“Ughhh… why do we have to do this stuff?”
As the autumn sun was slouching over the horizon, the soft whines of a somber panther fill the air.
The former captain of the Track Team was miserably carrying a set of steel poles along with Gai. They were meant to be used building the different stands for the sake of the upcoming cultural festival. The collective weight wasn’t light by any means, but since we were the only ones left on the campus there was no reason to hold back using Rise.
The Cultural Festival would be within the first week of November. That wasn’t too far off from now and there was still a lot of work to be done for certain clubs. Hence the reason we were still here at this hour.
I roll my eyes at her complaining before turning my attention back to my own assignment. Manual labor is beneath me in most cases, but I treat it more as rudimentary training to master the form of telekinesis that suits me. By brushing a finger across a nail and infusing it with my PSI, I can program them to drive themselves into place with no physical effort on my part.
It’s a simple program at the end of the day—requiring a set amount of energy to carry out a simple routine at a specific distance. Not the flashiest uses of PSI, but driving the sharp end of a weapon into the head or core of the target is a practical and efficient method of killing. It also requires no extra effort on my part once its set into motion aside from the implementation of a return function.
“It’s not fair that we have to suffer alone when we can’t even run or participate with the Track Club anymore,” the loud one continues to whine. But, like how a broken clock was right at least twice a day, she has a point. None of us would even be here under normal circumstances, since only current club members are required to construct their own stands and displays.
Then again, her mouth is the reason we’re here now.
Even I could tell the Student President was in a mood after his return from… wherever he and his brother ventured off to. But she lacked that ability apparently. So here we were, pitching in with helping the clubs that were dragging behind—Archery and Track Club included.
I have a barb on my tongue ready to go and remind her that she’s the reason we’re here. But then I see Himuro looking up from sketching out a design that’ll later be shaped and painted into a sign and hold my tongue. It’s more fun to watch sometimes.
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t this because you were the one who kept egging on Ryuudou about the training camp?”
Himuro’s opening salvo starts out with a factual reminder and a pointed stare. Caught unaware by the sudden assault Makidera recoils as if she’s been slapped. But Himuro doesn’t relent as she continues her verbal assault.
“And didn’t you also come up with this needlessly elaborate design and theme for the Track Club? Despite the fact that everyone else in the club pointed out it wouldn’t be practical?”
“And, after you insisted that we still do it, rather than having everyone work on it bit-by-bit each session you said we’ll just leave it alone until a few days before the festival so we can concentrate on practice—and then let whoever had the worst time on the field hammer it out, which is the qualification that you now meet?”
I grin when the realization that she ultimately dug her own grave blossoms on her face. It’s like a work of art. If only I could capture the moment on camera…
“Matou-kun, you shouldn’t smile at Maki-chan being scolded.”
A gentle chastisement in a soft voice courtesy of Saegusa breaks the moment. She has a small, disproving frown on her face that a pre-school teacher wears while scolding a child for laughing at another hurting themselves by being stupid. Yes, they have it coming but you shouldn’t make fun of them because of it.
I’d probably take more offense to it if not for the fact that it came from… well, her.
The mousiness that comes naturally to her makes it hard to take her seriously. Really, the fact that she’s gotten comfortable enough in the last week to actually call me out on it is more of a surprise. But it also serves to further a theory I’ve had for some time now.
“Just now… you addressed me rather informally, didn’t you?”
A brief look of surprise crosses her face. It’s genuine too. The moment she realizes the implications she starts to get flustered like one would expect.
“Oh, I didn’t… I’m sorry if—”
I shake my head and quell her worry before she gets too worked up about it. “I don’t really mind. You can even just call me by my name like Mitsuzuri does occasionally if you want. I just noticed you never did the same for her or Gotou.”
Saegusa isn’t nearly as formal as Himuro, but the number of people she addresses casually can be counted on a hand. Even if I don’t consider it that big of a deal, for her it’s a huge leap that shouldn’t be happening so fast. It’s most likely because she’s unaware of how her powers are starting to influence her.
Mental Interference can easily be obstructed by Magic Resistance. That is why Physical Interference is the preferred method of dealing with an enemy magus. But there is also another risk—the risk of losing oneself in the process of working the mind of another.
To affect one’s mind as a magus and change their thought processes pulled their own along that same path depending on the means and methods. To get around that other means were utilized, such as psychology, artificial Mystic Eyes that work like projections, and so on. But there is a difference between suppressing a memory to forget an event or hypnotism compared to linking minds together like we do.
It breaks down the separation of self and leaves us malleable to a greater degree—at least that’s what I believe.
Saegusa has no safeguard for her own thoughts and emotions inside her own head. She lacks the mindset to separate one identity from another with self-hypnosis that I do from my misspent years. How long until she changes because of that without realizing it?
Then again, even preparation and mindset aren’t perfect. Touching one’s mind can make you consider things. Make you reflect on yourself in ways you normally wouldn’t be able to.
Touching the emotions woven into the memories of both that woman from the future and Saegusa left a mark on me. I’ve been considering just what familial affection is because of them. How it relates to Sakura and myself.
Saegusa’s affection towards her younger siblings was something…warm. Light. It’s like a gentle breeze that caresses the heart, or so my sixth sense interprets.
Yet… I can’t relate to that when I think of Sakura.
I’m trying to make amends for everything I’ve done. But I just don’t have the same depth of emotions for Sakura that Saegusa has for her younger siblings. Otherwise, I don’t think I’d still be relatively sane after everything I did to her.
Not just to her body, but her mind.
I never shied away from reminding Sakura that her purpose was to be a plaything. I enjoyed bringing up that someone like Emiya would never want someone as dirty as her. That the only thing she’s good for was… things that I enjoyed at the time.
I could see it in her eyes that Sakura honestly took it to heart at some point too.
That’s why she never once made an attempt to be happy with Emiya after the war. Realistically, she’ll probably never seek out a lover. Even without looking into her mind I can tell she believes she’s been too dirtied to deserve such things it.
Did I even care that I ruined her in such a matter back then? Was I going to take care of her for the rest of her life as my toy, using her in the same way my own mother had been used to sire a heir? Or was I going to throw her away?
…Either way, the damage has been done.
I can’t take it back. I can’t even say that I’ll be alive or sane enough to take responsibility if things keep getting worse for me. Once I’m gone she’ll be alone with that burden.
Any chance of a normal sibling relationship is long gone. I’ve already crossed too many lines with her to even attempt that. There’s no going back.
But then I recall the warmth of Saegusa’s affection for her own siblings. The happiness she finds in being part of their lives. It feels… nice.
I can’t help but wonder if it that’s the way I’m supposed to feel about Sakura. I think at some point I even might have felt that way when we first met. But once I found out she was replacing me as heir all of that vanished.
Part of me wants more of it. To let down my guard and just feel the warm touch of Saegusa’s emotions as our mind’s meld. Just so I can reclaim a bit of what was lost.
Just as a little happiness to balance out everything I was dealing with. The Grail’s curse. The ruined future. All of it.
But I can’t take that risk with her.
Ayako still gets nervous when she feels my thoughts brush her mind. Everything in her body still rejects the brief glimpse of horrors in my head she witnessed. She’s a lot of things but frail isn’t one of them considering everything she’s gone through as a Drifter.
The same cannot be said for Saegusa. For a girl who lived an ordinary and happy life until now to be exposed to even a fraction of the mire in the back my mind… for someone whose thoughts and feelings are so easily exposed to experience those things …
The image of glasswork shattering comes to my mind.
Her psyche would break into too many pieces to really recover. Even if she did, she’d never be the same. The warmth she holds for her family. The guilt she bears from nearly getting her friends killed the last trip. All those things that make up the mousy, innocent girl in front of me would be no more.
I can’t be responsible for that. I can’t let those things be tainted and defiled because I let her into my head just to savor the feel of them. I can’t make the same mistake that I did with Sakura again…
‘Is everything alright?’
I realize I lost myself in thought the moment Saegusa’s warmth touches my mind like a cloud drifting on the wind. Her brows are folded in and her neck is tilted ever so slightly as she observes me. I pull my head back slightly and force a small smile as I lie.
‘Just coming up with a new training regimen. I think you need to practice with the others more often so you can use your powers more frequently. I’ll try to convince the sadist to lay off you until then.’
The Student President wasn’t any softer on Saegusa than he was with me when he got back from his trip. Or any of them really. But the difference was that while the other two were no strangers to physical work, she was and often ended up the most exhausted. She just isn’t suited to using Rise in an offensive capacity like them.
‘You don’t have to,’ her mind whispered to mine. ‘I know it’s hard. But I need to be able to do everything I can to help everyone. That includes taking care of myself.’
And despite it all Saegusa never once complains about the training. She doesn’t even harbor ill-will towards Ryuudou, even though every night so far she’s needed to be carried home from exhaustion. She just keeps forcing herself to get up and keep trying because she wants everyone to be safe.
‘…You’re pretty amazing, you know that?’
I’m pretty stingy when it comes to genuine praise, but it’s deserved. The fact that it coaxes a blossoming smile from her face shows she appreciates it as well. I have to say it suits her nicely.
“Hey, quit flirting in each other’s heads over there and get back to work!”
Unfortunately, Makidera ruins the moment with her thoughtless accusations. The warm expression turns to one of fluster. She avoids my gaze and tries to justify how happy she looked just moments ago. “I…it’s n-not like that…”
“Makinoji…” Himuro’s voice came out a bit more frosty than normal. The light of the evening sun obscures her eyes behind her glasses. But I can imagine she’s glaring at the thoughtless monkey. “Please think carefully before you speak again tonight.”
She catches on she might have botched things from the expression on her face. But it’s too little and too late. We call it an evening a little later and put away everything before heading home.
Or at least the others do.
I stay behind just a little longer to make sure everything is in order. I didn’t want to have the sadist in my ear about a misplaced screwdriver or anything. Then I grab my bag and make my way out of the gates.
“May I have a word?”
That’s when Himuro calls out to me. She’s standing next to the wall on the outside of the gates, arms crossed.
“I thought you left with the others to escort Saegusa back to her home?”
“Since Maki was hungry and Saegusa wanted to get some snacks for her family, I told them I would catch up with them in Miyama. I didn’t want them to wait for me while I spoke with you in private.”
“Oh really?” I cross my arms and stand a little straighter. “Talk to me about what?”
She adjusts her glasses and meets my gaze. “I won’t defend what Maki did, but we’ve been friends for a long time now. She does tend to speak tactlessly, but in this case it’s because she picked up on how strangely Yukika acts around you. I’m sure you can understand that with everything going on, it’s somewhat worrying to us.”
“And she somehow interpreted that as us being lovers?” I nearly laugh. “A bit of a stretch, don’t you think?”
“I suppose it might seem that way to you, but…” She brings her hand to her chin and closes her eyes for a moment, as if in thought. “Before I say anything more, I would like your word that you’ll not utter a word of this to her. Agreed?”
I arch a brow. She approached me and now she wanted my word to keep silent about it. There should be a limit to how self-entitled you can be. But I humor her. “Fine. Now spill.”
She opens her eyes and then takes on a firm expression. “The way she looks at you at times is really incomparable to how she was even a month ago. You were quite a notorious person during our Second Year and onwards. So much so that even she couldn’t help but hold some disdain towards the mention of your name.”
I clench my teeth for a moment at the thought of that happening. It’s a complete contradiction when she doesn’t even hold an inkling of hatred towards the one who worked her over during training. I barely even talked to her back then.
…But then I remember Blood Fort Andromeda and that they were among the victims. I can’t claim it’d be undeserved. Even if those memories were locked away or removed.
I let out my frustration with a sigh. “Your point being?”
“Even though there were rumors that you’d become upright or at least less abrasive, the impression from before remains so firmly entrenched that it’s hard to be shaken. Yet, there are moments when she looks at you and simply smiles like before. Since you saved her from that monstrous dog it’s like she has an… admiration for you, at the very least.”
I scratch my head and realize what she’s getting at. “…Listen, you don’t have all the facts so you’re piecing together a conclusion that isn’t right because of that. It isn’t love or admiration or whatever you think it is.”
“Then what is your perception of things?”
I payback her own entitlement with a demand of my own. “Do I have your word that this won’t reach any of the others?”
She nods without hesitation. “It would only be fair.”
I give a heavily abridged version of my thoughts on the matter. That I’ve had my own suspicions about how our powers might influence our personalities. That they are too far removed from what is normal to not have any drawbacks. That powers that aren’t purely physical might have a greater influence on the behavior.
I use the Student President as a reference. That he doesn’t pay consideration to pain because he believes he can heal anything short of death. He doesn’t empathize with it easily anymore or has at least seen and experienced wounds so egregious that anything short of that will be met with little concern.
She understands well enough. “In summation, you believe that she’s being nudged by her own powers because you two share a similar affinity with the same categorization of PSI. That it’s influencing her to an extent?”
I nod. “I’m lacking complete hard evidence, but the reason she was acting flustered earlier was because I made a note of her referring to me without honorifics. She hadn’t realized that she did so. It’s not a big a deal for most people, but—”
Himuro picks up on the train of thought instantly. “She doesn’t refer to others so casually unless she’s well-acquainted with them. She’s a polite girl so it goes against her ingrained behavior. The fact that she did so unknowingly means that she regards you as being someone she can be comfortable with.”
Another nod. “I only brought it up so she’ll start thinking on any other things she might have done differently or open up a little more to the others. The only reason I haven’t shared this with anyone else is because we cannot have them being afraid of their own powers when it could mean the difference between life and death. More so when the circumstances can easily explain away these changes as well considering it is a rather perilous one.”
“I see…” She removes her glasses and looks down at the lenses in silence for a moment. “I can’t say I’d thought it out to the same depths as you, but I had considered that not everything was as clear as it might have been. There are so many uncertainties about everything else and now we can’t even be certain if any changes we make are of our own will.”
I remain silent to let her process everything. Someone who runs off pure emotion won’t handle it well. But Himuro is logical to a greater extent than the majority of people in the school. She’ll take that into consideration and put that before her emotions. Or so I hope.
“The best we can do is survive first and foremost. And to do that we must change, knowingly or unknowingly. Willingly or unwillingly. As long as it doesn’t completely take away from who we are, I believe we can at least claim that we are the sum of our own decisions.”
Settling on that conclusion she replaces her glasses. “So be it then.”
I sling my bag over my shoulder. “That should settle things then. I’ll leave it to you to explain to the loud one there isn’t anything romantic between Saegusa and myself. I don’t have any inclinations to seek out a lover with everything going, and even if I did, she doesn’t deserve to be stuck with a guy like me.”
That done, I start walking back home in silence. Himuro doesn’t say anything to acknowledge the discussion any further. Then again, nothing to be said now that she has reached her own resolve about how to approach things: To survive we’ll have to change, knowingly or unknowingly. Willingly or unwillingly.
In hindsight, I suppose we can only blame ourselves for what happened a few days later. That was when we returned to that future where the vampire awaited us. That was when we did something we’d regret for the rest of our lives beneath the ashen sky. It was…
The sum of our decisions.