesses the same abilities. You on the other hand are just shooting a stick without any additional propulsion, so you have to pump in all the power right at the start. No wonder you keep breaking things."
"Even so, your reinforced arrows are a devastating surprise attack. Because it's not a linked construct it also means no regular mage will sense the arrow coming." Signum noted. "It also seems that experimenting like this has given you a firm grasp of your own abilities, helping you grasp both your weaknesses and your strong points."
"I just wish I could get my hands on a Device with even half the strength of Laevatein's bogenform." Shirou sighed. "I can't even get close to imitating it with my projections."
"The combat device designated for the master is sealed inside the tome until the activation threshold is passed." Shamal reminded the boy. "Instead of looking for an intermediate weapon, you could also try practicing some of the simpler offensive spells available in the tome."
"I tried, remember?" Shirou pointed out. "But unlike projection those spells drain a lot of prana. Just one bluticher dolchen takes the same amount of a dozen of regular arrows. Even worse, I need to use my linker core to cast these spells, unlike my projection which I can fuel uses my circuits. Once I've expended whatever amount which I have stored in my core I'll have to actively use my circuits to refill it mid-battle. If that's impossible I'll be left without any fuel, forced to rely on the stored power of the tome to continue casting. That means sacrificing pages to continue fighting."
"In a worst case scenario such a course might turn out to be a necessary evil." Zafira placed his cup on the ground as he turned towards his master. "Above else, your survival is the most important thing. No number of pages is worth risking your life. If you were to be harmed, or even killed because you held back…"
"Shirou won't be harmed, anyone trying to do so will have to walk over my dead body." Vita darkly muttered before putting on a smile as to relieve him of his worries. "Don't worry; we'll die before anything happens to you!"
Her statement, although meant to be reassuring, was like a punch in Shirou's stomach, as he watched her smile while proclaiming that she'd die so easily when needed. "That's not right…" He tried, before he shook his head. "It doesn't matter. I'll just have to start collecting the pages anew if I need to, so I'll keep you guys safe no matter what."
"I still say that we should try not to get into that trouble in the first place." Shamal spoke as she collected the empty cups. "Also, it looks like we have run out of time. We should head back to Fuyuki, it's past midnight in Japan."
"Give me a moment; I still have to clean up my last projections." Shirou spoke as he walked over to the other side of the camp, his tome appearing in his hand as it opened itself on a half-filled page. Grabbing a pale imitation of Laevatein, another failed attempt in duplicating Signum's prized weapon, Shirou watched as the imitation dispersed into dust. As the fake dematerialized the book glowed softly, drawing the remains of the projection into the open page.
The tome closed itself after the final fragments dissipated, returning itself into Shirou's open hand in the form of the familiar pendant. Without a word the boy stood up before walking towards his knights, mentally preparing the commands for the tome to transport them home.
Soon their home away from home was deserted once more, life returning to the house on a distant blue world.
It was strange, Shirou noted, to stand in the dojo watching the prospective members enter, his juniors walking around the dojo as the members of the club took them under their wings. He himself had been more then glad to help them out personally, but it seemed that all he could do for now was to overlook the entire thing and jump in when necessary.
He still felt uneasy being the captain, but at least he had the support of Ayako and Signum. He watched as the latter started talking to one of the female juniors who has silently made her way into the dojo. As Shinji appeared next to the girl it dawned on Shirou that it was the same girl he had seen while visiting Shinji's house on several occasions.
Well, if she wanted to join the same club as her brother, who was he to say no? Ayako would probably get along fine with the girl. She had taken to her new role as Vice-captain much easier than he had. Shirou just didn't like saying no to people, and all of the veteran club members knew it. Thus Ayako had made it one of her unofficial duties to enforce some discipline on the members who tried to take advantage of his desire to help people. During their training camp, organized in the spring break before the start of the new school year, she had seen to it that most of the members who attempted it ended up with 'special practice', courtesy of the Vice-captain.
In response several of the club members had started to cry foul play, as they accused Ayako of "hoarding her wife…"
Shirou silently let out a groan as he recalled just how he had gotten the nickname, as well how they had ended up with the moniker "married couple of the archery club". After the older members, including the captains started preparing for their graduation graduated. He and Ayako had started to take over the tasks left behind by their predecessors. Most of it went fine, the two of them working surprisingly well together. The problem was when they didn't agree on something. In such cases they soon found themselves butting heads over the smallest things. Shirou knew that people called him stubborn, but it looked like Ayako and he tended to draw the best and the worst out of each other at such moments. It didn't take long for Signum and Taiga to figure out that, if they weren't there to take an impartial stand, the two of them could end up arguing for hours before one of them would finally give in.
It was strange though, Shirou mused, that even after something like that they'd end up laughing and smiling the next day as if nothing had happened. A part of him was glad that they could fight over the simplest things, such as the format of the training schedule, and then patch things up without any problems.
That was, until Taiga had noticed the trend and as result had dubbed them "….like an old husband and his wife."
Since then they had been stuck with the moniker. Shirou was somewhat annoyed with it but Ayako really seemed to hate it, her face turning crimson whenever it was mentioned.
All in all their new positions had made it harder for him to follow her lines of thought. There had been some strange situations before, such as Ayako barging into his home after hearing from Taiga that he had fallen ill again, his body once more wrecked with a fever and heavy limbs. Apparently she had offered to deliver the printouts from the classes he had missed, even though Fuji-nee could have dropped them off just the same. When he had pointed that out she had become very silent, before diverting the subject to something else.
For some reason her visit had put Shamal and a Vita in a surprisingly good mood, the latter unable to wipe the smirk of her face.
Strangely enough, it had made him somewhat happy too. It had been the first time a classmate had visited his home when he was sick after all. It was almost like living a normal life, having a friend visiting their sick friend's house, chatting and wasting time for a little bit. It had him wondering how things would have been if not for the fire…
"Well, that doesn't really matter," Shirou thought out loud, clutched the necklace resting on his chest. There was no reason to ask how his life could have been different, after all. He was Emiya Shirou, the one who inherited the ideals of the hero who saved him, and whose dream he would make a reality….
To not do so would be to spit on the graves of those who hadn't survived.
"Even though dad isn't here anymore, I'll still carry on his dream."
"And what would that dream be, Master?" Signum spoke up as she turned towards her master, the child smiling as he proclaimed his ideals to the world once again.
"To become an ally of justice who can save everyone, and become a great magus like my father!"
Signum opened her eyes, finding herself sitting in lukewarm water as she looked around the bathroom.
"A dream?" Signum pulled herself out of the warer, reaching for a towel as she shook her head. "No…. just a memory."
It wasn't the first time that particular scene had been the subject of her slumber. Something was off, something was bothering her much more then it was supposed to be. Her master was growing stronger, both in mind and soul. Thanks to her little intervention he was slowly forced to balance his desire to help others and to simply say 'no', the result of her and Ayako's continuing campaign to get Shirou to, as the brunette had put it, 'man up'.
Said campaign had been an uphill battle, Shirou's unusual stubbornness in the debacle forcing both her and Ayako to butt heads with him on many occasions. There were no bad feelings, Shirou being far to kind to bear any grudge to them, but his persistence on the matter remained beyond normal.
Signum let out a sight as she slipped into the clothes Shirou had prepared for her. Walking out of the bathroom she immediately headed for the living room, where her master was currently residing.
"How was the bath?" Shirou spoke before she even entered the room, sitting next to a pillow he had prepared for her.
"It was satisfactory." Signum replied, sitting down on the pillow with a practiced ease that betrayed the familiarity of the motion. Without delay Shirou's hands began their job, one hand grabbing the brush he had prepared as the other started to separate the pink strands as he made short work of the small knots that had made themselves into her long hair.
It was one of the few little luxuries that Signum allowed herself to indulge in as her master silently worked on her hair, the woman simply sitting in a seiza position. It was an unspoken agreement that none of her fellow Wolkenritter would disturb them during such occasions, even Vita respecting "Signum's Shirou-time."
Normally, neither of them spoke during their time alone. This time however…
"To become an ally of justice who can save everyone…."
It bothered her.
"Shirou. You said that you wanted to become a hero, right?"
"-Hmm. I'm going to become an ally of justice." Shirou paused for a moment, before he continued to tend to her hair as if he had not heard her question. "Why do you ask?"
"I was wondering. How will you use the tome's power to fulfill that dream when you finish filling all of the pages and awaken the tome?"
"It's a power that can change the world, and someday you will obtain it." she added. She spoke the sentence the same way one would state a fact, not a single hint of doubt that Shirou would acquire the power of the tome.
"I don't know." The doubt in Shirou's voice contrasted with the certainty of her previous statement.
A part of Signum wasn't even surprised at her master's confession. After all…
"Master… what is the difference between a normal human and an ally of justice?"
"That's simple. A normal human is incapable of saving everyone while an ally of justice is one that is capable, no matter the circumstances. There are no people left behind, or humans that are not saved."
"But, to wish for everyone to be saved..." Signum hesitantly spoke, only to be cut off by Shirou.
"To be honest, I still don't know what I have to do to realize that dream." There was no trace of doubts in Shirou's voice as Signum turned to face her master. "Dad once told me that, to save one person means that there's someone else that isn't saved. Even if one managed to save several lives, nobody can save everyone. In the end someone is sacrificed to save another. If a robber was to pull a gun against another man's face and is about to shoot, it would mean that the only way that man's life can be saved is to kill the robber. But then, it means that to save one life I must take another…
It wasn't often that Signum was able to see such a disapproving expression on her master's face as he continued to speak, more to himself then to her. "I cannot accept that. A real ally of justice is supposed to save everyone else, so I cannot allow anyone to fall just so that others can be saved."
"Are you planning on saving everyone in your sight, no matter who they are? Are you planning on saving both the innocent and the murderer?"
"… I will save everyone who asks to be saved." Shirou spoke. "I want to be able to save everyone in my sight. When people call for help there should be someone capable of saving them all, not just the lucky ones…. "
Signum didn't ask if his last statement was an accusation to Shirou's role model, or to himself who was saved at the cost of many others. She didn't ask because, deep down, she didn't want to know.
The hollow look in Shirou's eyes was enough for her to understand that, right now, her master wasn't with her but was wandering in the hell from his memories.
She had never seen the memory herself, her master refusing to allow his knights to view it. On some days she believed it was because he was too kind to them, but on days like this she feared it was because he had decided to carry the burden alone, as a form of atonement for those who he had left behind…..
Before she knew it she had embraced her master, burying his face in her bosom as she cradled his head in her arms. She remained silent, having nothing to say to him, while her master simply indulged her impulsive action, showing no sign of resistance to her sudden embrace.
Her master's voice had increased in strength as he, somewhat reluctantly, detached himself from her chest, the blush on his cheeks evidence of his embarrassment for his lapse in composure. Signum watched as he looked up at her, his usual spark returning in his gaze. "…Even so, I will find a way to become a hero who can save everyone. I refuse to believe that this dream is impossible."
Signum knew. She knew that this ideal, this strange fantasy was impossible. There had been countless men and women who had cried out their desire to be a hero, her own existence filled with the blurred memories of those who fought for justice.
She knew how their lives had ended. They had perished or had forsaken their dreams in the end, names forgotten and bones reduced to dust.
Shirou's ideal matched the kindness of her master's heart but Signum knew that the harsh reality of the battlefield was too cruel to ever see it realized.
It was impossible. Even so, a part of her… truly wanted to believe in that dream.
That's right, ever since that night four years ago, when she had first learned of his dream, she had yearned to know…. if that impossibility could be defied. That child and the boy sitting in front of her carried the same determination…
"Ah, you haven't changed one bit, have you Shirou?"
"I'd like to think our master became taller, or else I'd be shrinking…" deadpanned Vita. Signum watched as the smaller redhead walked into the room wearing one of her skirts and a t-shirt, the towel wrapped around her hair betraying that she had just finished taking a bath herself.
"It looks like you're done with Signum already. Boobmonster, move it already!"
Without any hesitation Vita pushed Signum aside, the smaller girl dropping herself on the pillow in front of Shirou. In a single fluid motion the smaller knight pulled the towel from her head as her damp hair became unbound.
Signum smiled as she took in the sight of her master, carrier of impossible dreams and future wielder of immeasurable power, forced to play along to the whims of his smallest servant, braiding her hair with movements that betrayed his experience in the matter.
It didn't help that Vita looked absolutely smug as her master tended to her whims.
Even so, the sight helped Signum make up her mind. It didn't matter if her master's ideal was beyond their reach right now. She would be right there, next to him, her sword cleaving open the future to his… their ideal. As long as they stood side by side there was nothing that could stand in their way.
Yet, a small part of her told her that something was still escaping her sight. That voice whispered of missing memories from her services to their previous masters, the days that Shirou would suddenly become ill; all were small things that didn't seem like much alone, but together they hinted at something greater, something more ominous.
She crushed those thoughts mercilessly, banishing them to a dark part of her mind, wishing for them to never return.
"What the …."
The day had started out as another ordinary day for Ayako. She and Shirou had prepped the dojo along with Signum for morning practice and they had had continued to instruct the first years in the basics. Most of their fellow year students had been helping the new recruits or continued practicing on their own without any problems.
Things went south when Shinji finally came in, far later than the rest. The boy had already been in a foul mood and, after she had ordered the boy to assist the newcomers, this had been reflected in the way he would suddenly place a freshman on the spot, brutally pointing out their flaws in front of their peers.
It wasn't that his comments were untrue, but his lack of tact wasn't helping to improve their confidence. Eventually Signum had stepped in, telling Matou to return to his own practices before the tall woman had ignored his complaints about her interfering by turning her attention to the somewhat befuddled newcomers.
Signum's actions hadn't helped Shinji's mood and during classes the boy had been rather unpleasant as well. He had shown up to afternoon practice, but his mood had only grown fouler.
Ayako had known that Shinji wasn't afraid to vent on his sister, the boy's harsh language forcing the shy girl to shrink under his tirade. However, it seemed that today Signum wasn't going to let him continue his behavior under her watch.
Matou Shinji and Signum Ritter did not get along, the two of them having a horrible match of personalities. And while normally any dispute between the two would be finished by ether her or Shirou, this time Sakura tried to restrain her brother for his own sake…..resulting in the girl now sprawled out on the floor as she cradled her face, courtesy of Matou Shinji's outstretched fist.
"Damnit Shinji!" Ayako swore as she took in the sight of Sakura lying on the ground, as… "Wait, Signum!"
Mitsuzuri Ayako could only watch as Signum's expression twisted into an emotionless mask, sending cold shivers down her spine as the taller woman pulled her fingers into a fist which she aimed at the boy.
Signum Ritter was going to punch the boy without holding back. It was a scandal waiting to happen; a teacher's assistant punching a student right in his face.
This, Ayako realized, was going to be bad…. Really, really bad. Ayako started running, hoping to make it in time before something would happen.
Her effort was unnecessary, a hand swiftly pulling down the fist from the taller woman before it could reach its target. Ayako let out a sigh of relief at the sight of Shirou stepping in, the boy pulling Signum away before the taller woman could harm Shinji.
Shinji simply stood still, trembling like a leaf as he realized he had just escaped a rather painful encounter. Ayako barely noticed the growl escaping from her lips as she watched Shinji smirk at the sight of Signum's retreat as Shirou turned around and…
There was a dull smack as Shinji stumbled backwards, before falling to the ground.
"You…you hit me!" Shinji spat out as he looked up at the perpetrator, before flinching away from the sight. Ayako followed his gaze until she got a good look at Shinji's assailant.
Ayako sucked in her breath as she paused at the sight of those gold-brown eyes emitting such a cold stare, lacking any of the usual warmth she associated with the boy.
She didn't know Emiya Shirou could look that angry.
"I've talked with Shinji's grandfather over the phone and we agreed that the incident from today is best handled privately between the two of us."
It was unusual for Fujimura Taiga to look serious, even when sitting behind her desk. Today however she was pulling it off rather well, staring down the two boys sitting on the chairs in front of her.
"Due to the events of today, your grandfather and I have decided that life in the Kyudo Club isn't really suited for you. We think it might be a good idea for you to try out some other clubs at this point."
"As for you," Taiga turned towards Shirou with a disappointed look. " While you are lucky not to be expelled from the club, Signum has sworn to me that she'd make sure that you'd learn not to do something as rash as this ever again. I'm willing to take her on her word this time, but I expected better from you."
Shirou stared at his feet, not even looking at ether Shinji or their teacher as she spoke the verdict, clenching and unclenching his right hand even though the ache from the punch had disappeared over an hour ago.
"Practice is already over for today. Matou-kun; Shirou and Signum will accompany you home this time. That way Shirou can give his proper apologies to your grandfather as well for all of …."
"My old man doesn't like meeting people; this might not be a good idea." Shinji quickly stood up as he shook his hands.
"Your grandfather insisted on this." Taiga replied before focusing her ire at the other subject in the room. "And I expect you to apologize for all of this in a proper way, understood Shirou?"
"It's Fujimura-sensei for you right now." The woman cut him off. "Ayako already walked Sakura home this afternoon. Signum is waiting outside for you two so get moving already."
Nether Shinji or Shirou spoke as they left the teacher's office. Signum greeted them with a simple nod, before the three of them took off. It was already starting to get dark as they walked down the road, Signum three steps behind them to keep her distance from the two of them.
Eventually the familiar sight of the Matou residence appeared before them. As they walked further up the hill Shirou remained silent, even when Signum discarded her previous distance to him and moved herself directly behind him, as if she wanted to make sure she could grab him and move out of danger within a single moment. The look on her face hid her thoughts, but Shirou shared her discomfort as he watched his surroundings.
With the setting sun shining down on the house, the play of light and shadows turned the house into something different. The last time he had been here the house had felt normal, but today it was as if something was watching them from the shadows.
"Go home, Emiya." Shinji suddenly broke the silence as he walked towards the door, only to turn around and face them after he reached the door. "I'll talk to my grandfather in your place so you should just head home."
Shinji's demand sounded more like a plea to Shirou's ears, the boy's eyes nervously shifting around as if they were looking for something that eluded their sight.
"You know I can't do that, Fujimura-sensei…."
"I said go home Emiya!" Shinji snapped, his anger finally overpowering whatever fear had been keeping it in check. "Don't be such a stubborn…"
"That's enough Shinji. Go inside for now, I'll talk to you later."
"...!" Shinji froze, his face growing pale as he shook his head from side to side.
Shirou spun around, trying to find the source of the unfamiliar voice, before he caught the silhouette of a human lurking in the shadow of the house. From the looks of it even Signum hadn't been aware of the presence before he had made himself known.
"What's wrong young man, aren't you going to introduce yourself?" The man stepped out of the shadows, revealing himself as an aging man with a cane.
"Didn't I tell you to go inside already?" The old man stared at Shinji, who quickly made his way inside the house.
To Shirou the old man's appearance was unfamiliar, but with the way Shinji acted around him this old man can only be…
"What is wrong, young one, why don't you answer? If you don't answer I will just have to take a guess. Hmm, seeing that you came here along with my grandson… can I assume you are the one his teacher was talking about over the phone?"
"Ah… yes." Shirou replied, still not sure what to make of the man. "My name is Emiya Shirou. I'm in the same class as Shinji and I've visited his home several times for the last few years, but I'm afraid we have never met. Also, this is Signum; she's one of my guardians and a fellow club member."
The man uttered the unfamiliar word casually as if it held all the information Shirou needed. Shirou turned to Signum, hoping that she knew the meaning of the word, before the old man let out a chuckle at the lack of response.
"Matou Zouken." The old man once more repeated himself. "It is wrong for me to not name myself when you have done so."
"I see, nice to make you acquaintance, Matou Zouken-san." Shirou politely greeted the man. "I'm afraid that I've never seen you here before."
"Ah, I see. You must be wondering why we have never crossed paths before the times my grandson had you as a visitor. As you can see, I am rather old; I tend to just lie in the rear tatami room all the time."
"I see, excuse me for asking then, that was rather impolite."
"Hoho… I must say that I'm surprised though. You are rather polite for a boy who just recently inflicted bodily harm on my own grandson." The old man laughed as if he had just made a joke, before suddenly going quiet as his eyes stared right through Shirou.
It suddenly dawned on Shirou just how sharp his eyes were. While the man's body looked old and fatigued, his eyes looked like they could easily burn right trough him.
"Yes, I wanted to apologize for this incident. I'm …"
"It doesn't matter." The older man interrupted him without a second thought. "From what I heard you acted on part of my granddaughter's defense, so I will let this one slide. In fact, I fear that I must ask you for another favor in regard to Sakura." The old man interrupts Shirou.
"How can I help?" Shirou cannot help but ask. Things were going different from what he had expected but… he cannot deny a request for aid.
"As you might have noticed, my grandchildren do not really get along," the old man sighed, "most likely due to the fact that Sakura was treated… with preferential treatment during her childhood. It seems that this is still a source of Shinji's anger in their relationship. He has developed the tendency to lash out at her whenever he's stressed. I also know that my granddaughter doesn't really socialize with girls her age and dislikes opening herself up to other people.
The man paused for a moment, looking upwards at one of the windows on the upper floor, before turning his gaze back on both the boy and the female.
"However, it seems that she feels somewhat at home in the Kyudo club, speaking highly of the two of you. I'm just an old man, and while I can somewhat manage the dealings of my grandchildren inside my own house I fear that Sakura doesn't really have a place to open up…."
"Are you asking us to get her more involved with the club?" Shirou guessed, the old man smiling at his question.
"I…. prefer to see her entertained and, as my grandson has already stepped back from the club, it might give her a place where she can… bloom, so to speak. It would make this old man feel better to know that my granddaughter would… crawl out of her shell some more. Could you be so kind as to help this old man out?"
"I won't stop her if she wants to stay." Shirou replies with a smile, they boy content with seeing the solution to the old man's problem. "I promise to do whatever I can to make her feel at home."
The old man smiled, a rather unnerving sight even with the best of intentions. "Very well then, I thank you for your assistance. Please take care of my granddaughter then."
The old man slowly made his way towards the house, before pausing. "By the way, you said your name was Emiya Shirou right? Perhaps you can tell me how the daughter of the Einzberns is doing?"
"What might you be talking about?" Signum spoke up, breaking her silence as she took a step forward. "Why do you know that name?"
"Do not play dumb." The man instantly replied. "It is natural for the daughter of the Einzberns to be in contact with the Emiya. While it is rather early, it's natural to assume that the boy should probably know by now how well it is this time around."
This statement, Shirou instantly recognizes, is important. That… whatever what the man is talking about has to be important. Even worse, this man speaks as if it is obvious that he is supposed to know about this.
"I'm afraid that we do not know. Could you be so kind as to explain what you are talking about?" Shirou asked slowly, causing the attention of the old man to return to center on him once more.
"…Hm, it seems that you really don't know...," The old man sighs, looking rather shocked before a smirk crawled onto his face. "Please forgive this old man for rambling; it seems that the last few years I keep mistaking people for their parent, or even their grandparents…. What was I talking about again?"
"Einzberns." Signum repeated the name as the old man nods his head in approval.
"Oh yes, they came here before the war…. Bought the land outside Fuyuki in the woods you know. Why, when I was young, my friends and I, we'd walk around the forbidden parts of the forest until they started chasing people off their grounds…. But I think the castle is empty nowadays, the younger people say that it's haunted. Ghostly maids chasing all living humans from their properties and such. That takes me back you know…"
Shirou stared at the old man as he paused, speaking up once the old man showed no sign of continuing. "Matou-san?"
"…Ah yes. I think I need to lie down again; I'm getting rather sleepy whenever I'm outside. Again, I thank you for your time." The old man smiled before slowly making his way inside the house, leaving Shirou and Signum behind.
"That man… wasn't normal." Signum speaks up as she grabs Shirou by the shoulder. Shirou simply nods as he allowed her to pull him along towards their home. "He looked like a human, but..."
"I know. It seems that he knows more about certain things than he wants us to know… but I cannot feel any dishonesty in his request to have Sakura spend more time with other people."
As they approached the cross-section Shirou turned around, looking up the hill as…
"Who is that?"
"What's wrong Shirou?"
Shirou didn't answer, and instead pulled the trigger in the back of his head. Soon his reinforced eyes stared at the top of the hill. In the middle of the road stood a blond man, his face partially hidden in the shadow.
"..A foreigner?" Shirou murmured, before a cold shiver suddenly ran down his spine as he realized….
…That the man was looking back at him.
Even if it was from a distance that no normal human could see, this man was watching him. The man wasn't even trying to hide himself, the shadow covering his visage simply the result of a nearby tree branch extending a shadow over his figure.
Shirou could not read the man's expression. Even so, Shirou could feel that the man was smiling at them, looking down on the two of them as he stood at the top of the hill. Suddenly he disappeared, leaving the empty hill behind as if he had never been there in the first place.
"Signum. We're going home, right now."
His knight obeyed his order without question, the two of them walked around the corner at a faster pace then before. As they followed the street leading to their home Shirou tightly held onto the cross he carried with him at all times.
The unknown magus, the old man Matou and now this strange foreigner. What was going on in Fuyuki?
266 empty pages remaining-
Secondary threshold reached.
Unlocking functionality of the tome up to level 6.
Manifestation of master program personality enabled.
Transferring functions from self-defense to master program-Security protoca# %
ERR #:e0000064798 $$%-
In the darkest hour of the night the room was silent if not for the soft breathing of the master and his smallest knight, both in deep slumber.
But they were not alone.
The will of the book looked down on the sight of her sleeping master, the immaterial manifestation of the tome having emerged from the confines of the book currently lying under her master's pillow. A sad smile lingered in her expression as she reached out with her hand. Her fingers moved towards her master's head as if to brush his hair, only for her fingers to fade away as their essence scattered on contact with Shirou's solid form.
She was finally awake, but her existence was nothing more than a shade of her true form.
Even so, her mind, her personality had been restored. But it was in vain. Already she had concluded that control of several vital functions of the Tome had not been transferred towards her after her reactivation, instead being bound in the corrupted programming of the self-defense program. Even now the corruption grew, slowly but steadily moving the book to the point of another meltdown.
Soon the pressure on her master would start to increase exponentially, and he would ether fall to the book's hunger… or somehow achieve the feat of filling all of the pages-
-Nether option giving him any hope of survival.
In the end he would join her other masters in their twisted fate: to be absorbed, destroyed and then forgotten. In the end the nine years she had existed within his spirit was just a single fragment, one amidst thousands of other fragments. He was but one master amongst many, kind or cruel, heroic or despotic.
She wouldn't spill tears for his fate, for her tears had run out ages ago. All she would do, all she could do, was stay at her master's side so she could fulfill his final wish when the inevitable happened.
But still… she couldn't shake the hope that that final day was still far away, wishing for this little interlude of happiness to last just a little longer. With that wish in mind she retreated back into her physical vessel, resting at her master's side.
If this was just a sweet dream, then she should be allowed to enjoy her slumber just a little longer.
AN: thank you to Santo, Linkhyrule and Carpe_noctum for Beta-ing my work.