Shion Means "Remembrance"
Even in the orange light of the setting sun, the strange color stood out.
It was not something Issei thought he should have noticed. In practicing the emptying of mind and spirit, the earthly distractions of the world should have gone by unchecked. School was over, his meetings with the student council completed, and it was now time to head home and complete his duties around the temple.
Still, he could not help but peer out the window when he caught sight of her. She was tall—taller than any of the women on campus, certainly—and her hair cascaded down her back like a wave of flowers. Shion, he thought, the flower that bloomed in a pale purple-like color. She spoke to someone at the front gate, though that person was too obscured by the reddish light for Issei to get a good look.
The monk nodded to himself. He could satiate his curiosity while fulfilling his school bound duties at the same time: the woman was not wearing a uniform, and so he felt it within his rights to inquire what she was doing on premises. Apparently, no teachers or faculty had done so, else this stranger would probably not be gallivanting about so freely, without escort.
By the time he made it down the stairs, switched into his shoes, and was out within view of the gate, both the stranger and whoever they had been talking to were nowhere to be seen. Issei considered poking around for a moment to see if they were still on premises—
"Get your act together, stupid woman! I want this thing done, so we can move on already."
Issei knew of only one boy at school that would say such a thing.
The voice had come from beyond the clubhouses, back toward the Archery range and storage sheds. Issei made his decision and headed back to confront whatever was going on, but was halted when he turned the corner and almost crashed into a furious Shinji Matou.
"Eh, Ryuudou, still diligently making the rounds?" Shinji said, a strange expression between a sneer and nervous twitching vying for dominance on his features.
"Of course, Matou-kun. It is part of my duty. What of you? Did I hear incorrectly earlier today that you had a date planned with one of your admirers?" Issei pushed the glasses he wore up the bridge of his nose. He knew the gesture annoyed the Matou boy, and for some reason beyond him he felt that right now was an appropriate time to do so.
Shinji sniffed and his gaze wandered to the gate. "I was just on my way. Keep up the good work, Mister Student Council."
When Shinji Matou and his attitude problem were out of sight, Issei wandered further back toward the sheds and clubrooms, until he found where he thought he'd heard the shouting. No woman could be seen, though something crawling along the back of his neck told him she was still within hearing, still paying attention. "I heard Matou-kun yelling earlier. I wanted to see if there was a problem here."
No answer came, though Issei still had the unshakable impression that this mysterious someone was here. Within one of the club rooms, perhaps.
"I do not intend to make a scene, or get you into trouble if there is a problem," Issei continued on. "But I would like to help, if at all possible. The concerns of the people at this school are my concerns as well."
The only sound that he could make out were the birds in the wooded areas beyond the school grounds. This was not a problem, though—if there was one thing his daily training did, it was give him a great deal of patience. Sure, patience that the Tohsaka-fox tested every moment of every day, but patience nonetheless. He set his feet apart and crossed his arms, waiting for this silent person to either respond or flee. Either way, it would accomplish his responsibilities.
The sunset turned to nightfall, the color in the sky fading away. The only light besides the moon and stars came from the field lamps out on the opposite side of the school, refracting just enough to give shape and grayed color to Issei's surroundings.
Still, he did not budge.
"You are a very persistent person," a quiet voice said from the shadows of one building.
Issei nodded, though he could not really see the person he was addressing. Her form was present, though the darkness kept him from having a clear look—though he could see the long locks swaying about her shoulders. "I could say the same thing to you. So. Are you willing to explain what is going on?"
There was a seriousness to her voice when she said, "You would not understand." She spoke with a maturity that Issei had never quite heard before, not even from the adults at school or the senior monks living at the temple.
"Understanding is irrelevant to cooperation. I said, if there is a way to help, I would do so."
"You are serious."
Issei put his hands on his hips. It was something he thought he probably picked up from Emiya, the stubborn heel-dug-in stance that came whenever help was mentioned. "I am always serious."
"That I do not doubt." She moved out from the deeper shadows, though he still could not quite see everything. Undoubtedly, however, she was a beautiful woman. Tall and long-legged, carrying a strange sense of sincere intensity. Something about her seemed fey, dangerous even, but at the same time the way her lips pursed and her arms were at her side in a defenseless motion seemed like it was not a danger he had to fear. She would not hide anything once confronting an issue—unlike the other women Issei had come across in his short life. "Still, you step upon dangerous grounds. This is not a simple issue."
When she was done spinning her tale, the woman held deathly still—stiller than Issei thought a living being could actually manage. The monk wanted to peer into her eyes to gauge the level of severity this explanation held to her, though she wore something like a visor or sunglasses such that he could not.
"So, it is something of a curse. You must take the life force of others in exchange to continue to survive."
Though the woman did not move, did not change expression in any fashion, Issei could still tell that she was surprised. He supposed she did not believe he would accept her words at face value. "You could call it such."
Issei allowed himself a faint smile. It was not something the average person probably would have accepted, but Issei had been raised on the understanding of the spiritual. The ideas of curses and miracles still carried weight to him, though the foundational power that the monks of Ryuudou once held had long since dissipated. Though he wondered if the history his family had painted was entirely true, he had accepted that there were things beyond his knowledge that existed. The way this woman presented the topic, said in utter dangerous honesty, was something he could accept. It was not every day that a person admitted to bear sins against the lives of others.
He understood, too, that with what she had explained as the solution to be, he was otherwise powerless to question her veracity. She did indeed carry that fey sense, like she could kill him right here and now—but she had not made such a move, and he considered why she would even tell him these things.
Probably because she did not like them anymore than he did.
"I take it, Matou-kun is in on this as well," Issei said.
"Yes. My Master chose this location for its practicality in assembling so many lives together. If we had another choice, perhaps he would not be so impatient—but we do not."
"I see." Issei closed his eyes, tried to root out any possible solution to this dilemma. Though ultimately, as he knew very well, his ability to find one was lacking. The Ryuudou of ancient times could have worked to thwart such a situation, but he had no such ability. "And there is no way to stall this ceremony?"
Though he could still only see the fringes of a visor over her eyes, Issei had the impression the woman stared at him long and hard. "Stall?"
"Until you find another solution. I, of course, must think of the other students and their lives, but…"
The woman gave the faintest tilt of her head. "Most people in your situation would wish for no such massacre to occur in the first place."
Issei nodded gravely. "Indeed. But you yourself are in a predicament and…" he looked away, "I do not believe it is to your liking, either. You are clearly not a bad person."
She seemed to startle, leaning back on her heels marginally, her mouth falling agape ever-so-slightly. "You are quite strange," she said.
"Still…" The woman put a hand up to her chin to think, the motion somehow dainty despite the topic they were on. It only lent Issei the idea that he was correct in his assumptions. "There is something I can do, yes."
"What is it?"
Her "gaze" once more turned directly to him, intense and dangerous—though there was a sudden shyness to it as well, like she had not wished to come upon this idea. "You yourself are different from most others here," she said. "You carry with you…energy. Spiritual presence that others do not have."
Issei nodded once again, tilting his chin out a little proudly. "My family are descendants of powerful monks that once resided in these lands."
"If I were to consume from you, then I would have enough to postpone this event for a day or two," she said.
He stared at her. "Truly?"
"Yes." Her arms fell away again and she turned to face him directly, moving up closer. The faint light from the field lights was just enough to let him catch the purple color of her hair contrasting with the growing darkness beyond. "It is not efficient to take from the average person, which is why we resort to the spell. Though it is still inefficient, your life force certainly contains greater prana than the average person."
"I see." And he did see, fully, what she was saying. It meant he would risk his life for something that may or may not help in the long run. It meant the possibility of dying without knowing for what reason, for why. "How much would you need?"
She considered, for a moment. "You would still live, but I believe the constitution of the average person would mean you would most likely fall unconscious."
Though he tried not to show it, Issei could feel the clammy sensation of sweat starting to form around his forehead, at the fringes of his hair. "I…if it will help…then I accept."
"Truly?" she said, a faint smile on her lips.
He had backed up without even realizing he was doing so until his shoulders met with the doorway leading to the range. "If it will help," He repeated.
Her face lost the smile, and she nodded. "It will."
"Then…I would ask you make it quick."
She pressed her body to his until he could feel her body's form beneath her clothing, until the scent of woman filled his senses. Indeed, there was an almost coppery tinge to her, like blood, though it seemed diluted by the way her hands brushed up along his left arm and along the side of his neck. "You can call me Rider, by the way," she whispered in his ear.
"Rider," he said. "Issei Ryuudou is my name."
"I will remember this, Issei Ryuudou."
Her fingertips gently pried apart the collar of his uniform, then pulled away to expose his shoulder. Issei felt Rider's breath play across his skin, then the graze of her teeth just below where his neck met his body. He took a deep breath, though his gaze kept almost hypnotically on the strands of pale color over her shoulder.
Until it faded into the darkness.
Rider could not find the words.
It both thrilled and terrified her that there would be such people in the world. Upon her summoning, nothing about the situation with the Matou family had come at a surprise. Certainly, she felt sympathy toward them—raised by a creature like Zouken, both children abused or neglected at his whim—but the severity of the darkness within the household did not surprise her. The existence she knew had been one of darkness as well, the whims and arbitrary curses that humanity could bring about. This situation, sad as it was, was not unexpected.
The fact that there existed others, however, was.
When she took from the boy, from this Issei Ryuudou, the odd feeling that crept up her spine refused to leave. He was a nobody, a non-entity—not a participant in the war, not even a magus or psychic of the modern world. He should have been nothing, anyway.
Still, she could not shake the sensation of acceptance that she had when embracing him, when taking from this human what could have been his entire life.
Rider considered it, of course. An easy target, one so willing, and one that held marginally greater existence than the others in this school. Greater than even Shinji Matou, if the energy she felt was truly present. Had she taken his life, it would have sustained her such that a fraction of the disability she fought with would have been erased, at least temporarily. They had plans to confront the Servant on the hill if certain events fell into place, and this would have put them in a better position.
The honesty the boy had shown had stopped her, though.
Even as afraid as he was—he shivered as she touched him, and his heartbeat rose significantly—it kept her from taking everything. That he was afraid was not a surprise, but she had discerned what made it different from other situations: he was not afraid of her, but of the act itself.
It was a very strange sensation. Sakura had feared her, of course, and feared everything the Grail War meant. Shinji, though he hid it behind contempt, also feared her.
But this boy was different, somehow.
When she had taken the amount promised, Rider gently guided the boy to rest up against the wall. He had fallen unconscious as predicted, though his breath was even and his pulse still strong. Where she had pierced his skin, she now returned beneath his clothing and pressed her hand over the wound until she felt it would not begin to flow outward once more.
"Issei Ryuudou," she said, quietly, once more testing his name out on her tongue, from her lips.
The orders from her Master to continue with the bounded field were then completed at the bare minimum, expanding the power of the field by only a marginal amount. Satisfied—in more ways than one—Rider dematerialized and flew off into the night.
She found him again, the next evening, waiting in the same location.
Once more, she had been ordered to strengthen the field, though Rider had spent the entire day considering. Strategically, of course, there were both pros and cons to Blood Fort—after all, it could mass the prana from the student body in one fell swoop, but on the other hand, they had discerned that at least the Masters of Archer and Saber were in attendance. It may provide Rider with the prana she needed, but it could also draw her into a defensive battle, one she might not have the strength to survive.
The real thought in her mind, though, was whether this Issei Ryuudou would continue to involve himself. It hovered around the back of her mind all morning, all afternoon; she waited for her Master to finish his social obligations, then accepted his order when he brought up how slow the field seemed to be progressing.
When dusk was falling and the horizon had turned red, she made her way back toward the range and found the boy waiting, fidgeting with something in his hands. His head came up at her approach, and she could tell he was finally appraising her, taking her in for the first time—it was too dark previously. His gaze was once again without that fear, and even more so now, since he had clearly lived from their last encounter.
He grinned and held up a box of orange juice. "Thought I would be prepared this time."
It was a different feeling than before, as the fear of the act had also gone away. Rider did not detect any sense of hesitation from the boy—no sweat, no tension, nothing of the sort—and instead found a strange sense of courage in its place. When she moved up to undo his uniform again, he responded by reaching out to brush his fingers through her flowing locks.
"You have beautiful hair," he said. "I think it is easier to accept that you are some kind of spirit when I see how unearthly you are. But…"
He blushed faintly, looked past her shoulder and seemed to wilt a little, a sudden realization of embarrassment. "But…you look very sad, you know. Even when you smile."
Rider allowed herself one of those very looks of amusement that sometimes crept up on her. "Really now?"
"Really." He reached up to adjust his glasses. "Though perhaps my eyesight is just bad."
Somehow, the absurdity of the situation finally fell upon her mind and made her feel uncomfortable. Here she was, somehow led on by the words of a mere boy, while draining him of life to sustain her abilities for a Master she did not particularly wish to serve. She was the Gorgon Medusa, given life, in a battle of might against other legendary names—and here was her first challenge: the words of someone, not yet an adult, who kindled a strange desire within the pit of her stomach.
It was almost enough to make her laugh.
"I do not think this is any different to how I am all the time," Rider said.
"Hmm." It was a strange posture he took, settled up against the wall of an empty shed, his clothes coming off so she could take blood from him—and yet he took on a ponderous expression, a hand coming up to rub beneath his chin, his other going to his hip. The strange way his gaze veered off and upward as he arranged his thoughts projected much older than he actually was. "Then I hope you find something to be happy over."
"I do not have such a desire or wish," Rider said, once more moving closer to him. The intimate position did not seem to bother him, however, even as she straddled his legs and held his body close. "Though perhaps, it would do, for you to simply remember this."
He tilted his head aside so she could have unobstructed access to her target. "Oh?"
"We will not meet again, Issei. But I think it would be…acceptable, if you, at least, know of this moment."
Instead of the sharp bite of her teeth, she pressed her lips gently to his neck, to where the feeling of lifeblood could be felt clearly pumping beneath. It was careful, and slow, and somehow, beyond even the embrace she held him in, a parody of lovers amidst their passion—
This made her feel better, feel somehow alive.
She withdrew from him without another word, and retreated from his confused expression, dashing back out toward the street and into the night.
The gale from the stairs had grown, and Rider knew that Saber was pressing the assault on the guardian at the gateway. Still, she could not let her guard down or pry her attention fully from Caster—though the witch had not managed a hit yet, the battle had not gone at all favorably.
Still, she had enough prana, that it would be possible to defeat the cloaked Servant. It was only just enough, but her Noble Phantasm would have a clear shot now that she had a grasp of Caster's attack ability—
It was faint, and really she had no reasonable explanation for it, but her senses turned to the temple beyond Caster, to the lattice-protected windows peering into the main building. It was not that she had the ability to perceive individual personas by their prana flow like a Caster-class might, nor had any kind of intuitive ability other Servants possibly had, but something had crawled right up the back of her neck and warned her.
Issei Ryuudou, watching from within the confines of the temple.
If she used her Phantasm here, it would destroy him alongside Caster.
And without a second thought, she withdrew from her battle against the Princess of Colchis and moved on to the objective of gathering intelligence on Saber.
"You, boy, have seen too much," Caster said, looming over Issei.
The boy monk stared back up at the witch, the scowl on his face somehow bereft of fear. "And you're a complete fraud, just like I thought!"
"Caster." Souichirou Kuzuki's voice interrupted her triad before it began anew. "You are not going to pursue Rider or Saber?"
Caster sighed, pulling her hood back to peer up at her Master directly. "I would prefer they come to me and suffer the consequences, though once I have enough strength I will take the fight to them if it is necessary." She motioned to the boy, who stared out over the empty expanse beyond the temple entrance. "This one, I caught watching the proceedings. It seems…from what I can tell, he has met with Rider or her Master before. I think it necessary to remove him from this situation…"
Blinking multiple times, Caster said, "Master?"
The teacher did not move from where he stood at the foot of the main bodhisattva. Nor did his expression change. "If you must, remove the memory from him. But it would be impractical to remove him completely."
Caster slowly bowed her head. "Very well, Souichirou-sama."
Kuzuki withdrew back to his quarters, and Caster instantly wheeled around to face Issei. "Count your blessings, boy. It seems Souichirou-sama likes you more than I thought."
Issei, though, was still peering out the doorway, to where the woman called Rider had been. He wasn't aware he was mashing his teeth until he swore he felt them crack under the strain. Once more, something beyond him was going to happen, and this time, it was not going to result in any sense of pleasantry whatsoever.
The curse he wanted to fling at the witch died on his lips, as strange sounds flew from her like the bell he was to ring every morning.
A flash of bright light brought Issei out of slumber.
The hospital he and the other students were at was otherwise a fairly quiet and peaceful place—and while the other students had varying degrees of exposure to the gas leak, he had apparently avoided the bulk of it and was feeling otherwise pretty healthy. It actually galled him to be confined to the hospital for the night, since he felt up to returning home—but the doctors had been persistent. So he had wasted away hours, either reading or watching the news, dozing off or alternatively pacing the hallways out of restlessness.
It felt like he was missing something important, confined as he was.
He had eventually turned in, though the persistent nagging had him restless in sleep, and when gold streaked through the sky like an aurora, he pulled himself back up and irritably went to wander once again.
Though a good majority of his classmates were still within the hospital, none of them apparently had the fortitude to stay up too late after the events that had brought them here. After speaking with the on-duty nurse and getting permission to stretch his legs, Issei wandered around the place, eventually taking the elevator down to another level so he could pace with at least marginally different things to see.
Because of the late hour, however, the trip was ultimately pointless. Nobody else seemed to be suffering the insomnia he was, and as late as it was, few members of staff were even about. He found himself in front of the hospital's gift shop, though the door was closed and the lights were off, so he could not wander inside. Still, he found himself in front of the window looking in, his gaze drawn to the various bouquets of flowers he could see within. One in particular kept his attention, though he could not figure out why.
Just a cluster of flowers, purple in the darkness. Shion, they were called, and in the language of flowers—
His thoughts somehow wavered, the image of Shion in the darkness bringing some strangeness to his mind. The sensation of knowing something just a moment ago, but instantly forgetting it came to him, and he grumbled to himself over how it added to the frustrated feeling he had.
Shion meant "remembrance," but there was something he was supposed to know beyond that.
—The feeling of an embrace, of a fluttery touch to his skin—
—A sad look, a kindness dipped in blood—
He couldn't remember, and he hated it.