Unlimited Bandanna Works.

By Weebee.

With substantial assistance by JSB.

Chapter 12: Once and Future.

"Shiro, you should be resting," Saber said firmly as she walked up to stand next to her former master. The taller boy was leaning against the frame of the Tohsaka residence's front door, obviously using it as support for his tired body.

"Not yet," he shook his head. "Assassin said they'd be back soon."

"Yes, but with what you did-" Saber was cut off as the boy next to her straightened, squinting down the darkened, curved street that climbed the hill on which the mansion sat. Following his gaze, the blonde Servant quickly made out two figures emerging from the darkness, illuminated briefly below a streetlight. One of them was definitely Ranma, making his way steadily towards them, but it was the other who had sparked a sudden, unexpected jolt of recognition.

Dark hair and grey, almost black eyes. Eyes that she'd glared into as a noble spearman lay cursing the world on the ground between them. But the face that surrounded those eyes was… "Saber?" She jolted as Shiro spoke.

"I… I'm sorry, yes?" She asked, shaking her head clear. As she took in her surroundings once again, she realized that Assassin and Lancer had both materialized from mana in front of the porch, taking up defensive stances.

"He says it's Illyasviel," the fanged man reported, dubiously.

"That's one hell of a growth spurt," Lancer observed, snidely.

Saber realized that was the obvious response. Ranma was returning with an unknown person. Assuming that they might be a threat was the safest course of action. Stepping forward, past Shiro, she once more formed her armor, marveling at how much easier it was to draw on her power now than it had been even two days before. "She does seem… familiar," she admitted

Both other Servants gave her questioning looks, before the two newcomers arrived in front of the house.

The pigtailed martial artist looked them over, his gaze stopping for a moment on Saber before glancing over at his companion.

"Ranma?" Assassin asked. "What the hell's going on?"

"It's a long story," the martial artist said, tiredly. "Anyone here know that Illyasviel was a Homunculi?"

The woman next to him opened her mouth to say something, but apparently decided against it, simply frowning irritably.

Saber nodded, and to her surprise, so did Lancer. "So someone came looking for her, like I said," the blue haired man observed, casually leaning against his spear. "But where is she now?"

"I'm right here," the dark haired woman said, glaring at the Servant of the lance.

Before he could respond to that, Ranma continued. "Turns out Homunculi are different enough from humans that drowned girl water worked on her."

"Drowned gi-" Assassin started, looking between the two of them, astonished. "Where did you get... Wait, that's why you left the city, you were going to Nerima?"

Ranma nodded, and his Servant seemed to relax. "I'm glad that made sense to somebody," Lancer chipped in, "But I'm still lost."

"It's the same water that gave Ranma his curse," Assassin explained. "It turns any living thing that isn't a human girl into one, when hit with cold water."

"Oh," Lancer blinked, and then slowly appraised the new arrival with fresh eyes. "Well, you turned out really nice, little lady."

"Um, thank you?" the woman who Saber now tentatively identified as Illyasviel replied, her previous anger replaced by uncertainty.

"I wouldn't be so thankful if I were you," Shiro muttered, giving the blue haired man a dubious look.

HR.

Several minutes later, the group of six was gathered in Rin's living room, Ranma studying the hastily boarded up front window as Illyasviel sat in a large, over-stuffed armchair, and Shiro slumped tiredly on the couch. "After Shiro somehow dispelled his Reality Marble, Archer captured Rin, demanding a final duel with him tomorrow, at sunrise. He wishes for it to take place at the ruins of the Einzbern mansion." Saber was finishing up her explanation of the night's events.

"Damn," Lancer grumbled. "What the hell's that guy's problem?"

"He hates me," Shiro started, tiredly, and then seemed to reconsider his statement. "No, I think it's more like he hates what I represent."

"What you represent?" The blue haired man asked, before shaking his head. "Whatever, doesn't matter. Saber 'n I'll just pin his ass to the wall, then we can get Tohsaka back."

"I still don't understand why you're doing this," The mentioned Servant said, suspiciously. "You have to have an ulterior motive here."

"Of course I do," Lancer shrugged, casually. "Everybody here does, in one way or another. But like I said to Red, if I turn against you, you'll know it and I'll charge at you head on." The blonde knight looked at him askance for a moment but didn't get a chance to retort.

"I'm going to fight him," Shiro said, firmly. "On my own."

"What?!" The one who spoke up was a surprise. Illyasviel hadn't said much during the entire conversation, thus far. She'd offered some comments when Ranma had given a brief overview of what had happened in Nerima, one which Shiro was fairly sure had left a lot out, but had spent the time since glaring at him. He'd been doing his best to ignore it. "Even without a master, the Archer class has independent action. Fighting a Servant like that on your own as a human is suicide!"

"Yeah," Shiro agreed. "But I have to do it."

"Shiro, you can't!" Saber objected, forcefully. "You know he's your-"

"Yeah, I know," Shiro admitted, gaining puzzled looks from most of the others in the room. "I think I've known, somehow, since we first met. That's why I've gotta settle the score with him myself."

"Okay, you can't just trail off like that," Lancer complained. "Archer's your what, exactly?"

The red haired boy opened his mouth to answer, but stopped. His entire body rebelled at the idea of speaking the most obvious answer, which was probably why his conscious mind had rejected the idea right up until that clash of blades in Archer's Reality Marble. "He's.. a possible future version of myself," he framed the answer carefully, but it still grated on him.

"That… kinda makes sense," Ranma said, his tone slightly confused. "How similar your fighting styles are has been buggin' me and Saber for a while now. 'Cept you seem to be improving way too fast." Assassin snorted, raising an incredulous eyebrow at his master, but Ranma shook his head. "No, this is kinda nuts even to me," the pigtailed martial artist countered the unspoken comment. "He needed me to show him what weapons he was good with less than a week ago, and his practice earlier today looked like a master of two-weapon fighting."

"It could be resonance," Illyasviel offered, her expression still troubled as she studied Shiro intently. "You're sure Archer is you?"

"He's not…!" Shiro burst out, before regaining his composure. "I don't intend to ever become him," he continued more firmly. As Illyasviel seemed to completely ignore the outburst, he then dug around in his pocket, producing a large, red gemstone on a metallic chain, and staring at it for a moment. "I talked to Rin about it while Lancer was finding Assassin," he explained. "She had some pretty good evidence."

"What is this resonance?" Saber asked, after it became evident that Shiro wasn't planning on continuing.

"It's.." Illyasviel started, trailing off as if looking for the right way to put things, before raising a hand to her forehead. After a moment she continued, starting slightly carefully before her voice gained strength. "As the name suggests, it's the resonance of two objects. In this case, two almost identical souls which recognize each other. For the most part it's only theory, since the situation is either extremely rare or entirely impossible naturally, though the Einzbern family has observed a mild version of it in some carefully prepared experimental homunculi."

"Okay, so Shiro and Archer have it because they're the same…" Lancer caught himself, giving the red haired boy an apologetic shrug. "Because they're really similar. But what's it do?"

"For a living person, the most probable effects would be the sharing of experience, knowledge, and feelings. Something similar to the mana bond and dream cycle of a Master and their Servant, but more subtle."

"So he's gaining Archer's fighting abilities along with his knowledge," Saber summarized, receiving an agreeing nod.

"But that doesn't mean you're as strong as Archer," the dark haired girl explained, eyes narrowing at the Emiya boy. "He's still a Servant, you haven't received all of his knowledge, and he must have decades of conditioning on you even if he were human."

"I know all that!" Shiro snapped, before regaining some of his composure. "But even still… I know I don't have any right to ask, but…"

"I see," Saber nodded, her expression unreadable. "I promised to be your shield," she started, reluctantly. "I will watch this battle to its end, and defend against interference."

"Hey, it's no skin off my back!" Lancer said, raising his hands. "Pretty stupid, but also pretty gutsy, so I like it."

"I ain't gunna interfere with another martial artist's duel," Ranma said a moment later, before a strange look crossed his face.

"Hey," Lancer chipped in, "Makin' sure the Lady's safe and Archer's not gunna pull a fast one isn't interfering, right? However that fight goes," he paused unnaturally for a moment. "I give my word that Tosaka'll be fine."

"Thank you," Shiro started, glancing between the others, before settling on Saber. "Especially you, for agreeing to stay and watch."

"Of course," the blonde nodded.

The group's attention seemed to slide back to the former homunculus, though her only reaction was an expression as unreadable as Saber's. A moment later, Assassin cleared his throat. "So this… resonance thing," He started, slowly. "I'm guessing covering your younger self with your own blood would probably make it a lot worse?"

"What?" Illyasviel said, flatly.

"Wait, the re- I mean, other Ryoga showed up?" Ranma asked, completely forgetting about the secrecy of a Servant's true name, and struggling half way through his question to think of the right word.

"After I started fighting Saber," his Servant answered. "He actually jumped in on Saber's side, since he thought I was attacking her for no reason. Unfortunately, she couldn't tell the difference between us."

"So that's what that was…" the aforementioned Servant mumbled. "I wasn't sure if I was hallucinating."

Ranma winced. "So what happened to him?"

"He eventually ran for it and got lost," Assassin shrugged. "Though not before I got stabbed shielding him from Saber, which is why I asked."

"I… have no idea what that would do," Illyasviel admitted. "Though given the potency of blood in ritual magecraft, the most likely guess is that it would increase the strength of resonance dramatically."

Ranma twitched. "Guessin' that means this isn't the last we're gunna see of P-chan."

"Can you please stop using that name?" His Servant asked, clearly showing his annoyance.

"Well, I gotta call him something," Ranma explained. "And whatever the hell that other form of yours is, 'Pig Cute' it ain't."

The larger martial artist snorted. "Point taken."

"Then I guess everything's settled," Lancer interjected after no one else seemed to want to say anything more. "We're going to get the lady back, while Emiya here deals with Archer."

"I'd normally be wonderin' what training we could give him for this," Ranma started, frowning out of a small crack in the boarded window that was letting in sunlight. "But it's lookin' like we should probably sleep now, if you're gunna be ready for sunrise tomorrow."

Shiro nodded, the weariness he'd been trying to hold back still evident in his movement.

HR.

Dark eyes stared out at her from a half-recognizable face as Illyasviel leaned against the wardrobe in Rin Tohsaka's guestroom, gazing into the mirror. The whirlwind that was the past several hours had blown to a halt so quickly that it was jarring, most of the Servants in the house disappearing into mana as the human residents found places to sleep, even if she wasn't quite ready to do so herself.

She raised one hand, once again running it over the contours of her own face and watching the girl in the mirror do the same. A fleeting thought that doing so too often might just leave imprints was banished by the much more important worry that had been present since she'd explained the effects of spiritual resonance in the living room.

She'd had a hard time remembering the theory.

To most people, this would be perfectly natural. She hadn't thought about it for years, but the problem was that she wasn't most people. She was, or at least had been, an Einzbern Homunculus. She hadn't learned about spiritual resonance from a book, an old teacher, or even personal experimentation. It was one of thousands of things that she knew simply because of what she was. The Library of knowledge collected by the Einzbern clan, imbued into every new member on their creation, along with all other homunculus related research, and the history of the family.

She frowned, thinking of random things. It was difficult to determine how badly her memory had degraded due to the nature of the problem. After a panicked inventory of her memories of her mother and father, berserker, and the events of the last few days which forced her to wipe away several unwanted tears, she broadened the search, recalling the alchemic processes that had gone into the creation of her two companions, Sella and Leysritt. She leaned more heavily against the wardrobe's mirrored front as she recalled that blond haired Servant striking the two down, but tried to shrug that off and continue.

After about thirty minutes of this, she had come to a conclusion. Any memories of her own life, or techniques she'd actually used were, as far as she could tell, intact. Anything else, however, seemed to be getting harder to recall over time. And given how little time had already passed since the event that had probably caused this, she wasn't sure how much longer she would have access to the secrets of her family.

"So, is this the price?" She closed her eyes for a moment, and her body exploded in an uncomfortable warmth. Opening them again, the glow was almost blinding, patterns of lines twisting and intertwining along all of her visible skin, as they had when she'd first summoned Berserker. The main difference now was that the lines were all a bright, clean blue rather than the red they had been before.

Closing her magic circuits, she once more stared into her own face for several seconds, before sinking to the floor in a meditative position. "I accept," she said, softly, before closing her eyes. There was no need to lose all of it, after all.

HR.

Today wasn't looking good. That thought flitted through Sakura Matou's mind as she woke, her eyes clenched against the first rays of the sun. Her joints were aching, and her body was flushed. She groaned. Why was this happening now? It had only been a few days since the last time… her mind moved away from that thought, and she shoved it down as she often did, before dragging herself out of bed. At least it wasn't as bad as it could be. Brushing her hair and getting dressed groggily, she woke a little more as she splashed her face, blinking into the bathroom mirror, tired purple eyes staring back at her.

For a moment, a voice in the back of her mind urged her to wake faster, so that she could visit Shiro, but then she remembered Shinji's order. She wasn't to visit Shiro until the end of the war, for her own protection and his. A bitter sort of half-smile flitted across her face at that thought, but she suppressed it as well, straightening her school uniform and starting downstairs.

When she reached the bottom, she stopped, eyes wide in surprise. Her grandfather was sitting at the table in the dining room, eyes downcast and studying a cup that sat in his hands, unmoving. Before him were several papers, a small ritual circle inscribed on a brass plate, and a small plate of biscuits. If not for the ritual plaque, he would almost look like a normal old man enjoying breakfast while he worked.

"G-grandfather?" The girl asked, tentatively, approaching the table.

The man looked up, his expression unreadable as he studied her. "Sakura." The word was as much a statement as a response. His voice was a combination of exhaustion and amusement.

"Is… something the matter?" This question induced a startling reaction from the old man. He slowly started to laugh.

"Is something the matter…" He stammered through his laughter, before regaining his composure. "I suppose it depends on who is asked."

"Grandfather?" Sakura repeated, wanting to back up, but resisting the urge. Showing fear was usually a bad idea.

Zouken Matou picked up his cup, drinking a sip before speaking. "Shinji lost Rider several days ago. Since you were connected to her, you know this."

Sakura nodded impassively.

"Since then, he has 'found' another Servant," the old man continued. "Unfortunately, that Servant is only playing along for his own reasons, and will likely kill Shinji as soon as he is tired of him."

"What?" the purple haired girl gasped. "That's terrible!"

"And you say that, even though you despise the boy," her grandfather chuckled again.

"No, I would never…" Sakura stuttered. "Shinji is my brother, and I care about him. I don't…"

"The sad part is that you're telling the truth." Zouken sighed. "You hate him, and you hate and fear me. Perhaps as much as you detest yourself. Yet at the same time, you love us both."

"… I don't understand." Sakura allowed herself to step back, this time. Her mind raced frantically. Her grandfather had never reacted this way before, and a pool of dread began to grow in her chest, a sort of fluttering following that was hard to tell between her own stomach and something else moving within her. What had she done? She had followed all of the instructions she'd been given, she'd even avoided Shiro, no matter how much it hurt to do so. She had tried to resist as long as she could, last time, too, even as Shinji had pushed her.

"You haven't done anything," the old man cut off her train of thought. "In a way, that's the problem. Last night, I witnessed the death of my final attempt at a plan. You aren't in a state which will allow for it, and with Rider's death, my only other option has failed as well." He leaned back in his chair, gazing out the window for a moment. "It's strange, but to tell the truth knowing that I've reached the end of my options is… liberating."

"What happened last night?" Sakura asked, when he seemed to be content with gazing out the window. "Is that why I'm not feeling well this morning?"

Zouken nodded. "Last night, something happened to the Einzburn grail. I'm not sure what, at the moment, but it seems to have been completely destroyed. This resulted in the activation of a second lesser grail candidate, which I created at the end of the last war. That would be you."

"I'm… a lesser grail?" Sakura blinked.

"A false copy, more accurately," her grandfather explained. "Unfortunately for my plan, I determined at the start of the war that you simply don't have the mindset needed to gain the grail's true power."

"I apologize for failing you," she said seriously, almost on auto-pilot, which gained another stifled laugh from him.

Regaining his composure, he continued. "When Rider died, I had hopes of using your body to sustain myself until the next grail war, to attempt a new plan. However, since you activated as a lesser grail last night, and will not be able to control your power, you have roughly five days to live, at most."

"I… Excuse me, grandfather, did…" Sakura sputtered, the ease with which he'd said that managing to break her composed mask and leave her floundering.

"That assumes the end of the war. If enough Servants are killed to overwhelm your body before then, you will have less time."

"I… see." The purple haired girl pulled her usual shield of composure around herself, even as her mind continued to race. "May I ask why you're telling me this, grandfather?"

"So that's the reaction you've decided to give me?" Zouken asked, raising an eyebrow. "Very well. I'm telling you this because I no longer care. You are free of me. I likely won't last as long as you. You're free to do whatever you'd like, for the time you have left. Go to school, lock yourself in your room, stab Shinji in the chest before that Servant of his gets around to it…" He shrugged. "Kill me. I won't lift a finger to stop you."

She moved so quickly that even she was a bit shocked. The knife that had been next to the biscuits, far sharper and more serrated than would be necessary to cut them, was in her hand and she had raised it over her head. She stood above her grandfather where he remained, once more staring into his tea. The two were frozen like that for several seconds, before she slammed the blade into the wood right next to his hand so hard that it sank up to the hilt.

She stepped back a moment later, her hands shaking. "I… I think I need to think for a while, grandfather," she said quietly before bowing politely and leaving the room. The front door could be heard opening and closing a moment later.

HR.

Ranma tossed restlessly in his sleeping bag, trying not to make too much noise to avoid waking Saber, who was resting on Rin's couch across the room. He seemed to be having far less luck, a restless energy suffusing his body despite the fact that he'd been awake for over twenty-four hours by this point.

After several fruitless minutes of listening to the Servant's soft, regular breathing, the martial artist stifled a groan and quietly gave up, unzipping the sleeping bag and making his way out of the Tohsaka home's living room, into the back courtyard.

For a moment, he thought about Kasumi, and a conversation he'd once had with her. He'd asked how she managed to be so energetic early in the morning, when he took any opportunity he could grab to sleep in, and she'd said that she just felt too restless to lay around when there was something she could be doing. "Yeah, 'cept there's nothing to do," he complained to himself, before allowing old familiar patterns to take over and draw him into a warm-up kata.

This lasted only moments, itself, his mind once again returning to the events of the previous night. This time it shied away from the confrontation with Akane, lingering on the knee-jerk promise made to Shiro. "Another martial artist's fight… right…" he growled, before lowering his arms to his sides.

His head jerked to the side an instant before a yellow and black bandanna flew through the space it had occupied, and he spun on one foot to see the tall form of his Servant casually landing from a short jump. "Ryoga?" Behind the older man, the blue-clad form of Lancer gave a thumbs up and faded into mana.

"You've wanted to fight me this entire time, right?" His opponent demanded, removing several more bandannas from his forehead with one hand as he beckoned with the other.

Ranma once again knew the expected response, but the eager grin and loose, deceptive stance didn't come as readily as usual. After a moment of just standing and staring at his rival's spiritual form, the older man straightened and sighed. "I told him this wouldn't work, he grumbled just loudly enough for Ranma to hear, before reaching up with one hand to rub it violently down his face.

"Saotome," he started again, levelly, "I'm pretty sure that more happened in Nerima than a casual visit to Cologne, where she happily handed you the cure for that Illyasviel girl. I was pretty sure you knew I wouldn't buy it when you told them that story, too, so I didn't say anything. But now…"

"Yeah, thanks," Ranma interrupted. "I gave the ol' ghoul my word that I wouldn't tell these guys any real details about the springs. If you'd pushed it, that'd have gotten harder."

"That's not the point," the Servant ground out. "What, exactly, happened over there?"

"I…" Ranma started, opening and closing his mouth several times, but unsure what to say. "Remember when I said the only one I knew better than you was the ol' man?" He blurted, after a moment. "Turns out I don't know you very well, then."

Ryoga just frowned at him, contemplating the words that he'd just heard. "You really don't know how to talk to people, do you?" The response he got was just a flat stare until he sighed and spoke again. "So it's about your father," He translated, to the best of his ability.

"Right," Ranma said, tiredly, and knowing that his Servant was expecting more than that, he continued. "I think I mentioned that I wanted to ask my parents about the whole magic circuit thing. I was pretty much convinced Mom had to be the one involved, since it was all secret and I figured Pop couldn't really be subtle to save his life."

He laughed bitterly. "Turns out it was Pop, and he even came from around here." His fists tightened, fingernails digging into his palms. "He didn't want me getting involved here, and tried to 'show me' why not by playin' a little trump card he had stuck in my mind."

"So that's…" Ryoga started, before snapping his mouth shut and gesturing for Ranma to continue.

"Found out a lot after that," the pigtailed boy did so after a short pause. "Biggest thing was that the thing he'd done was why I always considered the martial arts before everything else. This… thing… was locked in the back of my head, and every time I thought about slackin' on training, or accepting defeat, it'd sorta… push me back on track."

"That…" Ryoga's face went pale for a moment, before contorting in rage. "How could anyone…"

"Oh, it gets better," Ranma said, bitterly. "With what he was runnin' from, and what his ol' man was doin, I can actually sorta get that. Make me into the best martial artist ever, teach me to get past a few of the dirtier tricks, an' I go back and pound on his ol' man and free his family. I mean, yeah, I'd be pissed, but it'd sorta make sense. I… I could live with that, I think."

Ryoga glared at him incredulously. "You what?"

"The ol' bastard turned me into a weapon," Ranma said, looking down, only vaguely noticing the sparks that were dancing along his limbs. "The least he coulda done was use me. But nope, all he wanted was an insurance policy, in case his family tracked him down. It don't matter that he had a little brother there when he ran." He was no longer seeing the ground, but the scared brown eyes that had stared at Karasuya through the door, before he'd been thrown into the pit. "It don't matter what the creepy old bastard does to anyone else, so long as Genma's safe and he's got his backup plan."

The movement was so fast that Ranma barely saw it coming, and his hands were only halfway into a blocking position when his Servant's meaty fists were wrapped around his collar, jerking him into the air and closer to his face. The lost boy's face was contorted into an expression he hadn't seen since his summoning, Teeth grit and eyes narrowed to slits even as his fists shook. "You…" The word was almost a growl. "When I responded to the grail's call, this isn't what I expected. I thought I was making a contract with the 'greatest martial artist of his generation.' He yelled that at me enough over the years." The older martial artist's fists abruptly relaxed, and Ranma was too shocked to properly compensate as he fell to the ground, Ryoga looming over him. "So I will ask you again," he said, his words slow, heavy, and deliberate. "Are you my master?"

"Why?" Ranma said, quietly, looking up at his Servant. "Why does that matter? Why does it matter that I'm the best martial artist of my generation?"

Ryoga paused for a few moments, before sighing. "Because if you aren't, what have I been chasing my whole life?"

"I…" Ranma looked as if he'd been kicked in the gut. When he tried to close his eyes to regain his composure, his thoughts refused to slow down, images of a distraught Shampoo and Akane flashing through his mind for a moment. Opening his eyes, he slowly rose to his feet.

"Yeah," he finally said, his voice weak. Clearing his throat, he continued more strongly. "I'm not sure of much else," he admitted, "But bein' in this war was my choice. I'm gunna finish it. Yeah, Ryoga. I'm your master." He looked up into the taller martial artist's face with the most determined expression he could muster under the circumstances.

"Good enough," the Assassin grunted.

Where he was kneeling against one of the second story windows that surrounded the courtyard, Lancer removed his fist from where it was resting under his chin and sighed. "Maybe this wasn't a good idea…"

HR.

"Sir?" He woke with a jolt, the doctor who was looking down at him stepping back quickly, startled. "Sir, I'm afraid you can't sleep in the waiting room like this."

"Oh, I… uh…" Ryoga Hibiki rubbed his eyes, trying to get his bearings. "Sorry, I didn't get much sleep last night."

"I can imagine," the brown haired woman in front of him said, reading over the clipboard in her hands. "We actually decided not to disturb you until we had some news for you. It's a slow morning."

"Oh, really?" The lost boy asked, looking around the small chair-filled room, the sun streaming in from one wall of windows. "How is she?"

"Puzzling," the woman admitted, before shaking her head. "You're positive that you can't give us more details on where you found her?"

"I… was kind of lost," Ryoga reluctantly explained.. "I just sort of stumbled into that place, and then ran out as quick as I could. Sorry."

The doctor grunted, scribbling something else on her clipboard. "You'll be happy to know that she's stable. The malnutrition and blood loss were severe, but you got her here just in time. I couldn't tell you exactly when she's likely to wake up, but it should be within the next week, barring unforeseen complications."

Ryoga sighed in relief. "Oh, that's good," he muttered, wincing at the thought of how long he'd been running through the middle of the city before managing to find someone who could get them to the hospital. Fortunately, apparently the police in the area knew about him from a previous encounter. "I… uh… I'll try to be back to see how she is later, then," he offered.

The doctor nodded as he stood and slung his pack over his back. "We or the police may contact you at your home number sometime soon."

"Oh, yeah, that's… fine," Ryoga replied, laughing nervously. "I'll just get out of your waiting room, then." Settling the weight of his pack and umbrella across his shoulders comfortably, he headed for the sunlight.

"Sir, the door's over…" The doctor winced as a crash echoed through the room, and the lost boy wandered into the front parking lot.

HR

Sakura stepped slowly into the field of wreckage that had once been the Emiya residence's yard, her eyes flicking from rubble, to hole, to a periodically dripping water pipe as her heart began to beat more quickly. It had taken her quite a while to build up the courage to visit Shiro, in spite of whatever Shinji had to say, and this hadn't been what she was expecting. The pattern and extent of the damage only really offered one explanation. The Emiya residence had been the site of a battle between Servants.

"Shiro?!" She called out, breaking into a run and hopping over a couple of craters in the front walk. Jerking the front door open, she slowed slightly, starting to go through the motions of shucking her shoes before common sense overrode habit. "Shiro!?"

"Shiro's not here right now, but welcome, Sakura!" The cheerful, relaxed voice hit the purple haired girl like a baseball bat to the stomach. She stumbled forward, catching herself on the splintered frame of the door, and staring into the living room. Sitting at a kotatsu and seemingly oblivious to the destruction around her, including the shattered dining table scattered across the floor behind her, Taiga Fujimura was nibbling casually on a doughnut from a box that sat next to her.

"F-Fujimura-sensei?" Sakura stammered, stepping slowly into the room.

"Geez, you don't have to be so disappointed, y'know?" The older woman groused.

"I'm not disappointed," Sakura hurriedly clarified. "Just… confused. What happened to the house? And where's Shiro?"

"What… happened?" Taiga's face seemed to lose expression for a moment as she glanced around, her eyes glazing over. "It is a bit dirty, isn't it?" She asked, distantly. "Shiro's really gotta stop slacking off!"

Sakura's eyes widened even as she thought up a polite response. "I've heard that he's been busy for the last few days, he'll probably get back on top of it soon."

Taiga looked around once more, before she shook her head, her eyes regaining their former luster. "Right, he's not one to slack off, even with as much grief as I give him. Whatever he's doing with Tohsaka-san is probably important."

"Tohsaka?" Sakura asked, faintly.

Taiga nodded. "He's going to be helping her with something for the next few days. That's why he's not here."

The younger girl decided to test something. "And you… have no problem with that?" She asked carefully, paying close attention to her teacher's facial expressions. "You were very determined that he needed a chaperone when Saber arrived, after all."

"Yeah, I… was, but…" Taiga's expression grew more and more troubled, until she almost seemed to hit a wall. "But… it's no problem. What they're doing is important, after all. You shouldn't worry about it. Want a doughnut?"

"No, that's fine," Sakura replied faintly. "It's getting kind of late, shouldn't you get to school?"

The orange haired woman blinked, glancing up at where the clock had previously hung next to the television, before noticing, and then immediately ignoring, its disappearance. "You're probably right," she eventually agreed, reluctantly standing. "You're always really reliable like that, Sakura. Too bad, I was just getting warm, too. See you in class in an hour or so!"

Sakura stepped out of the way as the teacher headed quickly out the door. Watching her go, a frown grew as her thoughts raced. Taiga had obviously been under a pretty strong hypnotic effect. More specifically, a very forceful but simple set of compulsions. Someone had wanted her out of the way, and didn't want her asking questions about Shiro. And given where she thought he was, that someone was almost certainly Rin.

The problem was that if it were Rin, that implied some very unsettling things. The brown haired girl was always meticulous and precise, a perfectionist. What did it mean that she had settled for such a shoddy job when dealing with Ms. Fujimura? The most obvious guess was that she had been involved, somehow, in the attack on the house. And of course, that would make sense. She and Shiro were both Masters, after all.

"Please, please be alright…" Sakura whispered under her breath, as she jogged out of the Emiya house, heading back towards the hill where both her home and the Tohsaka residence lay. As she ran, however, doubt began to build. There were reasons why she did her best to avoid contact with Rin Tohsaka, especially at a time like the Holy Grail War. Even if her grandfather's pronouncement had galvanized her into going to see Shiro, it brought up another possibility when it came to Rin.

Was there any point in seeing her at all? At this, her forward motion which had decreased to a slow jog dropped to complete motionlessness. The fear and anxiety that had been with her for most of her life exploded into the fore again. What if Rin could tell what had happened to her? She was a skilled magus, after all. What if it was obvious? What if she

"Excuse me?" The troubled girl was abruptly torn out of her circling thoughts by an embarrassed sounding male voice. Spinning rapidly to face it, she was confronted by a dust and dirt covered figure wearing a rough yellow shirt, pants with ropes tied around the lower legs, and the largest backpack she'd ever seen.

"Y-yes?" She asked, stepping back slightly.

"Could you tell me the fastest way to get to Fuyuki General hospital?" The man asked.

"That's in Shinto, the new town," Sakura explained, a little thankful that the man had interrupted her train of thought. "We're in the old town. Take that road there." She pointed at the gently curving street where it curved away from the hill she'd been contemplating climbing, and incidentally directly behind him.

"Oh." He nodded. "Thank you." Turning in the direction she'd pointed, the man started off, determined.

Smiling at having performed her good deed for the day, Sakura turned back to the hill and began walking, doing her best not to send herself back into a feedback loop. She was just going to see if Shiro was alright. That was it.

She shivered as a tingling ran down the back of her neck, a tiny flash of red light registering at the corner of her vision. Turning to track it, she blinked. The man with the tattered clothes and backpack was striding purposefully out of the trees at the side of the road. "Oh… uh…" He said, raising a hand and tugging at the bandanna over his forehead. "Weren't you going the other way?"

"I… still am," Sakura replied slowly.

"Oh, so this isn't the road you told me to go down?" He glanced back into the forest, and then winced.

"No," she shook her head. "You'll have to walk back to the intersection, and then turn left."

The man nodded, just as determined as before. "Right, thanks." He immediately turned right, walking down the street… in the same direction she was going.

"No, not…" She sighed, glancing up at the mansions on top of the hill for a moment. "You know, I've got nothing else to do. I can take you there."

END.

Hello again, everybody. Weebee here, since I didn't really have anything that needed Taiga and Illya to explain. Which is good, since Illya's currently having a bit of a jealousy breakdown over the fic's version of her. Sorry this took so long. Luckily, it wasn't for the same kind of reason as last time, and more along the lines of Super Robot Wars eating entire weeks of my free time.

The only thing about the chapter itself that really slowed me down was a couple of scenes, which I got some serious help with from JSB, hence his upgrade to credits status this chapter. He's been working on this story with me through its whole existence, but has been getting more involved as I 'speed' towards the conclusion.

Thanks to everyone who has been reading so far, and happy New Year! (12/31/2021.)