Fire and destruction. Sundering the grail may have put an end to its mockery of justice, but it's unleashed the filth within to cause its own havoc. There's something more as well, a reverberation in the air, a feeling that is at once alien and familiar. An instability, an anomaly, an uncertainty that runs as deep as the world itself. Something terribly wrong, and terribly dangerous. If Kiritsugu wants to survive, he needs to run, now.
Like nothing he's ever done before, like the forces of hell itself are at his heels.
(Maybe they are. He can't tell.)
This wasn't how it was supposed to happen. The Grail was supposed to be the fix, the opposite to everything he ever was, the--
He keeps running, if only to escape the expression on his wife's as he--
It doesn't matter. Only running does.
The anomaly almost seems to tug or pull at him as he runs, trying to hold him here, but its grip is weak, and he looses from it in only a moment.
Suddenly, where once he was running through the growing inferno of Shinto district, now there is only tall grass. The world is dark, far too dark to be anywhere near the city, the kind of darkness that can only be found in the most reclusively rural places. The sky, however, is alight with dancing sparks that sway and swirl before his very eyes, which at first might seem like an enormous cloud of fireflies or embers, but which it will become disconcertingly clear are in fact stars, swimming through the night sky like dark water. The air is hot, but only the heat of a warm summer night, not the fiery heat from which he escaped, and rather than dry the wind is moist with recently fallen rain.
He does not know where he is, but he knows that it is not the world he knows. Perhaps a reality marble, related to the anomaly he encountered in some way, or perhaps not.
In the distance, there is a light of a different character from the alien stars, golden and welcoming, and shadowed by what look to be pine trees.
He falls to his knees, exhausted from all of the running. He's escaped, but where to?
This is not somewhere he recognizes, and he has traveled all across the world in the pursuit of his goals.
The light... seems friendly at least. He should go towards it.
(He hasn't noticed yet that most of his weapons are missing.)
There's part of him that's convinced he is absolutely not worthy of whatever safety the light represents, but his old teacher's voice berates him for thinking like that.
Yes, he has made mistakes. This does not mean his work is finished. If he has learned nothing else from his experience, it is that he cannot depend on anything else to do his work, not even a holy wish-granting engine supposedly built to that purpose.
He stumbles onwards. If his magic works here he should be able to help the inhabitants some, and he is not totally useless in other skills as well.
Kiritsugu's od remains his to command, but this marble is equally barren of will and mana, only a barest scant of either suffusing the space. His magic won't have to contend with the crushing weight of Gaia's rejection, but nor will it benefit from her abundance.
He's at the cabin now, and whether he simply waits by the window or knocks on the door, his presence is soon noticed. The door is opened and a tall humanoid man with orange skin, eyes glowing like hot coals, black hair that wafts like smoke, and dressed in simple leather pants stands before him. He radiates warmth but not heat, and is the magical energy coursing through him is palpable even to Kiritsugu's exhausted mind.
"Quickly, come in! The night may be quiet but it will be dangerous to be outdoors come sunrise." The man says, in a language utterly foreign even to Kiritsugu's well-traveled ears, and yet just the slightest twinge of magic allows him to understand the man's plea as if it were spoken in his native tongue.
As he enters, he instinctually ascertains the layout of the room. There's an area immediately around the entrance with a coat rack and shoe shelves, which has a staircase leading up to a second floor on the left. Ahead, the room expands, with a table and four chairs in the middle, a rocking chair and fireplace to the right, whence the golden light which illuminates the room and which Kiritsugu spotted outside, a wooden door on the left wall, and a glass door on the wall opposite from where he stands now, leading into a greenhouse, and which is flanked on both sides by tall cabinets. An elderly woman, maybe in her seventies or eighties judging from her appearance, is sat in the rocking chair, while a young woman, maybe a couple years younger than Kiritsugu, is sitting on a cushion by the fire.
"I, uh, hm..." The man mumbles, blushing through his orange complexion. "I don't think so? I've only just now heard those words used that way, so I'm unsure. I am...not some kind of ghost, though. I am my mother's son." He gestures to the woman in the rocking chair. "My name is Bran. What is yours, if I may ask?"
If he needs to, Kiritsugu can break his way out of the greenhouse, probably.
A lesser man would assume that the old lady would be easy to take down, but his experience with mage society means the older someone is the more dangerous he considers them.
"Emiya," he says. "And don't worry about it, that answers my question." He looks around.
He's clearly, visibly uncomfortable.
"Where am I? There was a fire and--"
He stops. He doesn't want to think about it.
Bran nods knowingly, and stands aside as the elderly woman responds. "This is my home, here in what I only know as the Pines. I came here many years ago, fleeing destruction and catastrophe, as did Ira here's mother. It seems to be something about this place that calls to those fleeing from. You are welcome to stay here in my home for as long as you need, as my son said the world outside is dangerous in the summer, stalked by a terrible monster." She pauses for a moment, and the house is quiet as the three locals all give Kiritsugu strange glances, then she continues. "It's a blessing to us to find someone new to talk to, but if you have some way of going back to where you can from, or onward to some other place, I can only recommend that you do so as soon as possible."
He bows. "Thank you for your welcome. I am sorry about the monster. And no--" he sighs. "I can't think of a way home this moment. I seem... cut off... somehow, from my world."
He knows this because he doesn't sense the flow of magic all mages are taught to understand.
What he does sense, clear as day through the otherwise mana-barren air of this place though only now that he has reason to focus on it, is that the fire in the hearth is a blaze with magic, just as much as Bran if not more so. Importantly, it seems to be aware of him, as well, though at the moment it seems content to merely observe.
Bran looks to the fire, or perhaps the cook pot hanging over it, then back to Kiritsugu. "Are you hungry, Emiya? I just made some supper for myself and Ira, and I have the ingredients ready to make more."
"I certainly want it," the woman responds with embittered dejection. "Whether you are able to give it is another question. That damnable thing has plagued me for decades, and neither my wishes upon the hearth nor my strong son have been able to defeat it, and I am loath to send a newcomer to their death or worse."
He's still eating.
To an outsider, it'll look like he hasn't eaten in days. This isn't strictly true, but he has been running himself absolutely ragged.
"Madame," he says, "I have spent most of my life hunting monsters. It's the only thing I can think of to do to repay your hospitality." There's the sense that whatever is being translated as madame is more polite than sarcastic, with the sense that he'd use similar language for a teacher.
As Kiritsugu eats, he may notice the tiniest flickers of magic in the fresh soup, with the same general character as that of the fire. As he swallows, he can feel it integrate with his body and replenish his od.
Bran seems simultaneously pleased and worried at the gusto with which Kiritsugu eats, and will finish off the ingredients he already has out to cook up another pot if he's still hungry.
His words give the woman some pause, and she gives him a long, piercing look. Finally, she looks away and sighs resignedly. "Very well. Bran? You will show our guest Emiya to the sleeper's cave tomorrow, at first light. If the beast proves too much, make sure the two of both come back alive."
Bran nods seriously, while the younger woman, who has been quietly eating her own supper, speaks up. "How are you going to fight the cave-sleeper?"
The replenishing soup is interesting. He's glad he's not totally powerless here, even if the sense of being cut off is deeply uncomfortable.
"I don't know yet," he says. He's not sure how the people here would feel about firearms, and he also needs to check what he has. "I need to know more about the cave-sleeper first. Then I can make something like a plan."
He tries to smile reassuringly at the young woman, but it comes off more pained than anything, like he doesn't have much practice with the expression.
He's finally full, and he very gently puts his bowl down and leaves the spoon in the same position as where he found it. "Thank you," he says. The old woman can probably tell that that's much more sincere than his smile. "I... I don't want to impose, do you have a couch I can sleep on?"
"We have a guest bedroom upstairs, and speak nothing of it. It is our duty and our joy to welcome any fellow refugees here in the pines. Now, here is what we know of the cave-sleeper..."
The elder woman, who Kiritsugu learns is named Thia, will describe the cave-sleeper's shadowy bear-like form, and how it stalks the pines during the summer days and attacks them and their chickens but seems to be repelled by the walls of the house. She also mentions that it killed Minessa, her adoptive daughter and the mother of Ira, and that some curse it's laid has prevented the hearth from resurrecting her. Bran, who has wrestled with the beast directly, will also attempt to convey its sheer power and in particular its seeming implacable endurance.
While the others explain this, Ira gets a bit uncomfortable, and after finally finishing her soup will excuse herself and head upstairs, mentioning that she will 'get back to working on the dolls,' which Bran and Thia accept.
"The dolls?" Kiritsugu asks, curious.
He's turning the information about the dolls over in his head. Were he home, he'd--
It's about then that it really, truly hits him that his wife, his partner, and his familiar are all dead. He has nobody.
He... will need to figure out another way of doing this, seeing as he has no access to the majority of his weapons, other than the Contender itself, which while useful against mages has an unknown efficacy against bears. Especially magical bears, ones able to apparently stop the necromantic powers of the hearth.
(He is increasingly, burningly curious about this hearth, but is unsure of whether asking too many probing questions will get him kicked out.)
"I'm not going to fight the beast with no plan, don't worry," he adds.
It's strange. He can't tell if he wants to fight the beast to help them, or prove that he can still defeat an enemy, any enemy, despite what he has wreaked on the world.
He needs to know that he has been going about the this right way.
"Ah, yes. The hearth needs gifts to gather its strength on wishing night, things that have meaning and value to us. I and Bran carve wooden dolls in our spare time, and give them names and stories, and then give them to the hearth. It seems to work reasonably well. Grandmother usually gives preserved fruits and dried herbs from the green room, since her wrists are fragile now and we haven't had the spare wishes to fix them for a while."
Thia isn't able to contribute much to forming the plan of attack, since she's only ever run from the cave-sleeper, and even then only decades ago. Bran will be able to discuss it more, though, especially if Kiritsugu is able to trust the man enough to share some of his own capabilities.
He nods. "Is there a way to get you any more wishes?"
He has no idea but it seems like he should help them all any way he can.
"I have a possible means of fighting back," he says, addressing Bran. "I don't know if it'll work, though, because I need your help. I also need to be sure you are comfortable with firearms. I do not have anything close to my full arsenal with me, but I do have one. There are limited bullets, but if the beast is anything like my enemies, it should be able to at least hurt it."
"The hearth answers one wish for each gifter on wishing night, which is in about five months, so just being here will help if you are still around by then, especially if you can help us make more gifts to give it as well," Bran answers. "And, I know of firearms from my mother's stories of her homeworld, but I've never actually handled one. I don't think I'm terribly uncomfortable with them, though? I would be surprised if anything like ordinary bullets would hurt the cave-sleeper, but I get the feeling you are not talking about ordinary bullets."
He puts the Contender on the table, making sure it's unloaded first. "You're right," he says. "I have about thirteen bullets left. They're made with my own magic, and they can disrupt the energy of things in the processing of using their own abilities." He does not explain what this looks like in a person. He wants to protect these three from his own past.
He doesn't say anything about staying for another a five months or not. He doesn't even know if time moves regularly between this place and his own home, and he does not want to go back to the destruction he has just escaped.
A mysterious house and a cave with an angry bear present a much simpler question of good vs. evil than the Grail War.
"You show me the cave," Kiritsugu says. "You tell me as much as you know about the beast, and then I lure it out and I shoot it and I hope that I don't get torn to shreds in the meantime." He sighs. "I can hopefully set up a bounded field around your cabin, make it more defensible. If that doesn't interfere with the magic from the hearth."
The plan is not great, but he's working on limited intel. He's going to make the best choices he can, given what he knows, and hope that it's good enough.
"I'm not sure. Mother and Ira are more often the ones who think of what to ask for on wishing night." Bran scratches his chin thoughtfully as he considers it. "I don't think of any of the gardening tools or cooking equipment are broken at the moment. Our clothing is in reasonably good repair. The chickens and garden are all healthy. I don't suppose you have some kind of balm for my mother's wrists?" He continues thinking for a moment before coming to a realization. "Ah! Once we've seen what we can about the cave-sleeper tomorrow, you might share some stories you know? I'm sure it would delight mother and Ira both, and might help inspire my niece's doll-making. Perhaps you could even join us in that? Ira and I could teach you if you don't already know how to."
"If your world had pulled in nearly any other spellcaster I could help with her wrists, but unfortunately I have no strength in healing magics. I'm sorry."
He perks up a little at the idea of storytelling and dollmaking. It's something he can do, after all. "I would be delighted. I don't know that many happy stories, though. I'm sorry."
Bran smiles at that. "That's alright. If all goes well this year, we will have the wish to spare to heal her then, and while Ira especially prefers happy stories, even she knows they can't all be happy."
Then, unless there's other preparation Kiritsugu needs him for, Bran will start cleaning up the bowls and utensils and cooking pot from supper, heading outside through the greenhouse briefly to discard any food scraps into the compost pile, and then start preparing for sleep.
Bran will lead Kiritsugu up the stairs to the second floor of the foyer, There are three doors, and Bran walks over and opens the one farthest from the stairs, revealing a relatively sparse bedroom. There's a fairly large bed, a wardrobe, a chest at the foot of the bed, a nightstand with a candle, and some shelves along the wall holding woodcarving and clothesmaking tools, scraps of fabric, thick dowels of wood, and a few roughed-out blank dolls.
He's awoken by Bran entering the room, most likely.
He dreams, unfortunately. He dreams of a pile of pale bodies, of hands reaching out for him, of a thing with the face of his wife and children begging him to stay with them forever and watch the world burn to bitter ashes.
He does not wake up screaming, but only because he's used to dreams like that. Instead, if anyone is watching, they can see him sort of lurch into wakefulness, as though he is fleeing from something.
Bran will not voice his concern, but he is concerned!
He will leave the room and head downstairs, leaving Kiritsugu alone in the room for the moment. Keen senses can tell him that Thia and Ira are not moving around in the house, and thus are presumably still asleep in the implicitly non-guest bedroom.
Kiritsugu checks the drawers for clean clothes. Assuming they're there, he's going to change and make his way downstairs.
He should brush his teeth, but he didn't have a toothbrush on him when he fell into this world and he doesn't know if they have those here.
There are indeed several clean outfits in the wardrobe, though they're rather...traditional might be one way to put it? All cotton and linen and wool and leather. They all wear quite loosely at first, but each piece of clothing has straps or buttons or ties to adjust the fit, so Kiritsugu can get them all comfortable and functional in a moment.
Downstairs, the hearth is still burning happily away, it's strange attentive presence falling on Kiritsugu's shoulders now that he was once again within its sight. Bran is seated at the table, where two plates on which simple meals of fried egg and something that looks like parsnip, and two cups which emanate a powerful herbal aroma. Bran seems to be waiting for Kiritsugu before eating.
Kiritsugu smiles in thanks and sits down to eat.
"Thank you," he says.
He has the gun out again, where he can see it but also not on his body. He has the bullets in an easily accessible part of his clothes, and will not be loading the gun until strictly necessary.
Bran smiles at that. "My pleasure, Emiya."
The two will in all likelihood eat their breakfasts quietly and quickly. They have a mission today, and soon, so there is no time to dawdle. The food is basic but nourishing, the herbal tea pungent and vitalizing. It is a practical meal.
Once they've finished, Bran will take the plates and cups and set them on the cabinet next to the greenhouse door to clean later, then collects Kiritsugu and leads him out of the house.
"The cave-sleeper should still be asleep, but it sometimes wakes early for one reason or another, so we will travel along the edge of the trees to minimize its potential cover."
"My mother says that it seeks vengeance on her, for taking the hearth-flame from its cave when she first came here. I do not know if I believe that, though. She also says that there was no one else here when she came, and given the rate of other people coming here, the only reason I can imagine there wouldn't have been other people is if the cave-sleeper killed them."
"We are still fairly far away. The cave where it sleeps is on the opposite side of the trees from our home. The sun will likely be above the horizon by the time we arrive. The cave's mouth is on the western face of the hill, so if nothing has gone awry the cave-sleeper will still not be awake."
They left when the world was still cast in the faint blue light of the pre-dawn, and while the world has brightened, the sun still has not shown itself.
"A long trek," Kiritisugu says, amiably. "I usually have motor vehicles for this sort of journey, but I do not trust them to function in this place if summoned."
He has tried one spell, whatever. A leather waterskin appears in his hands, heavy with liquid. Fascinating. He meant to summon a water bottle.
Not too much. They encounter some small songbirds singing at one point, and can hear various insects as well. A couple hours into the walk the sun has peeked up over the horizon and begins to shine through the trees, casting the inside of the woods into bars of light and dark. They'll pass a good foraging spot along the way as well, and Bran will ask if Emiya might like some berries or greens to replenish some energy expended on the walk so far.
There are definitely some berries or herbs in the pines that are moderately to severely poisonous! Bran reassures that this patch of bushes and shoots is all good, though he'll also point out a couple plants that aren't good to eat large amounts of in one sitting. None of the berries are perfectly familiar to Kiritsugu, but the flavors of blackberry, blueberry, and black currant are all identifiable, and the primary herb that Bran gathers seems like a milder, sweeter, more tender leek. It's all a welcome reprieve from this long early morning trek. Soon, however, they are back to walking.
Bran likewise mostly stops talking.
The two men continue their approach of the cave, and only a few minutes pass before the mouth of the cave gapes before them. At the surface it does not seem especially large, but looking into its dark interior betrays a great uncanny depth. A gentle cool breeze emanates from within.
"I have the feeling we should not enter the cave itself," Kiritsugu says, feeling rather grim even just looking at the entrance. "I feel like we'd freeze to death, or worse. How are we luring the thing out?"
He really wishes he had a rocket launcher. Rocket launchers make everything less complicated.
Bran nods in agreement. "You should stand back, maybe find some cover for you to shoot at the sleeper from. I will get it's attention and try to keep it in the open."
He takes a couple steps to place himself right around the middle of the cave mouth, sets himself into a solid stance, begins to move through a series of breathing exercises. Kiritsugu can sense Bran's aura of magic begin to intensify.
Kiritsugu follows his advice and conceals himself behind low greenery. He can stand up quickly when necessary, but for now he's going to stay the hell out of the way.
Bran might not be a heroic spirit, but he has their intensity, especially as his aura wakes up. He's reminded of Saber.
He is also less kindly reminded.
Bran's magic continues to heighten until it begins to radiate visibly just beyond his clothes, a thin coat of golden glow that flickers and dances. Then, he inhales deeply, places his hands around his mouth with his thumbs and forefingers forming a diamond, and--
The light is almost blinding, the sound like thunder, a wave of hot air nearly bowling Kiritsugu over. Reinforcement quickly overcomes this and allows Kiritsugu to observe Bran's exhalation, a thin golden beam piercing the cave's darkness.
It only lasts briefly before Bran cuts it off and quickly changes his stance. In the next moment, the cave-sleeper, a seething mass of the same darkness the size of an elephant, extending unnaturally into the light of the outside world, charges into Bran. Battle is joined.
This is not what Kiritsugu usually thinks of when he hears "bear." It reminds him of the slick, angry darkness that came pouring out of the ruined Grail, corrupting everything.
He takes out his gun with practiced readiness, and shoots the massive bulk of it in the side. He wishes he knew if there was a bundle of nerves, a head, anything. It's wielding its power.
He watches the bullet travel. Hopefully it does what he needs it to.
The cave-sleeper can tell that a projectile of some kind has been fired. It does not try to dodge, it does not have any reason to believe that it is a threat. It is concerned with the loathsome fire-in-flesh which has so often been an obstacle between itself and the warm fire.
This is a mistake.
With a mighty heave, Bran wrestles the cave-sleeper such that the magic bullet strikes true and center. Jets of black liquid blast from the cave-sleeper's mass, evaporating into a claret mist and then into nothing as the beast roars and writhes in pain. The cave-sleeper attempts disengage with Bran but he holds to it tight. "That's more hurt than I've ever seen it!"
Looking closely, there are gaps in the cave-sleeper's cloak of darkness now, small but visible to Kiritsugu, that he can spy something more animal through, glimpses of fur and skin and blood.
The beast is certainly more wary of Kiritsugu's bullets now, having felt the sting of one already. It fights Bran with even greater strength, now that it knows it is in real danger. Bran is not able to force it in the way of the bullet again, and instead it also able to roll out of the line fire enough to reduce it a glancing blow. Nonetheless, the magic takes what effect it can, and more shadow seems to bleed away from the sleeper. Its struggle is now entirely to escape, and despite its injuries, it does seem to be steadily drawing the two of them towards the cave mouth. There might be time for one more shot before Bran is forced to let go or risk braving the dark cave, but with the cave-sleeper having greater control of the grapple, there's a small chance it could try and interpose Bran between it and the bullet.
Kiritsugu freezes, his mind suddenly filled with the thoughts of a ship drowning in blood, of strangling his own wife, of it being all for nothing.
He does not know what to do. He should shoot, but he cares about Bran and there are so few people in this world. This is the very act of evil utilitarianism mocked him with.
He lowers the gun. "Bran, get out there, it's not worth your life."
If Bran doesn't run he will grab him.
Bran seems to accept that, or he simply can't hold onto the cave-sleeper any longer. Regardless, he lets it go, and it quickly disappears into the inky darkness.
Bran falls onto his back, and just lays on the ground for a moment, breathing heavily. He's back up on his feet fairly soon, though. He hustles back to Kiritsugu's hiding spot, and as he approaches Kiritsugu it becomes clear that he's covered in scrapes and cuts, each slowly leaking boiling golden ichor.
"I consider that a great success, my friend Emiya. I believe that it will be forced to recover for a great while, perhaps even all the rest of summer. Thank you!"
"It is hard to describe, I have not found any words for it yet. I know that I have a peculiar relationship with the hearth, how it is a part of me, or I a part of it. I focused on that connection, fed it with my mind and my breath, drew on it. I've done this a few times, including all the other times I've had the misfortune of wrestling the beast."
As he speaks, his wounds begin to close, his blood boiling away and leaving no stains on his skin or his now damaged clothes. He's still glowing a bit, but its steadily fading as well.
"That is... astonishingly impressive," Kiritsugu says. "I am glad that I was able to be of help. Do you think you'll be able to make the journey back, or should we find a place to hide for the night?
He's still not quite sure how time moves here, and doesn't know if there are other dangers other than the cave bear when darkness falls.
Bran smiles warmly at the praise. “I believe I can make it back home, if you can. If we start now, we should be able to get back sometime in the afternoon. I will recover much more quickly by the hearth, and I imagine you will as well.”
He seems to move easily enough, though with Kiritsugu’s experience he can tell he is suppressing some amount of pain.
Since his magic seems to work here, he should be able to knit together a few scrapes and such, binding the skin together in a way that does not quite erase that there was an injury, but should at least ease pain.
He steps back after, looking slightly awkward. It's an obvious application of cutting and binding he doesn't use much, which is more than a little embarrassing.
Indeed. There’s a subtle change in the mood of the forest, the tone and prevalence of birdsong and insect chirping. Somehow, it seems the creatures of this strange place can already tell the malevolence of the cave-sleeper has been set back, for now at least.
Thia and Ira are waiting for them by the front door of the house, wearing expressions of exhausted relief.
"Hello," Kiritsugu greets. "I am sorry I could not do more, but it seems we have driven it back into his cave. I believe Bran should heal and rest up, and I can do whatever he usually does for the day."
He's exhausted himself, but he still feels the need to prove that he deserves this hospitality, despite what he has just done. His bullets did most of the work, alongside Bran's awesome strength. He was just the hand wielding the gun, lucky enough to have a relevant Origin allowing his bullets to affect the monster in such a way.
Thia nods and welcomes two men back into the cabin. Ira rushes to Bran’s side, guiding him to the table where there’s two bowls of soup waiting.
”I appreciate that very much, and you will have your tasks soon, but even if you didn’t wrestle the monster like my son, you’ve still walked a long way there and back, and I’m sure even just seeing the thing has had an effect. I implore you, sit down, eat.” The older woman’s voice is kind, but stern all the same.
Bran is quite focused on his soup, but still nods in sympathy.
Thia and Ira both take seats at the table as well. “You did good, young man. We could tell you hurt it mighty well even from here. The hearth reacted at just the moment you shot it, I think. From what I know, the sleeper is not a thing that dies easily, not now anyway. You did more than I honestly thought could be done.” Thia says, her voice the most gentle, and perhaps vulnerable, it has been so far.
”What was it like? Fighting it?” Ira asks to both men.
Bran nods again, and after drinking the last of the broth from his bow he adds, “Yes, it seemed very quickly to change from the force of nature I’ve wrestled before into a scared animal, once Emiya’s attacks proved its weakness.”
“Do you think, maybe now that it knows we can hurt it, that it won’t bother us anymore?” Ira asks hopefully.
This fixes her granddaughter with a sharp look, as if daring to hope might jinx them, before turning back to Kiritsugu. “Please, eat.”
"I believe that it will be recovering for a long while at least, Ira." Bran offers. Ira remains chastised, though, and is quiet. "I'm feeling mostly recovered, thank you for meal mother, Ira. I think I'll take a shower and change out of these clothes now." And he does just that, though not before putting his bowl and spoon away, in the same spot where the plates from earlier this morning as well as the utensils that Thia and Ira presumably use for their own breakfasts and dinners as well currently sit.
While Bran is gone, Thia speaks again. "Normally during the summer we mostly stay inside, try to keep cool and out of danger from the sleeper. Your help has made the latter less of a concern, but the heat is still too much for hard work, not during daylight hours at least. You are a guest in my home, so I won't make demands on your time, but if you must have something to do, you can help Bran gather wood or help me tend to the green room in the evenings, whichever suits you best."
The cabin is fairly warm, it is summer after all, though it's a bit cooler than it was outside on the walk back under the summer sun. As Thia opens the glass door, however, Kiritsugu is hit with a wave of properly tropical heat and humidity. Inside, the plants are likewise tropical in nature, with a couple of palm trees, another couple ordinary trees, and numerous smaller bushes, herbs, grasses, and other low-lying plants. If Kiritsugu is familiar with the environment, he may notice that this room forms an imperfect but surprisingly robust replica of a sort of patchwork of the flora of the Maluku Islands in Indonesia.
It reminds him of home. Not in a way that he wants to think about, either.
"I grew up around plants like this," he says. He doesn't mention that the last time he saw them the whole world felt like it was on fire. "How did you manage to grow so much of them here?"
"When I wished for the green room all those years ago, I knew that the environment of this place wouldn't be survivable for the plants I wanted to grow, so I asked for it to have systems to keep it warm and humid. Other than that, Bran and Ira help me mix the compost and ashes into the soil when it's for replanting, and we all keep watch for any blights or pest. Every few years we wish for the problems we failed to notice or fix to go away as well."
"Only the one I know of, from my world, but it is much less kind than this one." He does not mention that he is pretty sure this was his fault. "I left my home after my father destroyed it." He doesn't want to burden her with all of this, but the words just sort of spill out of him.
If she asks the right questions he's going to tell her everything. It's not a confession, exactly--he's not Catholic, as much as he's worked with priests before--but he'll only stop talking if she tells him to.
Thia is both too personally interested, and too familiar with the dangers of ignorance, to tell him to stop before she has the whole story. They have an afternoon and an evening to talk, and she'll begin properly taking care of the plants, having Kiritsugu fetch tools from the cabinet by the green room's door and generally helping her, especially with tasks that involve bending down a lot or benefit from a bit of strength.
As Kiritsugu explains, and the two of them work, the world steadily darkens and the sun sets. Eventually, Thia will direct them to head back inside the house proper, finding Bran (wearing some fresh clothes and seemingly fully recovered from this morning) tending to a cooking pot over the hearth. "Ah, mother, Emiya. Supper will be done soon."
He's happy to help. He's also grateful she's still letting him stay, given everything he's done. There are worse times to learn your lesson than after you're no longer in your own world, but he can't think of one right now, and he just wishes that it hadn't cost him everything.
He's also happy to see Bran, and to see him in good health. "How are you doing?" he asks.
He tries not to worry that he's upset Ira. That way lies (more) madness, probably.
Thia somehow seems unsurprised about the sordid elements of Kiritsugu's past, and seems to accept him nonetheless.
"I'm doing quite well! Perhaps still a bit drained from exerting myself, but from previous times I expect I'll be at full strength again by tomorrow.
Bran will continue cooking for a while, before pouring four bowls of soup and calling Ira down from upstairs for supper.
Unless Kiritsugu makes conversation, it will likely be another quiet meal.
Going from where she looks, facial micro-expressions, and postural body language (assuming that Kiritsugu's experience translates, anyway), she seems like she might be conflicted about something that he reminds her of, which could contribute to an air of dislike.
It has only be about 24 hours since he showed up, though. Social dynamics are complicated, who knows where it will go.
After supper, Thia will head back to the green room, bringing the rocking chair and one of the family's small collection of books to sit and read, while Bran and Ira head upstairs to work on dolls.
Ira only redoubles her focus on carving fine details into the dolls faces and fitting them with little doll-sized clothes, while Bran turns to answer Kiritsugu. "Only one, at after my mother's arrival here. Ira's mother, Minessa, came here about thirty years ago, and gave birth to Ira a few months after that. She was with us for a little over three years. That summer, she went out to gather eggs from the coop, and the cave-sleeper was stalking just beyond the berm between it and the woods proper. It attacked her, and though I managed to wrestle it off her body, she did not survive."
Everyone continues their work with the dolls in silence for a while before Ira speaks up. "We usually talk about what we imagine the dolls' lives are like, what sort of world they live in. I like to at least, and Bran plays along. Would you mind if we did that?" She looks to Bran, then back to Kiritsugu. "You could join in, if you want?"
Ira smiles back with a mixture of apprehension and gladness. "That's Mahuk Na..." She places a finger on her chin as she attempts to remember, or perhaps is pondering for the first time. "Ah, Mahuk Na Aknenhy! She's a bug-tamer who works with giant beetles..."
She will proceed to describe the life of this character, evidently a relatively important person in the world that Ira has built, in great detail, happily answering any questions about her life or world that Kiritsugu asks, and even pointing out some other dolls from the same world, some of whose stories intersect with Mahuk's directly while others only happen to exist in the same broad world but situated far apart from her whether in space or time.
Bran is smiling all the while as well, evidently happy to see his niece getting along with Kiritsugu.
Ira is absolutely and totally absorbed in talking about this, and is plenty happy to incorporate Kiritsugu's proposals and explore their implications.
Bran can detect that there's something troubling his new friend, and after Ira has gotten tired and gone off to bed but before he and Kiritsugu do the same, he'll ask, "Are you alright, my friend? Is something wrong?"
Kiritsugu is already familiar with the inside of the house (aside from possibly the shower room, nestled between the two bedrooms upstairs). Outside, he can find the chicken coop that was visible from the green room, as well as the earthen berm that separates it from the woods.
The world here is eerily quiet, only the sounds of small insects and the rustling of warm summer wind. The stars swim in the night sky in a way that might give Kiritsugu vertigo, like he's looking down on some great pool of dark water. In the wood it is exceedingly dark, the starlight blocked by surprisingly thick cover of pine-needles. He migh encounter one or two clearings where small bushes and shoots grow, similar to ones he saw along the outer edge of the woods on the walk to the cave and back, some of which he may thus recognize as edible, though here they're mixed up with unfamiliar or clearly poisonous ones.
Venturing away from the woods, he'll only find endless stretches of grass waving gently in the wind, and maybe a small pond or stream if he travels until he can only just barely make out the cabin through the darkness. It's hard to tell exactly, but it feels like there's a slight grade downwards away from the woods, as if it's at the top of a hill with a very gentle slope.
The land within the woods is pretty level, though there is the occasional noticeable bump or divot. Nothing on the scale of the broader downwards incline away from the trees.
If he wants to try and get a good view of the entire area, he could try climbing up a tree? Here is a particularly tall and sturdy one.
This tree is one of the oldest in the whole wood. It's from an older generation, one of the few survivors of a fire that burned down most of woods here. Somehow, it carries a sense of grief, but also perseverance.
From the highest branches that Kiritsugu feels comfortable putting his weight on, he can see the whole woods, including the cabin and the cave on opposite ends, and a long ways beyond. It definitely seems like the woods are at the top of an incredibly large and but very gently sloped hill. Strangely, there seems to be an element of uncertainty or dreamlikeness to the furthest reaches of this place. If he looks at one area near the horizon, he might see a small pond, but if he looks away then back again, the pond might no longer be there. Not as though it suddenly dried up, but as if it were never there to begin with.
Given what he's seen of this place, that isn't a bad hypothesis.
He's spent a while exploring the Pines. It might be reasonable to try and sleep soon. Even if he decides against sleeping, if he's not back in the cabin by the time Bran wakes up, he might be worried about where Kiritsugu's gone, and certainly Thia and Ira will if he's still not there when they're awake.
The hot and muggy heat of Summer steadily dries as the season passes, followed by the temperature falling, until the snow begins to fall at the onset of Winter. The days grow shorter, and the family spend more of their time inside, entertaining themselves and working in the green room or on the gift-dolls. It's cold outside, and the snow piles thick, but it's not arctic and with the heavy winter clothes in the guest room's wardrobe, Kiritsugu can continue to spend much time outdoors if he wishes. Inevitably, he grows to know this simple family, their personalities, their relationships, their stories. Perhaps he has the power to hold his heart closed to them, perhaps not.
Finally, it is the dawn of the day of Wishing Night, There will be no work today, only three hearty meals, story-telling, and gift-giving and wish-making. He knows that the others plan to wish for healing of their bodies, for the repair of their home and tools, and for bountiful flourishing of their garden and the woods come Spring. He has approximately eighteen hours to decide his own wish.
He's restless with indecision. He could wish Ilya to his side, but she doesn't deserve that. He is, after all, trapped here, as much as he appreciates the company, and he doesn't have the right to rip her from whatever life she's leading in his absence.
He's not avoiding the others intentionally, but he's not left his room at his usual time. He's gotten in the habit of doing whatever work Bran doesn't take on automatically, and sitting with them all in the evenings, but now he's on his bed, hunched over and uncertain.
What does he want?
"To save everyone," a traitorous part of his mind whispers, but he shakes his head. He knows better, now, what that desire does to wish-granting devices.
Does he want to leave? He's under the impression he has survived longer in the Pines than most, and he's wondered at times if the Hearth has the power to send him home.
He doesn't let himself answer the question truthfully. He deserves a worse prison than this one, where the gaolers are kind and just as trapped as he is.
Eventually, he finds himself searching for Thia. He doesn't know what he wants, so he'll wish for something the family needs. That should be safe enough.
As he walks, he thinks for one mad moment of wishing for a path to the Root, just to see that which is so great that generations of mages grind up the bodies of strangers and family alike in the name of finding it. Then, he dismisses the idea. He is not a mage. He does not care about the Root.
He'll look for her downstairs first.
Thia's expression hardens, though only for a brief moment. "Each of our wishes are our own. I will wish our ills to be healed, as I have often done. Do not try and use yours for anyone else's desire." She sighs and looks around the green room as she thinks on this. "Yes, the Hearth will understand. I don't speak of my first few years here often, but I did not come here knowing anything of its preferences. It is a strange thing, but it possesses a deep wisdom of a kind."
Bran is indeed a bit less serious about wishes needing to be for the wisher on some level than his mother. Thia has an almost religious conception of the Hearth, or at least it's seemed that way for the past few months, while Bran more so sees it as almost just another member of the family, albeit one with some odd needs and preferences.
Thia nods again. "You're free to spend some time here, if it would help ease your heart."
And she will lead, though naturally it's only a couple dozen steps from the center of the green room to the dining table in the main room. There are bowls of soup, fried eggs, and nut-clusters. Ira, evidently hungry, starts eating just as Thia and Kiritsugu sit down. Bran can sense something though, and asks before he eats, "Is something wrong?"
Thia looks over to Kiritsugu. She can answer if he would prefer not to.
Bran nods, and Ira makes a sympathetic noise through her full mouth. Probably, breakfast is fairly quiet. There is not much to do but entertain themselves until lunch. Thia will likely return to reading in the green room, while Ira will engage Bran in chat about her imaginary worlds. If Kiritsugu has introduced to the idea of playing in the snow, the two of them might put on their out-door dress and head outside instead.
Despite having learned much of Kiritsugu over the last half-year, everything he's been willing to share, this odd family has accepted him, and seem unimpeded in their own happiness by his presence. If they wish to share that happiness with him, who is he to refuse their generosity?
After an enjoyable morning, Thia has warmed up a few cups of broth to fight off the chill of the wintry outdoors, and the four of them begin putting together a big holiday dinner,
They’re pretty efficient with the cooking, but it’s a big meal to make so he can still help fetch ingredients or watch the pot or things like that.
It takes a couple hours, which ensures everyone’s got a good appetite for dinner. There’s a little bit of everything they have to eat, including plenty of festive spices from the green room, and the the meat of one of the chickens, who had grown old and suffering over the last couple days.
Sometimes! Anything...ordinary? The exact criteria is a bit hard to pin down. Specific questions about what it can do, for example, seem to be reliably answered, but questions like 'Where did the Hearth come from?' or 'How does the Hearth grant wishes?' are either answered cryptically or not at all.
She doesn't know exactly why, it's never been important enough to ask, but her strong suspicion is that the cave-sleeper hadn't needed to defend its control of the Hearth for a long time, if ever, before she arrived. She was lucky, and its guard was down. She stole it, followed her intuition as to how to hold and move the flame. She believes that it guided her, all the way here on the opposite side of the pines.
The eve of Wishing Night is no time for work! All the tasks for today were done before lunch. Instead, the afternoon and evening are filled with storytelling around the Hearth. Thia takes the lead initially, but Ira provides the most stories overall, drawing from her seemingly bottomless well of imagined worlds. The family will encourage Kiritsugu to contribute at least one story of his own, though they won’t push.