Chapter 1: Loop 1-1 & Loop 6-1
London - September 3rd, 1964
"Yes." The man answered, taking another sip of his coffee to hide the relieved smile. He had always partial to the ground bean beverage, unlike his more traditional comrade sitting across from him. The bitter beverage helped him conceal his emotions, as discretion was still important at this point.
Sipping his tea, the man in a waistcoat and jacket pondered in silence opposite to the man who awaited judgment anxiously, before looking up again.
"It cannot be that simple."
"No." He smiled slightly in answer, enjoying the slightest disappointed slump in the others' posture at his confirmation. He had him hooked now, certainly! "No, it isn't quite that simple."
The man scoffed, setting down his tea with a glare.
"Certainly, that in and of itself is no simple task, but if that was all it took to reach the Swirl of Origin... then I am sure we magi would long since have mastered all our world has to offer." He offered with some haste, acknowledging the silent chastisement at the misleading words.
The elder magus nodded, leaning back as he pondered for a while.
"Now, let me see if I understood this correctly—and do interrupt me if I have misunderstood some point here, please." Seeing the man opposite him nod and pick up his cup of coffee, he continued.
"What you propose... is to use time manipulation on a large scale in order to create a 'bubble of hyper-stagnation'. Inside this bubble, time would move so slowly in relation to everything else that it would be possible to experience the end of the world, somehow, and right before the end to slip into the Root. Is that about correct?" He spoke, before chuckling mirthfully.
The man adjusted his round glasses and nodded, flicking away an errant bang of hair that bothered his eyes. The sound of chuckles didn't appear to bother him, but he stayed still and awaited his companion's judgment.
"No, it isn't quite that simple. Tell me, my young friend, how would the death of Gaia relate to the Root? Why would the death of our World give us passage into the realm beyond, where we seek our answers?" He shook his head and began taking out a pipe from the folds of his jacket, before making eye contact with the man opposite to him. Lifting the pipe, he did not even bother to ask if it were a bother if he smoked, though he usually did.
The younger man scowled behind his glasses—black eyes almost willing the fine, dark lacquer of the pipe to burst aflame—but said nothing, accepting the pipe with silent annoyance. This minor concession ought to be enough to placate this prickly and proud man. Enough to keep the discussion going, at least.
Though the Clock Tower nominally was all about research and preservation of magecraft, in truth there was more than a kernel of politics involved in everything that went on.
"Sir, have you not kept up with the news from the other side of the world?" At the questioning look, he further clarified. "No, not my home country. I meant the Americas. They've discovered something called cosmic microwave background radiation in one of their research facilities, which supports Hubble's theory of expansion."
The man slowly and studiously continued filling his pipe, taking care to pack the dried tobacco blend just right. He looked up, as if to ask; And?
"And as you well know, entropy rules supreme in any contained system. But in an ever-expanding universe?" A barking laugh stopped him cold and he closed his mouth with a scowl.
"You believe that this will truly signify the end of everything? Ridiculous. That as everything in it slowly dies, so too, must the Universe itself?" Enjoying the sullen silence his words received, he lit the now filled pipe with a small puff of air that caught fire at the sparks his teeth managed to create. "But, do continue. You certainly believe that this effort will yield fruit. Let us shelve that particular issue for the time being, for the sake of your theoreticals. What is it that you do believe will be a problem?"
The bespectacled man frowned—blowing away a slowly approaching, almost impenetrably dense wisp of smoke that was slowly making its way toward his face—before he took a deep breath and continued.
"The problem is that by stagnating something that much, the World itself does not see it anymore as a living being, essentially killing it despite no harm coming to pass on anything inside the bubble. Not too dissimilar to the thought experiment Schrödinger proposed; it could be alive, but it never is."
"And no doubt once you collapse this bounded field of yours that affects stagnation, the World makes sure to wreak havoc on anything that was caught inside the barrier. It is quite vengeful in exacting its pound of flesh when manipulated so overtly by foolish magi, I have come to learn over the years." He smirked, puffing a thick cloud of grey smoke. Not quite aiming at his companion, but close enough to bother the other.
Nodding sullenly, he continued. "That is true as well, but my experiments have shown that the subjects inside die even before the bubble is collapsed, despite less than a fraction of a second passing inside."
They both remained silent at that, the only sound in the room being the old standing clocks internal mechanisms and the silent burn of the packed tobacco at every inhale.
"So, what is it that you seek of me? We're certainly practitioners of similar arts—and while I certainly recognize your burgeoning talent and intellect, my young friend—I do not think that there is much to be gained from, ah, comparing notes, shall we call it?" The man puffed and took out a pocket watch hanging on a chain from his waistcoat, comparing the time to the clock by the wall and frowning at the discrepancy he noticed. He must have been inexact in his experiments again, for such a noticeable discrepancy to exist in his measurement devices. It would not do.
The bespectacled younger man hesitated for a moment, but only someone who knew him well would have been able to tell that he was unsure where to continue from here.
"You were a student of the Wizard Marshall, once..."
The older man froze, his eyes shooting up from the pocket watch, narrowing dangerously as he stared at the man before him.
"Only in passing, and only matters related to magecraft, nothing more. And you would do well to not speak more of this matter, regardless of how much favour I may have shown you before."
"I only need to talk to him, about the Bartholomeis—"
"Hahahaha!" The man's loud laughter cut the dark-haired man off, pushing him back into shocked silence. "So that's what your plan is? To turn yourself into an undead abomination and wait for the end of the world? How patently ridiculous!"
"No, no. I've heard quite enough. You may leave, now. And never bring this matter before me again. You would do well to forget any such notions without my assistance, as well. For your own sake, more than anything."
The two sat in silence, staring at one another until the Lord finally noticed his pipe again and brought it to his lips to take a deep inhale to savor the aroma. Despite the thick, acrid smoke, he did not so much as wince as he took in a lungful and blew it out in a long, drawn-out breath. This time, he did not bother to turn his head away from the man sitting across from him.
The dark-haired man did not react in any fashion to the smoke, but finally after a long moment stood up and with a small incline of his head left the drawing-room, leaving the smoking man by himself and his clocks.
Outside the manor, Emiya Norikata ground his teeth together as he left and made a note to himself to never let his anyone around him pick up such disgusting habits as smoking.
London, December 20th 2008
Shirou felt off today. Something about this day just didn't sit right with him, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it.
His body was in good condition; he had managed to work his way back into shape after the almost-month long recovery he had needed after that debacle in Bolivia. He had hired a Spiritual Healer to look over his wounds, and the man had assured Shirou that there would be complications, so that couldn't be it. Though the wounds may have originated from a Dead Apostle, there was nothing to worry about. Or so he was told.
His mind and circuits were in fine as well and he had slept well the previous night, so nothing there seemed to be the cause either. Perhaps he should call the Spiritual Healer for one more check-up, just in case? He had come all the way here just for that reason, after all.
Frowning to himself, he looked out the window and beheld the first rays of the day, heralding a new morning. As winter approached, the sun rose quite late into the day so he had been awake already for several hours, but that diminished nothing from the beauty of the event in his eyes.
There was something about dawn that struck him, deep within, as an image. Sometimes, he dreamed of a far off rising sun, above hazy and indistinct landscape. Something about that image wouldn't leave him alone.
He shook his head.
It was chilly, but not quite cold. There hadn't been much, or really any, snow at all so far.
Pondering what he should make for breakfast in his rented hideout slash recovery resort of a flat on the western outskirts of London, he was surprised to hear the sound of his mobile phone ringing. Flapping for a moment trying to locate the darned thing, he finally found it buried beneath a pile of newspapers on the dinner table. It was a good thing it had a long battery life as he had the bad habit of not carrying it around with him or checking it all too often.
"Round 6, Third Sunset?" The voice on the phone queried and he hesitated for a moment, but luckily the caller was in no hurry to end the call.
"Yellow 4?" He tried after a moment of hesitation.
"...Damn it, S. Keep track of your passphrases already."
"Sorry." He said with a grin as he searched for the wireless headset with one hand. Passphrases and no names; he would have found a certain novelty in all this cloak and dagger business if he didn't know that it was essential to staying alive on certain jobs.
"No, you aren't. But never mind that. You good already? You got fucked up pretty bad back there." The voice sounded more amused than miffed, mirroring in tone Shirou's visage.
"Yeah, I'm good. You got a job lined up? Something better than last time?" The grin had faded by now and he, finding the headset and noting the charge he gave a satisfied huff. Placing it in his ear and the phone in his pocket, he went into the kitchen and opened the fridge. Perhaps some stir-fried rice with vegetables and the rest of yesterdays chicken would be good for breakfast? Or would it be too heavy?
No, he needed something filling if he had a job lined up.
"...There was nothing wrong with the last job, S."
"You know I don't like working with those guys. They've got their hands everywhere. That mark said he'd been put in place by them, you know. What's the point of taking down one of their puppets when you know they'll just place another one by next week?"
"...Yeah, sure he might have said that. But that's not proof of anything. And the fucker was a bloodsucker, too. You gonna trust someone like that not to lie their ass off, huh? And we got rid of that shit he'd been spreading, too. That's gotta count for a good days work, right S?"
"By 'got rid of' you mean sold it straight back to the people who originally sold it to them? You know, our employers?" Shirou retorted, with more than a little heat. He checked the sizzling butter on the pan and threw in the cold rice from the fridge and cracked open six eggs in succession, all one handed with practiced ease.
"Look, S. I know you don't like working with the...'Canadian Iridium Association', but they pay good money and we do good shit for them. They said they'd get rid of it and they've been good for their word so far." The voice on the other end spoke back, his volume rising a little bit higher to match Shirou's.
"...Fine." He mumbled as he began cutting a trio of washed and scrubbed carrots on the kitchen top. Timing would be essential here; he did not particularly enjoy soft carrots, a good crunch gave a texture to the rice that chicken simply did not and could not offer. "So tell me about the job."
"Alright. Short job, min a day, max a week. Great pay and not far from where you are." Making sure not to throw in any locations wasn't a perfect way to avoid being found when using a phone, given that the connections were ultimately tracked, but it helped. Shirou also noticed that his friend was studiously avoiding any mention of who the client was. Not even a hint; which meant Shirou wouldn't like it.
"Who's the client?" He added some salt, ground a touch of pepper and ripped some fresh spinach leaves and added it to the rice, taking one leaf and munching on it for a snack. When the other end did not say anything, Shirou knew he definitely wouldn't like this client. "Answer me or I hang up and go back to watching British morning tv while making breakfast. And let me tell you, as much as it would pain me to watch that tripe, I will if you don't start talking."
"...Fine. It's the Department of Modern 'spooky' Theories, the locals I mean." He put extra emphasis on the spooky, just to avoid saying the actual word they were both thinking. There should be a limit to paranoia, but they were partners for a reason. One supplemented the other in areas where they lacked and vice versa.
"...Great." The Clock Tower, went unspoken but both were thinking it. "Just great. You know, I think I'd prefer if you just found another shady agency we could work with, I mean compared to those people, the last job seemed perfectly lovely."
"Come on, don't be a drama queen. You had an explosive break up, I know, but you don't have to be such a pussy about it." The person on the other end of the phone was laughing now. "And it's local business, less than a week. They're probably just doing some new test somewhere in the woods and need a high standard porter or some shit. You do have 'proper butler training' and everything, should be a piece of cake. Easy money."
Shirou scowled and thought about saying a few choice words, but instead took a deep breath and calmed himself. As long as it wasn't the Department of Mineralogy, there shouldn't be a problem he supposed. Of course, a should was never a guarantee of anything. Quite the opposite, he'd come to learn.
For every clean job he did for money, the less time he would have to waste working on crap like that last job, where he wasn't saving anyone. Just cleaning up after some big agency or group that had left a huge mess and didn't want to dirty their own hands publicly. For a couple of days work, he could fund a lot more actual work.
"Yeah, alright. Send me the contact info. Are you sending me any gear?"
"Yeah, I'll send a text, normal encryption. And nah, this shouldn't need anything but I've got a cache nearby; I'll activate it just in case. But you probably won't need it. Benefits of just being hired as dumb muscle, eh?"
Turning off the stove and taking off the pan, Shirou grunted before ending the call. The food smelled good, but he had no appetite any more.
"I knew this day was going to be a pain."
Waiting at the designated street-corner café was a tall man of light complexion but long dark hair. It was someone Shirou knew, but wasn't certain would recognize him in turn.
Waver Velvet, Lord El-Melloi II.
"...Why is he here? Damn it." There was no reason for the Head of the Department of Modern Magecraft Theories to be interviewing or meeting with just some dumb muscle. Not under any ordinary circumstances anyhow.
Either he was really desperate or there was another reason entirely for this meeting. One which he hadn't been informed off. He sighed, resolving himself as he entered through the door.
Sitting down with a quick scan around the shop, taking a headcount and locating the bathroom and exits along with angling himself so that he had a decent view, Shirou greeted the older man. He noted the darkness of his hair, that it hadn't faded with the years since their last meeting and now served to match the dark rings around the man's eyes. He was drinking what looked like an average cup of coffee, but Shirou could smell that it had been filled with espresso.
Working overnight? Now would still be a good time to walk away, he told himself. Of course, he was too polite to simply leave after arranging a meeting, not without listening to the details of the job at least. That's what he always did; grumbled and groused to himself and yet nigh always accepted the job, anyhow.
It struck him queer that he was looking down at the man, now. Last they'd met, Shirou had been a good head shorter and far less heavily built up. Lessons were rarely physically challenging at the Clock Tower, while his line of work in his current line of work... Well, he certainly didn't push himself so hard because he thought his muscles looked good or anything.
"I heard you were looking from some specialized assistance." Shirou began, without bothering with introductions.
"...Yes. The question is are you qualified?" Matching his candor, Lord El-Melloi II seemed even less inclined to settle down into polite pleasantries than Shirou. Then again, the man had always been too frank for his own good. Never fit in with the Tower bunch, especially not with his fellow Lords. "I am looking for a veteran who has experience in urban combat and tracking, preferably with the ability to handle bounded fields and combat familiars."
Uh huh. Walk away, this is just another meaningless bloodbath. Nothing good will come out of this job. Just walk away. Magi conflict always ends with death; there is never any salvation to be had...
Yet that was exactly why he couldn't refuse. If he refused, people would absolutely die. If he went along, perhaps... Just perhaps, he could do something.
"...Why, what?" El-Melloi asked in question to question, beginning to get annoyed.
"Who's the target and why?" Shirou persisted.
"...Do you really think I would simply share that kind of information with you, especially before you've proven yourself capable, or even reliable?" Waver twitched, either from annoyance or his lack of rest combined with the recent caffeine overdose kicking in.
"...You have a gun underneath the table, there's someone by the restrooms hiding underneath a small bounded field and you have back up in the car by the other side of the road." Shirou drawled, leaning back, his hand going for his waist. He had a gun, too. And he was fairly certain he was a better shot than this man would be. El-Melloi started, clearly surprised by those words but shut his mouth just as quickly as the waiter showed up to take his order.
"Earl gray, no sugar, a bit of milk please." Shirou said with a smile to the young girl, eyeing her up and down before dismissing her, she wasn't another of El-Melloi's followers. Too skinny, with no presence whatsoever and El-Melloi's eyes didn't waver at her as it had with the others. He was a bit surprised about the pistol sticking out of El-Melloi's coat-pocket but supposed it made sense. For all his theoretical knowledge, observatory skills and his great mind he wasn't exactly a heavyweight in a fight.
Though the Lord's choice in firearms did not make all too much sense to Shirou; the five-pointed star on the grip revealing it to be a fairly old design, combined with the careless manner in which it was stored meant that it was probably a recent addition to his person. Luckily their waitress did not seem to notice the pistol, either.
The person by the bathroom was obviously an ally, given that El-Melloi wasn't surprised at the presence. He hadn't actually seen through the bounded field or even noticed it was there when entering, but whoever was hiding was wearing high heels and was tapping their foot in annoyance. Sloppy, though the field did muffle the sound quite a bit. The sound alone wasn't enough to ascertain the presence of a back up inside the building, but El-Melloi's reaction had confirmed it. The car had been revealed by El-Melloi looking there three times in the past minute.
Not a worried glance, so much as a reconfirmation that the car and its occupant—a woman perhaps, judging from the bit of long hair he could see—were still there. As the waiter left, Shirou leaned back forward, placing his elbows on the table and crossing his fingers in front of his face.
"Well?" Shirou said, making El-Melloi click his tongue in annoyance. Waver's usually surly face grew even more etched than normal. For all his skill and genius, the man received very little respect and worked harder than any other Lord in the entirety of the Clock Tower. For that, Shirou had to respect the man for what it was worth.
But that did not mean that the Lord before him was not utterly overworked and a sour grape for the ages.
"A day ago, an... assistant of mine was killed. An item was stolen and I believe it necessary to reacquire it from the perpetrator before they leave the country. I am working in tandem with some other vested interests, who also require the capture and or termination of the target as soon as possible, but I do not know the specifics regarding their goals." Waver spoke in a tired, yet clear voice. Unfaltering, yet somewhat hollow words that matched his eyes.
"What about the Enforcers?" Shirou inquired. The Clock Tower's military arm, for all intents and purposes, was more than capable of handling such duties. At least, more so than Shirou.
"One supposedly caught up to the target, but was killed. Or wounded enough that further communications have not been possible. We'll be working with another one, possibly."
Shirou made a noise of understanding but didn't say anything more as the waiter approached once more, bringing a serving platter with the tea he had ordered along with milk and cream jars. Waiting until the woman left, Shirou simply stirred his tea while mulling over El-Melloi's words.
"Do you have a complete profile on the target? What are you working against here?" Shirou asked, eliciting another annoyed click of tongue from the older man. Though Shirou guessed it was not specifically aimed at him.
"We are not sure. He was supposedly a member of the Clock Tower, with records matching his history, but no one has been able to tell who he is exactly supposed to be. The records place him as a Grand-rank magus, but there isn't much else we've been able to figure out yet. It's all a mess, with records somehow jumping back and forth decades on a single pag—" Waver sighed, rubbing his brow as he took a deep breath before continuing. "It's not important for you to know. We have a rough physical description, but not much more."
Shirou furrowed his brows in concentration. Grands were not common mages, they were essentially the rockstars of the Clock Tower, regardless of direct political power and familial rank. Ability was respected in the Mage's Association, and very little says ability quite like achieving the highest rank when even most Lords could only make it to Brand. Thus, the complete lack of profile struck him as quite unusual.
Either he was being fed shit and being kept in the dark here, or then Lord El-Melloi II was.
And the distant presence of Enforcers promised nothing good. The Lords' personal bloodhounds, not so much a military arm of the organization as simply headhunters who brought back people of note. Especially when they wanted to keep a very close eye on someone interesting. The fact that one had been killed meant that the target wasn't just an accessory to a very old dusty book in some laboratory, but knew how to use those highly valued abilities with quite some efficiency, which was just a cherry on top of this disaster of a cupcake.
Something about the fact that the records had been tampered with also left him queasy about the whole thing. It made him think of an inside job, or that the man before him stood at the mouth a great big trap. Whether it was laid there for the Lord or Shirou did not matter, it would just as easily devour both. Just walk away already.
Someone had been killed and Waver Velvet was not a heartless magus, appearances aside. If he was running this ragged, then either the El-Melloi clan had a vested interest in the matter, or the target was actually that bad.
"Last question. Were you looking to hire me specifically for this job?"
El-Melloi snorted and shook his head.
"No, anyone with the right skill set will do. You just happened to be in the area, or so I was told. Now, will you be signing the contract or have I been wasting my time?" At his last words, the Lord bristled a little.
"Fine. Show me the papers. And I'm not agreeing to a geis over this, either." Shirou scowled at the elder mage, daring him to disagree. But aside from a matching scowl, no objections were made. Reading through the contract and finding it a standard legal paper agreeing to an act in defense in reasonable danger and standard attendant duty in return for 'great pay', Shirou signed and stamped the papers soon enough. Three copies were made and one was given to Shirou.
El-Melloi read through the contracts one more time before placing his two copies in a briefcase.
"Alright, with that out of the way... Tohsaka, show yourself."
Shirou froze and turned around, spotting a very familiar raven-haired mage leaning against the wall by the restrooms, sporting a familiar smirk.
Should have just fucking walked away.
Sitting in the car he had spotted outside the coffeehouse, now driving steadfastly north with its four passengers, Shirou felt more than a little awkward. It was just his luck that those two would be involved in all of this, especially after the last time he had seen them.
He had even made sure that nothing of the Department of Mineralogy had been mentioned anywhere in the contract or assignment details before agreeing to anything.
Right after finishing his last year in high school, Shirou had decided to follow a friend to London to further his studies into magecraft. Having only had the barest of educations into the mystic arts before meeting his first proper teacher—one Tohsaka Rin who had been a fellow competitor and an ally in the 5th Holy Grail War—the Clock Tower would have certainly been a considerable hurdle for him to clear.
That is, had he stayed.
A mere half-year into his studies—having made friends over the first few months with the fourth passenger in the car, the Finnish magus and all-out rival of Tohsaka, and having realized just how wide the moonlit world truly was—he had been called all the way from Japan in the middle of the night.
Illyasviel von Einzbern was dying.
He had wanted to run off to Japan, but Rin had been in a critical phase and needed his assistance more than ever. So, words had been exchanged and finally, their friendship had been all but exterminated as he had walked out to catch the first flight to Japan.
Or so he had thought.
Judging by Tohsaka Rin's current demeanor, it seemed as if her enraged countenance on that day had been nothing but an illusion. Well, at least everything hadn't gone to hell then. Illya had been dead before his plane had even landed, making all that arguing seem so meaningless when he thought back to it.
It had been a stark reminder about what he had once sworn, what he believed in and had made an oath to uphold. After that, going back to the Clock Tower and studying the basics of esotericism and thaumaturgy had seemed so pointless that he had simply taken the first plane to Turkey and gone from there. The news had spoken of yet another tragedy in the Middle East, hadn't it? Where else should he have gone? He certainly didn't have any place back in London.
That was already years ago, now. Water under the bridge and all that, he supposed as he glanced at Tohsaka out of the corner of his eye.
"So where are we headed? You mentioned someone was killed? Have you investigated the scene?" He asked, breaking low buzz of the car that was only filled with the hum of the engine. Strangely enough, it was Lord El-Melloi handling the wheel, with Tohsaka Rin riding shotgun. Leaving him in the backseat with the rather impressive-as-always Luvia Edelfelt.
Luviagelita Edelfelt had been a fellow student of his, alongside Tohsaka Rin, when he had enrolled for the basic studies at the Clock Tower. The two women got along famously poorly and it seemed that the years had done nothing to change that. Luviagelita Edelfelt was much an equal as an opposite to Tohsaka Rin; for all the two seemed to be all but twins in terms of their personality, beliefs, and talents, they could not have gotten along worse.
The incident of the Norwich dormitories being demolished upon the duos first meeting was the stuff of urban legends among the younger generations of the Clock Tower. As far as he knew, however, neither Luvia nor Rin would be normally working under the Lord who had hired him. In fact, if he were not completely wrong, they should be a part of another Department entirely.
The very Department he had made sure to not be hired by when he was told of this job. He thought about having words with his agent when they next met again. That guy must be getting rusty if something like this slipped past him. Or did it?
"And what does the Department of Mineralogy have to do with this matter?" He continued, knowing that both women were practitioners of Jewel Magic. That they would enroll in Kischur only made sense.
"Our business here is our business alone, but know that we will be aiding you in apprehending the target." Luvia spoke, her melodious voice and unusual accent captivating as usual. Wearing a light blue dress with white trimmings, she looked as elegant and beautiful as ever. Of course, he knew that she could tear those extravagant sleeves off in an instant and turn into a raging goddess of war at the drop of a hat. Turning to look at the man at the wheel, she continued. "And while the slain Enforcer and the Sealing Designate holding vaults were investigated by the Department of Policies and the Enforcers, our esteemed Lord El-Melloi II here has made it his calling to investigate the murder of his old student, personally. No one else cared enough, you see?"
Noticing that the Lord was looking at him through the rear-view mirror, Shirou looked back at him just in time for the dark-haired man to scowl and look away again as their eyes met.
"We have a folder here, made by our own personal Holmes, if you would like to see the scene." Rin continued but was cut off by Lord El-Melloi.
"He doesn't need to see it." He said, glowering at the road, making motions with his jaw as if wishing he had a cigar. Rin and Luvia looked at each other but did not say anything, as if conversing silently.
"You're the boss." Shirou said, shrugging while mentally putting a tack on the strange exchange.
"Speaking of which... Sherou, have you given any thought to my offer? It has not changed, since those days long past." Luvia spoke, with a devious grin. Noticing the ferocious scowl Rin sprouted, Shirou carefully did not look her way as he tried to remember what the blonde was talking about.
"You mean the offer of permanent employment as a butler?" There had been such an offer he vaguely remembered, from his time at the Clock Tower. He had been a part-time in-training butler for Luvia since the money had been good and the things he learned had been fairly interesting.
"Indeed. Since our last meeting, you have certainly... Acquired a more varied set of skills. Or so I hear. The Edelfelts could certainly stand to employ a man such as yourself." She spoke with lidded eyes, her voice lowering to a husky whisper as he long blonde hair framed her face. All the while, he noted that Rin in the front was becoming more and more annoyed.
He felt like a mouse, being offered a piece of cheese by one cat just so it could bite onto him and hold him between its jaws to show off its catch to another cat, that was lurking behind a corner in ambush.
He snorted, breaking eye contact with a shake of his head.
"No, I really haven't. And I make it a policy to not discuss upcoming jobs while on an on-going one." Besides, for all that he enjoyed Luvia's company, the Edelfelts were not particularly nice people. Nicknamed as 'the most elegant hyenas', they had a bad habit of sticking their nose where it didn't belong for profit and fame. "Besides, I would have to fire my agent. And he would starve without me, the useless lout."
He shot her a mock grin, which she answered with a mock pout of her own, clearly taking the humor as it was meant.
"I'm not paying you for jokes." Came the irritated voice of El-Melloi from the front.
"Sir, yes sir. Might I perhaps drive, instead? You look like you could use some rest." He shot back without skipping a beat. The Lord scowled ferociously at him over the rear-view mirror but finally after a long while nodded. He pulled over and they switched seats, the Lord falling asleep the moment he sat down in the rear.
Marveling a moment at El-Melloi's mastery of the basics of self-care, Shirou shook his head and started the car. Next to him, Rin was shooting Luvia victorious looks while the blonde was pretending she didn't care. Shirou didn't think anything of it; the two would compete about anything and everything.
It had ultimately nothing to do with him.
Driving off to the address given, he ignored the two who continued their silent showdown of stares and subtle jabs, Shirou couldn't help but wonder what exactly he'd gotten himself involved in.
Stopping after an hours drive, Shirou parked the car by a petrol station. Making sure to be at the eastern corner of the car park as instructed, he spotted easily enough the entourage they were meeting. A half dozen cars, with people inside a large, black van in the middle of heated discussion and planning.
"Wake up the Lord, we're here." He said and Luvia.
Pulling to a stop next to a shining black car that would have look at home in any antique collection or automobile museum, Shirou looked around the car park before undoing his seat belt. He kept the car running on neutral with the handbrake on, nonetheless. A speedy getaway was always a good thing to have.
Leaning against the hood of the car—as if it was any old piece of junk and not the most expensive vehicle for several miles around, wearing a Japanese garb with the distinct facial features of Asian descent—was a woman with long dark hair.
Lord El-Melloi woke up as if a switch had been flipped the moment the car stopped and looked around, looking slightly better off than before. As if sighing internally, his eyes lingered a moment on the women before he got out of the car. Lighting a cigar, he walked up to her and began discussing something, too quiet for Shirou to hear. He could have read their lips, if the Lord's back wasn't turned to him and he wasn't blocking the view to the women, but Shirou supposed he hadn't been hired to snoop around in his employer's business either.
Looking at his phone and checking the time, he noted that he really should have had the thing charging before he left, before turning to look at Rin and Luvia who were sitting quietly. They seemed almost bored, but neither seemed inclined to do anything at the moment so he stayed silently in the car as well.
"Who's the lady?" He finally asked, not really interested about her per se but noticing Rin's sullen looks at her and growing piqued.
"Adashino Hishiri, of the Department of Policies." Luvia shrugged, but did not further clarify.
Shirou made a noise of understanding. A political snake, no wonder no one in the car seemed thrilled with her appearance. He noticed a car pulling into the petrol station, from which a man ran inside and then left after a minute. Checking the time again, he looked over to Rin.
"Take the wheel, I'm gonna go at the shop for a minute." He said, making Rin next to him blink in confusion. He didn't give her time to complain, knowing she very well might not even have a driver's license and would be flapping at this moment.
Walking into the shop, he gave a cursory look around and noting how empty it was before he walked to the counter. Taking out his wallet, he took out an ID and showed it to the person behind the counter. They looked at it, slightly confused and not understanding what he wanted.
"You just got a package for me. Under the name Fujimura, I believe? Here's my papers, you can check." He said with a polite smile at the scowling at the young, pimply-faced attendant.
"Ey, we're not the bloody post, mate." He complained, but still took out the box Shirou knew he had. The courier would have indicated that Shirou would pay to receive the box on pick-up, so the man had incentive enough to play along despite the odd situation. His agent knew how to set up these kinds of drop-offs, which was often useful. "...Fine. But there better no' be anyfing 'llegal in here, aright?"
"Just some sporting equipment." Shirou answered with a smile, taking out a wad of pounds, noting with some amusement how the young man's eyes were drawn to the wad. "All over the counter stuff."
That did it, and he left the shop 50 quid lighter and one L1A1 Self-Loading Rifle and two hundred rounds richer. Walking back to the car, he was spotted by the dark-haired woman in glasses, much to Lord El-Melloi's displeasure.
"Hmm, oh yes. A pity about the girl, I suppose you would have to replace her." Her smile was an artwork of polite interest, but he could feel the cold calculation behind her eyes, mystic eye killer glasses or not. "Adashino Hishiri, a pleasure to meet you."
She spoke the greeting in Japanese, presumably to feel him out, so he felt obliged to do the same.
"Emiya Shirou, likewise." With a small bow, he hefted the package under his arm, almost missing the widening of her eyes, telling of her shock. She mouthed silently his name, looking sideways at Lord El-Melloi who had noticed the exchange and was following with sudden interest at her reaction.
Pretending nothing had happened, Adashino smiled and ignored him again, but he could feel both her and El-Melloi's stares as he walked back to the car. Neither Rin nor Luvia had taken the driver's seat, which amused him a little, but the scowl the former shot him as he sat down wiped any expression of such off his face in a heartbeat.
Rin eyed the box as he opened it and looked through, confirming what his Structural Analysis had already told him. A single disassembled rifle and several boxes of ammunition. No magazines however, as his Agent thought it a cost-saving measure to have Shirou simply Project them as needed. They had had more than one argument about whether or not he should simply project casings for them to press so they could make caseless ammunition of a sort. It would save even more on their spending, but Shirou didn't feel quite safe with illusionary casings. And he was the one in the field, so his word went.
"Hmm... So that's what someone who doesn't make the cut at the Clock Tower uses." Rin noted, annoyed again. He almost sighed; it had been like this the whole day already. She would sometimes lapse into her old behavior; as he remembered her before. Teasing, smirking and always smug. But then she would snap back into being angry at him again.
Luvia gave a cursory glance, but didn't say anything about his package. He checked through the parts of the rifle and made sure everything was there before closing it again and stowing it on the backseat.
Lord El-Melloi finally returned, the ever-present crease between his eyebrows even deeper than usual as he scowled at Shirou, his eyes searching for something in him before ignoring him again as he sat down in the backseat. Giving a cursory look at the box, he sat there for a moment in silence before speaking up.
"Head for Leiston, eastern Suffolk." He finally said, before closing his eyes again.
With a grunt of assent, Shirou undid the handbrake and started driving.
After driving for half an hour, Shirou finally spoke up again, breaking the silence.
"So. What are we driving into?" It would be good to know if they were expecting a fight to break out in Leiston or wherever before they actually showed up. For one, assembling the gun before he needed it would be useful.
Lord El-Melloi opened an eye on the backseat, eyeing him through the rear-view mirror for a long while as Rin and Luvia observed their byplay with rapt attention. Whatever that exchange with Adashino had been about, it had just about burned all credibility he had with the Lord behind him, for some reason. Wonderful.
"Oh come now, this is ridiculous." Rin said with a huff, as she opened the glove compartment and took out a folder and began looking through it. "The Department of Policies is looking into this because an Enforcer was killed. While the death of magi isn't anything strange in general, an Enforcer's death on a supposed assignment, of which there remain no traces after the fact, certainly is."
Shirou blinked. A supposed assignment? What did that mean?
"It means exactly what I said." She said with a smirk and Shirou cursed that he'd let his thoughts show on his face so easily. Judging by the slight twitch on Rin's smirk, she was holding back a laugh, knowing exactly what he was thinking at this moment. "Similarly to how there were records of a Grand that have been shuffled around and turned incomprehensible, this Enforcer was apparently sent out to meet this magus. But any and all records of that order have received a similar treatment.
"At this point, the Department of Policies is struggling to figure out exactly why the Enforcer was dispatched in the first place. Was he a Sealing Designate? Did he already break into the vault and run off with whatever the contents were? Were they dealing directly with the magus and now he has gone rogue? Adashino certainly won't tell us, but you can read between the lines if you're sharp enough. Isn't that about right, Lord El-Melloi?" She spoke, turning back to give the Lord a teasing look.
"Do not call me that. But yes." El-Melloi spoke, his dark eyes glinting withheld back annoyance. Or perhaps anger. Something about this case had struck him personally and it was the reason why Shirou was being kept out of the loop, or so he reasoned. "The Enforcer's remains did not give many clues as to how he was killed, but it matched roughly the earlier modus operandi. Adashino claimed that she had divined some clues about the movements of the target, however."
"Leiston." Shirou added in and El-Melloi nodded.
"Though as to how the cover up and break in were achieved, she would not say. I have some ideas, but they're work in progress, still." The Lord turned inward again, his eyes clouding over in thought as he assumed a thinking position as his one hand went to his chin while the other reached for a cigar. "For now, assume that we will be running into trouble before reaching Leiston."
"Alright. I might need to switch out at some point; I need to fix up my gun before we get there if you want me to be of any use in a fight." Shirou said, turning his eyes back to the road again.
Luvia in the backseat huffed at that. As proud hunters and warriors, the Edelfelts were no strangers to modern weaponry, but that did not mean they looked upon their use entirely favorably. Looking up to the rear-view mirror he made eye-contact with her and offered an apologetic shrug. Perhaps she merely found it distasteful seeing him, a former fellow student using guns instead of a proper mystery, when she had commonly attributed their use to her servants. Then again, he had worked as her butler for a short while, so he really didn't understand what she took umbrage with.
"It is how it is." He offered, but it didn't seem to measure for much. Beside him, he noticed that Rin was looking at him intently, but carefully did not say anything. Well, that was always an option, but it was unreliable at best. Since the Grail War and Saber's passing, that sword did not want to remain in his hand. On the other hand; "Guns are handy."
Muttering something unfavorable about spellcasters and barbarians, Luvia took the package and opened it. She began lifting pieces and looking at them one by one, not at all concerned about the fact that her white silken gloves were being stained by the coating of gun oil that kept the weapon from rusting.
"...Do you know how to assemble it?" He asked, somewhat worried that she might simply chuck it out the window if he set her off.
"No. But how hard can it be. Besides, I like puzzles." She said as she carefully lifted two pieces and tried them together. He winced a little, but chose to say nothing. It wasn't like he was intimately familiar with the rifle either, merely having handled one on occasions before. Beside the blonde, Lord El-Melloi seemed to perk up as well, at the word "puzzle". Together they began to silent mull over the disassembled rifle with intense eyes.
Shirou sighed quietly, wondering for the nth time why he never turned down these jobs, despite knowing how peculiar and troublesome magi always were.
They arrived at Leiston a few hours before noon.
The cloudy sky overhead promised rain and very few people were bothering to even step outside, giving the town a slightly abandoned and empty look. Lord El-Melloi's mood matched the town's atmosphere as Shirou pulled the car to a stop. Finding a parking spot was always a chore, but luckily not many people were about today.
As they had neared the town border, Shirou had been instructed to find a certain pub where an Enforcer would be waiting to meet up with them as their main force wouldn't arrive for some hours yet. Acting as a representative of the Department of Policies, the three interested Departments would all have their finger in this pot. All of this reminded Shirou how much he had found the politicking and favor-currying to be a bother back when he had still been a student at the Clock Tower.
He had distinctly remembered Rin sharing that dislike in the past, but seeing her now made him wonder at how much she had changed. She seemed perfectly at ease with all of this, now.
As they found the Enforcer, he noted how Rin had come to deal with it all in a fashion that was very similar to Luvia's detached and distant front of unbridled superiority. The pride and certainty of a noble before commoners; the very same mask she had used to wear in high school to hide her moonlit persona was now used when dealing with others who walked in that same moonlit world.
Back then he had been quite certain of her as a person, but now he wasn't so sure which one was the real Rin.
They sat down and exchanged curt greetings, postured for a bit and threw some threats one way and the other before the got onto business proper.
The Enforcer was nothing special to look at besides his crocodile-skin longcoat that screamed "enchanted mystic code" to all who knew what to look for. Wearing a tweed coat and beige trousers, with a waistcoat and a neat tie, he looked quite ordinary. Clean-shaven, with neatly combed light hair and gray eyes hidden behind horn-rimmed glasses, he had a face that would have been lost in almost any crowd.
As the "hired muscle", Shirou's job was mostly to sit at another table that had clear view of his employer's table and the door at the same time. Getting some querying and curious looks from the locals, he nursed a beer and a bowl of salted peanuts, pretending that he belonged while the other table continued to argue and negotiate, completely undermining his attempts at going unnoticed.
He smiled awkwardly and greeted anyone who looked at him after noticing the loudly arguing bunch seated in the other table.
He'd managed to understand that the Enforcer's hadn't found anything, were pissed off about that and were now trying to lay the blame on someone else—he didn't quite catch that part, the who—while Rin and Luvia talked down to the man as if they had nothing to do with this whole ordeal and found it very much beneath them while still demanding answers, all as Lord El-Melloi tried to play the voice of reason as he was being ignored all around.
All in all, not a bad way spend an afternoon. The beer was local and wasn't anything particularly strong, though the peanuts were awful. Perhaps he should have ordered something to eat, try out the 'local cuisine' as it were?
Still, not a bad afternoon at all.
Well, that was until the explosion rocked the town, the shockwave pushing in the windows with such force that for a second Shirou was absolutely certain that they would break, before settling back with a wobble as the shockwave passed. Everyone in the pub had flinched and most were covering their ears in panic and some were staring wide-eyed at the windows, no doubt sharing his shock or simply frozen on the spot.
Luckily the windows had held, as flying shards of glass would have caused copious injuries to everyone inside.
They had held, if only long enough for the blue bundle to come crashing through the pub front, managing to clip the window while still coming half through the door and sending splinters of wood, glass and brick flying everywhere in an explosion-like impact.
In an instant, his CZ 75 handgun was out and his mind was running at high alert. His eyes went to his employer's table, finding the group unharmed as the missile had flown straight into the bar counter. Ignoring his first instinct of running to check on the person now lying bonelessly on the floor—no one could survive that, no need to bother—he dashed to the now gaping hole into the street. Leaning against what remained of the brick wall, ignoring the loose wood and glass and other debris as he took to a knee, he cautiously scanned the streets outside.
There was no one outside and no damage could be seen anywhere within sight—the explosion must have occurred somewhere nearby, but not on this street, must have been thrown into the air at an angle over the houses—he chanced a look back to the pile of blood, gore, ragged cloth and white bones sticking out, lying motionlessly by the counter. No one had moved, having frozen in place. Lord El-Melloi was scowling as usual, the crease between his eyes was so pronounced that Shirou wondered if it would be possible for the man to hold a quarter in place there.
Rin, Luvia and the Enforcer had adopted defensive stances, kicking over their table for concealment but hadn't moved out yet. His eyes narrowed for a second as he took in the magic in the air; all three were more powerful magi than he was.
Holstering the gun as he found no threats, he dashed up to their surprise visitor and looked them over. It didn't look good. For one, they were most certainly dead—the wounds were far too numerous and mortal for anyone to simply walk off. For another, he now recognized those robes as Executor garb—which would mean a Church presence.
Of course, it was at this moment that a second explosion rocked the town once again.
Turning around to face the opening to the street, Shirou realized it wasn't an explosion after all, not this time. Before his eyes, towering above the houses, stood some kind of eldritch monster. All teeth and murdersome rage, armed with a dozen lashing tentacle-like appendages, the creature slammed down on a house, reducing it to rubble and dust in a single second.
"Wh-what the bloody hell is that...?" Someone asked beside him and Shirou had honestly no idea.
And then it turned to look in their direction.
Re-edited and uploaded on 14.9.2019