A Different Path

Day after: Explanations

It had been five years. Five years since his father died. Five years since his vow to become a defender of justice. He swore to become a superhero that would save everyone, that would carve the path to the utopia where everyone remained happy.

Where sadness didn't exist.

It was a childish dream that most people considered, but one that they gave up on as they realized its impossibility.

When one is saved, another must take their place.

You can only save those you side with.

Thus, a contradiction, and the reason why the ideal is discarded. A paradox that could not be resolved, no matter how much effort is put into its path. Despite that, Emiya Kiritsugu chose to pursue the naive dream his entire life. Even though he knew that it was impossible to save everyone, as long as a majority could be saved, he was willing to pursue the blighted path.

It led to his death. Shirou knew that. Despite the happy times they spent together, the red-headed boy noticed the small signs his adopted father tried to hide. The blood Kiritsugu brushed away when he coughed. The long glances off into the distance accompanied by a long sigh. The weary look the elder Emiya held when he thought Shirou wasn't looking.

Yes, Shirou knew the trials that would wait him along that path. Even so, he thought it was beautiful. If, someday, everyone could be happy, it would be worth it. So, on Kiritsugu's deathbed, the younger Emiya embraced the ideal to create that place: to become a defender of justice.

It had been five years. Five years that were filled with pain, determination and hard work as Shirou strove towards the ideal. He honed his body and magic in a single-minded pursuit, embracing every challenge before him to test his limits. Unnecessary things were forgotten and dropped so that he could reach it, accomplish the impossible ideal he vowed to fulfill.

But now that the Holy Grail War was in Fuyuki city, could he do it? Could he become the superhero that would save everyone?

Shirou didn't know. He didn't know if he would be able to save everyone. Kirito was his ally, but as strong as he was, the black swordsman was fallible. The battle with Berserker served as proof of that. Although he was able to fend off Berserker, it had been a close thing. Only after Shirou had reinforced that connection could Kirito truly fight back. But even then, Berserker could have killed him after his regeneration. If the other Servants were even a fraction of what Berserker was...

Would they be able to protect everyone? Or would there be another disaster, like that fire ten years ago? A catastrophe that would cause the deaths of everyone in Fuyuki? Innocent people like Taiga, Issei, his classmates, Sakura... they would all perish.

Shirou shook his head and leaned down against his bed. His mind raced with doubts, worries, and questions that had no answers. Because they had no answer, dwelling on them served no purpose. It would only weaken him, and he needed to be in optimal condition if he was to win the Holy Grail War.

He turned on his side and closed his eyes, forcing his thoughts away in favor of sleep. Then, waking worries were replaced with slumbering thoughts.

An iron fortress soared in the sky. It drifted above beside the clouds, a floating castle home to creatures and areas that existed nowhere in reality. A dream as awe-inspiring as it was unbelievable. That place; it was a realm where untold adventures waited for those that would venture into its depths. A vision, promising fulfillment of the greatest fantasy. A dream, meant to grant a reprieve of joy and fleeting excitement before its visitors returned to the real world.

Painted with false promises, it was a delusional dream that turned into an inescapable nightmare.

Bells tolled and azure light filled the plaza. Thousands of travelers gathered against their wills for a message. Above, a figure robed in crimson descended, as a god would from his domain. He stated that the fortress had become their reality. Despite being fake, a mere simulacrum of the true world, by eliminating interference from the outside world, this had become their 'reality'. Now, until every floor had been cleared, until the greatest heights of the iron fortress had been ascended, until every fearsome foe before them was felled, all that the travelers would see was this continuation of a dream.

An impossible trial. The trapped were regular people, not warriors able to slay the creatures that lurked in the darkness of this realm. They had hoped to live out their dreams, not live in them. When death equated to falling in battle against inhuman creations gifted with extraordinary capabilities, when victory equated to slaying a hundred titans that could easily slaughter any exceptional warrior as well as possessing unknown powers transcending normal human capability, what hope did those untried warriors have?

There were children that broke down in tears. There were others that cried out in distress. There were more that looked on in disbelief.

Some embraced the announcement with glee, eager to have found a new start. Others took it as a challenge, an opportunity to prove their worth.

And then, out of them all, there was a black-haired boy, even younger than Shirou. That boy turned his back on the crowd and set off on his own, leaving behind his first comrade in that realm. With the belief that he could not protect them, he took a path of solitude with only his blade in hand, grim determination in his eyes.

Shirou realized it was a dream. This vision he witnessed was not reality.

The scene shifted to a battlefield. Warriors armed with weaponry of all kinds faced off against armored kobolds.

Shirou watched the combat, noting the desperate ferocity that each warrior fought with. No, not warriors. They were only acting that role. These were ordinary people, fighting against all odds for their lives. Fighting, to escape from that nightmarish steel cage.

A knightly warrior rushed in to attack a colossal kobold. The feral tyrant let out a horrific grin and his sword, a nodachi, glowed with a bloody crimson light. The next moment, the kobold struck with a vertical slash, knocking the knight high in the air.

Shirou despaired that he could do nothing to help, but calmed himself. This was a dream. He didn't know why it had occurred, but Shirou decided to make the most of it. The red-head focused on the combat, and found his eyes drawn to the kobold's blade. Because of that, he could see the following attack.

A blinding lurch, launching the kobold into the air. The nodachi cut across the knight's chest, too fast to be parried. In the next instant, the nodachi had completed a second arc, cutting across the knight's abdomen. Then, at a speed impossible for a human to perform, it thrust through the knight's chest, piercing his heart.

The knight propelled across the dim room, crashing against the floor near the same black-haired boy Shirou had seen earlier. Moments later, the knight shattered, vanishing in a display of crystalline fragments.

The facade ended, and the 'warriors' fighting were shown to be nothing more than ordinary people that feared for their lives. Chaos ensued in their ranks, and victory seemed far away. Yet, going against the grain, the black-haired boy stepped forward. He alone drew his blade and challenged the towering kobold lord.

A hero. Without a doubt, the black-haired boy was a hero. Shirou thought it was clear. Yet, after the battle, the boy was smeared by those he saved, marked with the cross of the vilest villain: a selfish boy who used his knowledge for his own self. And he accepted it.

Shirou couldn't understand. The boy's actions were admirable. If Shirou had the chance, he would have done the same. The boy risked his life and fought against a towering foe beyond human capabilities and won with his own strength. But even then, he was marked as a villain. He was blamed for the very death he sought to avenge.

Why? Why did they scorn him? Couldn't they see the pain in his eyes? Couldn't they see that grim determination upon his face when he accepted their condemnation? He was a hero, so why did they reject him?

"Why would someone blame their savior for their problems?" Shirou blinked. The dream ended, and only his words served as a reminder to its existence. The details of the dream faded, but he remembered the majority of it. Now that he was awake, Shirou realized that the boy was Kirito. The swordsman appeared a few years younger in the dream, but there was no mistaking it. "Those people... why did they say those things about Kirito? He saved them, didn't he? So why wasn't he thanked?"

Yes, that was the core of the issue. For Emiya Shirou, saving someone was something engrained in his psyche. He lived for that act, to aid people in their time of need, something that was as sacred and essential to him as breathing. While the most he could do now was help people in their tasks, he remembered that they were always grateful for his aid, even if grudgingly so. Yet almost all of the people Kirito protected in that battle had scorned him, shouting hurtful words and curses. The fact that such an act was punished rather than awarded... it bothered him.

Shirou shook his head. "I'll ask him about it later." He stood up and stretched, then took a step towards the washroom. He staggered as a searing sensation coursed throughout his body, burning him from the inside out.

"Grah... What...?" It was as bad as the pain he had from making his magic circuit, but multiplied at least tenfold. Yet, as quickly as it came, it vanished and left Shirou as relaxed as if he had a full night's rest.

"That was... different." Shirou took a tentative step forward. Nothing happened. "Huh. Strange." He shook his head and continued to the washroom, putting the experience in the back of his mind. After splashing some water on his face, Shirou headed towards Kirito's room. If they wanted to survive in this death game they were in, the Master and Servant needed a plan.

Shirou walked down the hall, stopping at the room he had directed Kirito to. He tapped on the wall next to the door and called out. "Kirito? Are you awake?"

The red-head waited for a reply, but after a few moments without one, he decided to open the door. "Kirito? I'm coming in now."

The door slid open to an empty room. The futon lay across the floor, along with some scattered sheets, so it looked like Kirito did sleep there. Yet, the black swordsman was nowhere to be found.

"Huh. He must have gotten up already." Shirou closed the door and looked around the house. The kitchen, the other bedrooms, the living room. Kirito wasn't in any of those.

"In that case... the dojo?" Shirou walked outside and heard a familiar sound. A soft 'swish', like a practice sword being swung through the air. Shortly after, there were more of the sounds, following in rapid succession.

Shirou opened the door to the dojo and took a look.

Kirito had two shinai in his hands, swinging them at blinding speeds. The swordsman was dressed in a simple black long-sleeved shirt with matching pants, his coat from yesterday nowhere to be seen. He continued swinging the practice swords in dizzying combos for a few more moments before he stopped, a frown on his face.

The swordsman shook his head and murmured. "That's weird..."

"What's weird?" Shirou closed the door behind him and stepped towards Kirito.

"Ah, morning Shirou. It's nothing." Kirito rested the practice swords against the wall and took a seat. "Did you have a good night's rest?"

Shirou took a seat next to Kirito and said, "I should be asking you that, Kirito. You were the one fighting Berserker." Shirou frowned. "Are you alright? The fight must have taken a lot out of you..."

Kirito grinned. "I'm flattered you're worried about me, but shouldn't you be more concerned about that 'Tohsaka' girl of yours?"

"Eh? Tohsaka? Why should I be worried about her?"

The swordsman frowned. "She did collapse into her Servant's arms you know... ah." The swordsman nodded and gave Shirou an understanding look. "I guess there's no chance for you then. I thought she liked you, but when a girl just falls into a guys arms like that... I guess I was wrong."

Shirou flushed red and frantically waved his arms. "W-w-wait! What are you talking about Kirito? Me and Tohsaka?" He gave a nervous laugh. "Like that could happen! I mean, she's the school idol! Besides, she's another Master!"

Kirito raised an eyebrow and looked at Shirou with an amused smirk. "So? You like her, don't you? I'm sure it'll work out somehow."

The red-head shook his head. "No way! Tohsaka and I... it wouldn't work. Nope. No way. And if Issei found out... or Fuji-nee, or Sakura-"

Shirou froze. He had forgotten about them with everything going on. Today was Sunday, so they would still be at Archery practice, but they would be back later for dinner. How was he going to explain Kirito to them?

"Uh... Shirou?"

A friend? No, that wouldn't work. Fuji-nee and Sakura already knew all his acquaintances. Not to mention that Shirou didn't have that many friends to begin with.

"Hey, Shirou!"

What about a friend of Kiritsugu's? The elder Emiya was bound to have a lot of acquaintances. Who's to say that Kirito couldn't be one of them? No, that wouldn't work. Kirito might have been a few years older than Shirou, but he was still too young to have known Kiritsugu through his work. Maybe a son of one of Kiritsugu's associates?

"SHIROU!"

The red-head jumped, shocked by the sudden shout next to his ear. He glared at Kirito. "What was that for?"

The swordsman quirked an eyebrow. "What was that for? That, Master, was for ignoring me and staring off into space with a panicked look on your face. Things like that tend to worry people, you know?"

"Ah." Shirou sheepishly scratched the back of his head and sat back down. "Sorry for that Kirito. I just remembered that some people are coming over later and I realized that we still don't have a cover story for you."

"Mm, would these people be the 'Issei', 'Fuji-nee' and 'Sakura' you mentioned?"

Shirou shook his head. "Not Issei, but the other two, yeah." He sighed. "Man, how am I going to explain why you to them?"

Kirito smirked. "Oh, don't worry about that. I'm sure I'll come up with something."

The way Kirito said that worried Shirou, but the swordsman did have a way with words. He managed to hold his own against Tohsaka, after all. Of course, whether that was a good thing or not was an entirely different problem...

"Anyway Shirou, what do you think we should do from now on?"

"Eh?" Shirou gave Kirito a puzzled look. "What do you mean?"

Kirito sighed. "Death match? Seven super human warriors? The HOLY GRAIL. You know, that war we're in with an omnipotent wishing machine as the prize? Does any of that ring a bell?"

Shirou frowned. "You don't have to be sarcastic, Kirito. Of course I remember. I'm not that dense."

"...Says the guy who can't see that a girl has a crush on him," Kirito murmured.

"What was that, Kirito?"

The swordsman grinned. "Nothing, nothing."

Shirou gave Kirito an odd look.

"Right," Kirito said. "Now then, what do you have in mind? Did you want to take a look around in the day time? Or maybe at night? Do you want us to take the offense and look for the other Servants? Or did you want to wait it out and let them come to us?"

Shirou held up his hand. "Wait. I think we need to go over this again before we make any plans. A lot of things happened yesterday, and I don't want to rush into this unprepared."

Kirito quirked his eyebrow. "...You do realize that you did exactly that yesterday, right?"

Shirou flushed. "Yes! I know." He shook his head, sobering up at the severity of the situation. "And that's why I want to go over things. Yesterday, Tohsaka almost died. If you hadn't been there and I hadn't reinforced that connection..." He trailed off.

Kirito sighed. "Alright, alright. I get it. You want everyone to be safe, so you want us to make a plan." The swordsman glanced upwards in thought. "Hey, those guys aren't going to fight in daylight, right?"

Shirou shook his head. "No, that should be against the rules. Even though the church is supervising the event, the Clocktower would crack down on any of the combatants that exposed magecraft to the masses. Well, either that, or eliminate all the witnesses."

The red-head frowned. Lancer had been a bit extreme in that regard. Shirou might not have been a magus, but he still knew and practiced magecraft. On second thought, Shirou did become a Master, so the point was moot.

Kirito nodded. "So combat will take place when night falls. That's the time we need to be out and about."

"Yeah. And I doubt that the other Masters are as upstanding as Tohsaka and I. Who knows what they might do?" Shirou frowned. "And if somebody was in the wrong place at the wrong time..."

"Then they would be eliminated."

The Master and Servant sat in silence, contemplating the severity of the situation. Rin had called this tournament a 'game', but it was much more than that. An event where witnesses were killed and superhuman creatures battled under the cover of night could hardly be called a game. No, this was a nightmare. The unspoken horror that occurs beneath the gaze of the masses. The hidden deathtrap waiting to be sprung.

Kirito hated it. This Holy Grail War held too many parallels with the death game he had been put through in his past. The difference was... this was truly reality. To die here didn't mean to shatter into crystals and lights, but to be cruelly torn asunder, stabbed, maimed and eliminated. There had been many ways to die in Aincrad, but you could take some comfort in knowing that it would be relatively painless. This war... the death that could be wrought here was merciless. It would not be a facsimile that resulted in the person dying, but the person being killed outright.

Shirou hated it as well, but some part of him responded with glee. It was a perverse thought, but if people were in danger, then he could save them. Until now, all he could do was help. But with a defined danger, he could put his skills to work and start becoming a superhero, a defender of justice. So he hated the war, yet some part of him accepted it.

"...Hey Kirito."

The swordsman straightened against the wooden wall. "Yes, Shirou?"

"Why do you want the grail?" Shirou was curious. All the Servants summoned in the war should have wishes. That was why they fought and obeyed their Master, why they obeyed the call to the Throne of Heroes. It made him wonder, what kind of person was Kirito? Did it have something to do with the dream he saw?

For a moment, Kirito looked confused. And then, he laughed.

Shirou frowned. "Hey, it's a serious question!"

Kirito waved it off. "I'm sorry Shirou, it's that..." He shook his head. "I just realized that I'm fighting with you in this war to get the Holy Grail and I don't have a wish."

"Eh? You don't have a wish? Then why did you get summoned?"

Kirito shrugged. "All I know is that I'm in this war with you, I'm Saber, and I'm limited in what abilities I can use."

That didn't make sense. If Kirito didn't have a wish, then why was he here? What did he fight for?

Kirito noted the confusion on Shirou's face and spoke. "Shirou. I don't need a wish to fight. You're my ally and seem to be a good guy. You were worried for that Tohsaka girl even though she's your opponent, and I bet you're still worrying on how to protect everyone. Am I right?"

Shirou clenched his hands. "Of course! If the wrong people get their hands on the grail, or even fight in the wrong place then ordinary people like Sakura and Fuji-nee will get hurt!"

Kirito smiled. "And that's why I'll fight. You might be my Master, but you're also my ally. As long as you have something to fight for, I'll be there with you cutting down everything in your way." The swordsman scratched the back of his head. "Er, that wasn't too cheesy, right?"

Shirou grinned. "Well, on a scale of one to ten, I'd say eleven."

Kirito grinned back at Shirou. "Oh well, it happens."

Off in the distance, a phone rang. Kirito stood up and looked around. "Is that a phone?"

Shirou got to his feet and headed back towards the house. "Yeah, I wonder who's calling though."

The Master and Servant left the dojo and went back inside the house. Throughout their walk, the phone kept ringing. Shirou sighed. There was only one person he knew who would be that determined for him to pick up. The red-head put on a resigned face and raised the phone to his ear. "Hello?"

"SHIROU! It's lunchtime and I forgot my money at home! I need food!"

Shirou cringed and held the receiver away from his ear to stop the ringing. Taiga must be really hungry if she had resorted to demands. Usually, she tried to extort him first.

Shirou sighed. Well, at least this solved one of his problems. Both Taiga and Sakura would be at the Archery club right now, so he could introduce Kirito to them. On the other hand, he had to introduce Kirito to them. Shirou brought the phone back to his ear. "Alright Fuji-nee, I'll make you something-"

"I want an omelet! And rice!"

Shirou shook his head, a small smile on his face. "Alright, Fuji-nee, I'll get right on it. See you in a bit."

Kirito raised an eyebrow. "You heading out?"

"Yeah, I've got to deliver lunch for a certain somebody who forgot their money."

"Ah." Kirito gave Shirou an understanding nod. "I know how that is. My sister's done that a few times too."

"Mmhm." Shirou walked towards the kitchen, determined to relieve at least some of his stress through cooking. "I'm going to make that lunch now. In the meantime, could you think up a story to tell them about why you're here?"

Kirito waved him off. "Yeah, yeah. Go on and make that lunch, I'll figure something out."

Shirou smiled and went to cook, satisfied that his companion would do his best to resolve the issue.

Taiga looked at Kirito in disbelief. "Let me get this straight. You're telling me that you met Shirou at a gaming convention he snuck out to late at night the other day when he should have been at home, was impressed at how determined he was to win, then he invited you over to stay for a while so that you could teach him how to play better?"

The black swordsman nodded. "That's right. It's really fortunate, considering that I'm new to this area and didn't know where I would stay for the rest of the week."

Taiga pinched the bridge of her nose, willfully ignoring the chatter coming from the female club members about Shirou's new friend. "The two of you are also going to be heading out every night to compete in this big tournament where the winner gets an extremely powerful item that will change the entire game and let the winner do whatever he wants."

"Pretty much."

Taiga sighed and opened her omelet. "Well, at least he's not patrolling the streets like some vigilante, pretending to be a superhero. I worry about him, you know?" She shook her head. "I thought I was going to get up one day and find that some new hero-wannabe had appeared calling himself 'Archer' or 'Saber'. It's a relief that he's just been working to be a gaming prodigy. Take good care of him, alright Kirito?"

Kirito grinned. "Of course. He's my ally, after all. I couldn't win without him."

The tiger nodded and tucked into her meal.

In the back of the archery dojo, Shirou sighed and placed his face into his hands. Kirito's story was definitely plausible, and worded their situation in a believable way. But now he had a reputation of being a closet gamer, on top of everything else. He didn't mind it too terribly, but how was anyone supposed to take him seriously now when he talked about how he wanted to save people?

"Senpai?"

Shirou looked up and smiled. "Ah, Sakura. Sorry about all this. I didn't mean to trouble you, but the tournament was really important and..." Shirou trailed off when he saw the sad expression on Sakura's face.

"Sakura? Are you mad that I broke my promise to you? I know it's bad, and I swear never to do it again. It's just that, I couldn't help it this time."

The quiet girl shook her head. "No, it's alright." Sakura smiled, and all traces of the previous sadness disappeared. "I'm just glad you're safe, Senpai. You two be careful when you compete, alright?"

Shirou scratched the back of his head. "Er... alright. But are you fine with it, Sakura? If you aren't, you can just tell me and I won't compete." The grail war was serious, but he had broken his promise to Sakura once already. If she told him not to, he and Kirito could take a defensive stance so that his promise could be fulfilled.

"No, it's fine. I trust you, Senpai. Just... promise me that you'll come back if it gets too dangerous. I..." She trailed off, but Shirou understood the sentiment behind those words.

Shirou smiled. "Don't worry Sakura. I won't let anything happen to me. Well, it's not like I could with Kirito there. Besides, I'm not cruel enough to leave you to deal with Taiga alone." He shuddered. "Her appetite is terrifying."

Sakura giggled, and Shirou was glad to see she had cheered up. "Alright then, Senpai." The purple-haired girl smiled and headed back to practice. "I'll see you later."

Shirou nodded and watched her left. After she did, Kirito strolled across the dojo to Shirou's side. "Hey, you ready to go, Shirou?"

The red-head nodded and stood up from where he was leaning. "Yeah, let's head back. We've got to prepare."

Together, the pair left the dojo, ignoring the attention they were gathering.

"You're pretty popular with the ladies, Kirito." It was an off-hand remark, small talk as the two headed back along the winding path to the Emiya Household.

Kirito scratched the back of his head. "Yeah... but I already have someone waiting for me." The swordsman grinned. "And what about you, Shirou? First Tohsaka, and then that purple-haired girl. I think the Archery Captain has some feelings for you too."

Shirou stumbled. "Ayako? Really? No, that's not right. I think she likes Issei better. And I told you, Tohsaka and me aren't like that!"

"Oh? And what about that other girl? You didn't mention her at all."

Shirou hesitated for a moment, then relented. "Sakura's my friend's sister. She helps me out a lot at home, and has been for a while. But we're not like that! She's just a good friend, nothing else."

"Mmhm, whatever you say, Master. Just make sure you aren't lying to yourself."

Shirou couldn't respond to that.

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