In Pursuit of a Single Ideal

Chapter 6: Two Souls, Connecting

Shirou hobbled back home as best as he could. Every breath was a labour in itself, and more than once he nearly collapsed against a wall. His wounds were just bruises at this point, but the cut where Assassin's knife had caught him stung like red flame.

Even so he continued on. His vision swam as he ambled through Fuyuki, veins thumped with overpowering sound in his eardrums.

His hands, wounded as they were with newly formed calluses and red patches of slight burns, clutched the two Cards close, like they were a treasure. The Saber card… and the Assassin card.

Distracting himself from the way his body flared with red-hot aches as he walked home, the boy let himself think back to those last critical moments with Assassin.

The shrouded Servant had had him dead to rights. Had he just pushed his knife a little, he would have killed Shirou instantly. Then he could have gone on to kill Gray just as easily. It would have been the pragmatic thing to do, as mindless as the Servants had seemed.

Well, as it had seemed… at the time.

But Shirou was left with more and more questions concerning their whole state of affairs, flashes of red screaming across his brain as did the gloved hand reaching in futility for his head.

Why did Assassin save him from himself? Why had he behaved so mercilessly up until that final moment? Shirou didn't know, and he had an instinctive feeling he would never know.

The streetlights illuminated him, drowning him in light. The boy peered forward, the sight of his home just a short distance away. It was a good thing- his legs were lead weights, keeping him grounded and down even as he struggled onward. It would just about be all he could to get home, fall into bed and then let the events of the evening seep away.

He turned back just as he crossed the threshold, hand quivering in effort. Shirou's amber eyes, clouded with ache and confusion, stared back the way he had come… back to the mysterious estate.

There was one final question too, perhaps the greatest one.

"Why did that place feel familiar?" He wondered to himself, rubbing his grimy forehead, "I haven't been there before… have I?"

The boy was vaguely aware that while this home was the one he had been living in for years and years, there had been another residence he'd been to before, just after being adopted. They hadn't stayed long enough for any impressions to imprint onto his childish mind, but even so…

It was too much of a coincidence to ignore.

He would need to go back there again, when he could. If only to settle the demons nestled in his memories.

As the door creaked open, lazy and dull lights shining outward from within, Shirou pushed the Cards into his pockets, obscuring them from view. He rubbed at his face as well, removing any errant patches of dried blood.

The boy drew himself up tall, even as the pains returned a thousand fold, impaling him from within.

He walked into the home, steps light and muffled as he shuffled towards the staircase. It was an insurmountable obstacle, but one he needed to climb.

The boy raised one foot and-

"You're late home, Shirou," a stern, steeled voice cut through his concentration, "is there any reason why?"

Shirou's eyes widened before he turned like a wind-up toy. Behind him, as if they had been waiting in silence, stood Sella and Leys.

Sella tapped the upper part of her arm slowly, her face drawn and brow furrowed. Leys stood behind her, still lethargic but her eyes and body language were alight with rarely seen energy.

Something dropped in his stomach.

They were angry.

He gulped down an uneasy ball in his throat before leaning onto the bannister, a smile as fake as his stance coming onto his face.

"Hey Sella, Leys," he welcomed them, as if he wasn't scared out of his mind, "didn't think you'd still be up."

The elder maid's eyes narrowed a touch, and the air chilled around them.

"Shirou, you're usually home earlier than this- we had to stay up," she lectured, "why were you late home?"

The boy blinked, rubbing at his burning ears. It was strange and he was perhaps wrong… but it sounded as if Sella's questioning tone lacked her usual severity. It was almost consoling.

The hairs on the back of the boy's neck stood on end.

That was infinitely more frightening to him right now.

"Yeah," he responded, trying his best to hide his reflexive wince, "I just… felt like having a bit of a walk. Had a lot to think about."

Inside himself the redhead cringed at that. There was no way they would accept that, and he had practically given himself away.

Leys moved past her sister, leaning against the door frame like a slug attached to a stick. Even so her eyes moved all over his body, stopping for the briefest of instances at his hands and side.

Shirou moved back up the stairs, a clump forming in his throat and chest.

Sella sighed, her features softening as she moved towards him, "Shirou… are you alright?"

The sensitive question cut through his thoughts and he stared at her in unadulterated surprise.

Sella refused to abandon the ground he had unwittingly given her, and stepped forward just as Shirou moved further up the stairs.

"I understand things have been difficult recently, especially with your injuries," Sella began, her finger twisting in her shoulder-braid, "but… if you're having trouble, you can talk to us. We're here for you."

Sella's eyes flitted around at everything except for him, betraying her own awkwardness.

Shirou didn't move, not even as the maid came forward, Leys keeping an eye on them both.

"I'm fine Sella, don't worry," the lie slid ever so easily from between his fake smile's lips, "I'm all better, really."

"Shirou, we all know you aren't," Sella cut through the excuse like her voice was a knife, "there's nothing to be ashamed of."

A cold claw seized his heart, freezing it solid.

He didn't want to talk about this. He didn't want to speak about this. He didn't want to even consider this.

Shirou's hand gripped tight against the bannister, the skin turning pale. He breathed out laboriously, disguising it as normal ones.

Sella's brow rose in concern and she surged forward, "Shirou, please tal-"

Her hand reached out to grasp his reassuringly.

Shirou recoiled from it like it was a brand. Sella froze in shock, and a well of guilt rose up inside the boy's stomach.

"I'm fine," the boy spoke, putting emphasis on every single syllable and letting the chill spread to his words, "I'm just tired, sorry."

He stared down at Sella like a statue, brow twisted in regret and apology. His father had done it once or twice, to get people to shut up about things he didn't want to talk about.

He had always thought his father was right for doing so - after all, saving bad discussions for later was good.

So why was it, as Shirou's exhausted eyes almost stared into Sella's frozen features, that he felt like the greatest piece of shit alive?

"I'm sorry," he apologised, his stomach weighing him down with self-disgust, "I'm going to bed."

Sella didn't stop him as he swept up the stairs, feet stomping at the steps. He didn't stop moving, didn't stop cursing himself until he had reached his room.

There was no sound from below as he leaned against his door, hitting his forehead against the hardwood. The pain that formed felt appropriate- he deserved it, for how he just treated Sella.

"What am I doing?" he mumbled to himself, his only confidant, "what the hell am I doing?"

No matter how many times he verbalised the question or thought it, no answer rose to relieve his mental aches. It didn't stop the stress, or the pain, or the injuries… or even the shame that permeated every inch of his insides like acid.

As if he was on death row, Shirou wrenched his door open, though he stopped as he heard something from Illya's room. He didn't move, but only focused his hearing briefly.

It sounded like ruffling sheets and as he leaned closer to her room which was opposite his, he caught the barest hints of whispers.

"I'm worried… Ruby…" his sister whispered, words muffled from the layers of protection, "Class… Rin... "

The boy couldn't understand the words and didn't pry forward. Even so… had his sister made a new friend called Ruby? Or made one up as she had for ages? She had an active imagination after all.

Something niggled at his brain for a minute before he pushed it away. Illya's life was her own, and if she wanted to have some things to herself, that was fine too. As long as it wasn't something that would hurt her, he wouldn't push her barriers.

He closed his door behind him as he stepped into his sanctuary, letting everything drain away as he got dressed and fell into the warm comforts of his bed.

All the pain fell away, as did his thoughts and the stress. Soon, all he could feel around him was the fluffiness of his sheets and pillow.

As the void of sleep claimed him, Shirou remembered his promise from earlier.

Gray's hooded face came to mind as he pushed further into his bed.

"Gotta make food for her…" he murmured, making sure he wouldn't forget it, "gotta… thank her…"

As his promise burned itself into his mind, the boy fell fully into sleep, and he knew no more.

The next day, the sun shined and the clouds fell away from its glorious presence. It was the kind of weather that came once a year, a rare treat for everyone.

Not for the hooded girl, who stayed within her current abode.

Gray sat on the ground floor of her safe house. Her cloak was discarded like before, though she kept the hood up. Her hands were rubbing together, fidgeting, as she considered everything from the night before.

"That boy…" she aired, letting his image come back to her mind, "who is he?"

For sure, she was completely taken aback that he had involved himself to save her life, and to help her defeat Assassin. She had imagined him to be an uninvolved party, but to have a Class Card of his own? He was far more involved than she had thought before.

It made things… complicated, to say the least.

"Ihihihihi! Heart's gone all twang right?" Add taunted her from his cage, hopping up and down in jubilation, "knew it'd happen sooner or later."

The faintest of blushes rose up the girl's neck, though she made no move to reprimand the Mystic Code.

"Add…" she warned him, her voice gaining an edge of steel, "not now."

The Mystic Code stopped hopping and stared directly at her with his unchanging shining eyes.

"What? I'm not allowed to talk now?" he made the best impression of a raspberry as he could, "fine, I'll stop. But you need to do some serious thinking over how to handle him. Things are gettin' complicated."

Gray's features set in stone as she leaned forward, pressing her forehead against her clasped hands almost in a prayer.

Add was right. Shirou's presence made things much more complicated than before. If he had a Class Card, he could fight them or even had - and it meant even more variables to report to her master. Just from one interaction, he was a spanner in the works for the events in this city.

And she still had no idea what homunculi were doing here, living with him and the little girl who was a miniature version of them.

It was a whirlpool of complications, where she could lose herself in the tide. It scared her, to be honest - this was a situation her teacher hadn't prepared her for, though in all honesty how could he?

Even so…

The image of the beaten boy's genuine smile came back to her mind, and the gratefulness that came with it.

Her heart thumped against her ribcage and she rubbed her chest absentmindedly. Was this what it felt like for someone to feel grateful towards you? It wasn't such a bad feeling, but it was unnecessary at the moment.

"Still, if he wants to help," Add's voice dragged Gray out of her reverie, "not gonna lie it'd be huge. We managed to get rid of Assassin after all."

That thought made her bite her lip in indecision and hesitance.

"I'm not sure," she responded at last, "it feels… wrong to involve someone like that."

This was her burden and hers alone. She wanted to prove herself to her teacher - that she could stand on her own two feet. How would Gray be able to live with herself if someone uninitiated got involved in the Class Card hunt?

It was irresponsible… and it would make her just like Rin.

Which reminded Gray rather unpleasantly that Shirou's sister was involved too, and he seemed completely unaware of that. This was a minefield for her to navigate.

An uneasy breath escaped her, betraying her inner conflict to the empty room.

"Still…" she pushed herself away from that line of thinking - for now, "Assassin… killed itself rather than him. What does that mean?"

"I dunno," Add confessed, 'shrugging', "but it's nothin' good I tell ya."

She had to agree with the Mystic Code on that. Gray could still vividly remember the singular moment when Assassin had stabbed itself, and reached out for Shirou before it had disappeared back into a Class Card.

Did that mean the Shadow Servants in the Class Cards had consciences? And were fully aware of what they were doing?

Her chest panged as she considered that. How terribly sad if that was the case - and how disrespectful of the creators of the Class Cards to use humanity's bastions like this.

"Anyway, think you'll inform the pretty boy over all this?" Add asked, curious, "cause he did say to report to him… but this is a ton of shit. Especially with what happened with Assassin."

Gray deliberated on it for a short time. Her master had dismissed, rightly at the time, that Shirou was uninvolved - it was her own task to investigate him to see about the homunculi. But at the same time, something stopped her from instantly calling him up and telling him everything. Like a hand grasped her own and stopped her from going to the phone.

At last the hooded girl shook her head, "Not yet. I still need to investigate the Kaleidosticks and homunculi. But… about Assassin…"

She would inform him about Assasin at least, and the fight, though she would edit out Shirou's involvement for now. It was illogical to do so and somewhat counter to her assignments, but it felt wrong to betray him like that.

Her course set, Gray reclined back into her chair, intent on relaxing even if it was for a little bit-

And the doorbell rang with an almighty racket.

The girl absolutely did not fall out of her chair, nor did she at all let out an embarrassing noise akin to a mouse squeaking. Add laughed at her as best as he could, though it ceased as she got to her feet.

Gray stood as still as a statue as the ringing continued, her eyes picking out a faint shadow against the panelled glass on either side of the door. The shadow jostled something in its arms, impatient.

She stayed silent as she grasped Add's cage, the Mystic Code saying nothing thankfully.

Gray hadn't ordered anything online or was expecting any deliveries. If anything, her food supply of ramen and fresh vegetables came from quick journeys to the local convenience store, where she was as fast and as silent as possible.

No one knew she was here, she thought, and it was a location that was under the tightest of security measures.

So whoever was on the other end of the door…

The hooded girl edged herself closer to the door, keeping a tight grip on Add's cage. Shuffling like the shadows Gray kept her eyes firmly on the shadow who tried to peek into the residence.

It took her an eternity, but the girl reached her door. Her gloved hand grasped at the knob, the limb shaking a little.

She took a deep, resolute breath in and wrenched the door open, ready for the magus hunting her-

Only to meet the eyes of a bewildered boy with flaming red hair who was doing his best not to lose his grip on the stack of boxes in his arms.

Shirou blinked at her.

Gray stared back.

And the silence that stretched between them became engulfed in so much awkwardness it could be cut with a knife.

They stayed like for an eternity, even as Gray's lips quivered and she began to shake all over, face turning beet red from the all-engulfing void of embarrassment.

Shirou scratched at his cheek as best as he could, before smiling awkwardly at Gray who was still frozen in motion.

"Umm… sorry for surprising you," he apologised, coughing, "but I asked around and people said they saw someone like you around here.

And… I promised to bring you food," he continued lamely, very much out of his element, "I made a bit too much though, so… yeah."

Gray could not deny the packages of food in his arms was very appetising, especially after some days of ramen. She was an alright cook, but she was completely unfamiliar with Japanese ingredients and such, content to subside on fruit too.

She opened her mouth, to say what she didn't know-

Her stomach rumbled like an almighty avalanche.

Gray's face turned as red as the sun and she pulled her hood further over her face to obscure that. Shirou blinked owlishly again, though he made no comment - it saved her very slight amount of dignity.

After a moment, the girl moved out of the way, giving him passage into her residence.

"Thank you…" she spoke, words muffled by her hood's protection, "please, come in."

After a moment the boy walked through the door, the wood shutting behind him.

With a quickness that one wouldn't expect of her, Leysritt poked her head out of the sitting room. Her red eyes flitted above the staircase, ears trying to pick out any errant noise that might disturb her and her sister.

No sound came to her. The house was completely silent, and drowned in darkness even with the sun shining outside. It was the perfect place to hold a confidential meeting.

The lazy homunculus nodded to herself before closing the door with barely a sound, the barrier clicking into place.

She came back into the room, lit only by a dull lamp plugged into the side. The curtains were drawn together and a minor Bounded Field erected to make sure their privacy would stay in check.

Sitting on the chair opposite to where Leys came from, Sella played with her hair. She bit at her nails, the usually impeccable, cared for extensions riddled with bite marks. Her eyes were marked with subtle, darkened rings - Leys was only able to see them due to Sella being her sister.

It was clear, in that moment, the situation had gotten too much for either of them.

"They're out," the lazy 'maid' confirmed, slithering into the couch beside her sister, "we're alone."

Sella let out a long suffering sigh, carrying with it the immeasurable weight of the last few days. The maid slouched down into her seat, rubbing her reddened forehead absently, as if the motion gave her something to focus on.

"Good," she commented in a quiet voice, "it makes it a bit simpler."

Leys didn't move her eyes from her sister as Sella peered repeatedly at the landline sitting in its cradle right beside her - the one she had struggled and failed to use over the last few days. The other maid's hand twitched at it, before stopping herself from grabbing it instantly.

"This is getting complicated, and dangerous," the stressed maid said at last, resignation and frustration clear in her tone, "everything's coming apart. Especially after that magus you encountered, Leys."

Stretching out her muscles, Leys nodded as she thought back to that night.

It had been an eventful one, and one she hadn't enjoyed to be honest. Shirou was usually punctual getting home, but when it had become dark, Sella had sent her out with a single order: to bring him home without question.

It had been a shock seeing the magus standing near him, like she was going to finish him off, the boy already drenched in an ocean of blood. Perhaps it had been uncalled for, but the Einzbern family hadn't survived the ten years since that event by being polite.

For the very first time, Leys had gotten angry and had smashed down at her, only relenting at the magus' seemingly innocent surrender.

"She… didn't hurt him," she responded at last, rubbing at her mess of hair, "maybe… she didn't cause it?"

Sella bit at her lip, drawing the thinnest line of blood from it.

"Perhaps," she allowed, her eyes narrowed with all the possibilities, "but even if that magus didn't… it means someone or something else did. And that…"

"Isn't good…" Leys mumbled, clutching a pillow to her chest.

The silence that came over the two of them was suffocating and insurmountable. All of the peaceful years they had had in Fuyuki up to this point flashed through their eyes- like pleasant dreams- until they were drawn back sharply to the painful reality.

Their livelihood was in danger, and above all else, their charges as well.

"Could be a coincidence…" Leysritt offered, her powerful muscles tensing with dread.

"Even if… even if we allow for that," Sella continued, marching around the room like she was at attention, "we've been foolish. Lady Irisviel and Kiritsugu have done well to keep them safe… but it was, perhaps, foolish to keep our name."

The lazy maid's red eyes snapped up at her sister, widening impossibly and her mouth gaping.

This was the closest Sella had ever gotten to criticising Irisviel over the years. She had many faults of course- insanely energetic, oddly preoccupied with grandchildren, and slave to her impulsive whims- but the two of them had never thought badly of her.

After all, she had saved them from that snow-bound castle, among the bodies of their fellows, and had offered them a way to be themselves.

Sella ran another hand through her hair, the braid coming undone just a little, errant hairs sticking to her clammy forehead. Her eyes met Leys' before turning away out of shame.

"Don't look at me like that, Leys, not now," the homunculus pleaded, turning away from her sister's shocked gaze, "not when we need to think."

Leys averted her gaze as requested, her own heart thumping in her chest. The uncomfortable rhythm made her clutch the pillow tighter, the stuffing beginning to pop and stitching coming undone from the pressure.

The air between them was so thick, so heavy. Like they were drowning in uselessness- which perhaps they were. Their sole duty had been to protect Illya and Shirou whilst their employers were abroad, and what had happened?

One had been injured and unconscious for days, and the other was gradually losing the gleam of childish wonder in her eyes.

Everything was slipping away, no matter what they tried to do.

"Shirou's losing his smile…" Sella murmured to herself, unheeding of her sister who got to her feet, "and something's even happening with Illya… what do we do?"

As caretakers, they allowed their charges privacy, but by no means did it mean they were stupid. With every day, it seemed, Shirou's bright eyes and smile were tarnished by something deep inside- losing the luster of an unburdened child.

He still smiled, and still laughed, and still talked… but he was changing, in a way they were apprehensive of.

Sella gripped her forehead, biting her lip again and grabbing at the landline, her mind clouded with fitful recollections and frightening emotions.

Earlier that day, when Sella had tried to get him to open up, for the briefest of moments… he had reminded her of Kiritsugu.

That had terrified her to her core.

Even the way Illya was far more secretive concerning her tutoring was off. They were available, after all, if she was having trouble with school, but she chose to ingratiate herself with Rin Tohsaka?

With all the history they had with that family, even if the Tohsaka had been away in England during that time and Illya was blissfully unaware… It was too much of a coincidence to ignore.

Their family, of so many happy years, was slipping away and they couldn't do a thing to stop it.

"Everything is crumbling away," Sella wailed quietly, voice choking with emotion, "what can we-"

A fist smashed against the couch. Wood cracked underneath, beginning to splinter into huge chunks.

Sella gaped at Leys, who removed her fist from the hole in the couch. The usually lazy maid got to her feet, every inch of her crawling with purpose and resolve as she stared down at her sister.

"No," the lazy maid stated, her tone steeled and almost daring her sister to question her, "no… moping."

Sella gaped at her sister as she sat back down, losing none of her sudden decisiveness.

"They are… family," she spoke, every single word stinging with insurmountable grit, "we need to protect them… no matter what we have to do."

Leys rose her eyes, the light dimming just a tad, and met her gaze.

"No matter what…" she finished, reclining back into her seat.

Sella simply sat on her chair, fiddling with her hands and picking at the scrapes. Most of her was still in wonderment at Leys' changed behaviour- it had been a long time since she had acted like that. But perhaps it was needed.

After all, their family was under threat, and what other time would she have to act?

A mirthless laugh echoed out of Sella's mouth. Not one of finding something funny, but rather an acknowledgement of her own stupidity. How often was it, really, that she was the unprincipled one?

It stung, but it gave Sella a needed reality check.

"Yes… I suppose you're right Leys," she rubbed her face, "we have to protect them. No matter what."

And so the maid surged with newfound strength to her feet. Ignoring her sister's pointed and hardened gaze, Sella stared at the landline before letting out a shaking breath and grasping it until her hand turned even paler.

Even if it stung her pride, and even if the disappointment that would come forever blackened them both… this needed to be done.

It didn't stop her legs quivering as she punched in the phone number.

She held it to her ear, the ringing joining the thrumming of her heart in her ears and the painful pulsing of blood in her veins. The moment stretched into an eternity, until all Sella could hear was a cacophony of all the sounds mixing together.

The line pitched as it was answered, a silent question on the other line.

Sella swallowed the weight in her throat that prevented her from speaking. Her fingers rubbed together as the world did its best to swallow her alive.

Her eyes caught Leys. Her sister said nothing and did nothing different to the past few minutes, but gave a minute nod.

Sella nodded back, and focused on the still silent line- awaiting a reason for the call.

"Kiritsugu, please tell Lady Irisviel there is something you two need to know…"

And the homunculus began speaking, the weight in her chest lifting as the words spewed forth uncontrollably… as did a wave of sheer relief and pleading hope.

Hope that, maybe, things would get better at last - and they could be a one true family once more.