It never failed.

Every evening, Emiya would still be hard at work when Makami left the office. He'd still be tapping at the old Fujitsu computer; surrounded by stacks of books and documents, organized clutter only the kid could make sense of.

And every morning at seven-thirty, when the morning traffic just began to buzz, the senior lawyer would walk in to find the kid exactly where he'd left him. Of course he probably went home to snatch a few hours' rest. A human had to live, unlike the machine the kid strived to be. But damned if it wasn't easy to imagine otherwise, when Makami never saw his office without Emiya in it.

Today was no different. When Makami had shaken the rain off his umbrella and stepped through the door, he found Emiya already buried in a file. Bags under his eyes, neck stiff from too many hours bent over a desk, but full of a steely resolve as he reached for another document. The older man knew the look all too well. He had worn it himself for years on end, back when justice had still been a passion rather than a faded dream.

The kid was so absorbed he hadn't even noticed someone come in. Resisting the urge to snort, Makami hung up his coat and headed into the cramped kitchen. There was already a pot ready under the coffee maker. He shook it around a bit. It looked old, the surface murky and unappetizing. How long had the kid been here, anyway?

Fuck it, Makami was making a new pot. Cash might have been tight since his semi-retirement, but decent coffee was a basic right.

While his hands busied themselves pouring water and spooning fresh grounds into the filter, he let his mind wander to the two young attorneys he'd taken under his wing. For all that Matou could be a mouthy brat, he was shaping up pretty well. He worked a heavy but sane schedule, and left a clear desk when he went home every night.

But Emiya… Emiya worried him.

When the redhead had shown up on his doorstep, Makami had taken him for another wide-eyed boy ready to eat principles rather than dinner. Jaded as he had become after what he privately termed the Disaster, the veteran lawyer had still seen an echo of himself in that earnest face. That echo had made him take on young Emiya when no one else would, even though he had promised himself he was done with apprentices or any kind of serious practice.

A hiss of heated water cut through the air. Brown liquid slowly dripped into the pot below. Makami distantly watched the droplets fall as things kept turning over in his head.

There hadn't seemed to be too much cause for concern, at the beginning. The kid worked hard and mostly kept his nose clean. The odd times he did bend some rules, it was always on behalf of his clients, because Emiya very much wanted to see them happy. He didn't seem to care so much about how many cases he finished, so long as those cases finished with a smiling face. And if it gave Makami the vague but uneasy feeling that Emiya was using that to… fill himself up somehow, like an addict drowning out the emptiness inside, maybe that was okay.

But recently, there was a shift in the way that Emiya handled his cases. He was taking on more and more cases, as if he couldn't stand to leave a single person behind. With each folder slapped down on his desk, it became less about each individual, and more about the overall number.

That wasn't a good way to do things. Makami knew. He had done that himself for a while, drunk on the number of cases solved or bargains struck. So concerned with doing things efficiently that he forgot to ask himself what was actually best for his clients.

Best case scenario, the kid burns out within the year, maybe a few if he's really stubborn. Drop out of the profession entirely and push papers as a clerk somewhere. The last few drops dribbled into the pot and made the surface ripple. Worst case scenario… he'll become a monster. Focused on proving his client's case at all costs, and damn the collateral damage.

The coffee steamed when Makami poured it into two chipped mugs and carried it over towards the main room. Caffeine seemed to flow into his veins from the aroma alone. Good. It was exactly what he needed for the difficult conversation he needed to have with Emiya.

It had to be approached with caution. The boy felt like a glass vase—precious, but easily breakable if nudged the wrong way. So Makami used a light touch while training him. He gave advice and set him up with contacts and resources, but resisted the urge to dictate how and when to take cases.

That mostly worked until the vase decided to go and knock itself over. Now he had to rush forward and catch Emiya, but carefully enough not to damage him. Shit.

The lawyer cleared his throat. Softly at first, then pointedly when that failed to catch his target's attention. "There isn't even enough space on your desk for a goddamn mug, Emiya."

Emiya's head jerked up from his reading. "Makami-san! I didn't hear you come in."

Makami snorted. "I think Gojira himself could trample through and you wouldn't notice him." The drawn look on the other's face made him scowl. "How many cups have you already had?"

Impossible to tell, since the kid cleaned and put away dishes as soon as they were used. Not that it mattered, when Emiya's flinch said it all.

"Two, but—

"What the fuck. Have another one."

Makami carelessly picked a book off the kid's desk and threw it on Matou's pristine one, then firmly set the mug down in the newly freed space. The redhead opened his mouth to protest, only to have it turn into a yawn. A bit of smugness softened Makami's brow when the boy surrendered and took a long sip.

A victory, however small. There was a temptation to leave it at that, but Makami steeled himself. That would be failing both Emiya and his own tattered sense of responsibility.

So instead of proceeding to his own desk as he usually would, he leaned forward and caught the kid's questioning gaze. "You need to start clearing cases before taking on new ones, Emiya. Not just stacking more until you're up to your nose in them. Take a page from Matou. He doesn't bite off more than he can chew."

"Sorry, Makami-san." The usual bland smile flashed across Emiya's face, more a courtesy than a true display of emotion. "I know, and I'll close Ito-san's file and get started on the Kaidou case tomorrow. But I can't file the report until I've finished expanding it. We need all the details in there to get Ito-san a good plea bargain."

"Even if the man himself doesn't care?" There was a subtle but deliberate challenge in the senior lawyer's words.

"That doesn't matter. If there's anything I can do to help him, then I will."

Such simple words, but they could lock around a man as tightly as iron shackles. From anyone else, Makami might have dismissed them as simple exaggeration. But Emiya meant them, even if it meant countless hours labouring without gratitude or recompense. The glint in his eyes spoke louder than any declaration.

Not for the first time, Makami found himself wondering what had hollowed the kid out and left him determined to break himself in service to others. Gentle prodding, followed by more direct questioning, had failed to drag anything meaningful from Emiya on the subject. He would smile reassuringly and say he understood his boss' concerns. Sometimes he'd even go home earlier that night. But without fail he'd be back the next day at the crack of dawn.

Makami bit his lip as he took in the curiosity spreading over Emiya's face. Enough stalling. It's not going to get any easier if you delay.

The chair scraped loudly against the floor as Makami pulled it over and took a seat directly across from his junior. To Emiya's credit, he did not shy away from the steel-blue eyes considering him.

Here goes. Let's hope the glass doesn't shatter when prodded.

Makami lifted his chin. "About Saturday. When you went to Itou's house."

"Yes?" The muscles tensed around the kid's mouth as he sat up straighter in his chair. "Look, I know it was a bit of a long trip, but—"

The senior lawyer waved a hand to silence him. "You did well," he said.

Instantly Emiya's expression relaxed and a hint of red bloomed at the tips of his ears. The kid was easy to fluster with honest praise, and Makami never gave any where it wasn't deserved. Still, it was perspective rather than pride that he needed Emiya to take away from this conversation. With that in mind, he fixed him with a level stare as he continued.

"It's important to remember that our clients aren't just names and facts on a page. They're people, as we are—" he paused meaningfully on the last words, and was disappointed but not surprised to see they sailed clear over the other's head, "—and people always have a reason behind their actions. You can't hope to do right by your clients unless you understand them as people. Tell me, Emiya. What did Itou really want?"

Shirou sucked in a harsh breath. "He wanted his daughter to be healthy."

"That's right." Makami inclined his head. "Not to be declared innocent, or get a good plea bargain. You knew that because you took the time to listen to him. To understand him as a human."

The kid opened his mouth to say something, but Makami cut him off.

"Listen, Emiya. Only a human can understand other humans. Their hopes and fears. The things they want, even if they don't say them out loud. That's why lawyers can't be machines. They must be humans." He nodded towards the coffee cooling on the desk. "And humans need rest, comfort, and joy to keep going. Keep denying yourself those things for too long, or value one over the others, and you'll burn yourself of your humanity."

Emiya looked momentarily taken aback, his eyes widening. Then he pinched his lips. "I appreciate the concern, Makami-san. But you don't need to worry. I can handle myself."

There was very little humour in Makami's bark of laughter. "Yeah? When was the last time you took time for yourself?"

"There was a reunion for—"

"Matou practically had to drag you there kicking and screaming."

"That's an exaggeration!" said Emiya, a hint of petulance in his downturned mouth. "And I hung out with a friend the week after!"

"Yeah? Maybe there's some hope for you after all."

Makami leaned back and studied him. It was doubtful that the kid was lying about that. While he had a better poker face than people expected of him, he rarely deployed it in his own defense.

"You got any other plans coming up?" he asked.

"Uh." The redhead scratched his cheek. "Actually, I was supposed to see that friend again this last weekend, but I ended up going to Itou's—"

"Good. Then you can do it this weekend instead," interrupted Makami in a tone that brooked no argument.

From anyone but Emiya, goddamn it. A normal person would be delighted to have their boss' sanction to take time off, but instead he looked conflicted.

"I really should do some more research before Nakamura-san's court date, though," he said, biting the inside of his cheek. "Maybe I can—"

"Not maybe. Take a damn break already, Emiya," said Makami firmly. "If I see hide or hair of you here on Saturday, I'm going to fire you."

A little smile touched the other's lips. "Oh? Does this mean Sunday is okay—"

The stacked files muffled the impact of Makami's fist banging on the desk. "Don't get cheeky with me!" he rumbled. "You're going to take a break even if it kills you."

"Alright, alright!" said Emiya, holding his hands up in surrender. "I'll text her at lunch and see if she'll reschedule."

Text "her"? A slow smile spread over Makami's face. Hah, I might have known. Even Emiya is weak to a pretty face.

Not that he could blame the kid. His own dear Yuna had been quite the looker in her youth. One of the only things that could pull him from his books. Just a snap of her fingers and he would come running. Still would nowadays, and that woman knew it too, hah. But her warm smile made it all worth it.

A shuffle from the other chair reminded Makami that he wasn't alone. Reluctantly he dismissed the image of Yuna bustling in the kitchen in favour of focusing on his apprentice. Sweeping his gaze over Emiya, he noted to his disappointment that the other showed neither a fluster nor the smirk that Matou wore whenever he had a hot date. Still, the redhead's brows had relaxed a bit, and a little smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.

It'll do.

"Why wait?" he asked, snapping Emiya's gaze back to him. "Text her right now."

"Hey, this is my personal life, you know?" The kid looked a bit irked, but reached for his phone anyway. "Besides, she rarely answers before ten."

Makami only folded his arms and watched intently while Emiya punched in a message.

"Good," he said once the kid had finished, perhaps a little more fiercely than the situation merited.

He really shouldn't be getting so invested in this situation, but fuck it. Knowing that Emiya had some shreds of a social life had lifted such a weight from his shoulders that he felt positively giddy. That and thinking of Yuna always put him in a sunny mood, even if she'd hate what he was about to do.

Before he could reconsider, Makami strode over and unlocked the special cabinet above his desk. The glass of the bottle's neck felt pleasantly cool against his hand as he pulled it out. Puffing his chest out, he placed the wine down in front of Emiya's blinking face.

"Here, share this with your lady friend." He winked conspiratorially. "Consider it a little bonus for finally being reasonable."

The sudden twitch of Emiya's fingers, even more than the red flaring anew in the boy's ears, made Makami want to burst out laughing. Definitely worth giving up the Gato Negro, just for the look on his face.

"I can't bring that!" the redhead protested as he pushed the bottle back towards his senior. "She'll be absolutely insufferable. I can hear her now." He closed his eyes and pitched his voice higher and sharper. "'Ahahaha! You've really fallen for my charms, haven't you Emiya?' It'll be like the cafe all over again."

It took all of Makami's experience as a courtroom attorney to keep a straight face while the other grumbled. Emiya occasionally got annoyed for his clients, but seeing him rankled on his own behalf was refreshing.

"You've got strange tastes in women," he said with an exaggerated shake of his head.

"It's not—" started Emiya, before snapping his mouth closed. Sullenly he looked down at his desk, his gaze darting this way and that until it settled on the bottle. "Look, Makami-san…" he sighed. "It's a nice gesture, but… I haven't earned it."

"And I say you have. You contradicting your boss, kid?" gruffed Makami, then sighed when Emiya held his gaze. It figured that he wouldn't flinch from the threat, even though Makami was the only lawyer in town stupid enough to take on an apprentice that preferred pro bono to billable hours. There really was too much steel in that boy for his own good.

How to make him accept it anyway? Knowing what he knew of Emiya… a weight settled on his heart even as he opened his mouth.

"If you won't take it for your own sake, then take it for hers."

Emiya's brow furrowed only for a moment before he surrendered and swept the wine into his bag. The senior lawyer suppressed another sigh as his earlier relief dried up like spit on a hot pan. Clearly there was still a long way to go with this one.

"Okay," said Emiya eventually, exhaling as he leaned back in his chair. "But she'll get the wrong idea."

Makami gave him a tired smile. "Is it the wrong idea?"

"Uh." The other rubbed the back of his neck. "I don't… we haven't talked about it."

"Well, think about it, kid. Doesn't have to be this one. But make sure you end up with someone to come home to." Ignoring the redhead's furrowing brow, Makami slumped over to his own desk and threw his briefcase down.

Because part of being human is that sooner or later, you're going to screw up big time. You're going to trip something up and an innocent man will go to jail. Or unknowingly let a shady one out on the street, and blame yourself when he goes and hurts someone. He sipped his own coffee and made a face when he found it lukewarm. And when that happens, you're going to need someone to catch you. All humans do. If I hadn't had Yuna and the kids after the Disaster, then….

Shaking his head, he popped open the filing cabinet and started the paperwork for a new file. There was nothing more to do for Emiya at the moment. If he wasn't going to take the advice, ten more minutes of lecturing wouldn't change that. Anyway, there was his friend Inui's brat of a son to worry about.

Still, Makami would have felt vindicated if he'd seen the text that buzzed the kid's phone later that morning.

"It's a date!"

The banks of the Mion river had always been a favourite gathering spot for Fuyuki's residents, with its red brick paths flowing between islands of soft green grass. The day was a little overcast, the sky dappled gray with clouds. It was a marked contrast to the widening blue of Tohsaka's eyes as she read the bottle's label.

"Shirou, do you know what this is?" she asked in a low voice.

The embarrassment creeping up his neck had him twisting his fingers in the grass at the blanket's edge. "Of course I do," he muttered. "I brought it, didn't I?"

"A 1982 Gato Negro," she breathed, before looking up at him. "It's not that I don't appreciate the gesture, but this is the kind of thing you'd order at a fine restaurant." An amused smile danced on her lips. "This is just a picnic, you know?"

"Don't blame me," he said. "When I told my boss that I was taking the day off to see a friend, he pushed it on me."

She turned away from him towards the churning blue water, but not before he had spotted the flash of disappointment in her eyes. Shirou felt his ears grow warm as he glanced towards the black curtain of her hair, then back to the bag in front of him.

Maybe Makami-san was on to something, after all. He fidgeted with the bag's buckle as he tried to decide how he felt about the idea. She did call it a date in her text… I thought she was just teasing me again, but maybe…

Before he could think much more about it, there was a rustle of movement on the blanket. He glanced up to find that Tohsaka was smiling at him again. She tapped her hand on the bottle and arched an eyebrow.

"Do all lawyers give out these kinds of perks to their juniors? Ahh, I picked the wrong profession," she said with a plaintive sigh.

His brows creased in annoyance. Had he been misreading her entirely? Sometimes it was so hard to tell what this woman was thinking.

"You don't have to believe me," he grumbled.

"No, no, I believe you." She airily waved a hand, then touched it to her mouth as the smile sharpened into a smirk. "After all, you're a terrible liar. I'll never understand how you manage as a lawyer."

Shirou shrugged, looking up at the clouds while she giggled beside him. He could tell her that she had misunderstood his work entirely. Law was about uncovering the truth of a situation and making the best of it, not lying or scoring points. But he already knew she would chide him for being hopelessly naive, and he wasn't in the mood to hand her more ammunition. The wine was already embarrassing enough.

Instead, he arched an eyebrow at her. "I take it you'rean expert liar, Tohsaka?"

"But of course!" she said cheerfully, waggling a finger at him. "It's a must in my line of work."

Saying that like it's a talent to be proud of. She really is a demon. But the sparkle in her eye and her relaxed posture made him smile. Even if it wasn't quite the Tohsaka he remembered from school, it was closer than the frayed woman he'd met at the reunion.

Then her words caught up with him, and he frowned. "I thought you worked in estates. Don't you need a reputation for honesty? I mean, to attract clients…"

For a moment Tohsaka's face went blank and he could practically see the gears in her brain jitter to a halt. Then she lifted her nose up and huffed.

"Hmph! And what makes you think I'm not honest?"

"Haa? But you just said—"

"I'm always honest with my clients," she interrupted him. "But when it comes to negotiations, you can't afford to show all your cards. There are people who won't hesitate to squeeze out your last drop of blood if they know you want something they have."

Shirou reluctantly nodded, thinking of some of the prosecutors he'd met. "Yeah, I guess that's true…"

There was a touch of melancholy in the cast of Tohsaka's shoulders as she looked towards the river again. Estate planning was more cutthroat than Shirou realized if it could put a look like that on her face.

Unless she's involved in something shady. Just as Issei had always insisted throughout their school days and beyond. Shirou found himself thinking of the hollow look in Shinji's eyes the night of the reunion, when he'd given his cryptic warning.

"There is a darkness in that woman."

A small shiver ran down his spine despite the warmth of the sun filtering through the clouds. Studying criminal law had taught him many brands of human evil, addiction and embezzlement and worse. It was hard to imagine Tohsaka engaged in any of that, but it wasn't impossible.

He shifted to look at Tohsaka again. She pressed her lips together as she faced into the wind, her blue eyes fixed somewhere on the far shore. After watching her for a few heartbeats, he found himself smiling.

A bad person wouldn't look so troubled about it. Even if Shinji was correct and Tohsaka was struggling with something difficult, she had a good heart underneath it. Maybe Shirou could even help with whatever was bothering her, and more of that old spark would return to her eyes.

Tohsaka sighed as she turned back to him, then clicked her tongue in annoyance.

"See, this is exactly what I'm talking about." Her cheeks puffed in disapproval. "That smile on your face tells me you're thinking something stupid."

The redhead suppressed a groan. She might not be a bad person, but she could definitely be an aggravating one. "That's what I get for thinking something nice about you, even for a moment."

The faint blush of pink on Tohsaka's face appeared and vanished as quickly as a ripple in the river, but it made Shirou smirk in satisfaction. Her fist tightened in her lap, and for a moment he thought she might hit him. Then she burst into laughter.

"I see, I see. It's good that you're not a complete pushover," she said, though the teasing arch of her eyebrows took the sting out of her words. She resettled herself on the blanket, dropping her chin in her hands as she smiled at him. "But really, I'm curious. How did a guy like you end up a lawyer?"

The knife glinted silver under the streetlight as it came at him. Pain flared bright in his stomach.

A few steadying breaths helped push away the memory of his altercation with some of Fuyuki's rougher youth. It was easily banished compared to the red glow that haunted his dreams. Still, a quick glance at Tohsaka's troubled face loosened his tongue before she could worry more about him.

"It was Fuji-nee's idea, actually," he shrugged. "She pushed me pretty hard into it."

"Really?" asked Tohsaka as she reached for the tote bag she had brought for the picnic. "I thought she would push you into teaching or competitive archery, given her passion for them."

Shirou gave her a wry smile. "Don't think she didn't try that too, at first. But that's not where my path leads. I want to help people more directly than that."

I want to save them. The thought made something roil in his gut even as it brought a small smile

to his lips. It doesn't matter what happens to me, as long as I can save others. That's the only way I can atone for my sin.

The acrid smell of smoke filled his nostrils, as it so often did when he let his mind slip back to the Great Fire. The one he had unjustly survived while the others died.

Shirou took a deep breath, just as the therapist had taught him, and the clean wind took the smoke away. Not for long, it never was before the shroud of guilt settled back over him, but for the moment breathing was a little easier.

If Tohsaka noticed something odd about his momentary silence, she didn't say anything. She was busy pouring tea from a thermos into two plastic cups.

"Still, why law?" she asked after a moment. "I always took you for the more physical type back in school."

"You're not wrong. My original goal was to become a cop." He offered a shrug in response to her arched eyebrow. "Fuji-nee used to really put me through my paces in the dojo. I wanted to put those skills to use for people."

He gratefully accepted a cup from her hands and took a sip. The subtle sweetness of jasmine tea was just what he needed to wash away the taste of ash lingering in his mouth, and let him relax again.

"So what happened? You don't seem the type to give up easily."

The asphalt was rough against his cheek where he'd collapsed against it. Distantly he could hear voices cursing above him, then the frantic sound of fleeing footsteps. Later, when he'd been on the cusp of blacking out, there had been sirens.

Shirou heaved a sigh. "I tried putting it into practice. It didn't end too well."

The expectant gaze levelled on him said that he wouldn't be able to escape with just that. Gritting his teeth a bit, he continued. "There used to be these delinquent gangs that hung out in old Miyama town. Some of those guys… well, they were pretty bad news."

It wasn't a surprise to see Tohsaka nod. She had grown up in Fuyuki too, even if she must have had a far more sheltered life as a rich girl.

"When they started bullying some of my classmates… well, I couldn't just turn a blind eye to that. So I rounded up some guys to help confront them. Make them stop, even if that meant using our fists."

Tohsaka's nose crinkled in disbelief. "You? Emiya Shirou, a gang leader?"

"Not like that!" he said with a frown. "It's just… sometimes force is the only way to make bullies stop."

Somehow he knew she wouldn't argue, even before she nodded at him to continue. The pained expression in her gaze when they'd briefly touched on her profession earlier said it all.

"One night, there was a big fight. Not too far from there, actually." He nodded towards the red bridge that clawed its way across the river. "Things got a little out of hand, and I ended up in the hospital for a bit."

There was no gasp from the woman beside him, only a tightening of her mouth. Another sip helped steady Shirou against the memory of white ceilings and disinfectant.

"Fuji-nee wouldn't let me outside after dark for weeks after that. And when I told her I was going to be a cop, she absolutely forbade it."

Yelled, before bursting into tears, about waiting outside the operating room while he was in surgery. About how she refused to turn on the television someday and hear about his death.

Even if Japan was a less violent society then some of the foreign countries Shirou had heard about, he couldn't deny there was a certain risk associated with being a cop. Or with joining the yakuza, as Raiga had seriously suggested to him over a cup of sake three months after he was walking again. Fuji-nee had none of her usual whimsy when she put her foot down, telling her grandfather that she would not allow Shirou to end up in that world.

Shirou rolled his shoulders and nodded at Tohsaka. "Law was a compromise we could all live with."

A way for Shirou to pursue his desire to help people without putting himself directly in the line of danger. Raiga had even paid for his education, pleased that Shirou would still be contributing to the 'family' when his men needed a defense. So far, nothing had come of that expectation. There might be trouble in the future if Raiga asked him to defend a guilty man, but Shirou would cross that bridge when he came to it.

"Did you reach your dream then, Shirou?" The words were spoken gently, but Tohsaka's eyes held an intensity that demanded an answer.

He sat back and tried to collect his thoughts. Sometimes he did wonder if he shouldn't have gone into policework after all, or some other profession that would let him pull people from immediate danger. It didn't feel right, sitting behind a desk while others risked their lives, no matter how many times Makami-san told him about the importance of his job. It never felt like enough.

Then he thought of Fuji-nee's tearful face when he'd woken up in the hospital bed, and the crushing grip of her hand on his shoulder.

"I don't know," he said at last.

The breeze tugged at his coat as silence descended between them, broken only by distant shouts and splashes from the water. Then Tohsaka abruptly stretched herself out and smiled at him.

"That's enough serious talk. It's a picnic, so let's eat!"

Grateful for the change of subject, Shirou cracked open the boxed lunch she handed him. The savoury aroma of Chinese gaifan hit his nostrils, stir-fried spicy pork with bok choy and scallions served over white rice. The grains were sweet and fluffy, while the peppercorn in the sauce added just the right amount of heat. He ate slowly despite his hunger, turning the food over in his mouth to appreciate the full range of flavours.

"This is good," he said after he'd devoured half his portion. "I wouldn't mind learning the recipe."

There was a vague blush on Tohsaka's cheeks as she daintily picked at her food. "Hmm. I suppose I could be persuaded, since you're enjoying it so much." She swallowed down a bit of pork, then grinned at him. "Be sure to serve me your best tea when I come over and show you."

"Sure, that sounds fine," he shrugged.

Instead of seeming pleased, Tohsaka shot him a look of affront. Unsure of what he'd done to merit that, Shirou contented himself with another drink of tea, then resolutely picked up his chopsticks again. He was quite sure he'd be hearing all about his mistake shortly, whenever the simmering volcano decided to erupt.

The glare trained on his chewing face suggested that eruption might be imminent. Then it smoothed out into a honeyed smile as she leaned towards him.

"Hold on, Shirou. You have a bit of rice right there," she said, pointing to her cheek.

"Hah? Thanks, I'll—"

Before he could check, soft fingers were brushing against his face. Heat blossomed across his nose as she drew closer, until she was only a hair's-breadth away.

"T-Tohsaka! What are you doing?" he stammered.

What the hell is this scene? It's like a manga rom-com!

But instead of picking off a stray grain, she pinched his cheek. "Just kidding," she smirked as she drew away and picked up her lunch again.

Now it was Shirou's turn to glare, rubbing the spot as the wasted adrenaline settled uncomfortably back into his veins. "Damn it. We aren't kids anymore, you know?"

"I can't help it!" she giggled. "You're such an easy target."

It was annoying to have someone laughing at his expense, but satisfaction swiftly drowned it out when she grinned at him. The spark was in the blue of her eyes, brighter than before. He could call today a success just for seeing it.

Still, a bit of retaliation was in order. Shirou gave an exaggerated sigh. "I guess it's alright. You're cute when you're gloating."

Tohsaka nearly choked on her bok choy.

"S-Shirou! Idiot, don't just say things like that," she growled through her blush. Then the colour faded as she regained her composure and the haughty mask resettled. "You're lucky I'm a proper lady. Otherwise I'd definitely make you regret that."

The twitch of her fist told him that she might seriously be considering it anyway. Rather than threatening, she reminded him of the black cat he sometimes found lounging in his courtyard, the one that bristled at him before letting him scratch its head. It was all he could do not to laugh.

From the way her eyes narrowed, he wasn't holding it back very well.

Deciding to give her a break, he waved a hand. "Sure, sure. So what does this proper lady want to do next?"

"Hmm…" There was a challenge in her smile. "Why don't you impress me, Shirou?"

"You're asking me? I figured you'd have the whole day planned," he said.

"I did think about it, but there's such a thing as spontaneity too, you know?" She tossed her hair playfully over one shoulder. "Come on, you must have something in mind."

The wind ruffled the grass around Shirou's fingers as he thought about it. The weather was fine if a little cold, a perfect day for hiking up in the woods surrounding the Ryuudou Temple. It was peaceful there, among the whispering pines and birdsong.

Too peaceful for someone like Tohsaka, he thought with a rueful shake of his head. She'd get bored.

The impulse vanished like dew in the sun as Shirou reminded himself that he was here for Tohsaka, not for himself. His right to selfish joy had burned to ashes in that fire, alongside those that would never hope or dream again. The most he could ask for now was to share in the joy of others.

Shirou gave a little shrug. "I'm happy with whatever you want to do."

"Nothing at all, huh." Her eyes darkened. "This is for you too, you know. Just pick something you like, Shirou."

He combed through his mental map of Fuyuki, trying to think of an activity she might enjoy. "We could go to the aquarium, or maybe the movie theatre over in Shintou."

Blue eyes regarded him appraisingly for a long moment. It reminded him uncomfortably of the look Makami-san sometimes shot him from the office door when he stayed late on Friday evenings. Her lips twitched, and for a moment he expected a second lecture this week.

Then she nodded. "Alright. That's good enough for today."

Not exactly the enthusiastic reception he had been hoping for. Then again, it stood to reason that a pretty girl like Tohsaka had been on a lot of dates, let alone friendly outings (which was today? He forced away the awkward flutter in his heart). Probably she had been to both venues often enough to tire of them.

They were halfway through packing up the lunch boxes when Shirou mused aloud. "I'll ask Shinji for some recommendations next time. He always knows the best spots."

There was an audible crack, and he turned to see the plastic cup shattered in Tohsaka's hands. Whoa, he thought dazedly, she's a lot stronger than I th— then he saw her face and swallowed hard. She was looking at him as if he'd just suggested she eat an entire barrel of worms.

"Absolutely not," she growled. There was no trace of the playfulness that lightened her verbal spars with Shirou. "I want nothing to do with that man."

A twist of exasperation tightened around Shirou's spine. As much as he understood that Shinji and Tohsaka had their differences, he didn't appreciate hearing the girl he was maybe dating sneer about his best friend. His fellow attorney could be a bit ill-tempered behind closed doors, but for all his superior airs, there was nobody Shirou trusted more to pull him out of a jam. Whatever festered between these two, it was high time to drag it out into the light.

"Why are you so hostile to Shinji, anyway?" he asked. "I know he was a bit of an idiot back in school, but he's mellowed out since then."

Her brows tightened in real anger. "If you came here today just to plead Matou's case to me, you might as well go home right now." Frost dripped from every word.

Shirou flinched. As much as he wanted an answer, that really wasn't the impression he'd meant to convey. "No," he hurried to say, "I'm here because I want to be."

That mollified her a bit, although there was still a suspicious edge in the gaze she trained on him. "Good. I wouldn't want to put you out or anything," she said, not bothering to layer the sarcasm with her usual teasing note.

It was skating on thin ice—hell, thin ice with a shark lurking underneath, from the look she was giving him—but Shirou was nothing if not stubborn. He had to give it another try.

"I'm just curious," he said, turning so his body was squarely facing hers—an invitation for honest discussion. "I've been Shinji's friend for years, and he's done a lot for me. He's a good guy."

"No. He really isn't." Her face might have been carved from ice, it looked so forbidding in that moment.

An uncomfortable silence lapsed between the two of them, but he was encouraged when she didn't shift away. At last, her expression thawed into something almost apologetic.

"There are things you don't know, Shirou," she said quietly. "Sakura may have forgiven him, but I never will." The spark ebbed low in her eyes, darkening their blue until they were almost black.

The words dried up in Shirou's mouth at the sight. Tohsaka looked utterly serious, her mouth twisted in a pained grimace. Dread settled low in his belly. I don't understand. Shinji and Sakura aren't that close, but they seem like they get along when they see each other. Just what the hell happened?

The question must have shown on his face, for Tohsaka crossed her arms and glared at him. "And no, I won't say anything more. It's Sakura's story to tell, if she wants to."

Shirou lowered his head. "I.. all right. I understand."


Tohsaka shoved the last box into her bag and tightened the strap with unnecessary vehemence. Brushing stray crumbs off the blanket and folding it up gave Shirou the opportunity to observe her from the corner of his eye. With each huff and grumble, the anger drained from her face and left sadness behind.

It was far too troublesome an expression. Shirou was no longer a boy, but he still wanted to see a world where nobody cried. His hands twitched with the need to do something.

After a moment of reflection, he snapped his fingers and smiled despite the sullen look she shot him. "Hey. Since you made all this food, I should treat you to dessert as a thank you."

She stared at him for a moment, then a small but cheerful smile spread across her face. "Hmm. I guess even you have good ideas sometimes, Shirou."

That was her version of an olive branch, and he found himself nodding in satisfaction. Good. She's willing to be pulled from her bad mood. He went to pick up his own bag when he saw the protruding neck of the wine bottle.

"Ah, we forgot about the wine after all that," he said apologetically.

Her hand waved dismissively in the air. "Don't worry about it. We'll crack it open next time, that's all."

Next time. His heart thumped uncomfortably in his chest as he followed her down the brick path, and he could feel a touch of red in his cheeks again. If he wanted to put a stop to… whatever this was… he had to speak up now. Gently but firmly tell her that while he appreciated her as a friend, he wasn't interested in anything more.

His mouth opened and shut a few times, but no sound came out. After a while, he let it stay closed.

Mercifully, Tohsaka seemed not to have noticed. She skipped a few steps ahead, then turned and grinned at him.

"So where are you taking me? It better be somewhere nice!"

Oh. Embarrassment warmed his neck again as he realized he hadn't thought that far. "Right. Then why don't we try, uh…"

In desperation he racked his brain for the sweet shops and cafes he always walked right by, preferring savoury flavours himself. She let him struggle for a bit, then gave a little sigh.

"There's a decent crepe place on the other side of the bridge. You're okay with that, right?"

The tone said it wasn't really a question, but Shirou didn't mind. Her uncharacteristic interrogation from earlier aside, insisting on having things her way was what made her Tohsaka. And it would make her happy.

It had been a good while since Shirou had stopped to admire the view from the bridge. The fading sunlight coloured the rippling surface of the water in pretty shades of orange and gold. The conversation ebbed and flowed as easily as the river below, Tohsaka seeming as eager as he was to leave the earlier unpleasantness behind.

The crepes ended up being delicious, as expected from one of Tohsaka's recommendations. At her insistence, they ended up splitting each of a strawberry crepe and a macaron-chocolate one. It was a bit embarrassing to be seen eating something so sugary, but having a woman by his side gave him an excuse.

Wiping the last of the sugar dust on a napkin, he pulled himself from his thoughts to find Tohsaka savouring a bite of strawberry and cream, her eyes half-closed while she murmured in appreciation. It was actually pretty cute, though he was sure she would spit fire if she caught him thinking such a thing.

Shirou sat back with a sigh of contentment, absently tracing the contours of his bag. The waters were still a bit muddied, but today definitely had shades of a date. It had been nice, even if he wasn't quite sure how he felt about dating Tohsaka.

True, she was pretty enough, as his buried hormones reminded him every time she grinned in his direction. And even if half their conversations consisted of deflecting her verbal jabs and riposting with his own, that… was actually fun. He enjoyed being able to freely tease someone, especially now that he rarely saw Fuji-nee.

On the other side, there was a reason that Shirou had stopped going on dates a while back, however much Shinji pushed him. He didn't really have time for them, not when he needed to claw himself up to where he could finally help people. Inevitably the girls ended up feeling short-changed and moved on, and Shirou told himself that he didn't have a right to date. Not if it ended up making others unhappy.

Though Tohsaka seemed willing to give it a shot anyway. On their way over the bridge, she had threatened to kill him if he cancelled without good reason, which seemed to imply she understood that it might be inevitable sometimes. Just so long as he made it up to her later.

The idea of there being a 'later', that someone would be waiting for him to finish up his work and join them, was surprisingly pleasant. Maybe it wouldn't hurt to give things a try.

Abruptly, Shirou realized that he was happy. It was a faint bloom in his chest, a small trickle, but it warmed him all the same. The realization drove his old guilt and turned his gut sour. He could feel his mind racing to supply him with reasons why he didn't deserve this, why things wouldn't work out.

She'll find someone else sooner or later, someone that suits her better. A more exciting guy that has all the time in the world for her.

His fists buried themselves in his coat pockets.

It's better this way. Focus on your cases and the people who need you.

He glanced over at Tohsaka, who was balling the wax paper and looking for a trash can. The smile on her face seemed genuine, all the more so because she didn't seem to realize he was watching her.

She really does seem happy, though. He leaned back in his seat as he came to a decision. I can do this for a little while, if it helps put the spark back in her eye. Just until we go our separate ways.

"Hmmm, I wonder…" Tohsaka's voice drifted over to him. Pivoting in his seat, he saw her throw the ball directly into the mouth of a faraway recycling bin. Her little fist pump was out of place for a lady, but endearing.

Makami-san said I need to understand people before I can help them. I don't really know what Tohsaka needs to be happy again, but this does seem to be helping.

Hard as it was to believe, the evidence was there in the curve of her smile and the energy of her steps as she came back towards him.

And if she's happy with this, if she's enjoying this… then it's okay for me to enjoy it too. His shoulders relaxed as he let himself get comfortable on the bench. I guess Makami-san also said things about humans needing joy and comfort. And Shinji's always saying I'm going to burn out like an idiot. If spending time like this helps me be a better lawyer for my clients…

No. That would be using Tohsaka, and that wasn't okay. This could last only as long as it made her happy, and not a moment longer. His own desires had no place in it.

The sourness in his gut dissipated a bit, resettling into the uncomfortable but bearable weight he had carried for years. Shirou had accepted chipping away at himself, if it meant he could save another person. Spending time with Tohsaka, knowing it couldn't last… it was another type of scalpel, but it wasn't that different in principle.

"Am I boring you, Shirou?"

His gaze snapped up to find Tohsaka scowling down at him, hands on her hips. The kind of expression that just begged to be teased. Now that he had made up his mind about things, there was no reason to hold back.

"Of course not," he said in his best deadpan. "With a devil like you around, I can't afford to ever let my guard down."

That should have pleased her, but instead her expression flattened until it was unreadable. Shirou squared his shoulders, refusing to let it intimidate him.

"Did you still feel like a movie?" he asked.

Tohsaka looked at him a moment more, the crease of her eyebrows deepening. Then she straightened up with a sigh. "It's getting late. I think we should call it a night."

Blinking, Shirou looked towards the sliver of sun setting on the river. The enthusiasm Tohsaka had greeted him with that afternoon led him to think she was going to keep him out well after dark. But perhaps he had simply been reading selfishly into the situation.

It's good. You'll have time to stop by the office after all. Some of the chores around the house are overdue, too.

The thought didn't do much to dispel the disappointment he felt in his bones.

Things were quiet on their way to Tohsaka's house, after he had offered to walk her home and she had accepted. Although they still traded a few quips and observations, the mood was definitely dampened. Perhaps that was why the manor, shrouded behind walls and old trees, felt unwelcoming as they approached its wrought iron gates.

Tohsaka paused in front of the door. "Thanks for today, Shirou." Then she gave him her trademark smirk, apparently determined to see him off properly. "Obviously you want to do it again sometime. I suppose I could force myself."

The sudden tightening in his chest surprised him. He really didn't want tonight to end. Not just yet, even though he knew they would do this again soon. For a wild moment, he imagined grabbing her hand and hauling her down to the market district for a round of drinks so they could keep talking a little while longer.

He let it go. This isn't for you.

"That sounds fine. Have a good night, Tohsaka."

When the tumblers of her lock clicked into place with solid finality, he found himself staring at the closed door for several beats of his heart before turning for home. He thought about the tofu stir fry he had time to cook for the first time in weeks, the floors that he needed to sweep and polish, even the volume of Red Lion Requiem sitting untouched in his room.

Anything but the silent house that would greet him.

Author's Note: Astute readers may wonder why Shirou ended up in the hospital given Avalon's regenerative powers, to which I can only say that most of the changes from canon in this AU originate from certain choices made by a certain Magus Killer. We'll get there soon despite the slowburn, I promise!

Addendum to Author's Note: Hah, readers far more astute than me pointed out that Avalon's regenerative capabilities only really kick in when Saber is around. Entirely my bad, and thank you all for the correction.