Rin meant to tell him. She really did. But once again, fate took the decision from her hands.
Shirou frowned at the iron gates of the manor, then glanced at his phone. Still no response from Rin, and he was starting to worry. They were scheduled to spend the afternoon baking for Sakura's holiday party the next day, and it wasn't like his girlfriend to flake. Especially when she'd been open about her anticipation for once, rather than hiding it under her usual veneer of aloofness.
"Come on, Tohsaka," he sighed, pressing the call icon for the third time.
Again, he got nothing but the dial tone. Sighing, he shifted his grip on the grocery bag, hoping to restore a little warmth to fingers numbed by the cold, then glanced at the high windows half-hidden behind trees.
Maybe she's got her head buried in a book. It wouldn't be the first time.
Fortunately she had given him a key for exactly such eventualities. That didn't stop him from feeling a bit weird as he let himself in through the front door. A home was an intensely personal place. Even if familiarity had dimmed the ominous chill he'd felt in his early days around the manor, he still wasn't entirely comfortable being here without its owner present.
"Tohsaka?" he called out hopefully. "Are you home?"
Silence answered him. Glancing about, he found her shoes on the rack and her coat and scarf up on the hook. The first whisper of unease shivered down his spine as he changed his boots for slippers and walked into the main hall. The air felt unusually heavy as he breathed in a faint scent of ozone and metal.
Squaring his shoulders, he tried again. "Tohsaka?"
He didn't see any signs of disturbance. The antique wood furniture stood as tall as ever, the long drapes pulled open to let in the sun. Tohsaka had probably just fallen asleep on a book in the library again.
That didn't stop his pace from picking up as he searched the rooms with increasing urgency. The library held nothing but dust motes spinning in a sunbeam. Nothing in the bedrooms, the kitchens, the bathrooms and parlour room. Unease sharpened into distress when he found her phone abandoned on the desk in the study.
"Maybe she had a work emergency," he reasoned to himself over the rapid beating of his heart. "Or maybe Sakura needed her — but no, she would have left a note…"
Shirou was pacing past the basement door when the scent of old metal intensified. If he closed his eyes, he could have imagined himself elbow-deep in one of Homurahara's ancient radiators.
He sighed in relief. Tohsaka must be downstairs sorting through old storage or something. Western houses used basements for that instead of storage sheds, right?
His hands brushed against exposed stone as he made his way down the stairs, searching for a light switch as he squinted in the darkness. By the sliver of light cast from the upstairs hallway, he could make out exercise equipment and piles of dusty books. Nothing out of the ordinary, and yet the whole space felt oppressive. Sweat gathered at the back of his neck with each step.
Then his fingers finally scraped against plastic. The ceiling bulb flickered on, and Shirou's eyes widened in horror.
His girlfriend lay unmoving on the stone floor, sprawled on a crimson circle. The complicated pattern of lines and glyphs made his eyes ache and set his head pounding. He didn't need the sharp coppery tang to know it was drawn in blood. Magic, but no time to worry about that now.
Shirou rushed to her side, stumbling over crystals and bits of ash. "Please be alright," he whispered low in his throat as he frantically grabbed her wrist. "Please don't be… "
His throat caught on the unspoken word as he pressed his thumb along the vein. A wave of relief crashed over him when he felt the pulse, faint but definitely present. Her body was cold when he encircled her in his arms, but she was alive. He could breathe again.
He wasn't sure how long he stayed there, kneeling on stone, burying his nose in raven hair that smelled of smoke instead of its usual sweetness. Eventually he stumbled upstairs, carrying her as carefully as if she were made of spun glass. Halfway down the corridor to the living room, he heard a grunt and looked down to see blue eyes blinking blearily up at him.
"Shirou?" rasped Tohsaka, her voice dragged over gravel. "... what are you doing here?"
He gave her a shaky smile. "Cleaning up after you, as always." Before she could do more than huff, he pressed his forehead against hers. "Don't scare me like that."
"Y.. yeah," she muttered. "I guess that was g-graceless of me, wasn't it."
Shirou carried her into the living room and placed her gently on the couch, tucking a cushion under her head. Then he pulled up a chair and waited. Now that the initial rush of adrenaline had dissipated, he could feel pain blossoming in his knees where he'd smashed them on the floor.
Tohsaka weakly rested a hand against her temple, seemingly trying to collect her thoughts as her breathing settled. Her gaze was resolutely fixed on the ceiling.
"What happened?" she asked after a time.
"I found you unconscious in the basement," he said quietly.
She bit her lip. "That's impossible. The wards should have kept you out—" Her hand fell to her side as she groaned. "Except I attuned them to you last month."
Shirou digested this, his gaze straying over red curtains and the polished wood of the furniture. "Is that why the house seems friendlier?"
She nodded, jaw tight. Her fingers fidgeted with the ends of her hair. But at least the sunlight had returned some colour to her face, a welcome change from the deathly pallor that had confronted him in the gloom of the basement. Still…
"Are you okay?" he asked, touching his fingers carefully to her shoulder.
A small smile ghosted across her lips. "I'm fine now. I just underestimated how much power the spell would pull from me."
They sat in silence for a few breaths, before Tohsaka turned her head to face him.
"Don't you have anything to ask me?"
He shrugged. "Of course I do, but I figure you'll tell me when you're ready." He exhaled, holding her gaze now that she was finally looking at him. "I'm just glad you're okay."
"You really are too good a person," she murmured, then gave him a wry smile. "This is my real family business, Shirou. The legacy I inherited."
Odd pieces that had been nagging Shirou for a while were clicking into place. Tohsaka's caginess about her work, the bitter herbs he could sometimes taste on her skin, and most of all the lonely but familiar cast of her shoulders when she turned away.
"So you're a mage too," he said.
Tohsaka coughed violently on empty air before staring at him. "You… what do you know about that?"
Shirou sighed as a shadow settled over him. But this time he was the one sitting in the chair, leaning protectively over his charge.
"The day my old man visited me in the hospital and offered to adopt me, he also told me he was a mage." He answered the grim line of Tohsaka's mouth with a wistful smile. "It sounded like the coolest thing ever. I begged him to teach me magic. How to summon a dragon, or turn invisible, or heal a missing leg. Anything."
"You believed him, just like that?" asked Rin, arching a skeptical brow.
He nodded. "Kiritsugu had this look in his eye when he said it, and I just knew he was telling the truth. I can't describe why, but I would have believed the earth was made of pudding, if he said so looking like that."
"You really are an idiot," she said, without any heat. "So what did he teach you?"
"Nothing." Shirou closed his eyes. "No matter how often I pestered him, he refused point blank to tell me anything more. Then he left." The memory of waving him off, watching that gaunt back disappear down the front path, made his chest tighten. "I tried to find out more on my own, but I never found any traces. No books, and no one to ask."
He scratched his cheek. "Until now, I guess."
"He did you a favour," sighed Tohsaka. "Magecraft isn't a path to happiness." She sat up with some difficulty. "Could you get me some water?"
"I… yeah. Just a moment."
As loathe as he was to let her out of his sight, he could understand her thirst. When he returned with the glass, she downed it in greedy gulps, coughing when her haste sent the liquid down the wrong passage. Then she slumped back against the couch and, in a low monotone, answered all the unspoken questions she must have sensed pushing their way onto his tongue.
Tohsaka told him about the Moonlit World, and the various entities that lived in the shadows between rationality and superstition; explained magecraft and magic, and the difference between the two; dripped bitterness as she spoke about magus organizations and bloodlines, and the endless search for an impossible dream manifested in the Root.
"... and as Second Owner of the spiritual land Fuyuki is built on, it's my job to administer the whole mess," she finished, gazing morosely into the unlit fireplace. "But even without that responsibility, I was twisted from the start, broken by contradiction with every breath. That's what it means to be a magus."
Shirou's brain felt curiously blank as he slumped in his chair, the interlocking gears of his thoughts ground to a halt. He heard everything his girlfriend was saying with a corner of his brain, and distantly he knew he should be feeling something about the horizon opening up before him. Wonder, horror, perhaps a touch of vindication. But spells and magic circuits and vampires all seemed distant, faraway dreams and nightmares. It was difficult to focus on them.
"And… I'm sorry about keeping this all from you." Tohsaka's voice drifted in the heavy silence, her hands clutching at the couch pillows. "That night, at the reunion… I knew I should have kept my distance. Just a polite greeting, and you'd forget about me again."
No. The Moonlit World might be a distant thing, but not the woman in front of him. Aloof, demanding, irascible and sweet by unpredictable turns, but undeniably and warmly real.
"I never forgot—"
She waved a finger in front of his lips. "It's rude to interrupt when a lady is apologizing, you know." Her laughter at his disgruntled face was strained, scraped out from her exhaustion. "Okay, maybe we didn't forget, not fully. But it was a small thread. A few more years and it would have snapped entirely."
Reluctantly Shirou nodded, knowing she might be right even as his heart violently rebelled, insisting that he would still have found his way to this impossible woman, the one his arms itched to embrace and pull tight and never let go.
"But I wanted to see you," said Tohsaka, fists balled in her lap, face flushed pink. "Even when I told myself it was just a foolish fancy. Even though I knew I was lunging after a ghost of when the world still made sense. I wanted to see you." Another brittle laugh as her shoulders shrank in on themselves. "And I've always been greedy. So again — I'm sorry, Shirou. "
She tilted her head down and away, as if expecting him to leave. Shirou hesitated for a moment, irrationally worried she might shatter if he touched her. Then he gathered his courage and took her hand, feeling a flutter in his chest when she started but did not pull away.
"I'm glad you were. Greedy, I mean." He scratched the back of his neck with his free hand. "I guess that makes me the same."
She snorted through her fatigue. "Don't flatter yourself."
They sat in almost comfortable silence again, their hands still clasped together. Then Shirou cleared his throat. "Shouldn't you be wiping my mind now? Kiritsugu said something about that."
"I know where you live." She waved her free hand dismissively. "I'll come sort you out later."
He chuckled as her expression shifted between irritation and affection, then looked at her seriously again. "Are there any other mages in Fuyuki?"
"Magi," she corrected. "A few. Sakura is one, but she wants nothing to do with it."
"I see. And…" he hesitated, but forced himself to ask even though he suspected the answer from the dripping crimson in the basement. "Have you ever hurt someone? With magic, I mean."
The blue of her eyes turned icy with defiance. "I have. More than once."
He forced himself to hold her gaze, to plunge into that ice. Hard, but riddled with cracks, and underneath… "It hurt you," he said simply.
She snapped her head to the side, pulled her hand away as if his touch was fire. "This is what I do, Shirou. This is who I am."
His skin tingled where it had slid up against hers. But more than that, the sight of her crumpled face was piano wire around his neck. He wasn't going to tolerate it a moment longer.
Taking a deep breath, he cupped Tohsaka's face and shifted it to look at him. Her teeth sunk into her bottom lip even as she glared at him.
"I get it," he interrupted her as she opened her mouth to yell at him. "You look after Fuyuki and you keep the people safe from magical threats. So you're a guardian."
Tohsaka blanched, then furiously shook her head. "It's not altruism, Shirou," she spat. "It's about keeping my family's claim on the territory. Everything I do is self-interested."
"Even if that's the reason, you're still protecting people. And I know you're a good person—"
She sputtered, her cheeks a flaming wreck of scarlet.
"—so you haven't been using magic to exploit people. I'm sure you could if you wanted to." He gave her what he hoped was an encouraging smile.
Tohsaka sucked in a sharp breath. Then she flew at him, pummeling her fists into his chest with surprising energy.
"Hey! Tohsaka, you—"
"Idiot!" she burst out, not slowing the pace of her blows. "Idiot, idiot, idiot!"
Then the punches gave way to a hug around his waist as she threw herself into his arms. He almost jerked away in surprise, then relaxed and hugged her back. Wrapping himself around her protectively, he stroked her hair as he waited for her shoulders to stop shaking. For all that Tohsaka snapped with light and fire, her frame felt delicate as it pressed against his own.
"It must have been lonely," he said once she'd relaxed a bit, her breathing steadier. "I'm sorry."
A growl sounded against his cheeks. "Don't you dare apologize for something you couldn't have known about. Not here, not now."
His hands slid down raven tresses to grip her shoulders, pulling her back a bit so they could look at each other. "Okay, but at least let me help you. I don't know if I can learn magecraft or anything, but—"
"Shut up." Her grip tightened on him again. "You already are."
"That's where I killed Kuzuki-sensei."
Shirou followed the slender arc of Tohsaka's finger as she pointed down the cliffside, towards the temple grounds. In the light of day, with monks and visitors milling about the stone paths, it was hard to imagine it as a scene of bloodshed. But his girlfriend's voice held the bite of hard iron.
"Caster was draining energy from people all over Fuyuki," she continued, her shoulders stiff against the wind. "They only fell unconscious, so the Church could still cover it up."
"The gas leaks," he remembered aloud, and Tohsaka nodded.
"Yeah. But once the fighting really started, it was a matter of time until she pulled too hard and someone died. And I had selfish reasons too. I couldn't afford to let her grow any more powerful."
"Was that part of the War?"
She visibly tensed, her eyes snapping suspiciously over his face. "How… did Sakura tell you that?"
"Shinji." The storm gathering on her brow made him hurriedly add, "I don't think he meant to, though. It just sort of slipped out."
Huffing, Tohsaka pivoted round to face the temple again. "But yes. That happened during the Holy Grail War. The fifth one, and God help me, the last."
"Holy Grail… like the cup? I don't understand."
Tohsaka's laughter was a jagged thing, scraping every one of his nerves raw. But he had to know, even if it meant hurting them both. Because this was it. This was the shadow that lurked beneath her eyes even on the sunniest mornings, the claw that had snuffed out the spark he had so admired. And if there was any chance he could help lift it from her, even a little bit...
She did. Hesitantly at first, but then the words came pouring out in a flood, Tohsaka's mouth spitting them out as if they'd burn if she held them back a second longer. Seven spirits drawn from fevered legends painted in stars and crimson, seven masters to walk a path of thorns and lies, all killing each other over the promise of their hearts' desire.
Although Tohsaka didn't linger on the details, the savagery bled out from between the lines, roiling Shirou's gut until he thought he might vomit. The scars he'd seen on her body but resisted asking about, the faded crackling of old burns and the line that cut silver down her lower back, made terrible sense now. And this had all been going on while he'd sat idly in the living room, watching the news and reassuring himself he'd make a difference through law, or maybe politics.
He'd been a fool.
"Stop that," said Tohsaka, glaring at him, and he realized he'd said the last part aloud. "Idiot. Didn't you tell me you chose your path? That you'd stick to it no matter what?" She scoffed. "Or do you want all the people who desperately need a reasonable lawyer to end up with vermin like Matou instead?"
His brow furrowed. "But—"
"There's nothing you could have done to stop it," she said firmly, though not without sympathy. "You were a teenager, Shirou, and a mundane one at that."
Once, he might have argued with her. Part of him still wanted to, wanted to insist that he could at least have tried. But the vision of Taiga's eyes brimming with angry tears, the same that had nudged him from a police uniform to a suit jacket, sealed his mouth.
Instead, he picked at the coarse bark of a tree as he cast his mind back to his second to last year at Homurahara, and the week where so many things had abruptly changed. Kuzuki-sensei's sudden 'transfer' had faded into the background for his younger self, whose attention had been focused on the sharp changes in certain personalities around him. Speaking of which…
"The War. Shinji was a part of it." He snapped off a piece of bark, turning it over in his hand. "Were Sakura and Mitsuzuri, too?"
Tohsaka was silent for a moment, then shrugged. "You're smarter than you look. Yes, they were, although Ayako should never have been." From the way she chewed her lip, Shirou could guess there were some personal regrets there. "They lost their command seals, but at least they escaped with their lives."
The way she phrased that… "Did you win?"
"I did," she nodded, and despite it all, a flicker of pride danced in her eyes before they shaded again. "But without the Einzberns, there was no lesser grail for the ritual. That damn priest had a substitute," she said through gritted teeth, her hands twisting in her scarf, "But it… he couldn't take the strain. The Grail never formed. No, there was never a chance that it could."
"Then the War—"
"We fought and killed each other for nothing, Shirou. Not even dust."
Her eyes were dark as she stared down at the temple. If she pulled on her scarf any tighter, it would surely rip.
When he placed a hand on her shoulder, she flinched away.
"That's the kind of 'guardian' I am, Shirou. Nothing to do with your dream of helping people." Her hands clenched, the knuckles bone-white. "I'm sorry I lied to you."
A gasp escaped her as Shirou clasped her to his chest. He buried his face in the side of her neck, breathing in the mix of herbs and rose tea that was Tohsaka. Holding her, providing what comfort he could with the bulk of his presence.
"You're still you. The woman I fell hard for," he soothed, and felt her shoulders begin to shake. "You did what you felt you had to, and you regret the pain you caused. You have a heart and a soul."
Tohsaka broke into sobs, great ugly howls that rent the air as tears spilled down to drench his jacket. Her grip around his waist was painful in her distress, but he said nothing. Only rocked her in his arms, terrified that he had broken her, somehow made things worse. Cries came in waves broken apart by short pauses for harshly recovering breath, before misery set her wailing anew.
Slowly painfully to his heart, her voice strained away into shaky little gasps and whimpers. Then silence, which poured into his chest as worry. Gingerly he nudged her a little distance away, so he could see her face, only to find it tilted down towards the ground, obscured by the black curtain of her hair.
"Hey, are you okay?" he said, then felt fingers graze over his cheek.
She looked up to meet him, and Shirou's breath was stolen away. Her smile trembled, her face messily streaked and dripping with snot and salt water. But even brimming with tears, her eyes had never been so beautiful, the brilliant blue of her irises unclouded for the first time since their hands had collided over the cheap glassware of a school reunion.
He couldn't make out the words Tohsaka mumbled to him, heard them only as gratitude and devotion whispering over his skin. Felt some of her spark return as she straightened up, despite all the pain and grief she shared with him; the fierce spark that had left its impression on him, even years later, rather than its imitation. In that moment, Shirou had an epiphany.
Even if I can't save everyone, even if I can't stop the building from toppling… I've helped at least one person pull themselves from the rubble. No, more than that. I helped her, Tohsaka.
Shirou felt a curl of happiness bloom inside his belly, and for once he didn't rush to stamp it out. When he brushed the fingers of her hand against his lips, he found he was smiling. It wasn't Kiritsugu's smile, the one he had spent his life chasing. But it feltright.
When they finally started down the steps again, Tohsaka suddenly hit him on the arm. "You made me cry, you jerk," she groused through the smile that threatened to poke through. "I hope you're ready to pay for it."
That she would try and pull him so quickly back into their comfortable patterns, a ploy to lift his mood that just so happened to let her prod and tease… somehow, it struck him as awfully funny. He chuckled, the laughter rising in his throat until he was half hiccuping.
Blue eyes stared at him in wonder. "You… you're laughing. I mean, actually laughing."
"Oh come on," he said once he'd gotten some control back, his sides a bit painful from the force of his mirth. "It's not that strange."
"It is, actually," Tohsaka said, then smirked. "Laughing at last, hmm. Which means you owe me more than ever." Covering her mouth, she let out a malicious titter. "I'll be counting on you, Mr. Butler!"
"Haaah," he drawled, stuffing his hands in his pockets. "What a troublesome master I have."
Blue eyes stared at him intently, roaming over his face with an intensity that took him aback.
Closing her eyes, she sighed through an odd little smile. "In one world, at least… I hope it gives you rest." Before he could ask what she meant, Tohsaka turned away from him with a pout. "Hmph! I see the staff is in sore need of discipline."
Shirou couldn't help it. Her puffed out cheeks, the mock indignation in her crossed arms, all pulled another laugh from him.
Tohsaka valiantly tried to hold onto her disapproval, to no avail. Soon she was laughing too. "Thanks, Shirou."
"For what?" he asked, absently taking her hand as they walked.
"Everything," she sighed, before smiling at him. "I don't care if you don't see the value in yourself, you're my brightest jewel. Even if you're infuriating sometimes." She shot him a disapproving look when he chuckled, then imperiously lifted her chin. "Hmph, I can't believe a man made me say all that."
"Hey Tohsaka?" He grinned when she turned to him again. "I love you."
Her face turned a spectacular shade of red. "I—idiot," she said, tossing her hair over one shoulder. Then a few steps further, she tucked her head in and murmured, "I love you, too."
They didn't say much on the way down the mountain slope. There wasn't any need to. And if things weren't perfect between them, and probably never would be—they were both human, after all—he accepted the warmth suffusing him as happiness.
Waking up always came easily to Shirou, his body attuned to some precise internal clock. Still, the warm body pressed up against his side made a pretty strong argument for staying encased in the futon a little longer. Idly he brushed aside a few stray strands of black hair, tucking them behind Rin's ear. Even muttering in her sleep, her tresses tangled up in a spider's nest of bedhead, she was adorable.
But as much as he liked admiring his wife at rest, there was only so long before a man needed to move. Unfortunately her arms tightened around him the moment he began shifting to the side, her face nuzzling into the crook of his neck. A fond sigh escaped him.
Looks like I'll be staying put after all.
He still felt a little bit guilty about that, when there were so many cases on his desk, so many people counting on him. But it was far better than risking Rin's wrath in the perilous space between awakening and her first cup of tea.
Chuckling as he settled in for at least another half hour, he reached into the night table she'd insisted on adding to his room, moving carefully so he didn't disturb her. A quick rummage yielded the leather album he wanted.
Gently shifting himself up into a seating position, he flipped through the photographs. Two months on from the wedding, and he'd already thumbed through it often enough that the spine was starting to crack. Friends and family beamed at him from the pages - Issei offering his congratulations from behind a stern face, Makami grumbling as his wife helped him maneuver around a broken leg, Sakura positively beaming as the Maid of Honour, Fuji-nee shamelessly lifting her son over the assembly for a better look. Even Shinji standing tall as his best man, and it had taken a while to convince Rin to let that happen.
But that had gotten better, too. Although the tension between them remained, it had lost some of its thorns over time, even if Shirou suspected they'd been trimmed largely for his sake. Rin had even sold Shinji the emerald ring he was planning to propose to his own partner with next week.
And his wife had mellowed considerably since that day up on the hillside. She still practiced magecraft, with the same fire she put into everything she did. But her pride was shaded with genuine enjoyment now despite the inevitable strain, and she let herself be pulled away for other things, too. She actually administered estates now, and ran a small jewelry business in her spare hours. And spent her first Christmas before a roaring fire, she'd told him with a touch of wonder as she relaxed into his arms, instead of the cold stone of her basement workshop.
As he flipped another page, Rin stirred at his side. She sat up, rubbing her bleary eyes, then frowned when she saw the album.
"You're always doing that," she grumbled, though her cheeks held a touch of pink.
"I'm not going to stop even if you gripe and moan," he said, smiling. "After all, it was the best day of my life."
The pink deepened into a fierce scarlet, even as she lifted her chin. "That's right," she said, "I'm glad you understand."
Shirou laughed and took her hand, running their joined fingers over the photo of them standing together. He didn't care that much for wedding clothes—they always made his housekeepers' mind twitch with thoughts of their upkeep—but Rin had never looked more beautiful. The joy shining from her eyes made up for everything, and he still couldn't quite believe he was the one that had put it there.
"Hey, Shirou?" she asked after a time.
"We'll have other best days. For the rest of our lives." She gave his fingers a squeeze. "Even if I have to force them on you. I promised you, and I always keep my promises."
"Of course," he nodded. "That's the magus' creed."
"No, not as a magus," she said, a little sharply. "As Rin to Shirou, you dummy. One human to another." She leaned into his shoulder. "So promise me, too. We'll have more mornings like this."
He couldn't promise her that, and she knew it. They had both seen too much tragedy unfold in their lives.
"I do," he smiled anyway.
I'll make it happen. As many days as I can give you.
Shirou could have filled a book with all the other things he wanted to tell her, dozens more albums with all the memories he wanted to capture together. But in the morning sunshine, pressed up against each other… it could wait.
Author's Note: Thank you to everyone who helped me out on this story - Lich, Tuna, Tarsi, you know who you are - and to all the readers who made it through what I once described as "nearly 50K words of dialogue and introspection, no action - what am I even doing here?" Thanks also for all the support and comment, I really can't overstate how motivating they are to authors.
There's a lot of loose ends and details left unexplored here, especially as concerns the HGW in this continuity, which I realize may frustrate many readers. I can only offer that delving in would probably be a longfic all it's own, and I'm not sure now many people would be in the market for an Ayako-centric HGW where she stumbles into being Master to a Saber, especially since a bittersweet ending would be pretty much set in stone.
Now that I've done a sane pairing (one I'm quite fond of, which will likely surprise no one), time to dive back into rarepair hell and wallow there for a while. Send food and EMIYA smutfics, please.