Fate/Reach Out

Chapter 23: What is a Bond?


-May 4th, Fuyuki Train Station, Afternoon-

Nanako had spent all day peering out the side windows, watching as the scenery rolled by. On the first train ride she saw all of the green scenery, from the mountains to the field plains, and even a few tunnels that scared her at first going through them.

The young girl was so excited to get off the first train and see all the people in front of the station. She hadn't left Yasoinaba since before her mother died, let alone go to the park they always visited. In her excitement, Nanako had all but dragged Shirou and Dojima to the next train, with Taiga laughing behind.

In contrast to the amount of nature Nanako saw on the first train ride, she saw a lot of industrialization of the cities rolling by. Nearly every building had a sign of some sort advertising new phones or food, and she was really excited to see big videos play of Queloire Magic™ starring Risette. She was her favorite idol.

Maybe next time she could try Rise-chan's soda with some of Shirou's cooking. She was too shy to bring it up before, but she really liked her cousin's- no, her big bro's cooking. But he, dad, and Taiga were all sleeping because of the long trip and there was nothing else to do but wait. Nanako couldn't sleep even if she wanted to. She didn't want to miss the moment they arrived.

"Attention passengers, we are now approaching Fuyuki Station. I repeat, we are now approaching Fuyuki Station."

Nanako smiled, and started shaking the sleeping adult sitting next to her. "Dad, wake up! We're here, we're here!"

"Ugh… five more minutes," Dojima grumbled, but opened his eyes all the same. His drowsiness snapped away as soon as he looked out the window. "Whoa! And I thought Okina was packed!"

"Yeah!" said Nanako. "Everything's so big and white!"

From their side of the train, the Dojimas saw tall buildings with a metal sheen to them. Everything glowed in brilliant white from the towering buildings to the ground tiles below. And even at the speed they were going, there were so many people walking from all around, either heading for work or enjoying the week-long break.

It was a stark and overwhelming difference to Inaba.

"We're in the Shinto section now," Taiga explained, also roused up from the announcement. "Back in the 90's, the area east of Fuyuki was just a big wasteland before the local government pooled together for a redeveloping project. The idea was to turn the area into a thriving business district, and I think I speak for everyone to say that it's working. See that tall building over there? That's the city's Hyatt Hotel, new and improved. And just across the station is the shopping mall."

"Shopping mall?" Nanako asked.

"It's like Junes, but bigger," Shirou explained. Nanako beamed at the comparison.

It was here that the train finally came to a stop, allowing everyone to carry their bags out. Nanako dragged Shirou by the arm, giggling for every sight she pointed at. Her father was worried that they would be lost in the crowd because of the amount of people walking all around the plaza.

"Did the fire really happen here?" Dojima asked Taiga. From what he'd heard and read, that incident destroyed over a hundred buildings full of people, the radius equivalent to that of a large bomb. But what he saw held no evidence of past scars or tragedy.

Taiga smiled and waved dismissively. "Ah, it was years ago! Everyone here had plenty of time to rebuild everything here." Her smile faltered in worry. "Well, almost everything."

"Be careful, Nanako, or you'll hit-Ack!"

"Big bro?"

The two adults snapped their attention ahead and hurried past the crowd. Shirou was down on his rump, slightly dazed, while Nanako stood at her "brother's" side. Across from them was a young teen also down due to the collision, but shook it off quickly. Dojima's critical eye took note of his features: he was a short, young boy wearing a blue cap over his matching hair, nearly hiding his bluish gray eyes. His figure was lean and rather petite, wearing black slacks over blue shoes, a light blue shirt and a long yellow tie. Next to him was a small rolling suitcase, dropped and turned over since the collision.

"I apologize," the boy said, as he slightly adjusted the helm of his cap. His voice was surprisingly an octave deeper than Dojima would expect from a boy his size. "I was in a hurry to the train, and did not see you."

"No harm done," Shirou smiled as he pulled himself up. "I should apologize as well, on Nanako's behalf."

He meant it as teasing, because he didn't entirely mind getting dragged along the station. But Nanako turned to the blue-haired boy and bowed, taking responsibility. "I'm very sorry, mister."

The boy smiled softly. "Ah, well, it's quite all right… Nanako-chan, was it? Is this your first time in the city?"

At the boy's kindness, Nanako's smile returned. "Yeah! I came all the way from Inaba to visit!"

"As in Yasoinaba?" the boy asked. "I'm actually bound for a train there today."

"Really?"

"What's the occasion?" Dojima cut in, slightly tense.

"I recently finished some business in the city, and have no other clients at the moment. Until then, I hope to visit and spend some time with my grandfather."

Dojima relaxed at the explanation, but not completely. For years Inaba had been just a quiet town with nothing noteworthy about it, but the recent crime spree had drawn the media to it like bees to honey. The last thing his town needed was a bunch of tourists hounding for more unexplained murders like the first two victims.

"Clients?" Shirou blinked, giving the boy another appraisal. "You mean you work? But shouldn't you be in high school?"

The boy's eyes narrowed with annoyance under his cap. "Possibly, but further education is not something I have the leisure for. It would just get in the way, rather."

As the family mulled on his cryptic words, the station bell chimed for the 15th hour of the day. "Ah, I best hurry on then," the boy grabbed his case and hurried on. "Good day."

"Bye!" Nanako waved to the boy, and watched as he disappeared in the crowd of busy people.

"What a strange boy," Shirou said aloud.

"I don't know," Taiga coyly smiled. "He kinda reminded me of you."

"Don't be ridiculous, Fuji-nee."

"Polite, blunt, a workaholic-"

"Let's just hurry home," he lifted his bag and stormed ahead, not in the mood of being teased.

"But I want to go to the mall!" Nanako whined. It was the closest equivalent of her ever going to Junes.

"We still have our luggage to carry, Nanako," her father reminded. "We can sight-see tomorrow, after we get everything set at Shirou's place. That'll be fun, right?"

"You promise?"

"Of course," Dojima smiled. "I didn't break this one, haven't I?"


-Miyami Crossroads-

When they first arrived to Fuyuki City, Dojima expected Shirou's place to be at least within the urban area of Shinto. Nanako was happy to see more of the city as they walked by, including the Copenhagen bar where they were greeted by Taiga's friend and Shirou's boss. They were happy to see him again, as well as meeting his new "little sister" Nanako. Though a bar didn't sound like a good place for Nanako to be, Dojima wanted to try some of their liquor at least once before the week was over.

After saying their farewells, the quartet later crossed the bridge connecting the Shinto district to Miyami. He'd known that the two halves of Fuyuki were different, but it still baffled him to go from newly constructed buildings to old traditional ones. At first he felt right at home, and his daughter was just as mesmerized by the change of scenery.

But more little differences came up along their walk. The buildings were rustic enough for the area, but a number of them from the southern end were, for the lack of a better word, foreign. Their designs matched similar households from the west he saw on TV, built several stories high with large glass windows and door hinges that swung open instead of slid. Then as they progressively went closer north, the houses looked like more traditional, old style Japanese households from ages past.

The one out in front of them was actually a perfect example; there was a large gate fashioned with both wood and stone, covering the entire exterior, along with a healthy array of trees growing tall enough for the leaves to be seen. The gate itself had an impressive design of an arch-roof over the gateway, and it looked like no one had lived inside the residence for years. Well, it goes to show how well people take care of historic landmarks like-

"We're here! Casa de Emiya!"

Wait, what?

Dojima looked around the neighborhood, nearly in disbelief. But strangely enough, Taiga's cheer and arms were gestured towards the ancient house gate in front of them. Shirou dug out a key in his pocket and unlocked the door, and Nanako rushed ahead.

"Woooooow!"

Ryotaro Dojima found himself sharing his daughter's awe.

The house yard was just as big as he expected from the surrounding gate, if not more. He could see the main house in front of them. He could see engawa hallways stretching left to the entrance. He could see foliage of all kinds growing well enough without tending and just managed to give the right atmosphere to the area. It was as regal as expected from the entrance, and nothing short worthy of a feudal lord.

The cop turned to his nephew, an incredulous expression on his face. "You live here?"

"Why is that so surprising?" Taiga asked.

"I asked about the place he lived in before, and he said it wasn't much to look at. I assumed he meant it was a small house like mine, but he never told me it was an estate!"

The English teacher frowned disapprovingly. "That's just like you Shirou, taking everything in your life for granted. Did you really not want your relatives to visit?

"It's not like that," the teen protested. "I just didn't think they would appreciate so much space."

"Appreciate?" Dojima barked a laugh. "More like jealous! There's enough here to fit our house twice over! Why, if you wanted to, you could turn this place into an inn!"

"I doubt my dad would like that. See, Shirou was too young to inherit everything, let alone manage the household, so dad's the landlord that takes care of all of the financial stuff while I take the face of Shirou's legal guardian."

"So it was just you here?" Nanako asked her cousin.

"And me sometimes," Taiga answered for him. "And Sakura-chan, his kouhai."

Nanako turned to Taiga. "Do you live here?"

"Well, sort of. We just visit daily for breakfast and dinner on school days."

"But do you sleep over?"

Taiga scowled. "Of course not! The last thing I need is for rumors circulating about me be-uh… being in the same house as a high school student!" It looked like she had to hold herself back; Nanako was a little girl and shouldn't know about male sexual hormones and the phrase that sounded suspiciously close to "bedding a student".

But Nanako still frowned. "So you don't live here."

It was something disarming about the simplicity of a child's direction of inquiry. It was not quite like a detective's, but pretty damn close. So it wasn't a surprise that Taiga was taken aback and could only answer "Well, no."

The six year old looked at the house again, without the excited bewilderment. When she glanced back to Shirou, a frown had grown over her face. "That sounds lonely."

A minute passed since her epiphany, and the courtyard winds never sounded as loud as they did then.

Shirou broke the silence with a smile and patted her shoulder. "It's fine Nanako. I know the house looks big, but it's nice once you get used to it. I see Fuji-nee almost every day, and I like the private moments to myself at night, so it's not as lonely as you would think."

Nanako didn't look convinced, but nodded all the same. Shirou then held her hand and guided her into the house. Dojima followed suit, wondering just what kind of life led his nephew to be so independent and carefree about everything.

He then turned back to Taiga, who had been stiff as a board for some time now. "Coming?"

"Huh?" she blinked, suddenly aware of everyone heading inside. "Oh, uh, yes! Yes, I'm coming in!" She rushed in with her luggage before Dojima could further question what was wrong.


-Emiya Residence-

Upon entering and slipping their shoes off, the quartet were quickly assaulted by a flood of smells. "Hmm? What's cooking?" asked Dojima.

Shirou and Taiga, while having their suspicions, were honestly surprised to arrive home to the scent of food. Leading Ryotaro and Nanako down the corridor, they came around a corner and found a guest cooking in the kitchen.

She was a young girl with shoulder-long purple hair and a ribbon braided close to her left ear. She looked just a year shy from Shirou's age, still happily humming and swaying her purple hair slightly in her wake. Her choice of clothing was simple yet elegant; an open pink jacket over a white blouse and tannish yellow skirt reaching down to her ankles. Of course, she wore a pink apron as well over her clothes, and showed surprising focus all over the kitchen counter. She was just in the middle of turning to the next task when her purple eyes caught sight of them.

"O-oh! Senpai!" she stuttered. Her face portrayed a flurry of emotions, too quick for even Dojima to catch all of them, before she bowed in apparent shame. "I'm very sorry. I hoped to have finished preparing dinner before you arrived as a surprise."

"You knew I was coming?" Shirou asked.

"Fujimura-sensei told me," the girl nodded. "I know it's only as long as the weekend, but, I'm really glad to see you again, senpai."

Shirou blinked, and then smiled at her. "I'm glad to see you too, Sakura."

The young school girl blushed and averted her gaze. Dojima cracked a smile but decided from commenting; he didn't want to embarrass the poor girl any further with what he thought was a reunion between dating students.

Taiga coughed very unsubtly, directing the attention to her. "Sakura, as you recall, this is the Dojima family, Ryotaro and his daughter Nanako-chan. Dojima-san and Nanako-chan, this is Sakura Matou, a fellow student at the high school just up the hill from here."

"A pleasure," Dojima greeted with a hand wave, to which Sakura nodded.

"Oh!" said Nanako. "You're the other person that sort-of lives here."

"Uh, yes," replied Sakura. "And you must be senpai's cousin."

"Uh uh! I'm his sister."

"What?"

Nanako latched her arm around his hand, beaming. "Shirou-nii is my big bro now!"

If Sakura was confused before, she was clearly bewildered at the young girl's words. Sakura's expression soon hardened to a slight frown as if scolding her. "Nanako-chan, you really mustn't say things that aren't true."

"It's all right, Sakura," said Shirou. "I actually don't mind being called her brother."

"Big brother!" Nanako smiled wider.

Dojima scratched the back of his head sheepishly. "To be honest, it took me a while to get used to the idea of still having a nephew around, but if calling him her brother makes Nanako happy, I'm not complaining."

Sakura's frown grew. "I… I see." Remembering her dinner, Sakura resumed cooking, conveniently turning her head away from the others. "Everything should be ready in a few minutes," she said. "Just remain seated until it's done. You too, senpai."

After leaving their bags and suitcases at the corner, Taiga led the Dojima's to the foot-high table across the room. It was another traditional throwback where the people would sit or kneel on pillows while eating the food within reach of the small table. As Taiga left to fetch more pillows, Shirou, having started walking over to help cook, was caught knowingly by Sakura even before she finished her instructions. Honestly, the covert magus was more than a little miffed of being denied the kitchen. "But I can help, Sakura-"

"There isn't much left to prepare, and this was a welcome home dinner meant for you and the Dojimas," she smiled condescendingly. "This is a time for you to relax, senpai."

"But cooking helps me relax," her upperclassman weakly argued. "At least let me carry some food over-"

Taiga chose this moment to grab him by the shirt and pull him back to the table. "You heard her; let your protégé handle this."

"Protégé?" Dojima asked from his side of the table as Taiga put his and Nanako's pillows down on the same side.

"Oh, you didn't know?" Taiga smiled as she settled down. "Shirou's always been our head cook, even when Kiritsugu was still around. When Sakura started coming over, she just started learning from him and has been assisting him for almost a year straight! She's good enough to either help out make the same meals to Shirou's level, or even make Western meals that Shirou can't even compare to! No offense, Shirou."

"None taken," he smiled. "It really is Sakura's specialty. But I'm surprised you're trying traditional Japanese food. Is it udon?"

"Nabeyaki udon," Sakura answered. "I'm making enough for everyone, along with some tempura and white rice."

"Five nabeyakis?" Dojima blinked. "That certainly is a lot of food."

"We usually have more and prepare a full table spread full of side dishes and everything," Taiga pouted. "But we sort of learned not to be so picky since Shirou moved out."

"Wow, you're amazing, Shirou-nii!" Nanako smiled. "I want to be a protégé!"

"I'd be more than happy to teach you what I know."

"Can Sakura-chan teach me too?"

Sakura stopped and stared at the young girl sitting. "Eh?"

Nanako turned to her, still smiling. "I want to be the best cook I can be, so I want to be your protégé too!"

"I-I'm not that amazing," Sakura blushed, resuming her work on boiling the tempura. "All I learned was from senpai, after all."

"But you're still amazing to learn so much from him!"

As she thought about it, Sakura smiled softly at the earnest praise. "Yes… I suppose I am."

Minutes later, dinner was finally prepared in the form of five hot soup bowls, along with condiments and a bowl of rice. Dinner in the Emiya house was livelier than it had been for a while, and the Dojimas were still awed at the house itself. For a while, it was quiet as everyone gathered their bearings, Ryotaro turned to his nephew with the starting conversation.

"Say, Shirou, mind if I ask you something?"

"What is it?" Shirou asked before taking a bite of his fried shrimp.

"You aren't involved with any strange business in Inaba, are you?"

Suddenly, the mood grew very tense at the dinner table. Shirou in particular gulped quite literally in slight anxiety. Everyone else looked on with varying levels of confusion and worry. "What makes you say that?" he asked, as nonchalant as possible.

"I just can't stop thinking about what happened at the station the other day," the cop admitted. "Maybe it was just coincidence, but… is there something you're not telling me?"

"Senpai?" / "Dad?" / "Shirou, what is he talking about?"

Shirou tried to smile and brush it aside. "Oh, nothing serious-"

"He was arrested." Dojima deadpanned.

"What?!" all the females were startled in surprise.

"Senpai, is it true?!" / "Dad, when did this happen?" / "You didn't say anything about this on the phone!"

"Everyone, calm down!" shouted Shirou. "It was just a misunderstanding because Yosuke brought fake weapons to Junes and caused a scare. That's it!"

Taiga's eyes narrowed. "So what, you took the fall for him so he could get out of punishment?"

"Excuse me?"

"Nothing like that," Dojima shook his head. "He and Chie Satonaka were arrested as well along with Yosuke Hanamura. From what I recall on the report, they resisted arrest when the cop approached Hanamura."

The red haired magus bit back a growl of frustration. "We were only trying to make him let go of the weapons because he kept waving them around and running his mouth."

"You were all lucky I was there else it would have been on your permanent record," Dojima reminded, more so to ease the other's concerns. "But that's beside the point. I've also heard that you've been hanging around at the electronics store lately. That hardly sounds like a place high school students hang out."

Shirou fought back the urge to grimace. He'd forgotten that Junes still had patrolling police officers that would see them wander around, and most likely hear their conversations if close by. "I… was helping someone with a favor. I still am, actually." It was as close to the truth as possible, as he was helping Teddie save his world, but he couldn't begin to explain the context even if he wanted to.

"You were helping someone again?" Taiga droned. "Were you doing their jobs too while they went on break? Or did this 'Yosuke' string you along like Shinji always does?"

"Yosuke's my friend. He would never do that!"

"Are you sure?"

Shirou opened his mouth ready to snap back at her that he was absolutely positive what happened with Shinji wouldn't happen with Yosuke. But he stopped, recalling the time he met Shadow Yosuke, and the secret the real Yosuke hid inside himself.

"He may be a hotshot city boy, but he's such a chump! An all-around nice guy, doing favors for others with no strings attached because he believes in helping others like a good little boy scout. Who else would take the time to fix someone's bike like that? Seriously! You had him pegged for a sucker the moment he helped you. And if that wasn't good enough, you found out he was a friggin' wizard! Not some poser birthday magician, but the real deal! You latched onto him like a leech after that!"

"She doesn't know what she's talking about. Yosuke apologized for that and is helping you, really!"

Though Pixie was meant to reassure him, commentary from a Persona was the last thing he needed. To him, making Social Links for strength was the same as using others to finish errands. He had welcomed being "strung along" before because he helped others out of mutual benefit, but the same couldn't be said with misusing one's bond for power. It made him feel like a hypocrite.

"Whatever," he weakly mumbled. He didn't want to admit that he had been wrong, that Yosuke already had strung him along, let alone that he had done so as well. "Even if that is the case, as long as Yosuke benefits from it, it all works out, right?"

"Thou must not lie to thy self." It took all of Shirou's self-control not to react to Izanagi's voice. Because of his building rage or being startled by his random insight, he wasn't sure.

Taiga stared at him for a moment longer before sighing in defeat. "I swear you're always like this. I don't know if you're really that charitable or just gullible."

Shirou chose not to comment and continue eating his soba, trying to enjoy the flavors. Both Taiga and Dojima stared at Shirou with a mix of concern and disappointment at his behavior, while Nanako quietly stared at her plate since the start of the arguing.

Deciding to change the topic, Sakura cleared her throat before speaking. "Fujimura-sensei? What do you mean that senpai's 'always like this'?"

"Oh, you know," the brown haired woman huffed. "As a kid, he had this strong hero complex to help out anyone in need. Little girls getting picked on, doing chores around the house, you name it. He even wrote an essay talking all about growing up to being a super hero, or 'Ally of Justice' as he likes to call himself."

Sakura and Nanako both turned to Shirou with admiration in their eyes. "Wow, you must have been quite the child, senpai," Sakura said.

"I wrote that essay a long time ago," he said evenly between bites.

"Too long if you ask me," Taiga sighed. "What ever happened to that cute and innocent boy, I wonder?"

Shirou was about ready to snap. It was one thing to get heckled about the murder case of Inaba, but on top of that was Taiga's own interrogation and passive insulting of his goals was enough to get him riled up. If it was either/or on their own, he might have gotten through the night without incident. But he just felt so mad that he opened his mouth to say-

"Why are you picking on Shirou-nii?"

Nothing. Those weren't exactly the choice words Shirou would think to say, but they helped diffuse whatever rage he had pent up.

Everyone stopped and stared at Nanako, having an unusually stern frown on her cute face. Ryotaro recovered first to try and console with his daughter. "Nanako, we aren't picking-"

"This isn't the police station," she cut him off, making him feel awkward. "He's not in any more trouble, is he?"

"W-well, no-"

Ignoring her fumbling father, she then turned to Taiga with the same disarming frown. "And what's wrong with wanting to be a super hero?"

"W-well, it's certainly cute to dream that at your age, Nanako-chan," Taiga explained. "But Shirou's a high school student, only a few years away from college, and if he keeps going on about this, people are going to end up thinking he's weird!"

"You're the weird one."

Nanako's four words had an immediate effect on Taiga, the young woman turning frigid as solid stone with a frozen dumbfounded expression and gaping jaw. But the six year old wasn't done. "You leave Shirou-nii every night to take care of himself alone, even after his dad's gone. And instead of thanking him or being proud that he's helping people, you're making fun of him. How would you feel if you did something good but were made fun of for it?"

Nanako then turned to Shirou sitting across from her. Her lips curled up to the same infectious smile she had given him all day since accepting him as her brother. "Shirou-nii is cool because he helps out whoever needs it, just like the Phoenix Rangers. If anyone can be a hero, it's my big bro!"

Shirou stared at his cousin/sister with wide, disbelieving eyes. On the one hand, it was just a little girl's scope of understanding from someone she didn't know nearly as long as Taiga Fujimura. Fuji-nee definitely had his best interests at heart, else he'd never knew the Dojimas existed. But she was prone to acting immature to the point that Shirou learned to ignore her rather than argue. Dojima-san as well had good reason to be concerned about his actions, as not only a police detective but as an uncle.

On the other, Nanako had vouched for is case in a one-sided argument. As much as he knew Sakura respected him, she always took Fuji-nee's side, or at the very least stayed neutral. Nanako spoke without hesitation that she felt Shirou was in the right, that it was cool to be a hero.

And she believed he could do it.

The shock was too great for him to even speak, let alone thank her for the rare show of rapport for what he felt was to be his most important duty. So instead, he smiled and nodded at her, for agreement and thanks.

He was glad to have met his cousin-no, his little sister.

Again his senses dimmed, signifying the bond made with Nanako. The tarot card that appeared this time was a downward sword, almost entirely black save for the left white blade edge in contrast to the right black edge. The sword was fashioned like a set of scales, with the chains holding it by the hilt and two weights balanced and hooked by the guard. The sword was right between two different colored backgrounds, red on the left side and white on the right.

Thou art I, and I am thou.
Thou hast established a new bond.
It shall bring thee closer to the truth.
Thou shalt be blessed by Personae of the Justice Arcana.

When his senses returned, Shirou quickly resumed eating to hide his growing frown. This just now… this was a mistake. The last person he wanted to start a Social Link with was Nanako. But he also didn't want to upset her just when she was starting to smile more. He would need to tread time spent with her carefully; enough to make sure she knew he cared without exploiting too much for the power of their bond.

Taiga soon broke out of her stupor, almost on the verge of tears. "That's mean, Nanako-chan! I do so care about how Shirou grows, and that's why I'm always so strict with him!"

"It would help if you had the integrity to match," Shirou quipped, catching sight of a rolled up poster on the floor. "You could start by cleaning up the house more when I'm not around. It's a bad habit to liter in a household."

"I do clean up after myself!" Taiga huffed, before mumbling softly, "Sometimes." She shook her head defiantly as she reached over to the posters Shirou had indicated. "As a matter of fact, I've been meaning to give this to you. It might liven up the décor of your room a bit."

Curious, the magus took the poster at hand and unrolled it. He expected it to show an idol like Risette, but instead he saw a military man posing with his thumbs up in front of cheap-blue colored sky as the backdrop. In blood red letters, the message read over the man: "Love's Lovely Ranger Land. Please join the Special Defense Force."

Shirou's eye twitched. An army recruitment poster? Surely his guardian wasn't serious with this piece of junk, was she?

"Such distasteful use of blood red font," The Duke of Hell chastised. "If mortals want to glorify war, they should either use none of the blood or all of it."

The twitching increased. "You can't be serious," he droned, partly at Taiga's choice of décor, and partly at Eligor's mental comment.

"Well, I certainly don't want it," Taiga smiled without shame. "So it's all yours!"

"As if I want something so degrading," he scowled as he rolled the poster back up. As punishment, he stood up from his seat and swung the poster down at his still grinning teacher. Everyone else present gasped at his sudden act of violence.

But Taiga gave a cat-like smile and deftly leaped away before the poster could strike her head. She skidded to a stop, positioned herself directly at Shirou's side, and pulled her own poster: one with a metal sheen to it.

An extraordinary thing happened that night. For all his years sparing with Taiga, an unofficial kendo champion, Shirou had never beaten her once, let alone caught up to her staggering speed and unforgiving strength. But in the span of a few seconds, he caught her ready to strike at his exposed side, and had enough momentum in his last strike to roll forward and avoid her own.

He recovered past Taiga's spot at the table and turned, ready to parry for his life as if fighting Shadows once more-

When he heard the unmistakable sound of metal striking bone.

The room was silent. Everyone's eyes were fixated toward the center of the table. Taiga, her arms outstretched with the poster at hand as it's opposite end rested on Ryotaro's head… after coming down full force. The Dojima patriarch was stunned, confused, and conscious for a few seconds more, his jaw dropped and spilling his chewed contents of noodles, mushrooms and carrots in soup. Then his eyes rolled to the back of his head and he fell down to his side.

Immediately Nanako and Sakura knelt to his side. "Dad!" "Dojima-san!"

"Fuji-nee, what did you do?!"

"I don't know! I mean, my strike was pretty hard, but it shouldn't have hurt so much unless-" Taiga's face paled considerably. "Uh oh."

"What's wrong, Fujimura-sensei?"

"Well, the thing is, this is a special first-edition poster, so it's made from sheet metal; technically from a steel plate."

"You used steel sheet metal?!"

"Dad, are you okay?! Wake up!"


-Inaba Shopping District, Evening-

"Sheet metal?" Yosuke asked incredulously, but smiled at the amusement of the story. "Damn, that guardian of yours sounds like a monster."

"There's a reason why Fuji-nee's ranked 5-dan in Kendo," Shirou sighed on his line. "She'd be even higher if she just remembered to take off the strap off her shinai during tournaments. I'm just glad Dojima-san wasn't hurt too badly."

"It's a shame she doesn't know anything about Personas or Magecraft. We could really use someone with her skill fighting Shadows."

"I prefer it this way. The last thing I need is to worry about the people close to me getting in mortal danger." Yosuke almost saw fit to interject when Shirou quickly added, "Without the means to protect themselves, of course."

"Of course."

It was sometime after dinner when Shirou suddenly called Yosuke. Not that the headphone-clad teen minded, as his first day of Golden Week had sucked; he'd had to work at Junes all day. He needed to unwind by taking a night stroll of the town, just outside the town shrine. But talking to Shirou was a much needed stress relief. In truth, he was also pretty excited to hear how his friend was doing back at Fuyuki City; he secretly envied that he got to breathe the city air again.

If Yosuke's shift had ended earlier, he could do the same thing at Okina City a train ride over.

But there was one thing he wanted to especially talk with Shirou about. Ever since the whole castle adventure, he'd noticed that Chie Satonaka and Yukiko Amagi would spend a lot more time together than they did at the start of the year. Or rather, since he had known them when moving in as a first year student. It was quite amazing that after their heart to heart talks and what their own Shadows hid from one another, that they were able to overlook those differences and rekindle that friendship.

Deep down, he was jealous of them. Even from the start, they had each other. But maybe he could try to get some of that closeness as a boyfriend?

Thinking it over, either Amagi or Satonaka would make pretty cool girlfriends. Amagi was obvious as the pretty, Yamato Nadeshiko type. She also had a bit of a secret escapist fantasy from Inaba that he could more than relate to, but she was surrounded by so many admirers that it was no wonder she was especially picky on who she should pay attention to or not. Satonaka was the fun tomboy, who he saw more as a fun friend to tease around and a sort of Plan B girl. Between fighting together in Teddie's world and fighting her Shadow, he had more respect for her for sure, aside from her falling for the oblivious Shirou and being oblivious to Koh.

He was thinking about asking Shirou's opinion on either girl, for a start. Maybe he could tell him something new that he didn't catch before, or admit he liked either one of them or neither of them. It would at least make things less awkward if he tried asking out the same girl Shirou was seeing and getting caught in a love triangle.

"Say, can I ask you some-what?" "Say, can I ask you some-what?"

The moment Yosuke spoke, Shirou asked the same question word for word. "Whoa, that was weird."

"You have something to ask too?"

"Yeah, but you can go first," the teen shrugged. His question wasn't all that serious, and he doubted that Shirou's was either.

"Okay," he said, before exhaling his breath as if to calm his nerves. "Yosuke… we're friends, right?"

Yosuke stopped walking and stared at his phone incredulously. "Dude, after all the shit we went through facing Shadows? Of course we are! What kind of question was that?"

"I know, I know, but-… you know what, it's nothing. Forget it."

Yosuke almost considered dropping the matter, but something in Shirou's tone got him worried. This wasn't like him at all. "Shirou, what's wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong. I just asked a stupid question."

"Obviously," he rolled his eyes. "But maybe you wouldn't have asked it in the first place if you weren't feeling unsure for whatever reason."

Shirou's line was nearly silent save for the tense breathing. Whatever he was thinking, it was really stressing him out for some reason.

Then he sighed. "I'm just not sure if I deserve to be your friend."

"What are you talking about?" Yosuke said. Shirou had done so much since he moved over: fixed his bike, kept calm in their first TV world visit, saved them all more times than he could count, and then there's the fact that he's a flipping wizard! If anything, he wasn't worthy of having such a guy as a friend.

"Remember the day after Amagi-san disappeared? When after we left Daidara's-"

"And that you saw the only 'glowing' door?"

"Yeah. I told you before that the people behind that door were benefactors for the murder case, but I'd never met them prior to Inaba. As for the help they gave me, well… it was telling me more about how to control my Persona powers, mostly through Social Links."

Yosuke stayed quiet on his end as Shirou explained in further detail what it was. How that he was called the Wild Card as the reason why he could also summon Pixie and Eligor and theoretically many others on top of Izanagi. How Personas seemed to be aligned to the Major Arcana of Tarot, and that Pixie as the Magician acted as a sort of mental guide to whenever they had conversations together. He also noted that Shirou seemed to put a negative spin on it, as the Personas grew stronger the more he knew someone.

At the end of it, Yosuke only smiled amusingly to fight back the roar of laughter. Of all the bombshells he'd expected his friend to drop this one was not only rather tame but sort of fit his omniscient magician status. "That's it?"

There was a short pause of silence, possibly in disbelief. "What do you mean 'that's it'?" The magus nearly snapped.

"Personally, I'm a little jealous of your whole package deal," he admitted with a shrug. "I mean, you have a fairy and a duke and a God pretty much telling you what to say or not say, score some easy brownie points with people as long as you're trying to be friendly with them. That kind of thing would make getting a girlfriend as easy as hell. Not to mention you could get stronger by mingling without having to risk fighting Shadows all the time."

"Yosuke, you're missing the point," Shirou stressed. "Say you had this power, and you used it to get closer to Satonaka. Your Chariot Persona would resonate with her, telling you what she feels and be a clue as to what to say to make her happy, and get closer to her. Then when the bond is strong enough, you go to the next person, like Amagi-san, and use a new Persona all over again."

And maybe decide if she's girlfriend material or not, thought Yosuke.

"I did some reading, and if Social Links are really represented by the Major Arcana, then that means you could link with 22 different people representing an Arcana, not counting Thoth or Hermetic equivalents. So, if you want to make Links with all 22 people, what do you do?"

Yosuke smiled. "I get their respective Personas and then tell them exactly what they want to hear." It took him a moment later to realize what he just said, and his eyes widened in realization."Oooooooh."

It suddenly made sense why Shirou was nervous about Social Links. As awesome it was to instantly, fully empathize with anyone you could ever want, that kind of power could go straight to someone's head. As the old English proverb goes, "Absolute power corrupts absolutely", and being given power over making bonds is bound to lead some abusing of them. Shirou being afraid of such a thing was a very likely possibility.

But Shirou's a nice guy. A little dense and hides a bit of a smart mouth, but overall a nice guy.

"Well, all the more reason you have that Wild Card thing then," Yosuke quickly replied. "I mean, the fact you even told me this proves- wait, why did you tell me?"

"Because I'm not sure if our friendship is real or just a result of the Wild Card."

The Junes employee was flabbergasted. On the one hand, he could see that the Wild Card ability was not as cracked up to be as he first thought. On the other, he'd just admitted that he didn't know if their friendship was real. After all the fighting and risks they made, and just hanging out between breaks from the case-

"Well, what about one of your other friends?" Yosuke asked. "Before you came to Inaba. Maybe you can base your experience with them as to how to go about this. Oh, and they have to be guys."

"Well, there's Issei Ryuudou. He's the student council president of our school here, and usually enlists me to help repair appliances to save on the school budget. And Shinji Matou… we used to be close but not so much."

"Because of the move?" Yosuke guessed.

"Because he would hit his sister hard enough to leave bruises."

"What? Why?!"

"Because he 'felt like it'," Shirou explained, as if rolling his eyes with the quotes.

"…please tell me you punched the bastard for that."

"And I haven't regretted it since."

Yosuke smiled in relief. "'atta boy."

Still, he had hoped that if Shirou had a close friend back home, he could try to use that as an example of how being a friend feels like. Considering one used him as a personal janitor and one ended in a fight, that plan was a bust. Perhaps he could use his experience as an example?

He liked the guys he hung out with; they got along well and had fun hanging out, but he couldn't remember what they would do or talk about to this day. The only one who still texted him from time to time was Katsuragi, and the only time they talked one-on-one was the day he was moving to Inaba. It always felt awkward texting him back, and he felt pretty ashamed of his boring first year that he didn't show him any pictures of Inaba, let alone himself or all the "friends and girls" he bragged about.

Were they all friends or just acquaintances? Was Katsuragi really a friend?

In his musing, he barely heard Shirou talk back on the phone. "I-I'm sorry, what was that?"

"You remind me of him. Shinji, I mean."

Ah. That… was both touching and depressing.

"Shinji was always irritable. He's smart, and not above bragging about that, or his archery skills. He always spoke rudely to anyone and everyone; he could give Morooka-sensei a run for his money lambasting someone. And that was when his short temper didn't flare up."

Yosuke's frown grew the more he heard about Shinji. How the hell was he the one that reminded Shirou of a guy who could literally pass of as a Prince Moron?!

"And yet… for all the time I've known him, he was honest. Sarcastic, and a bit stuck up, but honest. He was someone I knew to count on and was glad to be friends with. And when I think about how I met you, fighting Shadows and working together on this case, it feels like Shinji's… that Shinji and I are friends again."

The sound of chirping crickets filled the town in its harmony. His rage at being compared to King Moron evaporated at the height of realization. Shirou had lost a friend before Inaba. He may not regret his actions that led to their fallout, but he did regret not having the chance to keep it. Maybe he was scared of going through that all over again; more so that there was a promise of power involved. Or maybe he felt he was betraying this Shinji guy for making friends with him instead, and didn't like the fact he was being rewarded for it.

Honestly, the talk was confusing enough with the Personas being mixed into it, but he did know that his friend needed some comfort and reassurance. That part was easy to understand.

"…So you thought you were friends, and things didn't work out," he said finally. "Trust me, it sucks. It happens to the best of us. None of the guys I knew from before Inaba really stuck out for me either. But I can assure that this bond thing? On my end, it's real. Pure, raw, really realness. I already explained why the day we decided to work together, and I meant it. I'm not sure if this helps you with your Poker Face whatever, but it's the truth."

For a minute, he heard nothing back, then a heavy sigh. He didn't know how, but he could just tell he'd said the right words and that his friend was very much relieved. "Thanks, Yosuke."

"Anytime," he smiled. "See you when you get back."

He clicked his phone off, and continued down the night-lit sidewalk with a slight lighter step. He had promised his parents he would be back before curfew, which was set an hour earlier to avoid run-ins with the mad serial killer. His thoughts, however, lingered more on how he could be a better friend to his peers. In fact, Katsuragi deserved at least a picture of his newly budding circle to let him know he was doing well; he was the only one of his old friends that cared to know how he was doing. The rest had probably forgotten about him, even his boast to score a harem of girlfriends flocking around-

Stopping dead in his thoughts and tracks, Yosuke blinked. And then he smacked his head in frustration. "Damn it! I forgot to ask what kind of girl he likes!"


-Emiya Residence, Evening-

Back home, Shirou set his phone down on the dresser top of his room. It was as bare as he had remembered, barely counting as a sleeping arrangement despite having a bed. The shed at the edge of the yard had always been his room, his sanctuary, his workshop. He had always snuck out late at night to his shed to train in secret, and the worst either Taiga or Sakura would assume was that he would be working on late night projects fixing appliances.

Technically it was true, but it was a white lie to cover his true intent of practicing magecraft.

Now was the perfect time; Taiga and Sakura had left for the night after dinner. Dojima and Nanako were sleeping in their appointed guest rooms; the former still out cold from a steel-plated poster to the skull, the latter was put to bed early to make up for her over-excited train ride. It has been weeks since he had made his last magic circuit, and he also had the chance to test the limits of his Persona powers outside Teddie's world. With only two nights' worth of work, there wasn't any time to lose, and nothing was going to distract him.

Save for a knock at the door.

Shirou flinched; he had just been moments away from opening the door and sneaking out to the shed; he really hoped it was Nanako and not her father or (heaven forbid) Fuji-nee coming for another interrogation.

"Big bro? Are you up?"

It was Nanako. "Thank God for small favors," he muttered to himself.

"Thou art welcome."

…was it just him or was his first Persona more vocal lately?

Shaking his head and opening the bedroom door, he saw Nanako standing before him in lavender pajamas and her hair let down. A large blue blanket was draped and folded over her hands, which were together in front of her chest. From her body posture and worried frown, his sister looked downright terrified.

"What's wrong, Nanako?" he asked, opening the door fully.

"I'm sorry to wake you, but…" she trailed off, looking to the floor nervously. "Can I sleep with Shirou-nii?"

The high schooler's face soon flushed to match his hair. "What?!"

"I'm sorry," she continued, not entirely realizing why he was startled. "But your house is so big and scary. I tried sleeping on my own, really, but I just can't get used to it."

It was natural for her to feel scared and intimidated. Honestly, Shirou had felt the same way growing up in the house. She just wanted to have some company to sleep with. Relieved that it was her true meaning, Shirou offered, "Would you like to sleep with your dad instead? I can lead you to his room if you'd like."

Nanako shook her head. "Dad's still hurt from dinner, so I don't want to bother him." Her eyes widened. "Oh! I'm not bothering you, am I?"

"No!" he said quickly. "No, no, of course not Nanako. I was just…"

He was torn; Nanako came to him with an obvious plea for help and comfort in an unfamiliar sleeping arrangement. But tonight might be the only night he could properly gauge his powers for the murder case mystery. Never had he come across a situation like this before, a choice that actually came in direct conflict with both his moral obligation to help anyone in need and his magecraft training.

…but the dilemma was short-lived. Magecraft could wait; he would always extend help to others first.

"Sure Nanako," he smiled. "You can sleep with me tonight."

Seeing the relief in her face and how excitedly she ran inside to plot a piece of floor for her blanket told him he made the right decision.

Closing the door, he started for his bed until Nanako asked him, "Um, big bro?"

"Yeah?"

"Where's your shirt?"

Shirou looked down. "Oh."

He had meant to go to the shed tonight, and changed appropriately for that. He didn't want to get his clothes dirty, so he wore his old pair of leather overalls. And no shirt, as his sister deducted. He was so focused in trying to make her feel better he didn't notice until now.

"Uh," he smiled awkwardly. "I… tend to sleep shirtless at home."

Nanako's confused head tilt did little to ease his embarrassment.


-?-

"It's rare for you to go back on a deal. I thought I was the cheating bad guy."

"Unlike you, I do not directly influence the actions of my guests. It was their decision to return for a holiday."

"Was it also that woman's choice to find the 'right' folder?"

"She was diligent in her search, and made the decisions necessary for this situation to even work. I simply led her to a clue that made it possible."

"Well, whatever. This makes things more interesting anyway, so I'm not complaining."

"What do you plan to do?"

"Relax. I'll hold up on my end of the bargain, but I'm actually rooting for your new disciple. I just want to condition him a bit for the future. Trust me; you'll thank me for this later."