Sword After Spring

XI - wherein

Within the Hyōdō estate, a strangely familiar scene unfolds.

It was 9 am, and the five other inhabitants of the comfortable house stare in absolute disbelief as it did, their eyes wide and their mouths slightly ajar as they take in the sight.

It was 9 am, and all of them were seated at the table as breakfast was prepared… by their guest.

Truth is, none of them had expected much when Shirou volunteered to cook breakfast. Not a single one.

He'd said he liked cooking and asked to help in preparing breakfast in the morning — Miki Hyōdō had expected to have a minimally helpful assistant in cooking some eggs and bacon for the famished teenagers abound after Issei's friends had decided to stay the night.

Which, to be fair, would've been adorable! God only knows how she wished her Issei was a bit more useful around the house.

So she had shown the golden-eyed boy where the ingredients were and prepared herself to teach the boy some simple tricks — and, insted, very quickly found herself joining the other four in staring awestruck as the tornado known as Kōsetsu Shirou took the kitchen by storm.

Chicken salad, cooked salmon, spinach, radish, carrot miso soup, some fried eggs and plenty of rice were all prepared by the boy in an effortless show of talent, though he'd seemed reluctant to go for bacon. It was like watching the winner of a cooking show show off at the season finale; ingredients were masterfully handled and perfectly cut, and the four different preparations were all done simultaneously and with gusto; the sounds of ingredients being fried, mixed and doused rang slowly throughout the place, alongside soft humming under Shurou's breath.

He'd been at it for the better part of 40 minutes, and were it not for the absolute shock in everyone's faces, someone may have complained about the wait. (Un)fortunately, no one had the guts to. Between the shock and the criminally, and frankly impossibly, good smell that spread throughout the dining room, they all found themselves struck silent.

So it was.

"I'm almost done," called Shirou over helpfully, setting aside a few bowls as he finished cooking the salmon. "Just give me a few more minutes."

And that finally broke the spell.

Hyōdō Miki turned to face her son, her expression looking somewhere between awed and suspicious; narrowed eyes took in the face of a confused Issei, who stared back with an eyebrow raised and a silent question. After a second of contemplation, likely to try and sound polite, the woman settled for sounding honest, and simply asked what had been floating around in her mind;

"Say, Issei," said the woman, "Why is this boy even friends with you?"

It was a valid question, in her eyes.

Shirou Kōsetsu cooked, cleaned, was intelligent enough to skip a grade and apparently a prodigious shot at Kyūdo. He was a polite, well-educated boy who took care of other children in the orphanage he lived in and seemed to enjoy exercising. For every year that passed after Issei and Shirou had met, Miki and Gorou watched their son slowly grow a bit… wiser, maybe.

The boys were good to one another, she thought. Her son needed a friend who brought out his better qualities — God knew the stooges he hung out with wouldn't. And little Shirou was a melancholic little thing, always with his head in the clouds. He never looked livelier than when her boy was around to ground him, usually with his overenthusiastic antics.

It was good for the two of them, and Miki found that she rather liked having Shirou over. That such a precious boy had been the one to live out his days in an orphanage was always a reminder of how cruel life be, and made her all the more thankful for what her family had.

All in all, he was a wonderful friend for her son, of course. And she knew they got along well.

But, sometimes, she had to wonder what such a boy saw in her perverted idiot of a son.

Alas, Issei didn't take to that question all too well.

"H-Hey! What do you mean by that?!" The caramel-haired youth exclaimed, clenching a first in the air and grinding his teeth. It was hard to tell if he was offended by the idea that he shouldn't be friends with Shirou or that Shirou shouldn't be friend with him. Both, she surmised. "Y'got something to say?!"

She chuckled at his cartoon-like showing of anger, distracted from the wonderful smell for a little bit.

Honestly, this boy… with a smile, and ignoring his protests, she reached out to ruffle her son's hair with a hand. In a few months, he and Shirou would head out to study at Kuoh, a wonderful school where their future prospects would be much improved. But they'd be high-schoolers, then, and might be around a lot less afterwards.

She found she didn't mind that as much as she had feared when Issei was younger. She loved having her son around, but watching him grow up — and watching his friends grow up with him, even if some of them were hopeless idiots — was shaping up to be a wonderful and fulfilling experience.

"Well, whatever witchcraft you pulled, I'm glad you did." She told her son, honestly. "And I'm sure the four of you will have a blast at your new school."

Issei's enraged protests were soon replaced by a bashful sort of anger, and he crossed his arms over his chest and looked away, almost pouting.

"Of course we will," he murmured. "Who do you think we are?"

From their spots, both Motohama and Matsuda chuckled at his clear embarrassment. Ah, teenagers and their aversion to affection… It was quite funny, honestly. Had she been this concerned about it when she was his age? Probably.

Something clicked in the kitchen, followed by the sound of steps against the floor.

And then — something was placed on the table. A tray with the many pans and bowls, each full of amazingly attractive food, each smelling like heaven, was placed on the table. Collectively, they all looked at the boy with the dual-coloured hair. In return, Kōsetsu flashed them all a bright smile, soft and happy.

He looked truly content, too. Clearly, he really enjoyed cooking; good for him, she figured.

That boy would either make some lucky lady very happy or very insecure in the future, depending on their desire to play the housewife.

No way anyone was beating this.

"It's done," he announced, heading back to the kitchen to grab the rest of the prepared food to lay it out for them. "I made sure to make a little extra, since I don't know how much you all eat."

He placed plate after plate and bowl after bowl on the table, only taking a seat afterwards. In silence, he began serving himself — and then stopped, waiting for everyone else to do the same. No one had moved until then, each of them taken in by the subtle spell once again woven by the amazing aroma that filled the room.

"What the hell…?" Motohama, bless his heart, murmured. "I didn't know food could even look this good…"

Internally, Miki agreed emphatically. This .. this should be a crime. It shouldn't be possible. There was something unnatural afoot, surely.

"Don't be dramatic," Kōsetsu responded, though he looked mighty pleased with himself; she had no idea the kind boy could even look that smug. "Tell me how it tastes!"

And that was the sign.

Slowly, she began to serve herself. Perhaps it would be too strongly tempered; best to go for a smaller quantity at first. She could always get more afterwards — or so she hoped. Whatever the case, the spell was broken once again, and they all moved in.

Almost in unison, each of the four cut a part of the salmon and brought it to their mouths. They were slow, deliberate, almost hesitant — Shirou looked at them all with an expectant smile on his lips, clearly wanting to see their reactions. The air was tense, now.

The food looked heavenly. The fragrance had been almost drug-like. And from those two alone, Miki had found herself hesitant to taste it — they had set her expectations far, far too high.

No food on earth could possibly meet them now, not when the dishes had looked that good.

She had been right. Kōsetsu's food didn't meet her expectations — it completely shattered them.

It was like a golden aura started to emanate from everyone there at once, sparkles and all. Like the inverse of a miasma.

This wasn't food. This was nirvana.

She could swear she was crying.

Every flavor was masterfully crafted, balanced and planned. He'd used spices she didn't even remember she'd bought and mixed them together into a dish so inhumanely good that to fathom made her want more. It was almost sparkling.

She swallowed. Paused, nodded, and put down her fork. Only then did she look at Shirou.

"So," he asked, seemingly content with their reactions. "Did you enjoy it?"

"Are you still up for adoption?" She interjected immediately, almost urgent. "Because we can change that."

Silence consumed the room at once. The boy blinked at her slowly, like a confused owl seeing a dragon sleepwalking or something — he had very pretty eyes, wide and intensely golden. His lips parted as if to reply, but nothing came out. Apparently, she'd shocked him speechless.

Her darling husband jumped in to support her.

"I agree!" Said Hyōdō Godou. "Issei could do with the company, and we could do with the food…"

"...What." Shirou voiced, completely neutral save for his wide eyes. "I… what?"

She grinned at the flabbergasted boy, taking in another mouthful of heavenly food. Yeah, she repeated mentally, watching as Issei burst into a series of complaints and questions about and to his confused friend — watching them grow up was a gift indeed.

It was raining.

Not half an hour before Shirou was going to leave the Hyōdō residence and head home, thunder started to rumble in the now-gray skies above as a violent downpour of constant rain began to fall upon the streets of Kuoh, slowly at first and then increasingly powerful.

Needless to say, neither he nor Issei's other friends were all too eager to go home after that. And the boy's parents were adamant that they wait out the heavy rain; the streets could get dangerous with rain that heavy. In a way, Shirou supposed they were right…

Which didn't mean he was all too happy about that; extra time here meant another practice missed with Anastasia. His relationship with the woman had been strained enough as it was. He'd really not needed this on top of it.

But there wasn't anything to be done. Not like he could really get home when it was raining this much, anyway; as if to emphasize that line of thought, more thunder roared in the background, and the sound of rain hitting the roof and windows became faster and heavier.

This was a veritable storm, indeed.

He shot the older woman a message through his cellphone, praying silently that she'd remember to check her own little device despite being diametrically opposed to it due to age alone, and then sent a similar message to Samiya to ensure his sister of his safety.

She worried a lot.

Now he sat in Issei's room again, together with the three other boys in the Hyōdō estate, and watched with a sort of keen interest as Issei showed them all pictures of Kuoh Academy's premises and uniforms. Those were things he'd not looked into much, recently; it was a bit weird to think that he would soon leave Aosakuya for good and start on his strange assignment as a sleeper agent within Kuoh.

And it was stranger still to think that he'd share hallways and maybe even classes with the Devils he had met previously. He could already almost see it; He would walk into his classroom and see each and every single one of them in his classroom, wearing the uniforms seen in Issei's screen. With his luck, that'd be how it went.

He sighed.

"Say, Issei." Shirou began. "Do you know if —"

"Woah!" A funny-sounding shout of excitement from Issei drew his attention. Unlike Shirou himself, the boy and his two stooges were huddled together next to the computer screen, and he knew very well why. "L-Look at that! A ribbon! A ribbon in a bonafide schoolgirl outfit!"

Whatever Shirou had been intending to ask was ripped right out of his brain by the sheer magnitude of what he had just heard. His left eye, and hand, twitched softly.

"Indeed!" Said the bespectacled pervert beside him. Motohama slammed his hands on the table with gusto, a lecherous grin on his otherwise youthful face. "And that girl, too…"

The other two nodded at once at his implied comment, mirroring his wide and lecherous grin with similar ones of their own. Already, the boy with the auburn and white locks felt his forehead slowly thrumming as a new headache was born right then and there.

If one didn't know better and saw the trio out and about, they would assume them to be a bunch of nerds, most likely; maybe even student council members.

Kōsetsu, unfortunately, knew better than that.

"...Hey, you three…" Shirou called out in a disbelieving mumble, eyebrows furrowing despite himself. "Weren't we going to look into the school itself…?"

His eye twitched again even as he spoke. Unfortunately, he'd long since gotten used to Issei's particular brand of strange — it was just shocking to see that his friend's lecherous idiocy was tame compared to that of his two companions.

Honestly, he didn't know if he should feel exasperated or something beyond that.

So the boy just sighed.

The three idiots turned to face him all at once, looking as if he had offended their very souls. Matsuda looked enraged, Motohama looked incredulous, Issei looked pitying.

And … Was that blood on their noses? No way, right?

"You…!" Matsuda called out, louder than he'd like. He wondered what the Hyōdō's neighbors would think... "Can you truly tell me you cannot tell the amazing, incredible, unsurpassable appeal of a girl with big oppai in a gorgeous schoolgirl uniform?!"

"Yeah!" Agreed his equally idiotic friend, much to Shirou's chagrin. "Come on! Look at her! Is she not —"

Yeah, okay, he mumbled to himself, enough was enough.

Shirou was usually quite lenient, he thought. but there was only so much he could reasonably take before he snapped. There is something seriously, seriously wrong in a world in which these things were his friends — that was the immediate thought that crossed his mind.

"If I look at that screen and I find the three of you have been ogling a random girl instead of checking out what we need to buy for the school term," he started, golden eyes narrowing dangerously, "I will personally educate you on the practical applications of Kyūdo by using every last bit of pornography you own as practice targets."

Silence consumed the room at once. He could hear them gulping down dryly, trying to gauge if he was serious or not. As a response, he met their gazes head on, unmoving.

He was very, very serious.

"...Okay," Issei conceded, his voice slightly shaky. "We'll be good."

… He very much doubted that, unfortunately. But he would take what he could get; there was only so much one could hope for when they were dealing with the hurricane known as Hyōdō Issei.

Shirou sighed.

Clearly, he would have to be content with this much for the time being. Somehow, he felt nostalgic for a situation he couldn't really remember — maybe it was for that reason that he let it all go as easily as it did. Thus, he settled back into the bed, once again lost in his thoughts.

The list of school supplies was actually pretty extensive, though he didn't think they'd be too costly for him to handle. He'd need multiples of the uniform, for one — three or four? Something like that. If he was to wear it every single day, he'd need to cycle, at least until the first ones were done washing. So that was something to keep in mind.

Aside from that… most school books seemed to be provided by the school. He'd need a tie, a PE uniform, all the basic writing and drawing supplies, etcetera. Honestly, nothing too shocking.

The three other boys in the room seemed to share in his conclusion.

"This is pretty basic stuff." Issei murmured. "We can probably get all of it in one go."

He was right. Maybe they could go together; would be a good way to make a boring outing fun, and Shirou wanted to make sure they wouldn't embarrass themselves before term even began. He parted his lips to say as much, but —

His phone vibrated and rang out with the sound of a new message.

Since it had been mostly quiet aside from their talking and the rain outside, the sound was enough to distract everyone from what they had been doing; three pairs of eyes turned to face towards him as he took the device from his pocket and flicked it on with a swipe of his thumb, a slight frown forming on his face.

Slowly, he took in the message he'd been sent.

A few more seconds of silence passed. Finally, Issei spoke out —

"Hey, Kōsetsu. Everything alright?"

— And Shirou noted in his tone that this was Issei, the concerned friend, the one who had done his best to be considerate. It was… flattering, in a way, to see his friend flip from his usual lecherous nature to that of a genuine friend worried for his well-being.

Still, he kept on frowning.

"Yeah," he responded, sounding a bit concerned and a bit confused. "Just got a strange message from Samiya, that's all."

A pause.

"Huh," the boy muttered. "Can I see?"

Well, he didn't see any harm in it — for that reason, Shirou flipped his phone so that the screen was turned towards them, holding it out for them to read it. The three leaned forward at once, trying to read the small letters in the phone's bright screen.

[Can't go back right now; it's raining a bit much,] Shirou had sent.

Semiya hadn't responded immediately. And then…


[Are you there?]

[We need to talk.]


[I'm picking you up.]

"You're right," said Motohama, one of his eyebrows arched up in confusion. The idiot had bent to look over Issei's shoulder as he read the little conversation, not even bothering to hide his curiosity. Dumbass. "That's kinda suspicious."

"Isn't it?" He agreed, eyebrows furrowed softly, his thoughts running miles in a second already. Was she okay, he wondered? Had something happened? Shirou had never, not even once, seen her use actual punctuation while texting. Still, he couldn't help but voice his confusion; "I wonder what happened. There's no way she's coming over right now; the street she lives in will be awful to traverse in this heavy rain —"

And then, because convenient timings were apparently a rule of the universe, the doorbell rang out loudly. Once, twice — they heard the door being opened from downstairs, and the faint sound of someone speaking. As that happened, the four boys exchanged frankly incredulous looks, each of them asking the same question:

There's no way, is there?

And then Hyōdō Miki's shout answered them.

"Shirou!" She called from downstairs. "Your sister's here to pick you up!"

Shirou met eyes with Issei, shock clear in his eyes. And the only thing he could think of saying to that was —

"...I didn't even tell her where you live."

Outside, the rain still fell.

Shirou got up from his spot, murmuring a few confused words under his breath. His heart beat a few times too many in his chest — why was he so nervous all of a sudden? For some reason, it felt cold. A glance out of the window showed him the dark, cloudy skies that still filtered whatever bits of sunlight or moonlight laid behind it. And that was normal. It was a thunderstorm.

He turned his gaze to Issei once again, grabbed his backpack, and went downstairs to face the music.

The Hyōdo estate was a pretty comfortable place, all warm tones and homely colors. Issei's own room was in the second floor, and it's doorway led to a small hallway and then to the stairway downstairs; Shirou beelined it to the way down, hearing the steps of his friend and his two pet idiots as the three stumbled over themselves to get to him. He carefully made his ways down, golden eyes burning with a strange sort of dissatisfaction.

There was a faint smell in the air, now. Had it already been here before? No, Shirou decided, it hadn't. Whatever it was — it was far too faint for him to put a finger on it — it made him uneasy. Like ants were crawling all across his skin. Suddenly, the warm tones of the house felt muted and cold. It barely felt like he was with friends at all.

Miki and Gorou-san both waited for him at the foot of the stairway, looking at him with poorly-concealed confusion.

"Hey, Shirou-kun." Issei's mother greeted. "Is everything alright?"

"Uh," he murmured, "Yeah? I think so. I don't know why she's here so early, either —"

And then he turned to look at the doorway, and his heart kind of stopped. Samiya hadn't stepped inside, but the open door revealed the young woman who stood outside the house like she was in a vigil, holding an umbrella over her head and standing outside with a cautious look on her face. Her hair, long and usually worn in a loose ponytail — tied by whatever ribbon she got her hands on — was not neatly kept in a low and long braid, though her long bangs still framed her face.

But that wasn't the weirdest thing, because his sister was wearing a suit.

His sister, Samiya, who walked around their house with nothing but a t-shirt or an oversized hoodie, who felt like formalities were 'boring things for the dumb', was wearing a suit. An honest-to-god tuxedo.

Was the world ending?

As Issei, Motohama and Matsuda emerged from the stairs and made something of a low strangling noise, he surmised that the three agreed with him. Or, well, Issei might have — the other two were probably ogling her or something idiotic like that.

Or maybe not. He doubted even they couldn't see that something was off.

It could be seen in her posture, her expression. She looked… tense, maybe. Her shoulders set and her eyes cold, jaw clenched and spine straightened — as well as eyes that flicked around the place as if looking for signs of obvious or concealed danger. His sister looked startlingly similar to how she had looked all that time ago, on that critical night under the snow.

Which didn't bode well, clearly.

With furrowed eyebrows, he looked over his shoulder to meet eyes with a startled Issei, who took the time to mouth 'what the fuck' at him. Yeah, though his wording was a bit foul, Shirou could relate to the sentiment. To Issei's right, his parents didn't seem to know, either.

"Are you going already, Kōsetsu?" Issei's father questioned, a light frown on his face. "It's raining a bit heavily. Are you sure you and your sister —"

"Yes," Samiya cut in, a bit brief in her urgency. Her eyes looked stormy. "Shirou and I really need to get going. I apologize, Hyōdo-dono; I'll bring him over again later."

He walked up to her with his stuff already on his back, but made sure to reluctantly wave goodby at the two adults he'd been imposing upon. The two still watched him, alongside the trio of perverted idiots that gathered behind them and next to the stairs like they were watching a bad anime.

But they didn't protest further. So he turned his gaze back upon the source of his concern.

"Is… everything okay?" Shirou questioned, looking up at his sister with a pair of startlingly alert golden eyes. "You look…"

He didn't know how to finish that sentence. Yet, he didn't need to, for Samiya shook her head and cut him off, eyeing his backpack.

"Everything's… fine. Something just came up back home. You've got everything you brought with you, lil' bro?"

A hint of concerned steel rose up from within his chest, familiar like an old enemy.

But he nodded anyway, and she nodded to him in turn, motioning for him to come closer. As he did, Samiya closed the door behind them with a loud slam — and then lingered for a moment, her face unreasonable. Though the two were protected from the weather by the umbrella and the little steps to the door of the Hyōd's house, the heavy storm still bore heavily on them both; it was as if a heavy mist was clinging to them, even though he could see pretty clearly.

Shirou stared at her.

There was a deep well of concern in his sister's face, one he could see only due to how close he was to her — it was in the furrow of her brows, the twisting in the corner of her lips, the way her eyes were downtrodden. Samiya expressed her joy openly, but when it was sadness, her face was harder to read. Her hand, however, trembles slightly around the handle of the wide umbrella she carried with her.

And his patience waned.

"Okay, spill. What's wrong?" He asked her, crossing his arms. "Something's clearly happened."

Inahomi Samiya kept her silence for a beat too long — then sighed. As she did, her posture sagged, dropped like someone has deposited ten tons upon her back, each bit of it a failure; the young woman looked positively defeated in that moment.

"Shirou," she murmured. "I…"

And here, she took in a deep breath, slowly and yet all the shakier for it. And spoke.

"There's someone who wants to see you. He… it's complicated, and I'm sorry you have to speak to him, but I promise you he's safe. Just… keep your guard up, okay? And, whatever you do, don't mention this, or him, to anyone else." She stared at him right in the eyes as she spoke. "If anything goes wrong, I'll protect you. But it won't. I promise."

He took in her words, shocked at how uncharacteristically solemn the girl was behaving. This had come out of nowhere for him — the result, of course, was the familiar sensation of being out of his depth. Yet, what else could he do? Shirou Kōsetsu trusted his sister with every fiber of his body, every last bit of him. But sometimes, she acted as if she was in on a secret nobody else knew, and those times were a bit intimidating.

This was like those moments but ten times worse.

Unfortunately, though — Shirou, whatever came after, had always been one to trust and leap first. After all, though he was fairly sure Samiya saw herself as his protector… if she was scared, then she needed help. He'd not be the one to leave her waiting.

"I promise."

A soft sigh escaped her lips; relief, maybe? Hard to make sure. But she nodded, once, putting on a brave face that was about as fake as anything else he'd ever seen, and then flashed him a smile so tiny it might as well not have been there. It still made him feel a little better.

"Thanks, lil' bro. Come on, then. He's right there."

Right —

Shirou turned around, his nerves suddenly screaming at him. For some reason, he felt threatened, uneasy. Something was wrong, terribly wrong.

He'd only looked away from the street behind them, but he was 100% sure that it had been mostly empty of cars; and the few that had passed had been noisy enough for him to be aware of them. With how heavy the rain was, it was all but impossible for a car to make anything but tremendous amounts of noise. Yet, there was a bonafide limousine waiting for them — beautiful in its long simplicity, black and very well cared for.

The windows were darkened and the doors were all shut, but Shirou could catch a faint mixture of smells coming from it. The same smells he'd caught before, back when he'd been inside. Now, however, he could identify them.

Ozone, charcoal, caramel… and sulfur.

Sulfur, like all those years ago.

The door clicked open. Samiya softly pushed him by the shoulder to approach it. Without giving himself time to change his mind, Kōsetsu took a deep breath in and walked with his sister to the limousine's door — their steps sinking into puddles and rainwater as they walked. Somehow, impossibly, the storm grew heavier still around them, and as it did, the sound of rain pettering the umbrella above them served as a soft build-up of anticipation — until he reached the limousine.

He pulled open the doorway and got in, expecting to hear his sister get in behind him. She did not; he heard the door close behind him with a click, and then nothing but silence. Not a hint of the storm outside.

The insides of the limousine were beautiful; black and red seemed to be the theme throughout, with golden weavings along the red seats and even the black inside walls somehow. The AC was on and had been for a while, making the place cold and a bit dry, almost sterile — but it was very well-lit by the evenly-spaced lights above their head.

Samiya didn't get in with him. He was alone ... No. There was someone else within.

He'd not seen the man at first, but there was someone besides him, sitting in the cherry red seats within the limousine. A middle-aged man wearing a beautiful white suit — just laying eyes upon it told Shirou that the item had been tailored to absolute perfection. Interestingly, the sleeves of the suit were wider than usual, giving it a slight flamboyant air.

The man had a memorable face, too; all sharp features, but aged in a way that implied elegance instead of decrepitude. He looked like a stereotypical nobleman, thin and tall, with a goatee and a wry smile upon his lips — yet, everything about him was unusual. For starters, the man's hair, which was gelled back, was split right in the middle; half of it was a deep blue, while the other was a crimson red. Similarly, the man's eyes were similarly coloured; beneath blue hair was a red eye, and beneath red hair was the blue one.

And he smelled of sulfur and magic and power immemorial.

"Oho," the man let out a soft laugh. "Cautious little doe, aren't you?"

His voice was rich, deep and well-cultured. It kind of made Shirou want to punch his face in, for whatever reason; it was an innate urge, something almost exterior to himself. He stifled it, burying it under layers and layers of… something.

Steel. He had to steel himself. Despite the hammering inside his chest, he had to steel himself.

"You," he began. It was hard to speak his mind when so much of his brain raged with questions and paranoia, conjuring memories of snow dyed deep red. "Who… are you?"

"I believe it is usually customary to offer one's own name before asking for someone else's, no? But, if you must know, I am called Mephisto Pheles, and it is very nice to meet you. You've been turning some heads, you know?"

And the world went still.

There was once a man by the name of Faust who had thirsted for knowledge and power and all the world's vices — or so it went. The true nature of that man, and the true nature of his wishes, have long since been lost to history; dissolved in the many, many stories told of him after all was said and done.

But there had once been a name by the name of Faust. His story was now over, his cautionary tale now told. Yet, upon the world, there was still his contracted Demon loafing around.

And his name, as Samiya knew it, was Mephisto Pheles.

Once upon a time he had been Mephistopheles, spoken as a single word, and before then he had been something else, and before then he'd been somewhere else, and on and on and on. The tale of Mephisto was a never-ending one, linear in how it had long since stagnated — yet it provided new things all the same.

How long these lasted…. Well.

Grauzauberer was still arguably the strongest and most influential Magician organization in the human world, and it was arguably due to him. The man had an eye for — for specialness, for lack of a better hand, in each and every situation. He could spot a golden goose from miles away, could smell a golden opportunity and act on it in a heartbeat. Mephisto was intimidating because he was a Devil when most others of his kind, whatever their age, simply failed to live up to those standards —

Which is to say, he was a creature of temptation. The creator of the original Faustian deal.

As she climbed into the limousine and took a seat next to an old friend of hers, who herself was seated behind the limousine's driver, Samiya felt ice sheathe her heart, and wondered for the tenth time if she had made the best decision. But there really wasn't any room left to doubt herself at this point, was there?

Their cabin was completely isolated from the one furthest back, which was where Mephisto had taken his spot. The unnatural length of the limousine was just one of many reasons Mephisto was fond of it — and she could never be sure if it was magical in nature or not, for few looked at it for more than a few moments at a time. He simply… didn't like to share. And that was what concerned her.

To her right, Lavinia Reni let out a dignified chuckle at her expense. Of course she did. Even after all these years, the very first thing the other girl did was laugh at her; it was like Samiya never left.

"My, my. Sacchan looks so very worried~" Then, a pause, and she spoke a bit more seriously. "Lighten up. You know Mephisto would never touch a hair on your kid's head. He values you too much — the chairman wouldn't dream of wasting things that interest him."

That was true. Mephisto was a creature of dealings at his core, and he wouldn't dare do anything to Shirou — not while knowing he had a chance to get Samiya herself back in Grauzauberer after all this time. Furthermore, the old Devil preferred to keep out of Church dealings when he could; he'd fulfill Samiya's request, but likely no further. Or so she'd think —

But Mephisto Pheles was a man with an unfailing eye for talent.

"Yeah," she agreed, her voice low. "That's what I'm afraid of."

But there was no time left for her to be scared. Inahomi Samiya had made her choice — for the sake of her brother's future.

"Before we go any further. Entertain me for a second, little doe. Do that, and we talk.

I want you to imagine this. You are alone, deep within the woods, near a cabin you and your friends once took refuge in.

Your arms and legs are aching and bleeding, your eyes both hurt and your head feels light. You cling to a piece of wood you found, exhausted of all other resources, as a prowling great beast approaches you from the shadows around you. Somewhere between the trees.

You know, innately, that facing it will mean death — and a death that means nothing. I don't know what you can do to fight back in real life, but imagine you've been stripped from all that. You have nothing, you're barely capable of movement. Even thinking feels strained.

Yet, behind you, two friends are waiting. They're desperately trying to call for help. Maybe you can buy enough time for them, maybe you can't. You know you don't have more than a minute left, if you do nothing. Barely more, if you choose to fight.

If you fight, and die, then so do your friends. If you run, your friends die, but you might live. You could fight and try to win, but that's all but impossible. The beast is stronger, faster, better.

Yet, in this moment, someone makes you an offer. They will give you the power you need to best the challenge ahead of you — but the cost will be your innocence, your humanity, your very soul. The price will corrupt you in the aftermath, surely and definitively. It will doom you.

But it will also save your life, and that of your friends.

What do you choose?"

Every word spoken felt magical, but not as in a spell.

The air shifted, his sight grew clearer, his mind grew sharper. The man called Mephisto spoke, as he did, the scene was sculpted in Shirou's head as if carved into marble by an artist, monochrome at first but gaining more and more details as it went. He didn't want to, but if he tried to, he could imagine how it felt to have his heart roaring in his ears, could imagine how it felt to feel the grass beneath his feet sticky with pooling blood, could imagine the rising panic in his chest.

— And he knew what he would say.

Because when he closes his eyes and envisions the scene, he sees a myriad of shapes behind it. Samiya and Anastasia, for a moment. Issei, then. (Illya), the sister that he had abandoned, the sister he loves so dearly even then. A girl with long pigtails. And then the faceless girl with the violet hair, with a silhouette as sweet as sugar, a blurry sight that hurt him like a knife into his chest. Emerging from deep within a haze.

The Beast, in his heart, wasn't a beast. It was a woman. Pitch-black with a sword of shadows like ink and brilliant shining crimson — it's name was [ ] and to fathom it was to hear the universe screaming, crying, to think of it alone was to know that Hope was dead and they had killed it, was to feel the flames under the tyrant's foot.

A Faustian bargain to defeat an unfathomable foe. A deal to lose himself, faced against a fallen [ ]. A fallen friend.

The answer came to him in an instant, as surely as he'd ever been about a single thing in his life — the sort of answer that's innate to you. How…


Kōsetsu didn't know all of it. With how few of his memories made any sense, with how many gaps and holes there were in them, he could say he didn't know most of it. He barely knew any of it, really. But he knew one thing.

If it was for them —

If it was for them, then —

"I do it." He replied. Pure of heart, for but a moment. "I save them. Whatever the cost, I save them."

Mephisto Pheles' thin lips curled into a wide, wide grin — full of teeth that were just too sharp and with features that were just too pointed. It wasn't noticeable when he was serious, but when the Devil smiled, it was made clear — not a single thing about his face didn't look wrong. Inhumane, personified; a face that was perfectly possible, perfectly reasonable, yet should not exist. It was off-putting in ways that didn't really fit into words, and with a result Shirou couldn't really call anything but uncanny.

The older man's heterochromatic eyes twinkled in some sort of sick satisfaction at his answer, fingers joining so the Devil could tap the tips of his index fingers together in a rhythm, all soft movements in sharp manners. He drank in the sight of Shirou's determination like a man dying of thirst would drink from a fountain, every last inch of his body screaming satisfaction and curiosity; wrongness screamed at the sight of this man, yet Shirou couldn't put his finger on why.

"A good answer," Mephisto Pheles murmured, "A very good answer indeed."

There were moments of silence within which Shirou could barely think to form words. The insides of the limousine were incredibly oppressive right then and there, even in their beautiful simplicity; he felt cornered, and had the sick realisation that it was entirely possible Mephisto has chosen this location for that exact reason. To put pressure. To instil… what. Fear? He wasn't afraid.

Something else. Urgency.

Golden eyes stared at red-and-blue with nothing but determination. Steel your heart, Shirou reminded himself, thinking of the twin swords of Yin and Yang that dwelled within his mind. Steel your heart. [Fire is your blood.] You can do this.

"So?" He pushed, ever so slightly. "What do you want with me?"

Mephisto met his question with a tilt of his head, keen eyes taking in the sight of him with some more of his curious gusto as he pondered upon what to say. Then, he seemed to reach a conclusion, for the man nodded to himself in satisfaction a few times. Only then did he speak, and when he did, his words were measured — but still very much amused, sharp and intentional.

"Did you know, little doe, that your Sister used to be a Magician belonging to Grauzauberer?" The man asked. It seemed to be a rhetorical question, though, for he barely gave Shirou any time to respond before moving on. "I'm sure you were made aware of it, on some level. You churchies aren't big on her kind, right? I bet you've seen the way people treat her."

— And he struggled for words again, because, yes, Shirou did know.

But he didn't know the full story.

At some point, Samiya had been a Magician and had belonged to an unnamed organisation, one he now knew to be called Grauzauberer. At some point, she'd quit — or had been rescued, or taken away from it, by the actions of a younger Anastasia, who was also the reason the Church didn't outright execute her on the spot. Even now, Samiya was under their matron's patronage and protection; had it not been for that, Shiru didn't think she'd —

No. He'd have protected her, then.

But he did know of it, and he had seen the way they treated her. It could've been worse, he was sure, but — it still wasn't right. But it also didn't explain anything to him, and everything he knew about Devils told him there was a game being played here, an angle he'd not been made aware of. What was Mephisto after?

"Yeah," he replied. "I… know of it."

"Good." Mephisto Pheles nodded. "Then, here's a little history lesson for you. To summarise a complicated topic, the current system of Magic-casting was developed by Merlin Ambrosius — based upon, of course, the principles of human science and of Devil power. It was an invention millennia ahead of its time, a true showing of how incredibly gifted that blasted man was; for the first time, humanity didn't have to pick a side in Heaven's war to stand tall."

It would've been one thing if Mephisto had merely been telling him about it, but he wasn't; as he spoke, the older man flipped the palm of his left hand until it was turned up, and then — with a snap of his fingers, produced a flame-like image of a man. It was hazy, soft and slightly out of focus, but it was clear and perceptible. The man within the flames danced as Mephisto bent and moved fingers underneath him, like a puppeteer controlling a puppet; Shirou saw the man drawing an intricate circle in the air with movements of a staff he held.

Was this… Merlin?

It must be.

Something in his head told him that Merlin didn't quite look like this, but the man with the long white hair and in the purple robes must be the man who was once called Merlin Ambrosius. As he controlled the intricate illusion, the Devil continued speaking; his rich voice was filled with a strangely content undertone, almost nostalgic, as he spoke of things that might have happened over hundreds of years ago.

Mephisto spoke on.

"The Church doesn't like this, of course; they view this adaptation of knowledge acquired from my kind as the utmost heresy, to say nothing of how Magicians tend to form contracts with Devils. But Merlin, as wise men often choose not to, didn't pay the Church any mind. He kept going with his trial and error until he physically couldn't, and when he finally hit a wall, he summoned a Demon and got the knowledge he needed from them."

Within the flame-like image, Merlin completed a circle in the air — and from it came a creature, crawling out of it like it was crawling out of hell itself. The clothes were different and the hair was longer, but Shirou recognised the figure of Mephisto Pheles within the boundaries of his own flames immediately, and looked up at the creature with wide golden eyes burning.


The demon only nodded, laughing softly.

"Indeed, indeed! It was me! Long before dear old Faust ever came upon me, the man by the name of Merlin Ambrosius certainly did. Using a bastardisation of my own calling card, he offered me knowledge for knowledge, and sent me back with hundreds of questions as he used what he learned from me to completely change the way anyone viewed magic — and humanity with it. Who, at the time, could have thought that humans — people without a drop of magical blood in them, unlike even Merlin himself — could produce magical effects? Things changed after that."

He snapped, and the flames burned out, vanishing into a thin trail of almost-invisible smoke as he dexterously twisted his hand and produced a playing card from within his wide sleeves, holding it out for Shirou to take with his index and middle fingers. Hesitantly, the boy reached out and took it, pulling it closer to himself to examine it.

It was blank — not a single illustration or number upon it. Just from touching it, Shirou knew that the playing card was made from plastic and had a number of magical enchantments laid upon it, though the nature of those he really could not discern; it put him at something of a conundrum, as he really would've preferred not to interact with something of this power without knowing what it did.


"That's very interesting, but… what does this have to do with Samiya or myself?"

He questioned the devil, choosing to be a bit blunt in his desire for answers.

This was the nature of the boy called Shirou.

The atmosphere around him shifted a bit, with Mephisto lazily eyeing him up with a soft smirk played across his lips — even still, it felt like the air got a bit colder all of a sudden, and Shirou was made intimately aware of how little space he had to move in within the limousine.

It was a claustrophobic realisation.

If Mephisto made a move to strike him down, he'd have to fling himself back into the wall and hope that had made enough space for any of his Projections to be usable, and even then, when it came to a Devil of this age… What exactly could he even conjure?

— !

His mind was consumed by static, but only for a single second.

A flash of searing-hot pain blossomed within his mind and in his shoulder. In his haze, though, he could see an answer; [Brahmastra]. But to think about it would consume his mind further, and so he pushed it out of his mind.

Don't think about it. Don't think about it. Definitely don't think about it.

It was cold.

But Shirou could not muster up fear anymore. Echoes of a fire that showed him hell rang in his head. Whispers of a dying flame caressed his heart. Even now, in the bitter cold, he felt as if it was still warm. And a stray thought made itself known —

He had already lost a sister once.

For that reason, he had to know.

"Good question, good question. I suppose it comes back to curiosity." Mephisto murmured, eyes alight, and Shirou had the sudden realization that the Devil had somehow seen something in his moments of recollection, noticed the flare of pain and perhaps something else. It made the steel in his chest shift. "When my Faust created the Grauzauberer, I stuck around out of… curiosity. I wanted to know what humanity would do with Merlin's unfathomable gift to them. Me and Faust had a deal, you see — I'm sure you know it well. If it came to pass or not… well, that's a secret I'll keep. But when his time came to move on, I stayed behind and took his spot. The Grauzauberer, his darling little project, was far too valuable to let waste away. And I also wanted to preserve it, you see. There are many magicians out there who have never even laid eyes upon a Devil. And yet ..."

And yet, Shirou's mind supplied, somewhat cynical. And yet they are slaughtered by the church whenever found, executed for the sins of mingling with Devils and being heretics. Somehow, in a manner all too soft in its cynicism, he didn't feel all too surprised.

Suddenly, he began to see it; both Mephisto's cunning and his very real point.

But Shirou had never not been aware of the Church's many failings. He'd been made intimately aware of them ages ago — and only became further intimate with the scope of how far they went as he aged, pushed further and further into the Church's grasp by outside pressure and his innate desire to help keep people safe.

He might not have known how human Magicians had come about, but he'd never bought into the Church's rhetoric to begin with — not fully. Which only made him question Mephisto's motives in telling him such. The man with the mixed hair of red and blue still looked upon him like someone who'd hit the jackpot in a game he particularly enjoyed, but Shirou couldn't see what the prize he was seeing was, and that made him uneasy.

"I know that," he replied. "The Church is… flawed."

"If that's what you prefer to call it. Don't get me wrong, little doe; I do not side with the Devils over them, nor with the Fallen Angels against them both. I merely choose not to have a side." Mephisto chuckled; back was the mirth in his voice, and he leaned back and winked as he said that. "But consider this. It may be standard to establish contracts with Devils now, both for status and protection, but this standard wasn't present in the early years of Magic. There were very few patterns at all, really — my Grauzauberer wasn't all too well-established, for example, during the times of the Witch Trials."

Oh, no.

"Back then, some Magicians were even religious; taken in by force of curiosity, but the sort that would rather die than tarnish themselves by dealing with Devils, myself included. These people, and my own Magicians, and even some chemists and normal wise people, people who merely defied their view of normality… each of them butchered like pigs all the same. Think on that, and you should get why exactly Magicians tend to look down upon those who bear the cross."

He made a show of wiping a tear from his eye — a tear that wasn't there, that is. Still, he was neither mocking nor overly dramatic about it. Just… slightly playful, perhaps. Still, though, Shirou couldn't help but think that there was a genuine note of sorrow behind the demon's light words —

He tried to imagine it. In the end, [running through the processes of something's creation] was at the very core of the being known was Shirou.

An ageless being who was taken with humanity, watching for hundreds of years as humans slaughtered one another for very little.

Helping in the creation of something you think is downright miraculous, only for humans to slaughter each other over it — over thinking it a vile thing. Curious people burned at the stake, interesting people tortured and stoned to death, repeating over the years. A cycle of suffering, forever bound.

At which point do friends stop being people and start being numbers? At which point do the pages splashed by the blood become too stained to be read without staining you back?

It was hard to conceive of a Devil like Mephisto having genuine care for human people — but Shirou had already concluded that he shouldn't judge them by their species alone. Even if Mephisto felt wrong in ways that defied human words, that didn't mean he was unfeeling. And if, underneath his endless desire for having his curiosity sated by entertainment if underneath the visage of wrong smugness he put up, was any sort of genuine care for his people, and for their craft, then…


Suddenly, he thought he could see it. The dormant candle underneath, that is.

It felt strange, even conceiving of it. But Shirou followed his heart. And so the boy with the white locks mixed with auburn looked up at the old Devil's mirthful eyes with his twin pools of molten gold — and bowed his head just a little.

"I am sorry for your loss." A pause. "And thank you for keeping an eye out for my sister."

Whatever the devil had been expecting, it hadn't been this. The old gentleman froze — eyes widened and lips parted — and then, after a few seconds, chuckled yet again, a bit more honestly this time. The sense of wrongness diminished, if only a little bit, and was replaced by an air of weary curiosity that made him feel just as cautious, but in different ways.

"How… nice of you, little doe. I appreciate it. Truly."

A pause. Once again, Shirou felt as if his showing of compassion had changed something about their exchange, though he couldn't possibly fathom how or what.

"If you were curious — that question I asked you earlier was how I liked to sift through my candidates, before they went onto the real tests. Little Samiya, if I recall, looked me in the eye and said — 'Yeah, in that case, sure. But I don't want to need anyone else to save them. That's dumb.' And then she went back to her training."

The devil's chuckle turned into a small laugh, and Shirou tried to envision… ah, who was he trying to fool.

That woman… of course she'd say something like that.

He was surprised his sister didn't try to draw the Devil in for a deal herself. That was the sort of person his sister was; her soul was fierce on every level. Meekness from her felt wrong; that's what had bothered him so much about the way she'd acted earlier.

But the devil kept talking, eyes alight.

"Ah, little Samiya. Bright, bright little Samiya. She made the Deal with me, as you might have expected — everyone in Grauzauberer did. We were scared for her when she left. Until one day, years later, she called me up and asked me for a favour. A favour for you, little snowfall. Now, I thought to test you before anything else — and I have. Before your answer, you had my curiosity. Now… you have my attention."

And here it was. The moment of truth. Kōsetsu met eyes with the monster in a person's skin — or with the person in a monster's suit.

And Mephisto Pheles, ageless creature that he was, flashed a grin and snapped his fingers.

The card he'd given Shirou caught on intense black fire — flames so dark they felt like a violation of reality itself. Yet, it didn't burn — they barely carried any warmth, even when they should've been consuming the flesh of his hand in an instant. When the flames flickered away, Shirou found the symbol of an intricate circle burnt into the playing card's surface, with letters he'd never once seen before.

Symbols that burned in a soft purple light

Symbols that felt unholy.

"I would offer you a Deal, Kōsetsu Shirou."


Sometimes, things reaaaaally decide not to work out the way you wanted them to.

Hello, my starlings.

Been a bit, but not too long.

This is Lily, riding back from the Great Beyond to scream at your face that she is not, in fact, dead. Here's hoping you enjoy these two chapters, and that you don't resent me too much.

Things change a lot, I think. In my few months off, while I was busy, I thought about this story almost every day. Managed to finish the outline for most of it. Came up with cool Character moments, inspired myself with scenes I wanted to pen. This has always been about love for what I'm doing, for me.

I really like this little story. I have no plans to let it rot.

The quality in this chapter might be a little inconsistent. A few parts were written months ago, recovered by means of a few drafts from a three-chapter document that got almost entirely corrupted back in May, and then a few parts were penned after the corruption but before the pieces were recovered.

I hope you've enjoyed it anyway, sunshine. I can admit to having lost a lot of my motivation for the story for a few months after that corruption — I really liked those chapters. Even now, there are scenes I can't perfectly recall but know I liked a lot, and to have lost them was a shame.

Chapter XI will come very soon. I tend to post in bursts, as you know. The little Mephisto scene at the tail end of this little tiebreaker was originally the opening scene to Chapter XII, "a dead dove's den", but I thought it better suited to ending this one instead. I hope you've enjoyed it.

Leave your ideas, your requests and your thoughts in the comments. Feel free to call me names for how long it took, too; I get it.

At some point, I'll go over the entire story and make sure to rewrite certain sections, to make the reading experience a bit more uniform, a bit more pleasant. Might need a little help for that, but I'll do it. For now, I'll keep adding to it — no use losing myself to perfectionism.

Happy to be back with you all, truly. Expect more from me soon.

Also, dedicated SPECIFICALLY to Razigibran, who DMed me asking when I'd update. Now. Now is when.