A Different Path: Uniting
Shirou was making tea. With focus that was as intense as the kind he used to practice his magecraft, the red-head boiled water in a kettle. With that set, he pulled out four porcelain cups from his kitchen cupboards and placed tea bags in each. All of it was done with unerring focus, as honed as a razor sharp blade.
"So, Ayako," Kirito said. "Was Shirou really so dense that you had to kiss him to get your feelings across?"
Shirou continued with his preparations, refusing to let his focus waver even as the brown-haired girl let out a sigh.
"Yeah," Ayako said.
"Don't worry Mitsuduri." That was Rin. They were reassuring words, meant to cheer up Ayako, but why was it that Shirou heard mischief in them?
No. Better to ignore them for now. Tea. That's right, Shirou was making tea.
"Shirou can be an idiot like that at times."
Ayako groaned and a low thud sounded out. It would appear that she set her head against the table, though Shirou didn't turn around to make sure of that. "Tell me about it."
The red-head grabbed the kettle. In the time that the three were speaking, the water had started to boil. All that was left now was to steep the tea bags. Again, he called upon that razor sharp focus to perform his duty. This was a battle not of life and death, but of dignity. The moment he showed weakness here would be the moment those vicious harpies and the merciless swordsman tore him apart.
"Wait." And that was Kirito. The swordsman sounded concerned, but it was fake. Shirou was sure that it was just another way to prompt the girls to reveal more embarrassing information, and he was proven right.
"So both of you care for Shirou, right? As more than friends, I mean."
Shirou examined the cups of tea. They were all coming along quite nicely, and the aroma from the triangular tea bags he used were quite pleasant. At first, he had been concerned there wouldn't be anything to use after Archer's elaborate meal earlier today, but it seemed that in his impromptu raid of Shirou's kitchen the man had restocked everything.
Although, Shirou was concerned where the red knight got the money. Hopefully it wasn't through any immoral deeds. And he could only pray that it wasn't from Rin's personal accounts. She could be seriously scary when she was angry, and Shirou didn't want to have to deal with that on top of everything else in the near future.
A pause in the conversation.
He had his back turned to the three, still examining his tea with his utmost attention, so he couldn't see their expressions. However, despite the fact that he couldn't see them and despite his unwavering focus, the red-head couldn't help but feel a sense of foreboding from the silence.
"W-well, I can't just leave him by himself! I-I mean, he'd probably do something stupid if I wasn't there."
...Troublesome. Really troublesome.
Ayako laughed. "You should be more honest with your feelings, Tohsaka. Indirect doesn't work very well on Shirou."
"She's got a point, Rin" Kirito said. "My Master's the dense, self-sacrificing protagonist type."
The tea was ready.
Shirou placed the porcelain cups filled with the fragrant herbal beverage on a platter, making sure they were level, and made his way to the table.
He ignored the ongoing conversation in front of him like he would a surreal dream. After all, it's not like Kirito's really probing the girls about their feelings to prove that Shirou was a Harem Protagonist. He's just concerned. Right. And it's not like all the signs are pointing towards that as a definitive answer for the way both girls are acting around him. Sure, he might have had two confessions already, but real life just doesn't work like that-
"Oh? So should I be direct like Mitsuduri and jump him then?"
Shirou tripped a bit at that, but none of them noticed. He raised an incredulous eyebrow at Rin's declaration.
She's joking, right?
Kirito nodded, a hand clasped under his chin. "Hm. That might work. Though Ayako, doesn't this bother you?" He tilted his head and looked at the brown-haired girl.
"Eh? What are you talking about, Kirito?"
"Well," Kirito said. "I would have thought a girl would be upset if the guy she loves is being pursued by another girl. At least that's what I've experienced." The last part of Kirito's word was said in a serious tone, like he was drawing from experience when he spoke.
...Wait. So all of the times that the Black Swordsman was teasing was because he had a similar experience?
Shirou shook his head. It didn't matter. At least he wasn't making pointed remarks anymore about Shirou having a Harem. Though at this rate, that was probably because he actually did have one-
No. Bad thoughts. Life doesn't work like that. Besides, he couldn't return their feelings anyway, not while the city was still in danger of being wiped out by monsters.
With a slight sigh, Shirou walked around the table and placed a cup of tea in front of everyone. This was also done with absolute focus, ignoring the mischievous expressions on the faces of his house guests. With that done, he took his seat at the table.
Everyone was sitting on one of the sides of the table. Shirou had taken a seat directly across from Kirito, while Rin was on his right and Ayako was on his left.
He took a sip from his tea and quietly complimented himself on his brewing. While it wasn't quite as good as using actual tea leaves, steeping these tea bags wasn't that bad...
"Well, I thought me and Rin could share him." Ayako's words were accompanied with a coy look towards Shirou.
He suppressed the urge to choke on his tea and glared at the amused look from Kirito. That was childish of him. There were more important things to consider. While Shirou might have tolerated a bit of light-hearted teasing, this really was getting out of hand. They still had to talk about Assassin, Sakura, and make plans.
Unaffected by the outrageous declaration, Rin took a sip of her tea and gently set the cup down. "Mhm."
Of course, then she made an even more outrageous declaration. "Mitsuduri and I talked about it on the phone already. Since Shirou's probably going to do something stupid, both of us are going to stay and keep an eye on him. You don't mind, do you Shirou?"
"Gurk." This time Shirou actually did choke. He coughed as the hot beverage went down the wrong pipe, forcing back the tears starting to form from the onset of unexpected pain.
"Shirou!" Ayako leaned over and started tapping his back. "Here, let me help!"
He appreciated the effort. He really did, but the fact that a beautiful girl who had declared her love for him was leaning over the table, allowing him a wide view of her... assets... only caused him to choke even more.
"My, how forward of you, Ayako-chan." Rin watched them with an amused expression, hiding a wide smile with her right hand.
Ayako stopped and then jerked back when she realized what Rin was referring to, a blush on her face. "Y-you be quiet, Rin! Weren't you the one who suggested that the three of us-"
That's it. Shirou closed his eyes. I've had enough for now.
With the lack of oxygen, surreal events, and excessive focus he had been using to avoid the fact that, yes two attractive girls were indeed talking about their relationships with him and discussing it with his Servant, who had a penchant for escalating the situation to heights he would never have even considered, Shirou blacked out.
He heard Ayako and Rin call out his name in concern, but it was the words of his Servant that stuck with him before he fell completely into unconsciousness.
"There can only be one ultimate way, Master. Good luck!"
Stupid black swordsman and stupid Harem Aura that made girls act weird.
Shirou woke up a few minutes later. The girls looked abashed, and Kirito at least had the tact to ignore what had happened. Well, that was fine. They could get to business then.
"Do you have any idea how to save Sakura, Rin?"
Straight to business. For Shirou, that was the most pressing concern at the moment. Daylight was burning, and there wasn't much time left. The longer she was kept out there, the more chances there were for an enemy Servant and Master to take her out.
"Eh? Sakura's in danger?" Ayako took a look around. "Come to think of it, I haven't seen her or Fujimura-sensei around." She frowned. "What happened?"
"Oh, that's right." Rin turned towards Ayako. "You weren't there for when it all started." Rin frowned. "I really shouldn't be telling you this, but I guess now that the rabbit's out of the hat..." She sighed.
Shirou could relate. Things really were getting out of hand in town, and Ayako was getting involved in things that she should never have even found out about, let alone experience. If only the Grail War had never happened... none of them would have been harmed.
"...And that's what we're dealing with, Ayako." Rin finished her explanation. All traces of mirth and mischief from earlier had been erased, replaced with a somber expression.
Ayako looked troubled. "Wow. Things really aren't looking good, are they?"
Shirou nodded. That was an understatement. At this rate, if things aren't resolved soon... Kiritsugu had warned him about the necessity of keeping his magecraft a secret, even from Fuji-nee. Even a third-rate magus would have the enforcers on his tail if he broke the masquerade that separated the Magi from the general public.
"Yeah." Kirito agreed with her, nodding his head. "And there are other people running about now too."
Huh? Shirou turned his attention to the black swordsman. "What are you talking about, Kirito? Did you meet someone on your patrol?"
He nodded. "I'm not sure if he was a Servant or just an insanely powerful Magus named after the first king, but I encountered a man named Gilgamesh by the outskirts of Fuyuki Park." The black swordsman frowned. "He said he wasn't interested in either the Grail or the War, but..." He trailed off, seemingly troubled at the recollection.
"Gilgamesh?" Rin tilted her head, and looked out into space, as if staring at something only she could see. "Ah, Gilgamesh. So Goldie's making his moves already, huh?"
Both Kirito and Shirou voiced that question.
Rin froze, as if she had been caught unawares, and then sighed. "Well, I was going to explain it soon anyway."
"Allow me, Master."
And then there was an unexpected voice. Shirou turned towards the source to see Rin's magic wand floating in the air next to her.
He blinked, making sure that it wasn't just the stress getting to him. Nope, it was still there.
"...Is that a talking magic wand floating in the air?"
A smirk crossed Rin's face and she nodded. "Why yes. Yes it is, Shirou."
The magic wand bent over, like it was bowing. "It is a pleasure to meet you, Shirou-sama. Master holds you in the highest regards."
Shirou wasn't sure how to react to having an inanimate object... or was it animate object? Anyway, he didn't know how to react to being spoken to by a magic wand, but he decided to be polite and fell back on his usual mannerisms in meeting new people.
"Thank you for the praise...?"
The wand nodded, with the wings and star on the top of it acting as its head. "Ah, pardon my manners." It bowed again. "I am Kaleidostick Ruby, a Mystic Code designed to tap into parallel dimensions through the use of the Second Magic and download information, as well as mana for Master to utilize."
Huh. A magic wand with manners that tapped into parallel dimensions for information and mana... hold on. "Wait, the Second Magic?" Shirou turned towards Rin to see a smug look on her face.
"What? I can't let a simple spellcaster out do me now, can I?"
"I guess," Shirou said. "But I thought Magic was supposed to be something almost impossible to attain? I got mine by having help and reaching the Origin, but didn't you just leave to your house a few hours ago?"
"Hold on." Kirito called out, concern on his face. "Rin. That's a magic wand, right?" His tone of voice when he said those words were severe, as if considering a dreadful possibility.
She nodded, though she seemed confused at Kirito's tone of voice. "Yes?"
"And did you make a contract with it? So that you can use that Magic or whatever?"
Rin frowned. "...I did? Why?"
At this point, Kirito looked worried. "You still have your soul, right? It's not in a gem or anything like that, right? Right?"
Kirito's reaction was strange. He looked seriously concerned of the fact that Rin had a sentient magic wand and had formed a contract with it to achieve her Magic. It was out of character for the black swordsman, and that brought a bit of concern to Shirou as well.
"Hey, Kirito," Ayako said. "What's making you so worried?"
It looked like she had noticed as well.
Rin tilted her head, still confused at Kirito's reaction. "...No? That would require the Third Magic or something insane like Shirou's real Servant (stupid Shirou and his broken luck)."
Shirou thought he heard something troublesome from Rin at the end of her reply, but decided to ignore it. She was already under a lot of stress anyway, so slips like that were something he'd just pretend didn't exist.
Kirito let out a relieved sigh. "Good. For a second there I thought you sold your soul to become a Magical Girl and were doomed to clean up after disasters or something." The black swordsman nodded and let out a small laugh. "Yeah. It's not like things like that actually happen. It's not like you can just make a contract with some creepy alien power and be granted a miracle."
"Huh?" Rin looked at Kirito with wide eyes, surprised. "Of course you can do that. Well, not to aliens, I think. The types aren't that accommodating, but Alaya will grant a miracle in exchange for serving as a Counter Guardian after your death if you make a contract. I thought you would know that as a Heroic Spirit, Kirito?"
Shirou blinked and ran through what Rin just said in his head. Yep. He hadn't misheard. Apparently it's possible to get a miracle if you contract with the collective consciousness of humanity in return for eternal servitude cleaning up after disasters.
"...Right." Kirito shook his head and let out a nervous laugh. "I'll just... pretend I never heard that."
Rin sighed. "Geez, Kirito. You get side-tracked by the weirdest things. Anyway." She turned to Shirou. "I can use the Second Magic now, though it's limited to just searching through the memories of my alternates for information and drawing prana for spells. Unfortunately, I still haven't found a way to free Sakura from the Grail."
Shirou blinked again at yet another piece of unexpected information. "What do you mean 'free Sakura from the Grail', Rin?"
"Oh." Rin sighed. "I should really start from the beginning, shouldn't I?"
Three nods were her response.
"Well, here's what I've pieced together so far..."
Shirou sighed as he walked back from the bathroom. Rin had gone over the entirety of the war that a few of her alternates had experienced. The explanation continued until it was dark out, but what he learned was worth it, considering the fact that the scope of the war suddenly increased in size when all the information was taken into account.
While there were a near infinite amount of variations, the commonalities between the timelines seemed to converge into four paths; one where she had summoned a different Servant from Archer and where Shirou won the war with King Arthur (who was apparently a girl), one where Shirou had fallen in love with King Arthur and won the war (as well as an emergency mana transfer ritual in the Einzbern forest), one where Archer had betrayed Rin and tried to kill Shirou (Rin didn't say who he was, but cursed the white-haired man every other sentence when explaining), and one where Sakura had been possessed by Angra Mainyu, the corruption in the grail.
The events in their time correlated to none of the routes, but at least they could pick out the major enemies to watch for.
Matou Zouken, Sakura's grandfather. He was the vile magus responsible for Sakura's pain, having implanted the remains of the corrupted grail from the last war into her during her 'training'.
That had been a painful enlightenment for Shirou. Sakura had been suffering all this time, and he just let it happen, never even realizing the pain she was in. That fact was almost enough to make Shirou use his Magic to fix everything, but rationale won out in that case. There was no use in it, after all, if he would just vanish afterwards anyway.
No, he would save her another way. He would ensure it, that happy ending where everyone was safe. But until then, he had to wait. He couldn't use it carelessly.
Shirou took a deep breath to clear his mind and continued turning over the new information.
Gilgamesh was another threat. The golden King of Heroes was the most powerful opponent they could face, and yet also the most unpredictable. According to Rin, he was the primary antagonist in a majority of the other timelines, but acted mostly on whims than malice. And from what Kirito had said after encountering him, it seemed the original Hero had taken an interest in the Black Swordsman.
The Golden King's partner was Kotomine Kirei, that fake priest.
Shirou scoffed as he recalled what Rin had learned about him. An empty man who just wanted to see the world burn. And to achieve that, he'd resort to almost any methods. Although, it seemed that he was honest at least if you asked the right questions and would help if you were in dire need.
That didn't stop Shirou from wanting to punch a blade through the man's heart for betraying Rin though, even if it was in another dimension.
And then there was Archer. Rin's Servant who had given his life for her to kill Berserker six times in one dimension, betrayed her in another, and gave Shirou the means to save Sakura in the third.
Shirou had mixed feelings about the red knight, but what mattered was that he seemed to have a personal vendetta against Shirou himself. Although, it seemed that Archer had perished after entrusting Rin to him in this timeline.
A shame, really. Shirou wanted to know more about the hero whose identity Rin kept refusing to reveal.
That and punch him through the face for worrying Rin, but that was neither here nor there.
Other than those people and their motives, the information Rin found out didn't really apply. From what they could discern, something had gone wrong with the Grail when Kirito was summoned, causing Angra Mainyu to obtain the Cardinal System. That was likely the cause of the Other Kirito's appearance, as well as the monsters in the town. And it would have been Angra Mainyu who had taken over Sakura, although none of them knew what the result of that would be, since there was too many variable to account for.
And with Shirou's Magic in play, all of the knowledge that Rin knew about his abilities was thrown out too. The reality marble, 'Unlimited Blade Works' that was accessible by the other Emiya Shirous was not the same as his 'Sword Saint of Fantasy'. For one, while he could project swords in the same manner, it required effort. He wasn't limited to copies like the other Emiya Shirous, but it wasn't so much 'pulling' swords from his World into reality as it was binding the characteristics of a desired blade into an illusion. He could store a model in his World to make the process faster, and it already contained a countless number of blades that he had witnessed before his World changed, as well as those in the Cardinal System, but adding more blades would have to be by conscious effort, dependent on the complexity of the blade.
His reality marble's focus was on 'techniques'. It was those that he could glean and store on sight.
To compare himself to the other Emiya Shirous in terms of abilities, while they were the ideal 'makers' and could 'fake' their way through most fights, Shirou was an ideal 'wielder' with 'making swords' as a secondary trait.
It gave him a small amount of pride actually that he'd never have to worry about being outdone in terms of skill.
Kirito had called it cheating though. Specifically, "a cheap skill that steals other people's skills like 'Megaman' to beat them with their own techniques".
Shirou opened the door to his room, having arrived while deep in thought. Because of that, when he looked up he was completely caught off-guard at the sight of Rin and Ayako sitting on extra futons with a pillow tucked to their chests.
Both were wearing yellow pajamas with cute brown cat heads patterning its cloth. It seemed that the clothes Rin had loaned to Ayako extended to sleepwear.
They noticed his presence and then looked his way, small smiles on their faces.
"Urk." Shirou took a step back.
Dangerous. The way that they moved almost in sync, and that Shirou knew they loved him and they knew that he knew that meant that things were now really, really dangerous for him.
"What's wrong, Shirou?" Rin tilted her head.
He tried to remain calm in the face of that, to open his mouth and say something, but that expression on Rin with the way she was dressed was too much.
"D-do I look weird wearing this?" She flushed, tugging at her clothes. "I-it isn't too childish, right?"
That wasn't fair! What's he supposed to say in a situation like this? What's the expression, 'damned if you do, damned if you don't'?
Ayako laughed, and Shirou couldn't help but notice the way that the pajamas-
R-retreat. A tactical retreat was in order. Retreat, so that he could actually understand what was happening here. And get back up. He was outnumbered, with no way of fighting back against the foes in front of him, so he should just close the door and-
"Yo, Shirou." Kirito's cheerful voice sounded from behind him.
That wasn't a good sign.
"Rin and I did some talking while you were washing up. Since that Assassin managed to get in here without anyone realizing it, we decided that the girls would sleep with you tonight while I keep watch outside."
Shirou froze and jerked his head back a bit to look at Kirito. "...You're kidding, right?"
Kirito clapped Shirou's shoulder, a wide smile on his face. "Don't worry, Master! You can count on me! I'll make sure no enemy breaches your door tonight. Just relax and rest up, alright?"
Wait. How did this happen in the first place? No, shouldn't he get a say in this? It was his room, after all!
Ayako frowned, a small pout on her face. "Do you not want us here, Shirou?"
That's not fair at all! Blackmail! Blackmail of the highest order!
Kirito squeezed Shirou's shoulder, a grim expression on his face. "Don't tell me you're refusing this event, Master. You know as well as I do that Assassin could easily slip into their rooms if they aren't with you and end them before either of us even notices. This way everyone's safe."
Rin smiled. "We'll be counting on you, Kirito, Shirou." She stretched and pulled a blanket before moving to a corner of the room. "G'night."
Ayako did the same. "Night, Kirito. Shirou."
Shirou flushed, having followed that line of thought down to an incorrect conclusion.
He blamed Kirito. That, and the 'mana transfer ritual' Rin had explained.
The black swordsman grinned. He had seen Shirou's face, and probably knew exactly what he had been thinking about. He didn't say a word though, instead pushing Shirou into the room before closing it. But just before it shut all the way, the black swordsman gave Shirou a sly wink, as if to say 'Good luck!'.
Shirou sighed and laid down on his futon. He immediately pulled the covers over his face and tried to go to sleep.
It didn't take long for the girls to fall asleep. Only a few minutes after the lights were turned out and Kirito left, their breathing settled into a calm pattern. Unfortunately, Shirou wasn't quite so lucky.
Since he was a male, being in the same room as two attractive young ladies who both made it clear that they loved him was... troublesome. Fortunately, his training gave him incredible focus, and he used that skill to keep his mind from straying towards unsavory thoughts. Barely, but he managed.
After what seemed like an eternal struggle, his mind finally slipped into the realm of slumber, and the waking world faded away.
It was a darkened chamber. Dark platforms suspended on pillars surrounded it, and ominous spiraling patterns marred the stone walls, looking like frozen black flames reaching upwards.
In the center of all this, two swordsmen stood, facing each other.
One was a young man with black hair, wielding two blades, one of obsidian and the other of crystal.
One was a handsome man with gray hair in white and red armor similar to a knight templar and wielding a tower shield and long sword.
A fight to the death.
This was where it ended, and where it started for the Black Swordsman. Amidst warriors that had been bound by that world's God, he raised his blades and dared to challenge that man's rule.
A gamble. Success here would mean they would all be safe. Failure would cost nothing but his own life. There was everything to gain, and only himself to lose.
This would be his final battle, regardless of the outcome.
He was the hero, the Black Swordsman of Dual Blades who would determine the Fate of that World. The knight was the villain, the Living Legend and God of that World.
A girl with chestnut hair screamed, calling Kirito's name, but the black swordsman didn't look back.
He was determined.
The battle began, the hero against the villain. An intense bout, accelerating to speeds that no ordinary warrior could reach. The Black Swordsman's Dual Blades clashed against the knight's Holy Sword time and time again, but they were matched. A stalemate.
It ended with a single mistake. Believing his abilities to be inadequate, Kirito reached for power not his own to become stronger, for the strongest technique he knew that he could perform with the System's aid: the Eclipse.
The knight had been waiting for that. With an ease that was terrifying to watch, he blocked every one of Kirito's enhanced slashes, deflected blows that were naught but streaks of light.
Kirito's crystal sword shattered, and he was unable to dodge the knight's counter attack.
She stepped forward. With a determination that rivaled his own, the girl who had sworn to stand by his side defied the World and took the strike that would have ended him.
She scattered into golden light, leaving behind only her sword, a shining rapier.
He died moments later, stabbed by the knight. The World itself moved to erase him, mustered its Authority to eliminate the soul of the Black Swordsman.
A will that decried such a fate. Determination enough to resist the Absolute Fate that awaited him.
His body was fading, his life eroding with every passing instant. But he didn't allow it.
Grasping the rapier of the one he loved, he slayed the God.
And like that, a World was ended.
Time passed, but the lovers did not meet.
Another World, created by a God more corrupt than whom he had slain. A World of Magic and Faefolk. The God had imprisoned her there, removing her from reality to a place Kirito could not reach.
Again, he picked up the blade. Defying all odds once more, he usurped the God's Authority and saved her.
In this world and the next, he would protect her, as she would do for him.
A bond that could never be severed, even by the will of gods. That was the Origin of the 'Black Swordsman' and the brilliant 'Flash' by his side.
Shirou opened his eyes and sat up. A glance at the clock in his room showed it was early, just around six in the morning. Rin and Ayako were still asleep. Seeing their forms, Shirou was reminded of that dream, of Kirito's origin.
A slight smile came to his face as he remembered it. Defying the World for the sake of those they cared for, challenging foes they had no hopes of winning and triumphing against the odds. Ironically enough, they even both obtained the Authority to be able to change the World at one point, though his had been limited to those realms of Fantasy.
Although, he still didn't understand why Kirito insisted on Shirou having a Harem. From what he saw, that guy had chosen one girl and poured his all into staying by her side, as she did for him.
...Was the Black Swordsman living out a fantasy via Shirou then?
Shirou sighed. That would explain a lot...
Well, it wasn't like it mattered much in the end.
Shirou got to his feet and paused. His clothes seemed a bit tight for some reason. It was strange, but he didn't think much more on it and headed for the kitchen. He was in a pleasant mood, and felt like making something special. He made his way down the hallway and gently closed the door behind him so as to not wake the ones still sleeping.
As he made his way throughout the house, he realized that Kirito was nowhere to be found. But considering that it was morning, the swordsman had probably decided to get in some early training.
Sure enough, as he passed the door to arrive in the kitchen, he heard the sounds of blades cutting the air in the courtyard outside.
And then he had arrived.
Shirou put his hands together and stretched, a wide smile on his face as he stared at the surplus of ingredients stocked in his cabinets. He rolled up his sleeves, donned his apron and then went to work, humming softly to himself as he pulled out his supplies.
Rin yawned and rubbed her bleary eyes. She had gotten up not long after Shirou did. Though she wasn't a morning person, she'd trained herself to wake up early throughout the years due to necessity.
Ayako was still fast asleep. Rin didn't blame her, considering all that the brown-haired girl had gone through the other day.
"Good morning, Master."
The sound of a cool professional greeted her, and Rin looked towards it to see Kaleidostick Ruby give her a small bow. "Shirou-sama is in the kitchen making breakfast.
It brought a small smile to her face to see that, reminding her of the success she had in replacing its personality matrix the other day with one of her own.
"Thank you, Ruby."
The Kaleidostick straightened and then hovered close by her as she made her way down the hall towards the kitchen, drawn by the smell of good food. As she stepped into the dining room and looked towards the kitchen, her thoughts froze.
A man was standing there, cooking. He was wearing a familiar white apron over a black long-sleeved shirt and jeans while humming to himself as he checked the numerous pots and pans where the food was being prepared. All of it was done with a smooth grace that was all too familiar for Rin.
She blinked, wondering if she was just seeing things, and rubbed her eyes again, but the man was still there.
Silver hair and a toned body. Standing at ease in the kitchen without a care for the world.
The man jumped and spun around at her shout. "R-Rin? What's going on?"
Rin stomped towards him, and jabbed a finger towards his chest. "What's going on?! You had the nerve to leave me a note saying 'I would be safer with Shirou' and disappear! I thought you were dead!"
"Huh?" The man tilted his head to the side and then waved his hand in front of her face. "Er... Rin? Are you actually awake? You're not sleep walking or anything, right?"
How dare he try to avoid the issue! Unforgiveable! Absolutely unforgiveable!
She crossed her arms and glared at him. "Apologize! Do you have any idea how much you worried me, Arch- Hold on." Rin narrowed her eyes. There was something different about him, now that she got a closer look. His hair wasn't as white she remembered, and looked more like a shining silver than pure white. His skin wasn't as tan as she remembered either, and was actually the same pallor as an average Japanese. And then there were his eyes.
Archer had dark gray eyes, the color of forged steel. But the person standing in front of her had eyes that were light silver, like the color of the moon on a starry night.
Wait. Silver eyes?
Rin was distracted from her thoughts by the sound of footsteps. Kirito burst into the room from the yard, slamming the door to the side as he entered and said, "Rin, what's wrong? I heard you screaming and-" The swordsman caught sight of the man standing in the kitchen and froze. "Archer? I thought Rin said you were dead?"
Ayako walked in from the hall, letting out a yawn as she did. "Morning everyone- eh?" Like the others, she froze when she saw the man standing in the kitchen.
Rin shook her head and looked back at the man, pushing aside her sleepiness to concentrate. They were similar, but the features were slightly different between the two men. Archer had been broad, muscles honed like a powerful warrior. The person before her was the same height and general build, but his muscles were slimmer, more stream-lined than the red Servant had been. She had already noted the different hair and eye colors, but the most striking difference was their expressions.
Archer was snarky and sarcastic, like a meddlesome older brother, and had a perpetual smirk on his face. Slightly condescending, but mostly teasing. Even when she did something that surprised him, like using a Command Seal to ensure his obedience, as immature as it was, he had responded in a cynical manner.
This person's expression was honest, and sincere like a certain red-head she knew.
"Er... yes, Rin?" He gave her a puzzled look.
"Wait." Kirito narrowed his eyes. "You're not Archer?"
Shirou frowned. "Why do you two keep comparing me to Archer?"
Rin put her left hand under her chin and propped her arm up with her right. She had heard that the Fifth physically changed upon activating her Magic. She also knew that Shirou would eventually look like Archer due to his usage of Projection. Maybe a combination of reaching the swirl of all existence to obtain his Magic and the nature of his Reality Marble had combined to change him like this? It wasn't unthinkable. Sakura had changed after taking up the Matou magecraft as well.
While Rin was lost in thought, Kirito grabbed an empty pan and handed it to Shirou. "Have a look, Shirou."
The former red-head stared at his reflection with a bemused look. "...Huh."
Ayako whistled as she looked over Shirou's new appearance. "Wow Shirou. I don't know what happened, but you look great."
Kirito nodded. "You look a lot stronger too, like someone who got promoted or class changed."
Shirou let out an exasperated sigh. "Kirito..."
The swordsman stepped forward and poked his body. "Whoa, rock hard muscles. That's scary man."
"Ooh!" Ayako rushed forward. "Let me feel!"
"H-hey! I still need to finish cooking! A-Ayako, stop that!"
Rin sighed and hid her face in her hands. Couldn't the two be serious for once?
After settling down over Shirou's new appearance, and after he had finished cooking, the four had taken place at the table again and were eating breakfast. They were seated as they were yesterday, with Ayako on Shirou's left, Rin on his right, and Kirito across from him.
Rin pointed at Shirou with her chopsticks after taking a bite of some broiled salmon. "Have you figured out your Magic yet, Shirou?"
Shirou sighed. As usual, it seemed manners were the first to be discarded when it came to business for Rin. "Yes, but I still haven't figured out how to use it without dire consequences."
Rin frowned. "Dire consequences? Well, I suppose I can see that... you ARE manipulating Akasha after all." She sighed. "I was hoping you would have something, too. As useful as the Second Magic is, there's nothing I can use it for to help Sakura." She shook her head. "At this rate, we might have to just blow up the Greater Grail. Though considering how many Servants and Masters are still out there..."
A last resort. It was the most direct action, but held the most obstacles. Although from the look of things, it seemed like they would have to do it at some point, sooner rather than later.
"Why don't we just take her back? She's in the park, isn't she?" Kirito shrugged. "Between you and Shirou, couldn't the two of you find a way to save her?"
Shirou nodded. "I like the sound of that plan."
It would probably work too. If he just had time to examine the source of Sakura's corruption, he should be able to make a Sword to sever the connection.
Rin shook her head. "It's not that simple."
"Why not?" Ayako asked. "Both you and Shirou have that incredible Magic, right? Why shouldn't it be simple?"
Rin lifted her right hand, index finger extended like she was going to give a lecture. "Well, whatever's taken control of Sakura is dangerous to both humans and Servants. The black shadows that she uses are a type of curse that attacks the soul, not the body." She frowned. "To be honest, it's a Miracle that Shirou managed to save you, Ayako. That monster's blade had the same curse on it, and should have ripped your soul apart when it hit. The fact that you're still alive shows just how ridiculous his Magic is if he could make an item to not just restore your body but also restore your soul."
Oh. Shirou hadn't even thought about that. In hindsight, it really was miraculous, wasn't it?
"Well," Kirito said. "It was the Divine Stone of Returning Soul. Of course it would do that. Though the timeframe is kind of limited..." A brief flash of sorrow crossed the swordsman's face, but then it was replaced by a smile. "It's good that Shirou managed to use it in time."
Rin nodded. "Yep- Wait." She cupped her chin in thought. "If Shirou made another one and we used it to revive Sakura after purging her soul-"
Shirou sighed. "It won't work. If I try to make another one, the World's going to try and erase me. Otherwise I would have suggested it."
"Ah, that makes sense." Rin sighed. "Darn. And here I was thinking we had a copy of the Third Magic to fall back on."
The group was quiet as they each thought about the situation.
Ayako was the first one to break the silence. "So, are you guys going to go save her?"
Rin sighed. "Looks like that's our only choice. It's either that or destroy the Greater Grail." She shook her head. "Either way, we're going to have to fight the other Masters and Servants. I doubt they'll just let us take Sakura back with us when they've been promised a Command Seal to kill her."
Shirou got to his feet. "Then let's go. We can't waste anymore time."
His mind was clear, and their course of action was set: Protect Sakura, and bring her home. He might not know how to save her yet, or if he could even do so without sacrificing himself, but as long as she was safe... no. That was for later. Right now they just had to bring her back.
Rin and Kirito nodded, then got to their feet as well.
"Wait," Ayako said. "I'm coming too."
Shirou frowned. His first instinct was to tell her to stay behind, since she was just an ordinary person who shouldn't be involved in all of this. But then Shirou remembered how she had fought by his side at the school. Even if he said no, Ayako would probably come chasing after him and be hurt along the way. And she wouldn't be safe alone either. While they were out, she would be defenseless, unless someone stayed behind. That was something they couldn't afford either, since the park would likely be a battle royale between all the Servants and Masters.
An entire night had passed since Kotomine painted a target on Sakura, and the smarter ones would have used the time to prepare. Shirou had no doubts in his mind that they would be arriving in a battlefield the moment they stepped foot in the park.
Both decisions were dangerous, and Shirou had no more Miracles to save her again, at least not without severe drawbacks. If he brought her along, she could be in serious danger from the crossfire and other Servants. If he left her behind, she would be in serious danger as well from Assassin or any other Servant that decided to attack.
If he left her behind, he couldn't protect her. If he brought her along, he could. But there was a chance of him failing again...
The decision was taken out of his hands when Rin said, "Alright, Ayako."
"Eh?" Kirito looked at Rin with wide eyes. "Are you sure about that, Rin?"
She nodded, looking at Shirou while she did. "She'll be safer with us rather than by herself. Besides..." Rin smirked. "I have a secret weapon! Come over here, will you Ayako?"
Shirou watched as Rin waved the Kaleidostick over Ayako.
"... Rin?" Shirou tilted his head. "What are you doing?"
There was a flash of iridescent light, and then Rin stepped back with a wide grin on her face. "Hah! Take that Medea! Almighty Reinforcement isn't hard at all!"
Ayako blinked, and then moved her arms and legs. "Huh. I feel a lot stronger."
"Of course!" Rin puffed her chest. "With how you are now, you should be able to keep up with at least a weak Servant."
"Oho?" Kirito smiled. "You know how to buff people, Rin?"
Shirou placed his hand on his forehead.
Well... at least that was one problem solved. The improbability of it aside, especially considering the fact that Rin just so happened to know how to resolve Shirou's concerns, they at least now had a fighting chance.
With Rin's Second Magic, and apparently now 'Almighty Reinforcement', to enhance her abilities as well as Ayako, it looked like Shirou wouldn't have to worry about them as much as he thought.
The girls took a step to the side to discuss battle strategy, but Kirito walked towards him, a calm smile on his face. "Ready to be a hero, Shirou?"
He nodded. "Yeah."
His path was set now. His determination fixed.
He would protect her.
He would protect them.
The end was in sight, and the pieces had gathered.
There was the priest who wanted the world to burn, with a stolen Lancer by his side who lived for battle.
There was the vampiric magus who extended his life through stealing that of others, who wanted immortality, and the Assassin carrying a gun of instant death, who lived for murder.
There was the foolish boy who gave himself to worms to gain strength, borrowing his grandfather's Servant for vengeance.
There was the Defender of Justice, who sacrificed his wish and duty to protect those he couldn't in his life, and his sister whom he swore to save.
There was the ancient magus who wanted to eliminate All the Evils of the World, with the lavender-haired woman who wanted to save the girl trapped by evil.
There was the Original King who wanted Humanity's success, with his belief in the bright future rekindled by a boy who became a Hero through realms of fantasy.
There was the Witch of Betrayal who wanted nothing more than to be with her Master, an empty man whose life had been nothing but death.
There was the Hero, the Sorceress, the Protector, and the girl who was Saved, all whom wanted to rescue the girl bound by all Evils.
And then there was the Evil. Waiting quietly in its cradle, it watched as its pawns moved and its soul began to form in its container. With an Avenger as its vanguard, one who would ensure the downfall of the others, all the Evil had to do was wait. Wait, watch, and learn from those that fought.
Time was short. The Clock Tower moved, and the World had taken notice.
From this point on-
His life needs no other meaning
-it would be a New Reality.