(A/N) Whoo boy. This chapter might not seem long to you, but it definitely seemed long to me haha.
Sorry for the delay (again). No, I'm not dead, but this is probably what happens when someone who isn't blessed with superhuman typing fingers tries to write this many stories.
On the bright side, at least I updated, unlike that asshole fanfic author who writes that "Emiya-sensei?" story (or whatever it's called). He's been slacking recently. What a lazy jerk. SMH my head.
Anyway, here we are! Check out the chapter illustration on Spacebattles, and if you have any questions, hit me up on discord! Find links to both in my profile.
Big thanks to ajpa and euphoric image for the beta-ing!
As it started to become apparent that this multidirectional staring contest wasn't going to end after the first fifteen seconds or so, I accepted the fact that yes, I was indeed pretty screwed.
The muscles on Lord El Melloi's face didn't so much as twitch; I couldn't begin to guess what was going through his head right now. Did he know who I was? I really couldn't say for sure, but it would be stupid of me to assume that he didn't.
Though I tried to stay as still as possible, I allowed my eyes to drift to his shorter companion.
She, on the other hand, probably knew that I was a magus if nothing else.
Confusion was practically wafting out from Rin's orifices. As annoying as she was when she didn't have a firm grasp on a situation, however, it was still better this way.
Better for me, at least.
Did she know that I was aware of magecraft in any shape or form? No, she did not. Did she know that I was pushing pencils for Barthomeloi during school holidays? Also no.
At first, me not telling her about any of this was a matter of timing and opportunity– for Sakura's sake, mostly. Keeping my practices a secret from Rin of all people wasn't even desirable, let alone a priority, but the situation with the girl's younger sibling was a bit more delicate, to say the least.
But even then, it shouldn't have been difficult to find the right words and moment to get it over with. Over a decade's time, I should have been able to figure it out quite easily. The only true roadblock that I had anticipated was the old man and his agenda, but he had passed away sooner than I expected. As it turned out, I had been in a good place to tell her when I had gotten back to Fuyuki with Illya.
Unfortunately, Zouken had played his cards with frustrating effectiveness, and I had lost my window of opportunity for a good while.
After enough time had passed, being truthful with Rin had become less of an advantage and more of a potential liability. I knew that girl, and I've known her well for a very long time. There wasn't a single doubt in my mind that being truthful with her wouldn't have come with any consequences as long as I came out with it early on.
The issue was that I had waited for too long, and now, it was coming back to bite me in the ass.
It wasn't that she wouldn't understand, but more that her reaction wasn't a "sure thing" anymore. Once the matter with the Holy Grail War blew over, I could come clean to her then, but in the meantime, I would rather limit variables as much as possible.
That was why I would try my damnedest to keep any unfortunate information from slipping out for a little while longer, no matter how futile it may be.
As much as I wanted to, that meant that I couldn't just excuse myself and leave. The damage had already been done. Me not being present didn't mean that El Melloi and his little friend couldn't spill the beans to Rin anyway.
I would have to take matters into my own hands.
"Sorry. I didn't know that Rin had guests over."
The girl in question squawked, either because I had addressed her so informally in public or because she had told me that she had guests over just a little while ago. I pretended not to hear her and hoped that the other man would do the same.
I could hear the sharp intake of breath that always preceded one of her rants. I cut her off before she could say anything.
"She invited me over today, but I guess it slipped her mind and she accidentally double-booked her schedule. Rin's a little forgetful at times. Please forgive her."
My life was practically forfeit until El Melloi saved me.
"I see," he muttered languidly. The man's eyes stayed shut for a moment during a particularly long blink, but otherwise, he showed no outward signs of annoyance.
As for his companion, well… I couldn't see much under that hood, really.
"Well," he continued after a second of thought, turning to face Rin. "I don't think that anything we'll be discussing here is particularly confidential, and my arrival was on rather short notice. Your friend is free to join us, Miss Tohsaka. I wouldn't mind the extra company."
That set off a few alarm bells. I was expecting acceptance at most, not for him to sound like he actually wanted me to be here.
"What do you mean it's not confiden– I mean– Of course! Yes! Yes. Ahem." She coughed into her fist. "You have my thanks, Lord El-Melloi. Feel free to stay, Emiya."
I winced at her mention of my name. The Clock Tower Lord didn't seem to react, though I didn't know if that was a good thing or not.
We were sat at Rin's dining room table with plates of nice-looking food placed between us. Were circumstances a little different, I would have been amused by how out of place the leftover natto seemed amongst the cheese platters, pasta, and the sizzling paella at the center of it all.
Seriously. How much time did this girl spend on all of this? Hell– how many guests was she expecting? Even with me here, it was enough food for a small army, let alone four people. If this was what she could come up with when she was nervous as all get-out, maybe she could make do with a few extra stressors in her life.
I would gladly volunteer for the position of one such stressor.
"So. Emiya, was it?" El-Melloi addressed me, a hand reaching for the serving spoon. A generous helping of rice and shellfish was piled onto his plate before the paella was passed on to his ever-mysterious companion.
"That's right," I answered succinctly. I hope he didn't take my attitude the wrong way, but speaking more than I absolutely needed to was a bad idea.
I made a point of digging into my own serving in the hopes that the line of questioning would end there. I had just eaten dinner before coming here so my portions were small, but I liked to think that my actions served their purpose all the same.
No such luck.
"You're Miss Tohsaka's partner, is that right? I do apologize if our arrival interrupted your evening plans."
It took me a moment to figure out what he meant by "partner", but with my mouth full as it was, I was in no position to deny his assumptions.
Rin luckily had no such limitations.
"That isn't the case, Lord El-Melloi," she corrected him coolly with a straight face. "He's a classmate of mine, though he has a bad habit of dropping by unannounced every now and then."
The older man seemed unconvinced.
"But you invited him tonight, didn't you?"
"Yes, but today's circumstances aren't the norm."
Wow, Rin. You found your words pretty easily, didn't you? I'm impressed by your poker face. It would have been more impressive if your face wasn't lit up like a Christmas tree right now, though.
As the conversation began to liven the table, I couldn't help but notice how easy it was to forget that the hooded girl was here too. She was quiet, and El-Melloi made no point of introducing her, but she was by far the most dangerous person to me right now.
If she said one word about what she knew, then everything would come crashing down around me.
And yet, she didn't speak. I couldn't even say for sure whether she recognized me or not.
Regardless, I knew to shut up and take a win when it came my way. If she didn't want to bring it up, I was totally willing to let it stay that way.
Heh. "Things going my way", huh? How unusually lucky. Maybe I should go play pachinko or something after–
"Hm. I suppose it would make sense that the Second Owner would have such a strong relationship with Lady Barthomeloi's assistant. I didn't think that he'd be from Fuyuki of all places, but it seems so obvious in retrospect."
El-Melloi quirked a brow in response to the extended silence that followed his seemingly off-handed observation.
"Did I say something strange? I didn't mean to bring up any touchy subjects if that's what happened. Allow me to redirect the conversation towards the purpose of my visit."
Ah. So that's what he meant by "nothing particularly confidential". There were a lot fewer issues with discussing matters of a magical nature when it was supposedly understood out of hand that those participating in the discussion were involved with such subjects themselves.
Hm? Rin wasn't saying anything. Could it be that the terribly unfortunate and catastrophic reveal had slipped past her?
I stole a glance at her and winced at the sight of her glacial expression. So much for that.
"It's a good thing that you're here, Emiya. It saves us a lot of trouble, actually. I take it that you're aware of Lady Barthomeloi's current whereabouts?"
My mouth opened but closed shut just as quickly. Why did he want to know? Did he already know that she was in Fuyuki?
Telling them that she was staying at my place would probably be one of the few things capable of worsening Rin's current mood.
For whatever reason, Barthomeloi didn't inform the Second Owner of her presence, so I could only assume that she did so for a good reason.
…Did she have a good reason? Actually, I didn't really question it at the time; I probably didn't even notice it.
"Your silence is telling enough," El-Melloi said. I cursed under my breath. "That's the 'what' and the 'where' taken care of, now we need to figure out the 'when', 'who' and 'why'."
"Excuse me," Rin interjected, "but would you mind filling me in here?"
Ah. Thanks for asking that, Rin. I was curious too, but I didn't want to be the one to speak up. I'm happy that your current state of anger has made you more willing to speak your mind in questionable circumstances if nothing else.
El-Melloi coughed into his fist.
"Right. I'll try to keep this brief. Not long before I contacted you, Miss Tohsaka, an… acquaintance of mine got in touch with me. Before all else, I'll tell you that her jaws are sunken deep into the Department of Policies, so I have no doubts concerning the validity of her information."
I lowered my chin. These two were definitely here because of Barthomeloi.
"The vice director of the Clock Tower is going to die," he finished.
Hm? Everyone was looking at me strangely. Was there something on my face?
I only then noticed that I was standing up with my fingernails digging into Rin's tablecloth. My chair was knocked over behind me.
I straightened out the toppled chair and sat back down as if nothing happened.
"Is he sick?" I asked. "You sound awfully sure that he's going to bite the dust, and he's way too strong for a planned assassination to be a sure thing."
My friend's eyes were boring holes into the side of my head. Me talking about this stuff openly after keeping it a secret for so long must have been a real shock.
"It's a bit of both. It's because of his declining health that the attackers think they have a solid chance to take him out."
I crossed my arms.
"And what makes you think that his health is 'declining' in any capacity? I saw him in person not too long ago. He seemed just fine to me."
His initial silence didn't inspire confidence, and neither did the confused furrowing of his brow.
"You didn't know? I would have thought that his granddaughter would have told you."
I met his expression with a similar one of my own.
"He was cursed by a Dead Apostle Ancestor close to fifty years ago now. He's been deteriorating ever since, and frankly, it's a shock that he hadn't died long before now."
…No way. Since before that time? He was able to do all of that while afflicted with a curse?
Despite my inner turmoil, all that came out was, "A Dead Apostle Ancestor, huh?"
Barthomeloi… Is that why you…
"None of this matters," Rin interjected hotly. "A magus from one of the most important Clock Tower families is in my city without my knowledge, and her presence is significant enough to warrant you following her all the way here. Isn't that right, Lord El-Melloi?"
Wow. You're being awfully cheeky, Rin. El-Melloi seems like a pretty reasonable guy, but you should still calm down a bit.
"That's right," the man answered immediately. "Lady Barthomeloi is here because she thinks she can find a way to keep her grandfather alive. It's a lost cause, though."
"If it's a lost cause, then why are you here?"
Maybe I was speaking a little out of turn as well, but really, I was just following Rin's example at this point.
"Because Lord Barthomeloi isn't the only target. They want to wipe out the whole family. If his granddaughter is out of the line of fire, then that's at least one person that will survive."
A cold sweat ran down my back.
This wasn't on the scale of something like a high-profile assassination. It was far beyond that. There would be no way to hide something like this.
But still, one question remained unanswered. Why–
"Why are you involved in any of this? It's Policies' responsibility to deal with issues of this scale, no?"
Now, now, Rin, be nice. I'm certain that you will complain incessantly to me later with your current attitude, so let's limit that as much as possible for the time being. What do you say?
The Clock Tower Lord grunted.
"Trust me. I may not have anything against that old man, but it's not like I actually want to dip my foot in such a sticky situation. I have no choice in the matter, unfortunately. From what I gather, once the Barthomeloi family is wiped out, whoever's responsible intends to pin the blame on the Department of Modern Magecraft Theory– which I'm in charge of, by the way."
"And why would anyone believe that?"
"We have a motive and the means to pull it off, and as weak as both of those points are, it'll probably still work out for them in court," he grumbled. "It's as simple as a clash in ideologies: conservatives versus progressives. In the public eye, the strength of an entire faculty would probably be enough to take down a family of that size."
"But it's not," I shot back. "You'd have better luck throwing the whole damn Clock Tower at them, and I still don't think it would be a guaranteed thing. Why not pin it on one of the other major families instead? If it's a matter of 'means' or 'motive', both cases are a lot stronger on their end than on yours."
"No," denied Rin. She was biting her thumbnail with gritted teeth. "That wouldn't be possible. The inner-politics of the three great families is too strong and too complex for any outsider to place the blame of something like this on them."
El-Melloi built off of that.
"She's right. Not only would it be a great risk to make them an enemy, but their conflicts are too far removed from something as overt as this. It's just not their style. The 'why' and the 'how' would only make sense on a surface level."
"…I see. So you're screwed, is what you're saying."
How cute. We were like a pair of schoolgirls wearing matching t-shirts.
"Emiya!" Rin hissed at me.
"I am," Em-Melloi agreed easily with a deflated tilt of his head.
…It just occurred to me now, but…
"You're being awfully forthcoming about all of this. If a Clock Tower Lord like you didn't want to talk, then Rin wouldn't be able to force the issue."
The man's eyes widened.
"I suppose a bit of context is in order. When I phoned the Second Owner ahead of my arrival, I made it clear that I would be requesting her assistance on a matter. It would be negligent of me to not explain the situation in its entirety."
I don't really know what it was that made me snap, and yet I did. I did nothing as exaggerated as slapping the table or raising my voice, of course, though my face did feel a little tight.
"What right do you have to get Rin involved in something so dangerous? You may be a Lord, but no one died and made you king of the castle either."
Damn it, Rin. How can I keep you out of harm's way if you go and blindly agree to something so unbelievably–
"Calm down and shut up, Shirou."
My thoughts were forced to a grinding halt. She wasn't even looking at me, but her words cut right through me for whatever reason.
"No. Listen to me. You're not my father; you can't tell me what to do. I am the Second Owner of Fuyuki– I suppose you know what that means, right?"
She didn't let me get a word in.
"I will act as Second Owner however I see fit. I understand the dangers here just the same as I understand what is expected of me when I conduct business with a Clock Tower representative. I don't know if you're trying to coddle me or what, but stop it."
No one had it in them to speak for a moment. El-Melloi was the first to find his voice.
He coughed into his fist.
"Right. Regardless, I'll be sure to keep my end of the deal, Miss Tohsaka. I have my own honour to uphold here, and I don't want it to seem as though I'm taking advantage of your kindness. As we discussed– hm?"
El-Melloi swivelled his head towards his hooded companion. Until he did so, I had completely forgotten that she was here. She was pretty quiet.
…She didn't look too great, did she?
Her face was hidden by the cloak, but she was slumped over in her chair. Her food was untouched, and her chest was contracting and expanding unevenly.
The older magus was quick to tear her hood off.
"Gray. Are you all right!?"
Obviously not. Her skin was clammy and whiter than a sheet. Beads of sweat poured down her–
I choked on my spit.
It just occurred to me who it was that I was looking at.
I wasn't just imagining things back then.
"Please excuse us for the evening, you two," the man asked. He forwent any further formalities and picked up the girl. "It's probably nothing serious, but I want to keep an eye on her just in case."
"N-no… I'm fine. Just a little under the weather," the familiar face whispered.
She sounded nothing like her, but…
"Quiet. No need to act okay when you're not," said the one holding her up.
She nodded hesitantly.
Rin, who abandoned her blank stare in favour of a look of concern, could only nod.
"Of course. I'll see you soon, Lord El-Melloi."
She bowed, and he did his best to do the same with the added weight he was supporting.
My name was called once he had already disappeared behind the door.
"Yes?" I answered automatically.
"Please talk with Lady Barthomeloi. I know she's your boss, but don't let her do anything stupid. If not for my sake, then for hers."
The door clicked as it shut behind them, and I was suddenly alone with Rin.
I wasn't given the chance to get over my shock before four knuckles impacted my cheek. Rin's backhanded slap nearly gave me whiplash with how hard it sent my head twisting to the side.
I held still as a statue, not letting myself return to a position that would allow me to look her way.
Eventually, however, I was forced to look at her anyway when I realized that she wasn't saying anything.
Slowly, my wince evaporated. My jaw clenched and my eyes widened.
Rin's mouth was flapping uselessly. She was trying to speak, but no words came out.
Her cheeks were puffy and red. Tears had started to well up in her eyes.
I don't think I've ever seen Rin cry before, and if I have, the occasions were much too rare to remember. This wasn't quite that, but still possibly the next closest thing.
I hadn't only lied to her. I had deceived her. I knew that hiding the fact that I was a mage would cause added friction between us, but I had anticipated that, at the very worst, she would have simply lost all trust and faith in me. Unfortunately, there was one thing that I failed to take into account.
This whole time while we were talking with El-Melloi, I had thought that "anger" was the most of what she was holding back.
Instead, it was "hurt".
I had hurt her deeply.
What a mess.
I tried to speak.
And so I did. I let her try to regain control over her body and emotions.
She took a deep breath.
If not for the irritated flesh on her face, no one could have known that she hadn't been doing a perfect imitation of a statue until just now.
"I don't know what the hell you want from me, but stay away from Sakura."
Come on, Rin. Jumping to conclusions already? You're better than this, aren't you?
…Not that I didn't see where she was coming from. Taking her sister under my wing; forcing my way into her life with little explanation… If I were a normal person, it would have made me seem like an outgoing and social kid, or eccentric at the very worst. A magus, however, always had an ulterior motive. If I had been hiding myself from her for so long, then I obviously had something to gain from doing so. I was biding my time. Getting closer to her. Lowering her guard. Waiting for the optimal time to make my move.
It really was a deception amongst deceptions.
"You really are an idiot. You know that?"
Ah. A microsecond after the words left my mouth, I realized just how terribly they could have been misinterpreted.
I was given a smile that didn't reach her eyes. It was just as furious as it was bitter.
"Laugh it up, Emiya. You got me. Don't think for a second that–hmf!"
I slapped my palm over her lips. She was halfway through a vowel, so she ended up giving my hand a raspberry. It was kind of funny to have such a silly sound follow such a serious threat.
"Idiot," I repeated. "Don't you know how much of a pain in the ass you are sometimes? You could offer me everything you own and it still wouldn't be worth the effort it would take to pretend to be your friend for this long."
She slapped my arm away.
"Then why!?" she screamed. "Why hide it!? Does Sakura–"
"Sakura knows," I answered. "I couldn't tell you for the same reason that Sakura lives at our house in the first place. The Matou were treating her horribly, so I got her out of there. If the Tohsaka household found out, that would compromise everything. I wasn't able to settle things properly until recently."
A truth and a more... condensed truth. I wouldn't call it a lie, but it was an abridged version of transpired events that skipped enough steps –and years– to make my one-sentence reasoning sound like a complete thought.
And just like that, the anger left her.
Yet, nothing took the anger's place. There was nothing. "Hollow" was a good word to describe her right now.
"Get out, Shirou," she requested quietly.
This was all that I would be able to accomplish for today. With any luck, this clusterfuck would become salvageable before the grail war began.
I didn't argue. Less than several seconds later, I found myself standing outside the abode with the head of the household seeing me out with a hand gripped firmly on the doorknob.
Normally I'd be graced by the sight of her tapping her feet impatiently as she waited for me to leave, but there was none of that for now.
There was only one last thing for me to say before I left.
"Come to my house tomorrow, Rin. I want you to speak with someone."
"And who might that be?"
She didn't sound as much curious as she did fed up. Hopefully, I'd be able to clear up most of the air between us the following day.
The surprised glint in her eye was gone just as quickly as it came.
"…Then just say that, you jerk."
Just as it was many times before, the door was slammed in my face.
…Yeah. It might take a while, but we'll probably be just fine.