"Is this really necessary, Shinji?" asked Shirou.
He tugged on the sleeve of his suit jacket as they walked down the long hallway that led to Homurahara's gymnasium.
"Yes, Shirou, it's necessary," said his friend, with just the hint of a mocking sing-song. "And you might as well get used to it. Makami isn't going to let you near the courtroom wearing one of your old sweaters."
It was evening, and even the most diligent students had finished up their club activities and gone home. Still, Shirou felt a wave of nostalgia as they passed the double doors and green panels of the school's classrooms. With each step, the years seemed to drop away. If he closed his eyes, he would hear the bustle of crowded hallways, teenagers chattering before the morning bell dispersed them to start the day. It made the fancy suit feel that much more awkward on his shoulders.
"It still feels like too much. This is just a high school reunion."
"It's an occasion to strut your stuff," Shinji scoffed, running a hand through his carefully gelled hair. "Everyone's going to be dressed to impress. You don't want to disappoint them, right?"
"I guess," said the other, ignoring his friend's disapproving huff in favour of breathing in the familiar atmosphere.
Seven years, he reflected. I can't believe it's been seven years since graduation. I wonder what everyone's been up to. He thought about coming to the previous reunions, but he was always too busy studying, making up for a lack of brilliance with hard work. He had documents to review tonight as well, but Shinji had put his foot down.
"We worked like dogs to get where we are," he had shouted, and thumped his fist on Shirou's desk between the mountains of stacked documents. "Let's enjoy our achievement." Then, nostrils flaring in response to Shirou's noncommittal shrug, "Live a little, you damn stick in the mud!"
Shirou couldn't call his law career an achievement, not when he had just started taking on cases, not when he hadn't yet saved anyone (helped anyone, he hastily corrected himself, the former always worried people when he said it aloud). But Shinji meant well, and not many people asked him anywhere anymore. So he had agreed to come, and sighed in exasperated fondness when his friend crowed victory.
It wasn't just a matter of making his oldest friend happy. Secretly he had been looking forward to the reunion. It was a chance to reminiscence and catch up with his friends again, the few he had managed to keep sporadic contact with over the years.
With a crackling hiss, one of the artificial lights on the ceiling flickered. That's the same one Issei and I were always trying to fix, he thought wistfully as they passed under it. But no matter how many times we changed the bulb or fiddled with the connectors, it always acted up again within the week. I guess some things never change.
The thought made Shirou smile, which morphed into a yawn before he was able to suppress it. He squared his shoulders, determined to push the fatigue aside. There was still lots of paperwork to file when he returned to the office after the party wrapped up, so—
A deep sigh drifted through the air, then Shinji's hand clamped on his shoulder.
Shirou did, turning to look questioningly at his friend. The other man only clicked his tongue impatiently as he straightened the redhead's collar.
"Ahh, thanks," said Shirou sheepishly. He had thought it looked perfectly fine, but his friend's crinkled nose and insistent tugs said otherwise.
Shinji sighed again. "I'm not your girlfriend, idiot. I can't always be fixing things for you."
"You're right, people will start to talk." He raised his hands appeasingly when the other man glared at him. "Sorry, sorry. I'll get a better mirror, okay?"
"It's not about the mirror, it's about having the time to use it," grumbled Shinji as they started walking again. "With all those pro bono cases you keep taking on… tch, when was the last time you had a full night's sleep? Well, nevermind that now…"
They were getting closer now, the muffled hum of music and voices drifting from the double doors ahead. Shirou sighed, resisting the urge to stuff his hands in the largely decorative pockets on his suit.
It's not like I enjoy being up at all hours. It's just… I can't turn anyone away, not when they need help.
So it was okay if he ran himself a little bit ragged, if it meant his clients could leave their holding cells a little sooner and go home to their families. But he couldn't ask the same of Shinji. Guilt tightened his throat when he thought of how his friend would occasionally snatch folders off his desk, ignoring Shirou's protests as he bad-temperedly added them to his own pile. I'll do a better job of hiding them from now on, he promised himself. I can finish the work myself, if I cut back on dojo training and cooking time. Maybe if I freeze big batches and reheat portions during the week…
The thought saddened Shirou. He found cooking relaxing, one of the few pleasures he allowed himself because tasty food always made the people around him smile. But it had been a long time since anyone had sat at his table (the thought brought a brief ache to his heart, before he pushed it away with ease borne of practice), and in any event it was a sacrifice he needed to make. He couldn't leave anyone behind, not when he could save them (not ever again).
A nudge from Shinji pulled him from his thoughts. They'd stopped just outside the gymnasium door now, the conversation within a dull roar punctuated with high notes of laughter and clinking glass.
"Fashionably late, just as planned." His friend grinned as he gripped the handlebar. "Show time, Shirou!"
With a flourish, he threw it open and they strode in. If nostalgia had struck Shirou in the hallways of his old school, it practically choked him when he stepped on the polished wood of the gymnasium. Underneath the crowd and the bright banners, the room looked the same as ever. The same high curved ceiling and square windows, the same stage at the front even if the curtains looked new, and the same scent of floor cleaner and wax covering up old sweat. Everything spotless, of course — but then, it would be. Mitsuzuri—he supposed he should append sensei to that now—would make heads roll if everything wasn't up to scratch in her facilities.
The room was packed with people, either enjoying themselves or pretending to with various degrees of success. The lateness of the pair's arrival meant that little clusters had already drifted towards the centre, away from the food and drinks laid out on the back tables. Shinji was right — their old schoolmates looked to have dressed up a bit, even if most of the suits and dresses weren't quite so formal as the attorneys' own attire.
Seven years, Shirou thought again as he spotted a few familiar faces — acquaintances, but not the friends he was looking for, or certain other people he found himself hoping to pick out from the crowd. I can't believe it's already been seven years. I hope she—
"Hey, Shin-man!" called a booming voice. "Speak of the devil, we were just talking about you. Get on over here."
"Nothing bad, I hope," laughed Shinji as eager hands waved them over. Well, waved the Matou heir over, leaving Shirou to follow along in his wake.
Biting back another yawn, the redhead waited patiently as his friend happily chatted up the circle, exchanging jokes and pleasantries with a natural ease. A few of the participants briefly nodded at him when their gazes met, but their interest always quickly turned back to the animated Shinji.
Shirou didn't mind. Always popular for his handsome face and deep pockets, Shinji had become something of a sensation in his last year at Homuhara, when he had shed much of the aggressive attitude that had driven a wedge between him and his schoolmates. That same year saw the rekindling of their old friendship. Letting his friend bask in his element was an easy way to show his gratitude for all of Shinji's support since then.
Besides, hovering on the edge of the conversation made it easy for Shirou to discreetly resume his search. A flutter of violet hair near the far side had just caught his eye when he felt an elbow nudge him in the ribs, none too gently.
"Oi, Shirou." Shinji was frowning at him, a glint of concern in his eyes "You're being awfully quiet."
"It's just a lot of people, that's all," shrugged Shirou, wincing at his weak excuse.
But he barely remembered these people, and most of the discussion was flying over his head. It didn't help that an all too familiar discomfort was settling over him, the nagging sense that he didn't belong here. Didn't belong among these cheerful smiling faces.
"You just need some liquid courage, that's all." Shinji nodded to the circle as he deftly steered Shirou towards the drinks table. "If you'll please excuse us…"
They had only taken a few steps before a woman in a form-fitting blue dress intercepted them by firmly attaching herself to Shinji's arm. Chestnut curls bounced prettily as she beamed at him.
"Shinji, how wonderful to see you again!... oh, and Emiya-san too, of course."
The face was familiar, although it took an embarrassingly long time for a name to float up from his memories. Ah yes, Ikeda Mitsuki. Once of the girls that Shinji used to date casually, before he left Fuyuki to study abroad for a few years.
"Mitsuki, you're as lovely as ever," said Shinji, with a touch of the old unctuousness that always made Shirou want to roll his eyes. "Truly, an angel has descended upon us tonight."
"Flatterer," she giggled, before running an appreciative gaze over him. "You've done so well for yourself, too. Tell me, what kind of law did you end up practicing? Something big and impressive— international business?"
"Not quite," said Shinji, trying and failing to hide the sudden strain in his smile. "But rewarding work, all the same. If I could bore you with some of the details—"
"Oh, please do!"
Shirou took that as his cue to give his friend some space, proceeding alone toward the drinks table. The fact was that between his grades and his practiced charm, Shinji probably could have practiced any kind of law he wanted. That he had instead chosen to follow Shirou into criminal defense, and an apprenticeship with an old curmudgeon no less… the redhead still didn't understand, but he was grateful for it. Enough to make himself scarce as Shinji snagged himself a date for the weekend.
Sighing, he forced down the small twinge of loneliness in his chest as he maneuvered his way through the crowd. He didn't have the right to feel that way, not since he started turning down the blind dates Shinji arranged for him. Another small pleasure sacrificed on the altar of work, but he wouldn't allow himself to regret it.
Chin up, Emiya, he thought as he reached the table, with its assortment of glasses and long-necked bottles, you've got people you wanted to see tonight, anyway. Issei, and Mitsuzuri and Sakura, and maybe—
He was just reaching for a wine glass when another hand closed on it, brushing against his own. Slender and elegant, but with a surprising amount of small calluses on the fingertips.
"Ahh, sorry!" he said automatically.
"No, no, it's my mistake," said a clear feminine voice, and once again the years seemed to fall away.
Glancing up, he found himself staring into aquamarine eyes and felt his heart give a little turn. Tohsaka Rin had lost none of her beauty over the years. Dark hair, worn loose instead of the pigtails he remembered, cascaded down her shoulders. It looked like midnight ink spilled across her pale skin and the deep crimson of her dress.
Shirou blinked, realizing he was staring, but Tohsaka didn't seem to notice. She was staring too, gaze intent as she seemed to compare him to the boy she had once known. Then she caught herself, smoothing out her expression into a polished mask of good manners.
"Emiya-kun," she said with a pleasant smile. "No, I suppose it should be Emiya-san now. It's been quite a while."
"Seven years," he nodded. "What have you been up to, Tohsaka?"
"Growing older, like the rest of us," she said with a touch of humour as she accepted the red wine he poured for her. "But if you mean how I earn my bread, I took over my family's business in estate planning."
"I see. That sounds interesting."
"Liar," she said, more amused than upset. "But it's kind of you to say so." She laughed and raised the glass to her lips. "I suppose it's rewarding enough in its way."
Shirou found himself frowning as he watched her take a delicate sip. As lovely as her laughter was, he didn't miss the subtle slump in her shoulders, or the strain dimming her eyes.
The spark's still gone, he thought with some regret as he poured his own drink. That spark of life and fiery drive for perfection that, more than looks, had drawn him to Tohsaka back in their school days. Admittedly he had been too fixed on his path to do much more than admire her from a distance, but Issei's accusation that he'd fallen for her charms did hold some grain of truth.
Then she had fallen ill in their second year. Only for two weeks, but when she returned, the spark had guttered out. While she still achieved the same high marks, still displayed the same practiced smile, none of it touched her eyes. As if everything was done from habit, or perhaps out of duty, but without passion. Even Issei had commented on it.
Shirou had briefly wondered on the trip here whether he might see Tohsaka tonight, and whether the years might have rekindled that spark. Nowhere near as much as I was hoping.
But while she seemed tired underneath her manners, there was genuine warmth in her smile as she raised her glass towards him, encouraging him to drink his own. He found himself smiling back.
"Congratulations on finishing your internship, by the way," she said after a moment. "The Legal Research and Training Institution is supposed to be pretty grueling."
"Ahh, thanks," said Shirou, resisting the urge to scratch his cheek. Then he stiffened."Wait, you knew about that?"
"Sakura told me about it," she smiled.
He could have kicked himself. It was only natural that sisters would talk, even if he was surprised to find himself an object of discussion. Admittedly not as surprised as they'd all been when Tohsaka had publicly declared the family relationship in their last year, fueling the school gossip mill for months—
Blinking, Shirou realized Tohsaka was patiently waiting for him to continue. Resisting the urge to rub the back of his neck, he watched the wine swirling in his glass.
"Makami-san says I've got a long way to go," he grumbled. "But I'm going to stick with it, no matter what. That's the path I've chosen."
"My senior lawyer," he clarified. "He's got some rough edges, but he's a good guy underneath. I'm learning a lot from him."
"Hah. I'm sure Lady Velvet can rest easier at night, knowing someone is keeping a close eye on you," she said, her smile taking on shades of a teasing smirk. It was an expression he didn't remember from her idol days, but he found that he liked it.
"Fuji-nee's one to talk," he snorted, though not without affection. "Not when she still calls me every week to ask what went wrong with her recipe."
For all that Shirou sighed when he heard his adopted sister's pleading voice on the other end, he enjoyed those calls. They offered a brief but welcome distraction from his books, and the chance to catch up now that he so rarely saw her in person.
"I'm waiting for the day her husband gives up and does the cooking himself," he continued with a shake of his head.
"Be careful what you wish for," grimaced Tohsaka. "El-Melloi the Second learnt all his cooking in London, and not in the good places either. Bleak does not begin to describe it."
"Oh, you know him too?"
"Emiya, who do you think introduced them?" she said, a bit of pride seeping into her voice. "Although I have to admit it wasn't intentional. We had to drop by Sakura's place for business, a certain tiger had invited herself over for dinner… and, well, one thing led to another."
"I never expected a Professor of Anthropology to be so good with wild beasts," he said good-naturedly.
"Anthropology. Is that what he's calling it?" Tohsaka looked subtly amused. "Well, I suppose—"
Her mouth snapped shut and her brow visibly darkened as she spotted something over Shirou's shoulder. Shifting to follow her gaze, he saw Shinji striding towards them wearing his most charming smile.
"Ahh, Tohsaka," he said, "Thank you for looking after Shirou for me. Lovely evening, isn't it?"
"Matou." There was hard ice in her eyes as she forced a polite smile to her lips, and her grip visibly tightened on the stem of her glass.
Shirou couldn't help but wince in sympathy for his friend. I guess that didn't change, either. It was no secret that Shinji had a massive crush on the school idol in their younger days, not with the way he hit on her at every opportunity. In the early days, she had turned him down with indifference edging into dislike. But that was another thing that had changed in second year, when dislike had suddenly and irrevocably soured into outright loathing. It seemed that sentiment was still firmly in place.
Socialite that he fancied himself, Shinji valiantly tried again. "That's a nice dress, Tohsaka."
"You think so?" she said, her smile all teeth. "I wonder if I can still return it, then."
Shirou had weathered many awkward conversations in his short time working under Makami, but the strain in Shinji's smile and the wired tension in Tohsaka's jaw were a bit much even for him. Desperately he cast his eyes out over the crowd, looking for some sort of distraction.
Salvation appeared in the form of short dark-blue hair and a familiar pair of glasses. "Hey, there's Issei," he said, pointing him out among the gathered bodies. "And Mitsuzuri too. Why don't we all go over and say hello?"
Thankfully, both Shinji and Tohsaka seemed open to his suggestion, following his lead as he guided them over their waiting friends.
"Ah, Emiya." Issei spotted him easily on the approach. A nod of satisfaction, before some of the pleasure drained from his face when he spotted his companions. "And… gah… Matou and Tohsaka, too."
"Oh, don't be like that Ryuudou," said Mitsuzuri, clapping him on the back and earning a frown in return. She didn't seem the least bit bothered, amber eyes glittering merrily. "We're here to have fun, yeah? Anyway, it's been years since your student council fights. Time to bury the hatchet."
"What hatchet, Ayako?" asked Tohsaka sweetly. "I only ever made sure our Student President was diligent in his duties."
"Hmph. With all the trouble you caused, it's a wonder I ever managed to push anything through."
Mitsuzuri snorted. "And yet your name is still a legend— ah, thank you, Sakura!"
She beamed as they were joined by the younger woman—in this environment, that tiny age gap seemed to matter again—and eagerly accepted the beer cup pressed into her hands.
"My pleasure, but that's your last one tonight," said Sakura, the fondness in her eyes taking nothing away from the sternness of her voice. "I'm opening the shop early tomorrow, so we need to get home at a reasonable time."
"No fair," grumped Mitsuzuri, but discreetly reached for Sakura's hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze. Lingered a moment more before letting go.
The sight warmed Shirou's heart, and for a moment he found himself thinking—no, forget it, Emiya. It's not for you.
So he let the conversation ripple and flow around him, paddling in whenever his friends asked him a question or sought his opinion. Even though he was doing a lot more listening than talking, Shirou found he was enjoying himself. That would have been unacceptable, especially when his desk was piled high with (people to save) cases, if not for the clear fact that his presence here was making them happy. Even Shirou couldn't deny it, not in the face of Mitsuzuri's bold laughter and Issei's reluctant smile, the pleasure of having Sakura fuss over his health and eating habits. Even Tohsaka seemed to be slowly relaxing, although her eyes still seemed troubled—
"Did you happen to look at their menu, Emiya…? Hellooo, earth to Emiya! Are you even listening?"
Shirou blinked. Mitsuzuri was frowning at him, hands placed indignantly on her hips. Beside her, Sakura was muffling her laughter behind cupped hands, while Shinji shot him a look of mild reproach.
"Sorry, I drifted for a moment there."
"No kidding," said Mitsuzuri, puffing out her cheeks in discontent.
"We were just talking about the cafe at the new shopping arcade," said Sakura smoothly, patting her partner on the shoulder. "The one that opened up on the south side of Shintou. Have you been there, Shirou?"
"Ahh, no. I haven't really had the chance." It was the first he'd even heard of it, actually.
"Huh," said Mitsuzuri, her brow already lightening now that he was engaged again. "I thought that's where you might have gotten that suit. They've got a lot of clothing shops." Ignoring Shinji's intake of breath, she instead turned to Tohsaka. "Weren't you going there this weekend to upgrade your wardrobe?"
"There's nothing wrong with my wardrobe." Tohsaka prickled with indignation. "I just thought I might do some window-shopping, see if anything caught my eye."
"So you won't be busy," smirked Mitsuzuri. There was a dangerous gleam in her eye, one that Shirou remembered all too well from their archery competitions.
"Ayako, no," growled Tohsaka, so low that he almost missed it, a hint of pink rising in her cheeks.
The other woman only nudged her shoulder, with perhaps less subtlety than intended.
"Alright, alright!" hissed the former idol, before straightening herself up. She hesitated a touch longer, then turned to Shirou. "If you haven't visited it yet, do you want to go together?" Seeing his eyes widen, she crossed her arms and huffed. "Don't misunderstand! I just remember how hopeless you were in school, so a guy like you could definitely use a guide."
"Seriously, Rin…" groaned Mitsuzuri, while Issei glowered and Sakura suppressed a fresh set of giggles.
Shirou considered the offer. He didn't really have the time to spare, but he had a sinking feeling that turning her down would snuff out the brightness that had slowly been building in her eyes all evening. And if he were honest with himself, she still fascinated him, even after all these years.
Where's the harm? We're just going as friends; it doesn't have to be anything more complicated than that. And If I get take-out on Sunday, I can stay later at the office to make up for it.
So he nodded. "This weekend's a bit tricky, but maybe next Saturday? If that works for you."
Tohsaka stiffened, blue eyes scrutinizing him carefully. When it became clear he was serious, she let herself relax again. A smile flitted across her face.
"Smart of you," she declared, digging into her purse and handing him her phone. "Here, put in your contact information."
"Really, Neesan?" laughed Sakura. "It's not that complicated, you know."
"It's not my fault," Tohsaka huffed. "Tch. Just when I got comfortable with my flip phone, they forced this thing on me."
Shirou silently punched his number in. He couldn't help but notice how few names there were on her contact list.
"Hmph. That's how they sink their claws into you," said Issei mournfully as he straightened his glasses. "Have a care, Emiya. If you wish, I shall recite some sutras for y—"
"Don't you start that again, Ryuudou—!"
His friends fell to bickering again, but Shirou didn't mind. Some habits died hard, that was all, and the old venom had faded. Soon enough the dispute was forgotten, buried underneath the flow of gossip and anecdotes. It was really nice, being around their smiling faces again. Shirou found himself… not happy, he was never entitled to that, but content.
When ten o'clock rolled around, it was with considerable reluctance that he nudged Shinji's shoulder to go. Shinji frowned, but acquiesced with a surprising lack of fuss. They said their goodbyes, then made their way outside into the cool night air.
"Hey, Shinji…" said Shirou when they were halfway towards the main gates, their shoes echoing on the pavement. "Thanks. For tonight, I mean."
Shinji took a deep breath, then turned to face Shirou fully. Instead of the expected smirk, his lips were pressed in a grim line. His eyes seemed oddly haunted under his drawn brow.
"Shinji…?" said Shirou, feeling unease low in his belly.
"Tohsaka, huh," his friend said at last. "Be careful with that one, Shirou."
Confusion furrowed Shirou's brows for a moment, before the obvious dawned on him. "Hey, if you're still after her—"
"No," said Shinji, with the finality of truth chiselled in cold stone. "She'll never look at me that way."
Unsure of what to say, his tongue heavy in his mouth, Shirou watched his friend glance up towards the night sky. The stars were barely visible, drowned out by the cold light of a full autumn moon.
The silence stretched for a few heartbeats, then Shinji continued in a low voice. "There's a darkness in that woman. Something you're better off far away from."
"That's pretty harsh, Shinji," said Shirou, feeling a bit of irritation prickle at his skin. "I know you don't get along, and she's got a bit of a temper, but I'm sure she's a good person."
He didn't fully understand why he felt the need to defend her, not when they hadn't seen each other in seven years. They hadn't even been that close in school. And yet… that burnt out look in her eyes… it's too bothersome. I can't just leave things like that.
"Always the noble idiot," Shinji gritted out, then his shoulders slumped. "I know I can't stop you, but… look, just watch yourself."
Before Shirou could reply, the other man had pulled away. He didn't look back as he strode out into the gloom of the streets, his phone pulled out to dial a cab.
Shirou watched him go, torn between annoyance at the suggestion that he couldn't look after himself, and a nagging sense of disquiet. Shinji could be a bit of a drama queen, but he had looked uncharacteristically serious in his warning.
Sighing, he checked the time on his phone. 10:12, so the buses were still running. He could get a little more work done if he stopped by the office. It was unlikely that Makami was still around, but his mentor sometimes kept odd hours. If he was, then Shirou wasn't too proud to call and ask for a fresh pot of coffee waiting in the kitchen.
His thumb scrolled down his list of contacts. It wasn't all that much longer than Tohsaka's, so it wasn't entirely surprising to see her name flash by on his way down.
Maybe Shinji was right. But when he remembered the way blue eyes had shone as he'd punched in her information, Shirou knew it didn't matter. Going to the shopping arcade would make her happy, so he would go. Making people happy was what Emiya Shirou did.
It was the only way he could live with himself.
Author's Note: happy birthday, Rin! Let's celebrate by posting the first chapter slowburn romance fic I've been sitting on for months now. This story was requested by my friend CrazyLich79, who was so involved in planning this story, and helping me work through sections where I was entirely stumped, that I'm holding him equally guilty for it. All thanks to tuntuntunaa as well, who will protest that she didn't do much and yet proofread the whole thing, offered suggestions and encouragement, and even drew a comic that frankly puts my scribblings to shame. Her fics are also great fun, if you haven't yet checked them out.
As for Lich, he has the following to say: "For all that Tung says the story is mine or whatever, she was the one who wrote it; and for all that Tuna says she didn't do much, she proofread the whole story before I did, and drew a mean looking comic for it as well. Draw your conclusions from that."
Finally, a big thank you to my good friend Exstarsis, who was kind enough to read through and fix my nonsense. All remaining errors in wording and concepts are strictly mine.