School started normally enough. It was a welcome break from what even a Magus would call a hectic weekend. With the War going on, I had completely forgotten about my so-called normal life, and was actually shocked when Sakura woke me up in the morning morning. She had seemed distant, and breakfast had passed quietly before her and Fuji-nee left to go to Archery practice. It frustrated me how much I wanted to go with them, even if I couldn't single out a reason why.
Saber had insisted on coming to school with me, but relented after a long argument. There was no way I was going to let her come to school with me, but I'm here under conditions. Now I was obligated to use a command spell if something goes wrong, and I intended to. I knew full well that I couldn't fight against a Servant. Even Masters could probably deal with me. As much as I didn't like to risk Saber's life, if I wanted to save people, I needed to be able to fight.
The bell rang to sound the end of class, and the beginning of lunch. With practiced efficiency, I stood and grabbed my lunchbox, immediately walking past the people who would no doubt demanded part of my homecooked meal. The student council room would be my best bet. Issei is sympathetic to my cause, and would certainly provide me refuge. Plus, I do work for the council on occasion, so there's no reason for me not to be in there. If Kuzuki-sensei comes and asks, I'd just tell him that I was planning work. After all, there were always items in need of repair.
It was the perfect plan, and only failed due to outside interference. I opened the classroom door, ignoring the protests of the classmates trailing behind me. There was no way they would mooch off me today. I stepped into the half-empty hallway. Students of various grades were walking about now that the bell had rung. Few of them knew of my cooking reputation. I looked left and right for any hidden dangers. To my right, about halfway down the hall, Issei stood by the student council door. My partner in crime was waiting for me. I was practically in the clear already!
I turned towards him, lunchbox in hand, and was immediately accosted from behind. A small hand grabbed my uniform collar and pulled back hard, and in the distance I saw Issei grimace, but think twice about coming to help me.
I cried out, spitting out an unintelligible series of sounds as the hand pulled me back and around. Then I was face to face with Tohsaka Rin. Normally this would be a dream come true, but today was different. While Tohsaka Rin was the so called "Ms. Perfect" at Homurahara High School, today she wore a special face just for me. It was the face of the Tohsaka that I had come to know in the last few days.
"Emiya-kun," she said, her mouth thin, "we need to talk."
"Now?" I asked, but it was too late. He pulled on me and I instinctively followed her. I sighed; we were making a scene. I could hear people whispering as she dragged me through the hall, hand now wrapped around my arm. The girls were just gossiping like they do, but I despaired as I heard the other guys. I needed to stop Tohsaka before there were any more misunderstandings. At this rate, I'd be facing off with half of the male population of the school this afternoon. Seriously! I had treaded on sacred ground. I'd be just as angry if it was another guy.
"Tohsaka-" I began, only to be silenced by a glare. I resolved to explain it to the other guys later. She led me through the school, up the stairs, passing by confused upperclassmen, and finally out onto the roof.
"Alright," she said in triumph, "we're here."
I was starting to shiver from the exposure, even through my school jacket. The girls are lucky; their uniform allows that dark red overcoat that Tohsaka loves so much. Despite the fact that there's no snow on the ground, it's still cold in late February, and naturally we were the only people on the roof.
"Tohsaka, is there anywhere else we can go?" I asked, crossing my arms to hide the fact that I was cold. As a man, I could never show such weakness, especially not in front of a girl like Tohsaka. She'd never let me forget it.
She turned on me in an instant, leaning over with her hands on her hips. "What do you mean Emiya-kun?" she asked. "If we're going to discuss anything at all we have to go somewhere quiet."
"Yeah," I said with a sigh, "but you just dragged me past half of the student body. You made our lunch meeting seem even more suspicious."
"Your point?" she said. She was either oblivious or stubborn as hell.
I sighed again. "My point is that people could come eavesdrop on us because they think we're carrying on some illicit relationship."
She chuckled, "Maybe you want them to think that, right Emiya-kun?" As I thought, she wasn't fazed in the slightest when I brought up that possibility. She was too good at keeping that mask on. Unfortunately for me, I wasn't as good as her, and I abruptly looked away. My face was tinged with red, but I hoped that she would mistake it for the cold.
"Ah, looks like I got you," she said, not fooled at all. "That's enough for today I think."
She walked around the roof to a point where two sides were blocked by high walls of concrete. There, the walls would provide at least a little protection from the wind. She stared at me, as if asking if I was going to come, and then smoothed her skirt before sitting down.
I walked over and sat by her side, with my back to the wall. Then I opened my lunchbox. Even though it was just leftovers from the night before, my meals are still the most sought after treasure come lunchtime.
"Oh, that looks good!" she said. It was then that I noticed that she didn't have her own lunchbox with her.
"Did you forget your lunch?" I asked.
"No," she said, as if it was obvious. "I didn't bring one on purpose. I was planning to take some of yours."
I never expected her to be such a freeloader. "Alright," I said. "It's fine. I guess I owe you enough anyway."
Carefully, I split the lunch in two, making sure we each had equal portions. It was about five minutes after we began eating that she said anything else.
"So, about the War," she began. "Some of my familiars picked up some things."
I hummed with interest. "What exactly?"
She bit her lip, and then continued. "You may have seen it on the news this morning, but a whole area in a neighborhood near the forest was torn to pieces. The streets were wrecked and lamp posts were torn out of the ground entirely."
I turned to look at her. Her head was down, staring into her lap with an intense look on her face. "I didn't watch the news this morning," I admitted. "Wouldn't you think that word would get around?"
"No," she said immediately. "It would probably be passed off as an accident or something. Regular people are really good at making excuses for the unexplainable. It's a fact of life."
"But you think it was a battle between Servants?" I said. I didn't think it could be anything else.
"Yeah," she replied. "No clue who it was, but my familiars detected a massive amount of magical energy emanating from that area, so we can assume that whoever was fighting was going all out. If I had to guess, Berserker was definitely one of the combatants."
I thought about that Servant for a moment. Even Saber could barely hold her own against it. Could any other Servant hope to win against that monster? "Do you think he won?" I asked.
She shook her head. "I don't know. The street they fought on was really cramped, and there wasn't much room for such a large fighter. Berserker may have been forced back."
Berserker forced back? I could hardly believe what I was hearing. "Could any Servant do that?" I asked.
She thought for a moment before responding. "Maybe Lancer or Rider. It would have to be someone faster, but with enough strength to land good blows. If I was Saber's Master, I think Saber could do it."
She let the implication stand, not that it wasn't completely obvious. I thought for a moment. If Berserker could, could, have been fought off by another Servant, then it would be in our interest to ally with them.
"Well, if Berserker-" I started.
"Berserker?" said a familiar voice. I nearly jumped to my feet. Mitsuzuri Ayako was standing in front of us, carrying her lunch box in front of her and looking at us with a puzzled expression. She must have come up to the roof while we were talking and overheard us.
"Mitsuzuri!" I said, quickly, trying to change the subject, "What brings you here?"
"What's this about Berserker?" she asked again. Like a bloodhound on a hunt, she wasn't letting the subject go.
I started a fake laugh, "Oh, I was just talking with Tohsaka about the manga Berserk. She asked me for recommendations."
That got Mitsuzuri started. She dropped to her knees in front of me with an excited expression on her face. "You like Berserk?! Sweet, Guts is a totalbadass!"
"Totally," I said with a short chuckle. In reality, I've barely read Berserk. Shinji gave me a few copies once, talking about how it had what he called "a ton of cool gore and sex". After living through a nightmare, I wasn't really interested. It just came to mind all of a sudden when I was thinking up an excuse. "You don't seem like the manga reading type, Mitsuzuri."
She put on a fake frown and crossed her arms with exaggerated movement. "You insult me Emiya! I enjoy it enough."
"Forgive me," I said, following her routine. I looked at Tohsaka with one eye. She stared back with bewilderment on her face. Were we acting odd or something?
"Yeah yeah," said Mitsuzuri, "but we should totally hang out and read manga together sometime! Didn't you do that with your friends in middle school?"
"Yeah, definitely," I said, neglecting to say that my middle school years were filled with me desperately trying to learn magic from my dying Father. "We should do it some time."
Mitsuzuri coughed once and readjusted her sitting position, now sitting cross-legged in front of us. It was a compromising position for a girl with a skirt, even if it was knee length. She didn't seem to mind though. Of all the girls that I know, besides Fuji-nee maybe, I have never met a girl so unconscious of her femininity. While she never let herself look less than presentable, Mitsuzuri Ayako never seemed to acknowledge the fact that she was a really good looking girl. If I was bold, I might even call her beautiful. She was, really. I'm sane enough to acknowledge that, not that I dwell on it much. She rarely wore makeup, not that it would do much. She told me once that she considered a beautiful girl to be one that practices martial arts. By her own definition, she's first class, but she must have been making a joke at her own expense. She's a member of the Archery club, so naturally she's tough. Hell, she could probably beat half the school in an arm wrestling match. If she thought that made her undesirable, she was wro-
Why was I even thinking about this? Just because she sat strangely? Was I an idiot, a pervert? Both? What the hell, Shirou? She's Mitsuzuri Ayako, your (self proclaimed) bro, she may have a slender figure and a pretty face, but that doesn't mean you're just allowed to think things like that! I continued to mentally beat myself as I smiled and nodded at her. She's just a friend. Even if she wasn't, I'd have no excuse to think such things.
"Anyway Emiya," she said. "You have some explaining to do."
I swallowed, already knowing what was coming. Tohsaka was looking at us with puzzlement, but I'm sure she would understand soon enough. "Yes?" I said.
"First," she said, pointing into the air like a detective, "explain why you were with a foreign girl yesterday. There was blood on your shirt, did you do something stupid?"
"Well. . ." I started to think. Anything would be a good excuse.
"She was an old friend of my dad's," I said, hoping Mitsuzuri would buy it. "She came back to Japan after a long time, not knowing he had died. I was just showing her around town."
"The blood on your shirt?" she asked.
"A misunderstanding on your part, Mitsuzuri," I replied. "I had torn my uniform, that's true, but the blood was actually ketchup. I spilt it at a restaurant."
I looked at her impassively, hoping that she would take the bait. She nodded. "Very well," she said. "Tell me Emiya, how old was that girl?"
Huh? I stammered as I said, "W-well I'm not sure."
"She's good looking," continued Mitsuzuri with a nod. "If she's not too old for you, you should go for it."
I raised my hands to stop her, "Easy Mitsuzuri," I said, "It's embarrassing to say such a thing."
She laughed. "I'm just saying it would be good for you Emiya! Maybe you wouldn't be so tense if you went on a date every once in a while! Heck! You had lunch with Tohsaka today, maybe you should go out with her?"
"Oh?" said Tohsaka with an evil grin. "Maybe you should take Emiya-kun out. I'm sure you'd both enjoy it."
Mitsuzuri looked away suddenly. Was it bad that I hoped she was blushing? Fat chance of that. "I don't think so," she said, but then stopped herself and looked at me with wide eyes. "Sorry Emiya, it's not that you aren't cool or anything, it's that Tohsaka and I have a bet. I can't afford to go out half-cocked."
"A bet?" I said. What did that mean? I wondered.
"Ah, you wouldn't know about it, would you Emiya-kun?" said Tohsaka dismissively. "Mitsuzuri-san and I have a bet concerning which of us will get boyfriends first."
"Tohsaka, you shouldn't tell him," protested Mitsuzuri. "It would be bad for both of us."
"Why?" asked Tohsaka, "Were you really planning on going after him? He's way too dense to catch any hints, you'd have to tell him straight out. You are the kind of girl who'd ask a guy out though."
"I'm sitting right here," I said, waving at the two girls. "I can hear every word your saying."
It was amazing. For all the skill Mitsuzuri had at manipulating words, she was an amateur compared to Tohsaka. I had a feeling that Tohsaka had a power limited like you see in shonen manga. With the limiter on, she and Mitsuzuri were about equal, but when Tohsaka went all out, Mitsuzuri didn't have a chance. She sat in front of us, trying to hide the red that was slowly taking over her face. To be perfectly honest, I was glad to see her on the back foot like this; it just proved that her outer shell could be broken down.
"Emiya, forget everything she just said!" said Mitsuzuri hurriedly. "She's making fun of both of us!"
"You really are planning on going after Emiya-kun, aren't you?" teased Tohsaka.
"No!" Mitsuzuri said. "Sorry Emiya, you're cool, and you'll make an awesome husband to somebody, but that's not what this is about. It was supposed to be a secret bet! If word gets out, what's the point?"
"I get it," I said with a shake of the head, "Don't worry, I won't tell anyone."
Tohsaka was giggling as Mitsuzuri nodded, satisfied. Honestly, what was the outcome of the bet anyway? I considered asking, but decided against it. Knowing would be troublesome. In any case, it was easy to see why Mitsuzuri was eager to keep the contest secret. If word got out that Tohsaka and her were looking for boyfriends, Miss Perfect would have a lot more suitors. It was sad, but that's the way it was.
"Don't give up, Mitsuzuri," I said, "Don't think for a second that you can't beat Tohsaka."
"I never thought otherwise," said Mitsuzuri smugly. She crossed her arms and smiled at Tohsaka, anything but discouraged. "I'm going to get a boyfriend that will make Tohsaka quake with jealousy."
I expected some snarky reply from the girl at my side, but she was silent. The twin-tailed girl just smiled at the scene. Despite their bickering, I could tell that they were friends. This contest wouldn't ruin that relationship. In fact, I had the sneaking suspicion that it just improved it.
The bell rang, signaling the end of lunch and the beginning of afternoon classes. Tohsaka stood, brushing off the back of her skirt and looked down at me.
"I'll be in touch Emiya-kun," she said as she walked away. She didn't look back, even as she disappeared from view. When that girl has her mind set on something, even the most trivial thing in the world, she doesn't give anyone else a moment's thought. I sighed quietly and shook my head.
"What's the matter?" asked Mitsuzuri. She was getting ready to leave as well, but didn't want to leave me alone.
"Nothing," I said as I climbed to my feet. "That girl is just hard to believe sometimes."
I reached a hand down to her and after a moment she accepted with her right, pulling down on me as she climbed to her feet. It was tough with calluses, but still slender and cool to the touch. We held our grips what seemed like a minute, but was probably not more than ten seconds. We broke apart simultaneously, coughing discreetly as we avoided looking each other in the eyes. The atmosphere had become very awkward all of a sudden, and I didn't want to be the one to break the silence.
"Well," she began. "When do you want me to come over?"
"Excuse me?" I asked, legitimately confused.
She shook her head. "Moron, Berserk! Weren't we going to read manga together? Don't tell me you forgot already!"
"Oh yeah!" I said, backpedaling. "Sure. Let's do it sometime this week."
Oh damn it, I forgot. There's a War going on. But before I could correct myself, Mitsuzuri said, "Sounds good. I'll bring my stuff to school and we can walk home together afterwards!"
"Y-yeah," I replied weakly. "My house I assume?"
"Of course," she said with a smile. "There's no way I'm going to pass up a chance to have you cook for me."
"You're so direct about it," I said. "That's fine. I'm happy to do it."
"Ok, I'll look forward to it! How about the day after tomorrow?"
"Wednesday?" I wondered. I didn't know how long the Holy Grail War was going to last. It was probably better to get it over with sooner. If I died, she'd probably get mad at me. "Yeah, I guess that's fine."
"Cool," she said as she ran towards the stairway, "I'll see you around Emiya!"
I didn't follower her immediately, even though I knew that if I didn't I'd be late for class. Something held me back, and even the threat of Fuji-nee's wrath wouldn't force my feet into motion. It had become all too apparent to me in the last fifteen minutes. It was something that I had never expected or even thought was possible.
I had become aware of Mitsuzuri Ayako. I'm not sure if I became aware of her in the last ten minutes, or if I just realized it right now, but when she had turned away from me, it wasn't as a friend or a classmate. I saw her as a woman. I'm sure that the very thought of me seeing her that way would make her angry, but that was that, and there was nothing I could do about it.
It wasn't love, I knew that at least. It was more of a lingering affection for her. She was a really good friend, and maybe until now I didn't realize how little I knew that. These past few days the two of us had spent more time together than in all the last two years.
Whether it was love or not didn't matter though. Mitsuzuri Ayako was not involved in the Holy Grail War. That was what mattered If I had my way, she would remain blissfully ignorant of the whole thing. She's too good a person to be caught up in this horrible thing. She had smiled at me a few minutes ago, looking forward to coming over to my house. I knew at that moment that my goal had changed ever so slightly. She should be allowed to keep that smile. No noncombatant should become involved, certainly not like ten years ago. If I was already committed to preventing another catastrophe like that, my resolve had doubled.
When I had thought of the people that I could protect last night, Issei and Sakura had been the ones that had come to mind. They were the faces of the normal people hiding behind the curtain of secrecy that covered this Holy Grail War. Now it was Mitsuzuri. When I closed my eyes, it was her face that I saw. If I could keep her safe, away from the violence and bloodshed that this Holy Grail War was sure to bring, I would be one step closer to my goal. I would never let something like that fire happen again. The idea that Mitsuzuri or anyone else could suffer like I did made my blood boil.
I exhaled deeply and looked up at the sky. Rain clouds were beginning to form, and I realized that this might have been the last moment of peace I would have in this life. I closed my eyes as a few drops of water hit my face and her face came to mind, unbidden. It troubled me, but in a way I was ok with that. Putting a face to the people I wanted to protect gave me focus. I would never let anything hurt that smile.
Author's Note: Yes, this was a slice of life chapter. I do apologize for not wanting to write tons and tons of violence in this story. Also, I've been trying to focus a lot more on the romance aspect. Poor Shirou's in denial. I always felt that the romance in the VN itself was fairly lackluster. While the conclusions were good, I never enjoyed the buildup, mainly because of scenes that involved deus sex machina if you'll forgive the horrible pun. For those that care, my next task is to write the next chapter of Gilgamesh Tries his Hand at. If you have anything to say, good bad or neutral, I'd be happy to read it. Until next time.