So busy this month, man. Been trying to juggle this and getting out of the country at the same time (succeeded sort of) but I wasn't able to push out the chapter itself for the public until just now. My brain is totally fried; jetlag sucks the big one. My biggest enemy rn is falling asleep before actual night time and hopefully by getting everything polished from this end I'll be able to stay awake a little longer. Everything feels like a fever dream rn.
As always, big thank you to Sherlock (who carried this chapter particularly toward the end) and everyone on pa treon. Couldn't do it without you. This is (technically) the second half of the previous chapter, I'm just very late getting it out. Some stuff had to be rewritten/rearanged for the sake of future events but most of the delay really was just me being busy lmao.
Happy 100k words, everyone.
A pair of Sekirei—their names weren't coming to mind—dragged Sekirei Number Four into his office. She didn't look any worse for wear than she did the last time he asked to see her, which some small, vindictive part of his mind was a little upset about.
Izumi Higa hid his grimace as he was once more forced to stare at Karasuba's maddening grin; her person, chair and restraints and all, were positioned squarely facing his desk.
Loathe as he was to admit it, this thing in the body of a woman scared him just as she would scare any other sane individual who knew what she was capable of. Unfortunately for them both, however, the pros of having her under his thumb vastly outweighed the cons.
Making that happen was proving itself to be an entirely new process.
Usually, it was simple enough to capture the Ashikabi—or a relative of theirs—and blackmail the Sekirei. He didn't have the Ashikabi or a relative; he had the Sekirei. What was he supposed to do with that? If Emiya Shirou had any worldly attachments beyond the alien then he couldn't find them. Higa definitely looked.
The next step, working with what he had, would be—and was—to cage this rabid dog long enough for his people to capture her comparatively weaker partner and then blackmail her. Or both of them. Something along those lines, definitely.
That part wasn't straightforward either.
Emiya Shirou was dangerous in his own right. If his actions weren't making that obvious enough, his Sekirei's urgings for Hiyamakai Enterprises to make a move on the man made that very clear. She was goading them. Daring them.
Higa didn't like to be dared to do things. Oftentimes, the purpose was to distract him from the correct decision that needed to be made.
Ignoring the woman who was still smiling at him, he leaned back into his chair and held a deep breath as he pressed a button on the intercom on his desk.
"Kakizaki," he spoke.
His secretary, dutiful as always, walked in through the open door so quickly that it would have been easy to believe that the man had been standing outside the whole time.
"Show me what you've got so far."
Kakizaki didn't need to be told what it was that he was talking about. The bespectacled man took out a stack of developed photographs and spread them out on the CEO's desk.
Higa knew that the man's frown didn't spell anything good. Nonetheless, he took a gander.
All the images were of Zero Four, tied up and made to look as compromised as possible. Only, she didn't really look "compromised" at all. No matter how they tied her up or whatever dangerous objects they propped her up against, she always managed to seem some combination of in-control and relaxed. Any images in which those features were covered were practically useless because once you covered enough of her it was impossible to tell that it was actually the right woman to begin with.
They couldn't even injure her, let alone mutilate her, because the whole point of all this was to get out the other end with her actually working for them. Cutting off an ear or a limb was just weakening their weapon-to-be. What were his options then? Slicing up her cheek a little? That wasn't a threat. Emiya didn't strike him as someone hot-headed enough to see it as one, at least.
Using her as blackmail was proving itself to be difficult. The whole thing was almost comical, actually.
Karasuba's smile felt particularly mocking at that moment. Well, it always was, but he felt the dig just that extra bit more right then.
"Number Ten should be here by now, right?"
"Good." He pushed another button on the intercom. "Bring in Uzume, please."
They all waited in silence for the minute or so that it took the brown-haired woman to make her way into the office.
He shot Kakizaki a pointed look; the man grabbed a chair from where he stood near one of the far walls and dragged it over to a spot facing the desk.
Right next to Karasuba.
Rather than speak, Higa gestured for the woman to take a seat; she was visibly rattled by his suggesting that she sit right next to the Black Sekirei regardless of the woman's current immobility.
The poor girl really didn't have anything to worry about. If Kakizaki's advanced reports were true, the knowledge that Uzume was about to relay in the woman's presence should get Karasuba rattled. Not the other way around.
With all the road bumps that had gotten in the way, it was good to know that blackmailing their captive wasn't the only solution.
No matter how nice it would have been to have had that safety net.
"Uzume. Thank you for joining us. Have you been well?"
The brunette nodded, wariness present in every aspect of her demeanour.
"I'm fine. I have to leave quickly though; someone might begin to wonder where I am."
With a wave of his hand, Higa quickly dismissed whatever it was that she so clearly thought was going to happen to her.
"Of course. A few minutes of your time is all that I'm asking for. Is Emiya Shirou settling in well at Izumo Inn?"
There was the kicker. How would Karasuba take that, he wondered?
Uzume's fists tightened. He couldn't see them over his desk but he's seen it happen enough that her upper body was enough of a tell.
Nonetheless, she smiled.
"He is. I'm taking great care of him. I think we'll get along very well."
Higa smiled right back. He shot a quick, veiled glance at Karasuba but was disappointed to see that she wasn't really paying attention. They had her Ashikabi right where they wanted him. Didn't she understand that? One would think that her learning that Emiya was in fact living under the same roof as Uzume would be a cause for concern. He expected jealousy if nothing else since the woman definitely reacted when he had originally tasked Uzume with finding and seducing the man.
"...Sahashi Minato insisted on helping Emiya rescue Karasuba."
Kakizaki hadn't told him about this part.
The "Ashikabi of the North": Sahashi Takami's kid. He was living at the Inn as well. Higa distinctly remembered that he was winged to a fair number of Sekirei. Powerful ones: single-numbered ones to boot.
As much as this revelation sparked frustration, it was expected. While he couldn't imagine why anyone would actively choose to help the Black Sekirei, it was known that the two parties were working together for whatever reason.
If only he could figure out how it came to be that such an unlikely alliance came to fruition. No one in their right mind would try to save such a dangerous thing if they knew that they were taken out of the equation by someone else.
Could it be that Sahashi knew of his plans to use her to his own ends? That wasn't probable since it would imply that they knew that bringing the woman's Ashikabi straight to him was a bad idea.
Hah… Sahashi was still a kid, wasn't he? It was always possible that this was all some mismanaged sense of altruism on his part. Not too likely though; kid or not, he couldn't imagine that anyone with that many Sekirei was so simple minded. Or stupid.
Higa took a calming breath. His expression remained intact.
"And how do they plan on 'rescuing' Karasuba? They must know that the reach of my influence is not insignificant."
Uzume grabbed her arm and averted her gaze.
"Most likely, they will storm the building. I bet they'll try to take advantage of the firepower of their heavy hitters and the… element of surprise."
…On the other hand, such idiocy served an excellent opportunity on a silver platter.
His smile widened.
"Did you hear that, Karasuba?"
The woman in question gave him her attention, finally. The ball was in his court.
"It would seem that your Ashikabi will be falling right onto our laps."
Unfortunately, her reaction was not what he wanted it to be.
It continued for a few seconds longer. He was forced to wait in silence as her chortles died back down.
"I'll give you a fair warning, Izumi-san. Unless you bring back every little birdie you've got on a leash to stop my Ashikabi in his tracks, I'm afraid you won't like the result of whatever happens next."
The office was dead silent. Higa couldn't keep his smile up and levelled a death stare at his captive. Kakizaki was dutifully standing by the door along with the other two Sekirei and Uzume visibly shrunk with her head bowed.
Like some sort of lunatic, Karasuba's mad grin grew wider as though someone had whispered something particularly funny into her ear.
Enough of this.
"That would be all. Thank you, Uzume, you're free to go."
The girl's shoulders relaxed; she didn't waste another second getting out the door. A silent nod directed at Kakizaki was all the bespectacled man needed to direct the Sekirei accompanying him to take Karasuba away.
Once he was left alone in the room, Higa leaned back into his chair and ran his fingers through his hair frustratedly.
She was just trying to get under his skin. It was a bluff. A human was a human and he could find out everything he needed to know about Sahashi's Sekirei with a single phone call.
Still, his hand slid down his desk. Restlessly, he tapped his finger against the wood surface next to the intercom system.
Shirou sat hunched over on the edge of the engawa.
He was silent; so was the other end of the line.
He wouldn't drop the projection until she spoke to him, however.
This was where he drew the line. It was important that he got through to her. Neither one of them could afford her eccentricities right now.
He could hear some muffled sounds coming from various voices in the background. It was frustrating that he couldn't make out what they were saying but such were the technological limits of the earpiece that he projected.
At this point, it would be impossible for him to try to find an alternative that was designed to pick up on ambient sounds and actually remember how to trace it on Karasuba's end reliably. Back when he got his hands on this device in twenty-eighteen, it took him three weeks to be able to remember each part of its manufacturing process without needing to re-trace it every time. Electronic devices were by far the most difficult objects to retain without Unlimited Blade Works doing the "remembering" for him.
As it stood, he could do nothing but spend the next fifteen minutes listening to incoherent mumbles as his partner yet again refused to speak with him. Come to think of it, it wouldn't be out of the question that someone or something was preventing her from doing that. If someone was speaking near her, then—
"I'll give you a fair warning, Izumi-san. Unless you bring back every little birdie you've got on a leash to stop my Ashikabi in his tracks, I'm afraid you won't like the result of whatever happens next."
Shirou's throat dried up.
After however long, that was all she had to say?
And she wasn't even speaking to him directly. She was talking to Izumi Higa himself, from the sound of what he could make out. But why now? He had been calling her frequently; more time had been spent with that thing projected in her ear than not. The man must've tried to speak to her during those periods before but she never had any qualms about staying silent up to now.
And so, he would wait.
"Drag this out as long as you'd like. I'm serious. I'm not letting you off the hook until we speak properly. I don't care if someone is listening and at this point I know that you don't either."
They both knew that she could break out at any time There's nothing that a normal human enterprise could hold up against her that she aren't fully capable of getting through.
Again, no answer.
He decided to make himself comfortable. The man leaned back onto his elbows and stared emptily at the sky.
"You're not following the plan. We talked this through before we came back to Japan; you agreed. I see what you're trying to do here, and this is not that. Why are you throwing it all to the wind now? You want me to go along with your little scheme without so much as a word from you in return?"
"We both know you can break out whenever you want. Anything that you'd need, you have. You know how my reality marble works."
The forced illusion of tranquility snapped. Shirou pushed himself back up and hunched over himself with gritted teeth.
"Damn it, Karasuba. Why aren't you answering me? Why the hell are you still there?"
"I'm still waiting for an answer, you know."
She said it so casually that he almost missed the fact that she had answered him at all. She spoke as though she hadn't been completely radio silent for the past few days.
A retort tried up in his throat. Instead, he allowed the projected communication devices to disperse.
Shirou dropped down onto his back. His eyes could do nothing but find the company of the boring underside of the protruding roof.
He knew exactly what she was talking about.
Miya's cheerful greeting caught Uzume off-guard as she entered the main living space attached to the kitchen. The brunette almost tripped over her own feet.
The inn matron tilted her head curiously but didn't think too deeply about Uzume's strange behaviour for now. She turned around and got back to prepping for the next meal.
Uzume stared at her emptily for a moment before slowly making her way toward the stairs.
"Mhm?" she heard the older woman's nonverbal response behind her.
"Is there anything that I can do to help? I'm not… I'm not doing anything tonight. I'm not busy, I mean, so…"
Uzume trailed off, not sure how else to phrase her question. She didn't even really know what she was asking or why. All she knew was that it felt like a bad idea to stay cooped up in her room alone for the rest of the night.
"Actually… I was going to hold off on making miso soup today since we're out of dashi. Do you mind running to the store and picking some up for me? That, milk and some eggs, maybe."
Uzume came back into the room. She made sure to keep a peppy, cheery grin firmly in place.
"Sure thing! I'll head out right away."
"Hey there, Uzume. You just got back?"
The sound of the man's voice made Uzume's entire body freeze up. Emiya, who had just come down the stairs himself, examined her with the same worry that Miya had earlier.
Something felt like it was crawling up her throat. She swallowed it back down.
"Why don't you go lie down for a bit?" Miya suggested. "You look—"
"I'm fine," she insisted. "I'm gonna go now, okay?"
"I can ask someone else to do the grocery shopping, you know."
Uzume hid a frown.
"If you're that worried then I can just ask Shirou here to join me. I'm sure he wouldn't mind."
After the words had left her mouth, Uzume realized what she had said.
This is an awful idea.
Right. Getting close to Emiya was important—critical, even, knowing what she did—but leaving the house with him, alone, could only be…
"That's not necessary," Miya assured her. "Really, I can get someone else to go."
"I don't mind," Emiya told them, reassuring expression in place. "I'll meet you at the door."
He walked past them. Uzume watched him leave in a daze while Miya continued to look puzzled over the strange interaction that had just transpired.
"You sounded like you wanted to get out of the house," Emiya commented. "Sorry if my being here is imposing on that."
"No, no. Not at all. I'm the one who asked you to come, aren't I?"
There weren't many people on the road at this time of day: most working-class people would still be at the office, after all. It made for what should have been a quaint suburban stroll were it not for the fact that Uzume absolutely did not want to be left alone with Emiya.
She only had herself to blame for this, unfortunately. To accomplish what Higa sent her out to do, being alone with him was exactly what she needed.
He laughed too. It was cordial.
"The walk you went on earlier didn't do the trick, I take it."
The question came out of nowhere. Almost interrogatory. She panicked. She said the wrong thing.
"Oh! Haha… no, it's not— I was visiting my Ashikabi. I visit her in the hospital every now and then, so—"
She cut herself off right as she realized that her ramblings were giving away way more than she would have liked. More than she could afford to give away given what she knew about her present company.
What the hell was wrong with her?
If he asked about it—what she said just now—she wasn't in a position to change the subject. It would be too suspicious. He would think that she's either hiding something or that she's wary of him. She couldn't afford either right now.
Emiya scratched his cheek.
"Ah. Private, huh? That's okay. You don't have to talk about it if you don't want to. I understand, really."
She forced out another laugh.
"I don't know what you're talking about. I—"
"We all have things we'd like to keep close to our chest, Uzume-san. You brought me out here because you want to make a good impression; I understand and I appreciate that. Your intentions are enough. Really."
She was found out, huh?
…Not really. He knew what she was up to but her true intentions were still a mystery to him.
But even so…
"You're a pretty straightforward guy, aren't you?" She paused. "Thanks, Shirou. For understanding, I guess."
Wasn't that all she could really say to that?
They reached the supermarket they were supposed to visit.
Uzume buried her feelings on the matter and did her best to pretend that the awkward conversation didn't just happen. She made her move.
"In here," she exclaimed. The woman grabbed Emiya by the arm, making sure to press the appendage against her bust.
She could feel him tense; he was about to pull away, probably ask questions too. None of that.
Uzume pulled him through the door and took the lead. As long as she could make him think that her grabbing onto him was a way to direct him through the aisles of the store and nothing more, the fact that she was coming on to him way too hard would be less obvious.
Hm. He still looked a little unsure about what was going on, but this was fine. Was this progress? She couldn't really say for sure.
This guy is weird.
She was a pretty girl. Guys liked boobs, and…
Slowly, unsurely, Uzume let go of his arm and grabbed a box of dashi from the shelves. She stared at it emptily for a second.
"I'll go get the milk," he told her plainly.
"Mm," she halfheartedly acknowledged, not taking her eyes off the product.
What the hell am I doing?
She was a flirt; it was in her nature. Flirting was flirting, but that had nothing to do with actually trying to make someone like her.
She didn't want to make someone like her. The only person she needed to like her was her darling Chiho.
I don't know what I'm supposed to do.
Emiya wasn't who she thought he would be. He was just so…
There was no other word for it.
At the inn. With her. With Karasuba. He never seemed to sway one way or the other. Reacting appropriately wasn't possible when there was nothing for her to react to in the first place.
Before Uzume could stew over it any longer, Emiya came back. He gently shook a carton of milk and front of her with a visible upturn in his lips.
"Is there anything else we need?"
"Let's go then."
They did just that. Unlike their trip to the store, their exit was much quieter. Uzume didn't bother trying to make conversation this time. She kept her distance. Emiya seemed perfectly content to let things come to him as they were, be it her advances or silence.
The streets weren't as empty when they left; people must have been coming home from work. It frustrated her more now than it did earlier. Amongst the droning murmurs of the crown around them, the only thing that she could hear was the sound of their heels scraping against the paved road. It was probably her own imagination, but that sound just kept getting louder and louder and—
"Stop!" a voice shouted.
They both stopped.
A girl ran out in front of them. A boy too.
Emiya was straight-faced. He didn't much as twitch, perfectly still; not a rustle came from the plastic bag in his hand. Uzume couldn't hide her trepidation, however.
Was this… what she thought it was?
The girl grinned and propped her hands on her hips.
"I challenge you to a Sekirei battle!"
Uzume had to do a double take. She took a better look at the frankly ethereal grey-haired boy who couldn't be anything other than a Sekirei.
Oh. Oh no.
The girl's smirk dropped a little.
"What's wrong? Hey, Lady with the big boobs: you're a Sekirei, aren't you?"
Uzume's mind worked overtime trying to evaluate the current circumstance.
This girl was an Ashikabi and somehow she knew that Uzume was a Sekirei. It wasn't uncommon to see a more eccentric Ashikabi embrace the whole "battle royale" thing but this couldn't have been a worse time for that.
This girl seemed to have been under the misconception that Emiya was her Ashikabi. If it really came down to fighting things out right now, she would have to lay her cards out right in front of the partner of the most dangerous person in the city. There were definitely rumours being spread around about her hunting down Sekirei and Ashikabi for Izumi Higa, so if Emiya found out that was her…
No. That was still certainly better than the alternative. If Emiya thought that he was being backed into a corner, who was to say that he wouldn't get innocent people involved to save his own hide? Morally, he was certainly capable of that. Karasuba would encourage that. Was he capable of that practically, in this moment? Maybe. She didn't know. She didn't want to find out.
Uzume didn't want the deaths of any of these bystanders on her conscience. In their blissful ignorance, they continued to walk past and in between the tense standoff.
"You're being silly," Emiya said.
"Huh?" was the sound of incredulity that escaped the girl's lips.
Though Uzume remained silent, the sentiment was shared.
"Do you seriously want to start a fight right here? What if someone gets hurt?" he asked. Emiya crossed his arms while being mindful of the bag that he was holding.
Uzume frowned. That was a surprisingly conscientious sentiment. She wasn't expecting that at all.
The Ashikabi girl didn't know how to take the sudden line of questioning. Neither did her Sekirei, apparently. They both looked pretty young; while that didn't mean much for a Sekirei, the girl probably couldn't help but feel chastised when an adult unexpectedly spoke to her that way.
"I mean—" she scrambled to find her words. "Not here, obviously! We can go… somewhere else."
He quirked a brow.
"Why would we follow you if we know you want to attack us? We can just leave."
"Because you're supposed to! That's how this whole Sekirei plan thing works, right?"
Uzume couldn't really fault that logic. That was exactly how the Sekirei plan was supposed to work.
The male Sekirei pulled on his Ashikabi's sleeve timidly.
"Hey… maybe we should leave."
"Wha—are you kidding!?" she whispered hotly. She wasn't very good at keeping her voice lowered, however. "We have to fight. I'm not gonna let you bite the dust, got it?"
While the two of them back and forth, Emiya was focused on the foot traffic circulating around them. He looked worried for once.
Uzume was still conflicted. Multiple things were true to her at that moment.
She didn't want to get innocent people hurt.
She appreciated the humanity displayed by her supposedly amoral target. Surprised by it, even.
She didn't want to get outed as the Ribbon Sekirei.
She didn't want to end up terminated.
More than anything, she didn't want anything to happen that would take her away from Chiho.
It was obvious to her now that she couldn't have her pie and eat it too; she'd just have to settle for whatever best served that last point.
She got ready to react at a moment's notice. So ready was she, in fact, that she almost jumped when an alarm rang from the pocket of the man next to her.
From the looks of things, he was just as surprised as she was. Slowly, he pulled his phone out of his pocket and the Ashikabi girl did the same.
It must have been a message from MBI.
Emiya took a moment to read what it said.
From the way that the two Ashikabi immediately exchanged looks, it must have been important.
Minaka hummed a jaunty tune as he theatrically slammed his finger down on the button that would inform all participants of the Sekirei plan that they were one little bird away from the next phase of his game. He could already imagine the look on Homura's face when he found out that there would a few dozen go-getters chasing after him now.
Well, the man should have seen this coming.
He heard the soft click of a door opening behind him.
"Takami. You haven't spoken to me since your little airport adventure took a sour turn. How are things?"
She wasn't in the mood for games, apparently. His ex grabbed the top of his chair and spun him back around to face her.
Ah. She looked pretty angry.
"Pardon? Knew what?"
She dropped her hands on his desk. They balled into fists.
"I thought something was fishy when you didn't stop us. I was being quiet about it, but not that quiet. I knew that I couldn't go over you so I tried to move as quickly as possible thinking that we'd still be able to get it done before we got any push-back. There was none."
Minaka tapped his chin.
"I don't follow," he told her.
The angry stare was kept pointed at him for a moment longer before she retreated with her arms crossed and eyes closed in resignation.
"You wanted to keep Karasuba around and I thought she was too dangerous. We both knew of our respective stances on the matter. The only reason why you wouldn't have stopped my team from trying to kill her is if you knew we couldn't."
A bulb was light in his head. He perked up.
"Ah! So that's what it is. You want to know how I knew that your efforts would be wasted."
There was no point beating around the bush and pretending that he didn't know what she was getting at, he supposed. It wasn't a habit that Takami ever admired in a man.
She clicked her tongue. He'd feel bad for getting on her bad side were it not such an interesting topic.
"I'll answer your question. But first, one of my own," he proposed. She rolled her eyes, but it was to be expected. "I'm not a fool. I know that I can't control that woman anymore. Even so, would you like to know why I wanted to keep her around even after she winged that man?"
He relished how utterly caught off guard she was. Takami wasn't expecting a straight answer; they both knew that he didn't want to give her one until now.
"An observation that we've all made over the course of our many evaluations is that a Sekirei's strength is proportionate to that of her Ashikabi; strength, in this case, being the number of Sekirei, total that the Ashikabi has winged."
"What are you getting at, Minaka?"
"What I'm 'getting at', my dearest Takami, is that the reason why I've allowed Karasuba to carry on as she has and why I knew you couldn't be her are related. What if I told you that, despite only having winged Karasuba and Karasuba alone, the amount of power being transferred through the Sekirei crest has increased exponentially since the first time they met?"
Takami's jaw was clenched tight. Couldn't speak her mind, him? It wouldn't be the first time. This was fine. Once again, he would be the one to carry the conversation.
"You were never going to beat that woman. Why, I'm not sure anyone will! That's the fun of it, though. The point of all of this: my great, master plan."
He smiled widely and shot up from his chair, his arms swinging out to his sides animatedly.
"When it's all said and done, as long as I have that darling little crow as my actress, I'm sure I will have created the greatest spectacle this world has ever seen. Will she continue to grow? Will someone else take her place, maybe? Who can really say. But Takami?"
He leaned forward and grabbed her chin. Being so close to her face, he could see her hairs standing on end.
He whispered into her ear.
"It's not our place to decide which star shines the brightest."
For a moment, no one spoke.
When it became apparent Minaka was content to continue being deliberately cryptic, Takami grit her teeth, pushing him aside as she made her way towards the door, hand already reaching for her phone.
The ping of an alert broke Minaka from his stupor, and on the flatscreen he watched as the little red dot that represented the final sekirei suddenly started moving at an alarming speed throughout Shin-Tokyo.
"My, my, Homura," the director grinned, contentedly leaning back on his chair, "what will you do now, I wonder? Where will you spend your final moments alone?"
Miles away, on the rooftops, a Sekirei was feverish – whether it was simply the wooziness of all-encompassing rage or something much more serious, they could not ascertain – the edges of their clothes burning up ever so slightly as they hurtled towards their destination.
'I'm going to burn you alive, you fucking bastard.'