The whiskey burned in Shinji's throat as he downed the glass, but it was a pleasant heat. It tasted of victory, hard won and all the sweeter for it.
"Ahh, that's the stuff," he cheered, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. It was a comfortable but coarse gesture, one he would never do in front of his clients or colleagues in law. Thank fuck there was no need to keep up appearances around Shirou.
Speaking of Shirou. Shinji narrowed his eyes when he saw the man idly taking in the smoky atmosphere of the bar, with its long wooden counters and walls stacked with every hue and flavour of bottled sin. The man's own glass of whiskey, which Shinji had so graciously paid for, was entirely untouched.
"Come on, drink up," Shinji demanded, pushing the drink insistently towards the other. "I just won my first big case, and you're damn well going to celebrate it with me."
"Ahh, sorry. I was just thinking," said Shirou as his fingers closed around the glass. He threw the whiskey back, then gave a sharp wheeze. "Ugh, that's strong."
"Tch, I'm surrounded by lightweights," he sighed, even as he couldn't help but preen inside, old habits marking points against his friend and occasional (if oblivious) rival. "Although at least you showed up, though. Tell Ryuudou he'd better get his ass here next time."
"You might have more luck if you weren't asking a monk to drink alcohol," said Shirou mildly.
"Do you think I care?" declared Shinji, thumping his hand on the counter. "Everyone has a drink when Matou Shinji wins big."
"We still can. Issei did say you were welcome to drop by the temple tomorrow for tea," said Shirou in a neutral tone, but there was a hint of amusement dancing in the bastard's eyes. "Or coffee, if you prefer. I brought him a bunch of the Brazilian kind he likes."
So he finally visited the temple again, huh? Ryuudou must have been over the fucking moon.
Still, Shinji didn't appreciate jokes at his expense, even good-natured ones. They reminded him of far crueler ones, sneered in the dark.
"Coffee is not the same thing, as you idiots know perfectly well," he spat, before catching the bartender's eye and gesturing imperiously at his glass for a refill. "Just for that, you're paying for the next round."
Shirou grumbled, but reached for his wallet all the same. It made Shinji's eye twitch, even though he knew to expect it. Those doormat tendencies had driven him crazy back in school, when Emiya casually shrugged off everything Shinji worked so hard for. Not just his talent for archery, or the admiration of certain female peers, but just a basic sense of goddamn self-worth.
Some of the old bitterness crept over him as he watched his friend carefully count out the bills. Shinji's life had been a constant struggle to shore up the walls of his ego against the crushing morass of his failure as Matou heir. To see Shirou quietly embrace inferiority, bowing his head to every demand and every insult… it had really pissed him off.
Fresh ice clinked into his glass, followed by a generous splash of amber. The harsh warmth of the drink reminded him why he always gravitated back to the redhead anyway. As irritating as Shirou's selflessness could be, it was at least genuine. No mind games or subtle grabs for money or status by association, just a diffuse desire to make others happy. It made him the rare person Shinji could trust.
That was worth more than riches or ambition, though it had taken the War and the lifting of the old monster's shadow for Shinji to appreciate it. So when the idiot had declared that he would save people through law, Shinji had hung up his political aspirations to follow him. He had already lost too many important people in his life, and damned if he'd let another one slip away.
Not that he would ever say anything that sappy out loud, of course. A man had his pride.
Grinning, he held up his drink. "Come on, Shirou. Better get used to it, we're coming back here as soon as—"
A sharp buzz had the other man pulling out his cell phone. "Sorry. Give me just a moment."
Shinji glowered as he watched Shirou's fingers glide over the screen. So much for a man's pride if it could be so easily interrupted. "That better not be one of your clients."
The man bit his lip, looking almost troubled for a moment. Then he glanced at the screen again, and a small but affectionate smile pushed away the tension in his face.
"No. Just letting Tohsaka know I'll call her when I get home."
Shinji groaned. Even worse.
Irritably, he swirled the whiskey in his glass. "Really got her claws in you, huh," he said, not caring if he sounded a bit sullen.
"Shinji..." said the other warningly.
He sighed. "Yeah, I know. Drop it."
Frustration needled his spine, but there was no point arguing about it again. Even if he broke the rules and told Shirou just how fucked up magi were, even if the other didn't dismiss it as delusional ramblings, it still wouldn't sway the stubborn mutt. Once he had his teeth sunk in something, it was almost impossible to make him let go.
All the worse because to anyone who didn't know her better, the ice queen seemed to be having a positive influence on Shirou. The lines of his face seemed a little less drawn, his frame a little less gaunt. He still worked hard as nails, but he no longer haunted the office at absurd hours. Sakura practically gushed after he dropped by the flower shop to catch up.
He took another drink of whiskey. It helped drown out the mess of hopes and suspicions running through his head. "Hmph," he said after a moment. "At least you're here tonight. Means you must have tamed her at least a little bit."
A wry smile touched Shirou's lips. "She did say she wanted me to make more time for people."
Shinji paused, hand still clenched around his glass. That seemed entirely uncharacteristic of Tohsaka, a woman defined by the magus qualities of self-importance and possessiveness.
"Even me?" he asked wonderingly.
Because he had been entirely sure Tohsaka would never forgive him for what happened to Sakura. It would be too much like forgiving herself.
"Ahh, no. You'd be the exception." Shirou looked sheepishly down at his water. "She's actually kind of angry with me." Then he sat up, squaring his shoulders. "But you're my friend, and I wanted to be here."
"And she accepted it." Shinji gave a low whistle of admiration. "Holy shit. You really are taming that hellcat."
"Shinji!" sputtered Shirou, his face turning a suspicious shade of red. That made several images jump to mind, in various shades of nauseating and irritating.
Okay, maybe there was some lingering jealousy after all.
"As I was saying before we were so rudely interrupted," he said, suddenly as eager as Shirou for a change of topic, 'You'd better get used to this bar. Kanazaki's court date is coming up, and we're getting sloshed as soon as you get him acquitted." He narrowed his eyes. "You'd better win, Shirou. I'm not having you taint the office's reputation, not when it reflects badly on me."
He'd meant it as encouragement, but his words always seemed to turn harsh when talking to Shirou. It was a bad habit left over from his most embarrassing years. At least his friend always got the underlying message.
Or so Shinji thought. But although Shirou's jaw set in its usual determination, the slant of his brows practically screamed distress to his friend's practiced eye.
"Alright, out with it," huffed Shinji. "What's wrong, Emiya?"
"Nothing," murmured Shirou, then sighed at the other's pointed look. "I just…. Kanazaki could have had his case heard earlier, if I'd gotten the research done more quickly. But it slipped away from me, so we had to go for a secondary filing date."
Shinji felt his shoulders hitch in frustration. Fuck, here we go again.
"So you feel guilty that you spent time with your people, because it meant you weren't able to meet an aggressive deadline. Look—"
"That's not it," Shirou interrupted, staring morosely into his whiskey. "I don't regret hanging out with Tohsaka and Issei and the others. I know that makes them happy." His hands tightened on the glass. "It's that spending time like that… it made me realize something. I don't feel bad about Kanazaki-san."
"I promised I'd make the people around me smile, Shinji. As many as I could. That's the only way I can atone for everything." Shirou's face was the colour of bleached bones. "But when I was sitting with Tohsaka the other night… I really liked her smile. I wanted to see it more. Way more than Kanazaki-san's." Helplessly he shrugged his shoulders. "I don't have that right, to think that some smiles are more important—"
"That's normal, dumbass." Shinji's fingers closed around the other's shoulder before he could stop himself. "Of course you're going to like some people more than others. You think I give a shit if that idiot Hanabusa smiles? Fuck, I want to punch that asshole in the face."
Even Shirou couldn't quite suppress a smirk at that. Shinji's hatred of that particular prosecutor was both infamous and colorful.
"Look, it's fine to have a dream," Shinji continued after a beat. "Even if yours is idiotic. But not if you let it strip away what you actually want."
A sudden thirst brought the glass back to his lips. He drained it in a single swallow, and almost choked on the liquid heat.
"If I'd realized that when Sakura came to live with us," Shinji grumbled after the coughing fit elapsed, "instead of letting the old worm pull the wool over my eyes… fuck, we could have been there for each other. So neither of us would feel so worthless. Instead I took my frustrations out on her."
"The bruises," said Shirou reproachfully.
Shinji cursed against the familiar bitterness flooding his mouth, old shame and guilt and helpless rage. Because that had been only the smallest flame of the dumpster fire. And the worst thing of all was that part of him wanted to justify it, even now. To blame Sakura for letting him do it.
"Nevermind," he said, self-loathing grating his throat. "That was before the War. Things are different now."
They sat in uneasy silence for a few breaths, then Shirou coughed.
"Hey, Shinji? What do you mean by war?"
Shinji's hand clutched hard around his glass, only to find it empty. He barely hesitated before grabbing Shirou's whiskey and downing that instead. When he set it down, he glared at Shirou's shocked expression.
"You weren't drinking that anyway," he huffed, before reaching for his coat. "You know what? This place is lousy. Let's head over to Copenhagen."
They ended up staying at the second bar only for a half hour or so, long enough for a beer and for Shirou to greet old faces. The pleasant company was enough to lift Shinji's spirits a little, so he could savour future victories instead of dwelling on past regrets. And if he didn't believe it was enough to make Shirou forget his earlier slip, at least no more was said about it.
The iron gray of the trenchcoat fades among the swirls of winter mist. Sharp stones cut into Shirou's feet as he races after Kiritsugu's broad back, the chill in the air freezing his lungs. Desperately he lunges forward anyway, his fingers brushing but never catching as his old man is swallowed up. Don't leave me, don't—
— rasps the voice of her sister, a whisper under the writhing worms covering her prone form, here in the stench and the green darkness and no matter how Rin screams, no matter how her hands scrabble on stone, she can't reach—
— the woman on the television set, the one whose husband had died in the gas leaks, one of dozens. Her reddened eyes look away from the interviewer and directly at Shirou. "But I promised Fuji-nee," he mutters, reeling back from the accusation in her glare, "I promised her I'd obey the curfew." Hands grab the edge of the screen, the woman and all the others too, all the people he'd failed stumbling through, so many—
— children, rotting in the very foundations of this church. Rin's head spins, her body wracked in dry heaves as she takes in emaciated bodies and cracked skin, eyes dulled but still aware, and how could she call herself Second Owner when this horror was happening under her watch, under her nose, and Kirei is dead but he must be laughing and laughing and she can't breath—
— his lungs are choked full of smoke, flames licking at his hands and charring the shoes to his feet, there are screams for help all around him but he stumbles forward, then crushing weight throws him to the ground in blinding pain and he can't shake loose he can't escape—
— the foot pressing viciously down on her chest, pinning her helplessly against the ground, ribs creaking, Berserker's fiery mane scorching her face as she leers down at her. "I still haven't gotten the candies Master promised me, but I bet your guts will taste as sweet," she purrs. Her pupils are narrow slits, midnight black on gold, as black as—
— darkness at noon, the wound torn in the sky weeps suffering from every ragged edge, a black ring of fire overflowing his mind with dread and he's suffocating—
Shirou choked on empty air and darkness as he jolted up from the futon, drenched in sweat and heart hammering against his ribcage. Several sharp intakes of breath helped steady the adrenaline coursing through his veins, though it didn't do much to stop the trembling. Not with the nightmare still clutching at him, his eyes swimming with malignant shadows and red skies even after he flicked the light on.
A rattling sigh left his mouth as he collapsed back on the sheets. That dream again.
It had haunted him in the first months after the fire, turning every night into a cavalcade of horrors. He had woken more than once to Kiritsugu sitting by his bedside, his quiet presence soothing the screams still lodged in his throat. Over time, the nightmare had receded, an occasional unwelcome visitor rather than a constant invader. By the time Shirou entered law, it had almost disappeared entirely.
I guess tonight was its big encore. He ran his hand shakily through his hair. But that makes sense. After all, I still haven't atoned for that day. And worse, I was starting to think that maybe… maybe…
Stumbling down the hallway towards the kitchen for a glass of water, Shirou found himself pausing in the living room. The dark screen of the television set, barely visible in the gloom, stared back at him. As childish as it was, he couldn't shake the image of the screen hissing to life, and the pale clutching hands that would surely follow.
Fighting down another shiver, he went to get his water. As he drank it down, his eyes absently strayed over the counter. The small blue light of the phone charger flickered in the gloom. He stared at it for a long moment.
Tohsaka would lecture me about how silly I'm being, he thought with a fond shake of his head, imagining the gleam in her blue eyes and her wagging finger. 'You need to get a hold of yourself, Shirou. Otherwise there's no way you can keep up with me, you know?"
Before Shirou quite realized it, his fingers had already closed around the phone, his thumb hovering over the call button. But no. He wouldn't wake her up for his own comfort, however tempting—
The phone buzzed in his grip. In his shock, he fumbled it a few times before bringing it up to his ear. "Hello, this is Emiya."
"Hey, Shirou." His heart skipped a beat at hearing Tohsaka's voice, even if there was a nervous quality to it, like lime squeezed in smooth batter. He could almost hear her fidgeting on the other end.
"Is everything alright, Tohsaka?" he asked.
"Of course it is! Why wouldn't it be?" she snapped, her usual response to any suggestion that she couldn't take care of herself. Once, he might have found it insulting. Now that he understood it as a shield forged by years of loneliness, it was oddly endearing.
"You're calling me at three in the morning," he pointed out, letting a bit of amusement drip into his wry tone.
"I know that! I just… wanted to check on you, that's all." She clicked her tongue. "Make sure you weren't still at your desk, you workaholic."
"Not at my desk, I promise. But I'm glad you called," he said sincerely. "I was having trouble sleeping."
"Oh. You too, huh."
Shirou frowned as he set the glass back in the sink. It wasn't a surprise that Tohsaka had nightmares too. Not with the way she buried her face against his chest when they lay in bed together, warm and drowsy in the afterglow. As if his simple presence could ward off the night.
He opened his mouth to say something, some kind of encouraging words, when once again she beat him to it.
"I wish you were here," she said softly, before catching herself with a sharp cough. "Just for that lavender tea you make, understand?"
The herbal tea he'd brewed for her, when she'd whimpered herself awake in his arms.
"I can come over now, if you want it so badly," he said, stepping out into the darkened hallway and back to his room.
"Don't tempt me." The words were whispered so low that he almost didn't hear them over the subtle hum of the connection.
"Come again?" he said anyway, and felt his lips draw up in a small smirk.
"No, no, it's fine!" Tohsaka said hurriedly. "Just… talk to me for a little bit, okay?"
"Okay," said Shirou, smiling as he let his head fall back on his pillow. "Okay."
The setting sun painted the stone and wood of the Emiya house's exterior wall in orange-gold, the colour of a wintry hearth. It felt like a promise of good food and even better company as Rin followed its length towards the entrance. Built in the classical Japanese style, the residence was both elegant and larger than she had expected.
Far too large for a single occupant. Guilt chewed the corner of her mind as she adjusted the strap of the bag on her shoulder. Although spending the night together had become a regular occurrence, Rin always hooked things so they ended up at the manor. Ostensibly it was because she had food that needed eating, but really because she was thrilled to have Shirou in her house, walking in rooms and rummaging in cupboards she had so long been forced to keep secret. Her father would never have approved, and she was surprised by the burst of vicious joy that accompanied the expected shame.
Rin paused in front of the short stone path leading to the door. She had never really considered how Shirou felt about it, whether he longed for company among his own familiar things.
That changes, starting now.
At least she could take comfort that tonight the Emiya house wouldn't stand empty. Shirou had invited not just Rin, but also Ayako and Sakura over for dinner. And if it was a bit of a shame that her first visit to her boyfriend's place was effectively a double date, she couldn't fault the company. She nodded to herself. Tonight was going to be fun.
That thought lasted until the second Rin stepped onto the stone path, and the Bounded Field hit her senses.
The magical energy pulsed softly over her skin, inquisitive rather than hostile, nothing like the oppressive feel of her own wards or the noxious miasma surrounding the Matou house before the blaze had consumed it. But the fact that the Field existed at all…
Emiya lied to me. Rin's hands curled into fists, fingernails digging into her palms so hard that they stung. He's a magus. Her breath came in shallow bursts, her jaw wire-tight as she stood rigidly in place. Another magus living here the whole time, right in my territory, and I had no idea.
The laughter clawed up her throat, sharp and brittle. It cut when she swallowed it back down. Is that why he got close to me? To take advantage of my position as Second Owner? Does he think if I lo— ferociously she shook the word away, hating the way it snagged on her heart—if I think well of him, I'll let his deception slide?
Rin's fingers formed the shape of a gun as she stalked towards the door. I'm going to get my answers, even if I have to force each one out of his lying mouth. And then…
A vision floated in front of her, warm amber eyes and brows furrowed in gentle concern. Alright, maybe she wasn't entirely sure what came next, but she'd definitely make him sorry—
"Hey, Rin! Already here, huh?" called a cheerful voice behind her.
Pivoting, she found Ayako and Sakura coming down the street, punctual as always. Hastily she forced the scowl from her face as she waved back, then narrowed her eyes at the plastic bag swinging in Ayako's grip. Rather than a standard gift for the host, a small box of candies like Rin herself was carrying, the bulge looked suspiciously like a six-pack.
"Ahaha, you don't have to glare like that," said the teacher, misinterpreting the tension in Rin's jaw. "Emiya's a good guy, but he has terrible taste in beer. He doesn't drink enough to know the good stuff."
"It's fine. We're all adults here anyway," said Rin. A bit too curtly, but it was hard to maintain the mask with anger (surely not sorrow) gnawing her raw.
"Neesan, is everything alright?" asked Sakura quietly, as always far too perceptive for her sister's comfort. "What's upsetting you?"
Oh, nothing. Just that Shirou was a magus all along, and who knows what trap we're all walking into.
Her mouth twisted. She really should tell them about the field, but the coat of ice she had built over decades of lonely duties sealed her mouth. She would drag neither her sister nor her best friend into this mess.
So she firmly shook her head. "Nothing that can't wait," she said, and rapped on the door.
From the way Shirou's eyes lit up when he pushed it aside and saw them, he excelled at acting as much as he did at singing. Even with Rin scowling at him, and the Bounded Field humming in the air, his smile lacked all guile as he ushered them in.
The utter nerve of that man. And the delicious aroma drifting in the air, simmering beef and vegetables with a hint of soy, wasn't going to save him from her wrath. Certainly not.
"Please go ahead and have some tea," said Shirou, waving at the cups already laid out on the table. "I'll bring out the food."
"Let me help you, Shirou," said Sakura, already halfway towards the kitchen when the man gently blocked her.
"No, no, please sit down—"
"I insist, you've already done so m—"
"Just let it be, Sakura. It's his territory, after all," said Rin, placing brittle emphasis on the word and a challenge in the stare she levelled at him.
Shirou gave her an odd look before turning back to Sakura. "You came all the way out here. Please, let me treat you like a guest for once."
"Alright," smiled Sakura after a moment's hesitation. "Then, please excuse the disturbance."
She calmly took her seat at the table along with the other two. But for all the serenity in her face, she still managed to be the one pouring and handing out tea. There might be a message there, or then again there might not. Rin's emotions were too jumbled up to make sense of it.
A cough snapped Rin's gaze over to Ayako, who was looking at her intently, a frown pulling at the corners of her mouth. But before she could say anything, Shirou emerged from the kitchen with several bowls of miso soup. It was soon followed by nikujaga served over white rice, the thinly sliced steak and hearty potatoes braised to perfection.
It was unfair. Shirou's cooking was excellent at the best of times, and from the pleased murmurs of her friends, Rin could guess he'd really outdone herself. But it was impossible to enjoy it. Not with the Bounded Field tickling obnoxiously at the base of her brain, a constant reminder that turned the flavours dull and lifeless on her tongue.
"Delicious," said Ayako between bites, her chopsticks working at a furious pace. "I really missed your cooking."
"You sound like Fuji-nee," smiled Shirou, as he and Sakura picked more sedately at their own meals. He often paused between mouthfuls, his eyes bright with quiet satisfaction as he watched his friends enjoy his food.
Then faltered upon seeing her largely untouched bowl. "Is it no good, Tohsaka? Should I make you something else?"
There was no offense in his tone, only the upset of a host that thought they had failed their guest. No, more than that, if she was correctly reading the affection underlined by the deep furrow in his brow.
Guilt sunk its claws deep into Rin's shoulders before she managed to shake it off. It was just more attempted manipulation, and she would treat it as such.
"No, this is fine," she said, lifting her chin to look him directly in the eye. "A kitchen is like a workshop. It would be graceless not to accept its fruits."
Again the emphasis on the word, phrasing stilted enough to call attention to it. Again Shirou only looked puzzled as she took a careful bite of stewed carrot. She couldn't sense any enchantment on it, but alchemy could be very subtle.
Rin glanced up to see Ayako eagerly refilling her bowl with rice, and felt shame burning in her cheeks. This was stupid. If Shirou wanted to poison her, he'd had easier opportunities before now. She really should enjoy the meal, especially since it might be the last she'd ever eat with him. But try as she might, Rin could barely taste it under the blood roaring in her ears.
She stayed mostly silent through dinner, struggling to rein in the urge to confront the man then and there, while the conversation flowed awkwardly around her. Shirou's worried glances were ignored, as were Ayako's little jabs and Sakura's deepening frown. By the time dessert appeared, a simple but delicious-looking castella cake, Rin's nails were pressed hard into the table edge.
When Shirou began gathering up the empty bowls, she flew to intercept.
"No, no, you did all the cooking and serving. It's only right that someone else does the dishes" she said, tugging them from his hands. Then she added, without any real hope of a different result, "Think of it as an equivalent exchange."
The stubborn man looked set to argue, his shoulders squaring the way they always did when he dug in his heels, when Sakura daintily cleared her throat.
"What Neesan means is that she'll clean up so that you can help me with something," she said, resting her hands in her lap. "I'm having some trouble with one of my suppliers, and I could use some legal advice."
Rin blinked, pausing in gathering up the cutlery. That was the first she'd heard of it.
Before she could say as much, Ayako appeared at her side and stacked up the bowls. "That's right," she said cheerfully. "You guys talk it over while Rin and I work off our debt for the meal."
"I don't know," said Shirou doubtfully, scratching his cheek, "It's not the kind of law I specialize in."
The look on his face screamed sincerity, the honest regret of someone who wanted to help but was afraid they'd make things worse. It made Rin's boil, that he could look like that while lying about matters that really were dangerous.
"Indeed," she said, her smile sharp with spite, "You should really leave that to someone who knows what he's—hey!"
The spoons almost fell from her hands as Ayako dragged her into the kitchen.
"Ayako!" she hissed, "What was that for?"
A drying cloth smacked her in the head.
"I'll wash, you dry," said the other woman, turning on the faucet.
Rin was sorely tempted to throw in the towel—literally—but for all her friend's boisterousness, she rarely acted without reason. Gritting her teeth, she dutifully wiped the dishes and waited.
She didn't have to wait for long. They'd only done a few bowls when Ayako glanced over her shoulder. Seemingly satisfied that the other two were engrossed in their discussion, she shot Rin a pitying look.
"You can stop embarrassing yourself now, Rin," she said. "He really doesn't know anything about magecraft."
Rin's grip tightened on the plate in her hands. "That's not possible," she said. "A Bounded Field doesn't appear from nowhere. And don't try to tell me Taiga got El-Melloi the Second to put it up. It feels nothing like one of his."
Ayako shrugged as she added more soap to her brush. "Sakura said it's been in place as long as she's known Shirou. She figures his adoptive father must have set it up, but never told him anything about it."
Kiritsugu, trying to protect his son even after he left. A field that warned against malice, but let good intentions and smiling faces into the house. Rin's thoughts strayed to the wards of her own house, which treated all outsiders as threats. Envy briefly tightened her chest, before realization hit.
"No, that doesn't make any sense," she spat. "Why would Kiritsugu set up an alarm, when the idiot living here has no way to know what it means?" She slammed the pot down on the drying rack, ignoring Ayako's wince. "And no magus would abandon their heir without training them. It's just too irresponsible!"
"Maybe he wasn't looking for an heir, Rin. Maybe he genuinely wanted to help a boy that had no one." Ayako's lips pressed together when the other gave a snort of derision. "Are magi that cold, that you can't imagine one acting from altruism?"
"How altruistic were the magi you saw during the War, Ayako?" Rin's voice sounded strained to her own ears. "And the Clocktower isn't much better."
"What about El-Melloi? Do you think he's got sinister designs too?"
"El-Melloi the Second, he's really particular about that." A smile flitted across Rin's face. "He's the rare exception, despite being a Lord. I wouldn't work with him otherwise."
Ayako's look was as steely as the grip with which she snagged the cloth, entirely forgotten in the other woman's hands. She let out a frustrated sigh. "If you can give El-Melloi the Second the benefit of the doubt, why can't you do the same for Shirou? You can't just go around thinking the worst of people, Rin."
Especially your partner. The words hung unspoken in the air, but pressed heavily down on Rin. Her friend was right, of course she was right. Trust was the rock that relationships were built on, she'd observed enough couples fall apart over the years to know that.
But she'd also seen what happened when trust was blindly given in the name of love.
Mother stared out the window long after the car had pulled away. Rin stood silently at her side, feeling guilty because she couldn't tell a joke to cheer her up, not when it made her think of who wouldn't be there to giggle with them.
Eventually Mother looked down and smiled at her. "I know it's hard, but your father thought long and hard about this. It's for the best." She straightened and dusted off her long skirt. "Why don't you help me make some pancakes, Rin?"
Rin couldn't remember anything about the pancakes, or the rest of that day. But she had never forgotten the glass in her mother's smile, and how close it had looked to shattering.
"Oi, Rin." It was the hint of worry in Ayako's tone, more than the clear disapproval, that pulled Rin back to the present. "This is where you're supposed to lecture me on how naive I am, you know?"
She let out a sigh. "No, you're right. I need to know more before I accuse Shirou of anything."
Turning her back on her frowning friend, Rin put a tremor in her legs as she walked towards the dining room, where her boyfriend and her sister were comparing dessert recipes.
I'm not my mother. I won't let the past chain me down. I won't make her mistake, or let fear of that mistake poison me. Her hands balled into fists at her side. But I won't walk blindly into the future, either. Even if it's unfair to Shirou, I need to satisfy myself.
She let her shoulders slump a bit as she took her seat at the table, let the breath catch in her chest. A flicker of satisfaction ran through her when Shirou's brow knitted in concern, just strong enough to resist the accompanying guilt.
"Hey, you okay?" he asked.
"Ahh, it's fine," she said, slowing her customary wave of dismissal so it looked subtly pained. "Don't worry about it. More importantly, were you able to help out Sakura?"
He didn't budge, as she knew he wouldn't. "Tohsaka. It's troublesome if you're not honest."
A tumult of emotions bubbled up in Rin's brain. More guilt, but also indignation for his potential lies, joy that he worried for her, and something hotter and deeper that made her taste sunshine even as it cut her lungs until she couldn't breath.
"... I'm not feeling all that well," she said, shivering as she realized there was more truth to that statement then she'd planned.
Rough but warm fingers caught her hand, as Shirou rubbed his thumb reassuringly over hers. "You've seemed off all night," he said gently. "Why don't you lie down and rest?"
That was exactly the result Rin wanted. So why did her chest feel so tight as he helped her to her feet? The knowing look on Sakura's face wasn't helping.
"Sure, if you have a spare room," she made herself say, tongue thick in her mouth.
Shirou shook his head. "I haven't aired any of them out for ages. You can have mine."
Her face grew hot. "No, I don't want to impose—eep!"
For the second time that night, Rin found herself pulled along by someone else. But while Ayako had contented herself with grabbing her arm, Shirou picked her up in a princess carry. She had just enough time to shoot her smiling sister a warning look before he was bringing her down the hallway, shifting his arms around her for a more comfortable grip.
And it was comfortable, and a bit thrilling too. Rin found herself relaxing against the heat of his chest before remembering she was suspicious of him. He didn't say anything when she stiffened in his grasp, only eased her down on the futon.
"Sorry. I can change the sheets."
"No, no, it's fine. I'm sure it's just a spell," she said as she settled in, though she had every intention of staying the night. For her investigation, of course.
Shirou looked dubious. "Okay. Then I'll stay and keep an eye on you."
"No, really, I'll be fine in a moment. Go look after your guests." Before she could stop herself, she added, "Thank you."
He lingered a moment longer at the door, then he was gone. Rin rolled over and buried her face in the pillow. It smelled of him, sandalwood and coffee and a pleasant hint of musk. She should really be thinking about where to look first, once night had fallen and the coast was clear, but her thoughts felt muddled. She needed a moment to clear them.
Closing her eyes, she let herself drift.
When she opened them again, the room was pitch black. When she muffled a groan and forced herself to sit up, she heard only the soft hum of appliances and the whisper of wind in the trees outside.
Frustration and embarrassment burned in Rin's face. Some brilliant magus she was, falling asleep when the game was afoot. Just how many precious hours of darkness had she already wasted?
Stepping off the futon, she frowned when her bare feet slid against wood. Hadn't she been wearing stockings? A quick tug at her sleeve confirmed she was wearing pyjamas, though they didn't quite fit her frame.
Probably an old pair of Taiga's. Her heart gave a little skip. Did he change me himself, or did he leave it to Sak—
She bit her lip. Completely frivolous thinking. Unworthy of a magus. A whispered incantation, and the tip of her finger flared with blue light. You have an investigation to conduct, Rin. Focus.
Her senses were on high alert as she moved through the house like a second shadow, ignoring the winter chill biting through the thin pyjamas. She rifled through closets and pulled open drawers, always pausing to check for traps and wards, carefully returning things to how she had found them.
But as meticulously as she searched, Rin found no trace of magecraft outside the Bounded Field. The closets yielded no alchemical reagents or polished scales, only kimonos and spare blankets. The shed in the back, the only place on the property closed off enough to really host a magus workshop, was filled to the brim with old kettles and instruments and other bits of junk. The faint traces of the magic circle she could barely make out under the stacked boxes raised a lot of questions, but dust and damage made it clear it hadn't seen use in years. Whatever use Kiritsugu had made of it, he hadn't seen fit to share it with his son.
With a sigh, Rin mentally filed it away for a closer inspection later and continued her investigation of the main building. The study's shelves overflowed with books, mostly law texts and maintenance guides, but there were also travel books and literature, a surprising amount of them in German. She pulled one down that looked particularly worn, the pages loose in their binding. Poems by Goethe, she noted as she flipped it open.
There was a sprig of unfamiliar white flowers tucked inside, their small petals withered with age. Underneath she could make out an inscription, written in awkward cursive.
To my dearest Kiritsugu, in the hopes that it brings colour to your world as you have illuminated mine.
Swallowing hard, Rin carefully closed the volume and put it back on the shelf. She was intruding on something intensely private, far worse than snooping through linens and cabinets.
When she returned to the empty hallway, she heaved a sigh and leaned against the wall. There were still rooms left to search, and that dusty magic circle to worry about, but the instinct to never leave a job half-done yielded to the renewed prickling of her conscience.
Rin let her steps carry her back to the bedroom, only to find them pausing in front of another door. One of the guest rooms, she knew from earlier when she had briefly poked in to make sure that Shirou was asleep. She had no business there but she slid open the door anyway.
He looked peaceful in his slumber, his red hair adorably mussed and his brow soft for once, his breath punctuated by silly little whistles that made her smile. No nightmares tonight, she thought approvingly. A sudden urge to join him gripped her, to lie down by his side and bury into his arms, savour his familiar heat and scent.
No. Reluctantly she pulled away and returned to her (well, his) room, letting herself flop back onto the futon. Some dignity had to be maintained, and there was little in sneaking in to curl up with a man she was just suspecting of treachery. Now she just had to figure out how to extract herself in the morning, with as much elegance as could be salvaged under the circumstances.
It took a while before sleep finally pulled her under again.
Rin had survived a Grail War and several Clocktower plots, but somehow Taiga's stern face still made her want to scramble for cover. The jovial demeanour had melted away, revealing the steely glint the woman reserved for delinquent students and straying yakuza. Although Rin had witnessed it on occasion, this was her first time being its target. Only natural arrogance and years of practiced subterfuge let her keep her cool under it.
She sipped her tea in a pretence of indifference, even as she cursed Shirou in her mind. Alright, it was entirely understandable that he'd needed to leave for work. Perhaps a bit less that he'd insisted she stay behind and rest, as if she were some fragile flower, but she couldn't risk setting her entire act ablaze by putting him in a headlock. And the okayu he'd left for her on the stove had admittedly been both thoughtful and tasty.
But why, for heaven's sake, did he have to go and ask Taiga to drop by?
The older woman leaned forward, her shadow falling over table and prey alike, and the interrogation proper began.
"What are your intentions toward Shirou?"
Getting down to brass tacks immediately, hmm? She really is a beast.
Folding her hands around the cup, Rin gave the other woman a look of reproach. "Please be gentle with me, sensei. I'm a sick woman, after all."
Taiga snorted. "After six years of teaching, I can sniff out any delinquency under the sun. You're not fooling anyone, Tohsaka." She slapped a palm down. "Come on, out with it. What are you really doing here?"
"I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about," said Rin primly.
"Staying at his house while he's gone, hmm?" The cat-like smile that spread over the former teacher's face was almost comforting in its familiarity. "The perfect chance for a little snooping."
Mornings weren't good for Rin, and that was without all the stress that recent events had poured into her veins. Surely that was the only reason she surrendered to the gleam in those brown eyes.
"Okay, I'll admit it," she sighed. "I sensed the Bounded Field, and I had some questions."
"And you didn't just ask Shirou about it?" Her interrogator's disapproving shake of the head made Rin's nerves itch.
"I don't trust easily," she said, fingers tightening unconsciously around the ceramic. "And… I think, on some level, I needed him to be keeping a secret from me." She exhaled sharply. "Because maybe then, it would excuse all of mine."
Taiga looked at her solemnly for a moment, seemingly weighing her words. "Secrets, huh." Then she pointed an accusing finger. "I knew it! You're scheming against my innocent little brother!"
Memories of a recent and rather vigorous evening rose up unbidden in Rin's brain. "There's nothing innocent about that man!" she protested.
"Aha!" Taiga's gleeful smirk had to be illegal in several countries. "So you did do the deed!"
Rin recoiled from the other's leering face, her cheeks burning hot. "Don't just come out and say it! Tch, what kind of teacher are you?"
"A retired one." The smugness radiating from her grin put even a certain obnoxious blonde's to shame. "The rules no longer apply."
Taiga drained the rest of her cup in one big gulp. When she set it down again, her stern expression had returned. "But it sounds like things have gotten serious. And that means you need to take responsibility."
"He's the guy here, isn't he?" Rin grumbled.
"And you're the magus." Taiga closed her eyes and sighed. "That boy is so much trouble. Just when I thought I'd kept him away from the clutches of all the things that go bump in the night, he goes and dates one."
"Excuse me?" bristled Rin. "And I don't want to hear that from you! Not when you went and married El-Melloi the Second!"
"Nyaah, but that's different!" said the brunette, cradling her own face in a look of exaggerated bliss. "That was a maiden's heart melting in the heat of love!"
Rin sighed in exasperated fondness. There's nothing maidenly here, but she's certainly lively. I can see why she won that gloomy man over.
"You definitely have him wrapped around your little claw, at any rate," she said as she refilled the cups.
"I know, right— wait, what's that about a claw?" burst Taiga, scowling at Rin's smirking face. She huffed for a bit, then turned serious again. "But Tohsaka, listen. I walked into the Moonlit World with open eyes. Kiritsugu told me a little, and Waver made sure I knew the rest before long. Shirou deserves the same."
"I…" Rin chewed her nail, staring down into her tea. "Where would I even begin?"
"A bright girl like you can figure it out." Taiga shrugged. "Or you could always give up magecraft."
Rin's nostrils flared at the suggestion. "Unacceptable," she growled. "Who would look after things then?"
And I don't want to give up jewel craft. It's a pain sometimes, but I've sunk more than two decades into it. All those sacrifices, and not just mine. I won't let them all go to waste.
Taiga looked entirely unperturbed. "Good. Then I won't have to hear Waver complain about irresponsible students," she nodded sagely, before frowning. "But something has to give, Tohsaka."
The tiger was right, of course. Rin had been telling herself the same for weeks now. But that didn't make the task any less daunting.
"Okay," she said, swallowing down her anxiety. "I'll tell him. But at my own pace, and in my own way."
Taiga didn't look entirely satisfied as she reached for the teapot again. "I guess that'll do for now."
Rin gave an irritated sigh. "Right. Am I off the hook, then?"
"Not so fast." Taiga's face lit up in a way that was equally charming and suspicious. "Shirou said you're a pretty good cook."
"So?" asked the magus, although she already had an idea of where this was going.
Her hands were seized and given a pleading squeeze. "I haven't had breakfast yet!" said Taiga, looking at her pitifully. "Make me something, okay?"
"Absolutely not!" snapped Rin, tugging her hands back. It took more force than anticipated.
"Come on, you owe me for the advice!" whined Taiga.
"No! And it's graceless for a grown woman to beg!"
Brown eyes glinted as they appraised the magus for weakness. "If you do, I won't tell Shirou you were faking sick."
For a few moments, there was silence but for the ticking of the clock and the grinding of Rin's teeth.
"Omelette rice," she spat at last, getting up from the table and stalking into the kitchen. "Nothing fancier. And I hope you choke on it!"
Taiga merely grinned.