Fate Stay Night – Unlimited Boob Works
"The Strongest Master And The Strongest Servant"
"Hey, no fair! That's cheating!"
Illya puffed out her cheeks, pretending to pout. All around them was a carpet of new fallen snow. It was deep enough that it made it difficult to walk, and she had to hold up her skirt to prevent it from trailing on the ground. As she lifted it, she was surprised to see that instead of her bright purple snow boots, she was wearing a pair of long, black thigh highs, with the cuffs turned down just above the knee – very elegant and sophisticated looking, like the kind of thing worn by her mother.
"When did I get to be so – old?" she giggled to herself, though inwardly she was delighted. Each step made a satisfying crunch, and the air, though cold, had a crispness to it that she found clean and refreshing.
"I already told you", Kiritsugu said, "That's the only way your Dad can win at this game!"
"Hmph! One more round!" She demanded, putting her hands on her hips. "And this time, no cheating!"
All around them on either side of the forest path was a line of trees, mostly evergreens, though some were deciduous –
"Deciduous – "
"Desh-ID-uous – "
"It means they shed their leaves in the winter, and regrow them in the spring – " Kiritsugu said, laughing at the faces she made as she struggled with the pronunciation.
"I know what it means!"
"Hey, that's just a branch!"
Illya scolded, eyeing the white stump that protruded from the side of the trunk.
"Well it LOOKED like a chestnut bud – "
"Nuh – uh!"
Behind them their footprints lay strewn in the snow. Illya paused to admire them, pleased at the way they were arranged side by side, but she couldn't escape the nagging feeling that she was forgetting something – that there was somewhere else she was supposed to be, or something else that she was supposed to be doing. But try as she might, she couldn't remember what it was.
"Oh well", she thought, turning back towards the path again, deciding to go just a little further.
"That's just a stick!"
"And don't even BOTHER saying that it LOOKS like a chestnut bud, because it DOESN'T!"
And for emphasis she stuck out her tongue.
As the path went on, she became aware that there were grey shapes moving in the shadows, between the trees.
"Wolves . . ."
"Stay close," he said, reaching out to take hold of her mittenned hand.
The thought of the grey beasts lurking on either side, stalking them from just out of sight was frightening, but she was sure that as long as she was with him, she would be safe.
By now it had begun to grow dark, partly from the time of day, and partly because the forest path had grown narrow, coming in close on either side to hem them in. Up ahead a clearing loomed. It was mostly overcast, but here and there the ground was graced with beams of silver shafted light. One of these cut through the clouds and gloom, falling squarely on a clump of trees. There, halfway up the trunk, a lone white stalk emerged. Growing out of the midst of a clump of thorns and brambles, its upper and lower edges curled back and away as it emerged from the side of the tree.
"There – " Illya breathed, the air growing still around them. "A real one – "
Suddenly the space around them distorted. The forest path grew long, stretching out in either direction, carrying the clearing and the white branch away from them, while the place where they had started now lay impossibly far behind.
A faint voice cut through the darkness.
" . . . . . – . . "
"E – X – C – A – L – I – B – U – R !"
Saber's voice exploded in the night, as the black sword sent out a shockwave, glaring and red, that struck the dragon full force, consuming it until there was nothing left.
Looking down, Illya could see Shiro holding her own lifeless body.
"TRACE – ON !"
"DAMN IT SHIRO – THAT ISN'T GOING TO WORK!"
Rin screamed, scared of the way that he was holding her, shaking Illya's limp form with such force that it made her limbs shake, while her head lolled to the side, her eyes still open, but staring up at nothing, vacant and empty.
They had moved into one of the trailers at the end of the lot that served as a small office so as to get out of the snow, but even indoors it was so cold that the flakes on the outside of Illya's coat had not melted, and remained shimmering against the purple cashmere wool. Shiro had unzipped his coat, and was holding Illya inside it in a vain attempt to keep her warm, and prevent her body from growing cold. The wound from where the dragon had struck her gaped, the blood staining the white part of the front of his shirt.
Illya tilted her head to the side and frowned. It wasn't that she didn't care – the whole thing seemed sad – so very sad. It was just that the spectacle unfolding below seemed so far away, as though it were part of a past life she no longer knew. These were things that had happened to someone else long ago, and nothing more whatsoever to do with her.
"I TOLD YOU – YOU HAVE TO LET HER GO !"
Rin screamed again, fighting to pull him away from her.
"AND I TOLD YOU TO BACK THE HELL OFF !"
Shiro shouted back, slapping her hand away with sudden violence. Reaching up, he put his fingers inside the collar of his shirt, and then ripped down, tearing the bloody fabric.
"WHERE IS IT!?" he demanded, raking his nails across his chest, tearing the skin as he fought against Archer and Kotomine, who by now were also struggling to restrain him.
'If I can't use it, I'll just GIVE it to her – I don't care if it KILLS me!"
He knew what Avalon looked like – he'd seen its blue and gold outline in his dreams countless times, as well as in Saber and his Father's memories. But he had no earthly idea how it worked – how to take it out of himself, much less how to connect it to Illya. He meant what he'd said about not caring if it killed him, but he realized now that if he did remove Avalon and died in the process, unless someone else connected it to her, Illya would die anyway. For a moment he paused.
Suddenly Illya's body flashed red. Her skin lit up as every magic circuit running through her flickered, activating all at once. They did not stop there, but seeing no border in the separation between her body and Shiro's, fanned out over him as well, momentarily converting every artery and vein, every nerve and every meridian or pathway of any kind into a temporary magic circuit, while drawing the green lines of Shiro's own circuits inside herself, until they covered every each of her body.
With a ghastly motion she lifted her head, making Rin recoil, for it was not the action of a living being, but of a magic force acting upon a dead body.
"H – R – R – R - ! ! !"
She gasped as air once more filled her lungs, while Shiro quivered at the strain, feeling like every single cell of his entire body was only moments away from bursting.
And then, without a word, she toppled forward lifelessly, into his arms.
"So THAT'S how she did it . . ."
Archer and Rin were standing in the doorway of Shiro's room, watching him and Illya while they slept. After the battle with the dragon, and the incident in the trailer at the edge of the salvage lot, they had brought the both of them home. They were both unconscious, with Illya locked firmly in Shiro's arms, and her Command Seals still woven over his body, while his own magic circuits remained spread throughout hers.
There was no separating them, so they had given up on even trying. Archer and Kiritsugu carried them together, in one mass, to the back of the Einzbern's SUV. Evidently Leysritt and Sella had gotten used to the idea of being called at all hours of the day or night, as they did not protest or ask any questions when they answered the phone. Kotomine followed in his own car, despite being told not to, insisting that it was his duty as the Overseer of the Grail War, while Saber remained standing, looking on rather sheepishly while the two of them were loaded into the back seat, after which she made herself scarce.
Rin watched as Archer draped a blanket over both of them, gasping when it had fallen over Shiro's face, but it was only for a moment, after which he quickly moved it back, tucking it around Illya's shoulders. The sensation had been short lived, but it made her sick, and she had been ill the whole ride back. She had never had any issues with motion sickness in all her life, but that night she was sure that she was going to have to tell Sella to pull the car over.
When they got back to the Emiya estate, they carried them in the same way. They were still lying together, even now, in Shiro's futon, with him on his back, while Illya lay draped across him, her magic circuits still wrapped firmly around his body, refusing to let go. Looking at them, Rin still felt queasy and full of worry. But Archer regarded the two of them thoughtfully.
"I had wondered how the homunculus half of her managed to live so long. Lingering attachments only count for so much – that would have given her maybe another month or two at most. For her to survive an extra year – it's unheard of. But now I have my answer. She's been patching into Avalon every night, and living off his mana – like a little leech!" Archer chuckled warmly.
Rin was not amused.
"You mean she's been stealing Shiro's life force this entire time?"
"Stealing's a strong word. Knowing that idiot, he probably offered it to her willingly", Archer laughed. "But whatever the case, pathways this deep and this complex don't just form overnight. This has been going on for a very long time."
But Rin did not laugh with him. Standing at the door, she looked at the red lines of Illya's magic circuits as they spread out through her body, and over Shiro's. They flickered each time she took a breath, sending a glimmering red pulse throughout the both of them as her chest rose and fell rhythmically, while the green lines of Shiro's own circuits traced their way between them, answering with an emerald glow. She watched, noting the way that Illya's chest rose and fell, breathing in each time that Shiro breathed out.
And for the first time in her life, Rin Tohsaka, heir to the venerable Tohsaka estate, one of the three great mage families that had founded the ritual of the Holy Grail War, felt the sinking sensation that she might be looking at a battle that she could not win.
"What are you doing?" Sakura asked as Rin pulled on her red coat.
"I'm going out!"
It was still early, and just the sight of Sakura wearing her purple apron made enough to make her snap. She was standing in the kitchen, drying one of the bowls from an early breakfast, and seeing her run her hands over the white porcelain made Rin exceedingly angry. Shiro and Illya were still sleeping, and with Saber gone and Sakura safely tethered to her domestic duties, there was no one to stop her.
"Please do lock up behind me – I'm afraid I don't have a key", she said sourly, shutting the door behind her.
So far as she could tell, she was not being followed, but she made several false starts, just to be sure, going several blocks in one direction then switching and going several more blocks in another before settling on a course for her actual destination, which led her to the steps of Ryudo temple. Just the sight of the stone stairs going up the side of the mountain was enough to make her cuss inwardly, and she berated herself for not taking Sakura up on her offer of breakfast before she left, but there was nothing else for it, and so after kicking an offending pebble halfway down to the next block in an effort to take out her frustrations (it had not worked), she started her climb.
"Who the hell decided that every Japanese temple has to be at the top of some damned mountain, anyway!?" she growled as she came to the stone landing, and realized that she was only halfway up. Originally, the Tohsaka clan had not been particularly illustrious or well regarded within the Mage's association. Though now powerful, at the time when the current magics were still being discovered, they were considered rather mediocre at best, capable of following previously devised rituals with diligence and good intentions, but little else. But it was that same perseverance that had served them so well, and so in that same spirit of diligence (some would have said stubbornness or hard headed-ness), she soldiered on, and presently came to the top.
As she climbed the last stair, Rin wasn't sure what she was expecting. Would she be accosted by Lancer, keeping a watchful guard? Or confronted by an army of bone golems with lowered spears? Perhaps another dragon – or more frightening still, an army of tourists – Ryudo was on the list for the national register of historic places after all – she'd noticed the little commemorative plaque while dodging dragon fire and watching Shiro rolling down the hill, and couldn't help but wonder what the recent Grail War had done for business. Any of these were possible, and even plausible.
But instead, she found only Caster, tending the fire breathing bulls, with her hood down. Seeing Rin, she quickly flipped up her veil, and raised her staff.
"Oh! It's you – "
"Wait!" Rin said. "I didn't come to fight you – "
When she'd set out, she had a vague idea, but now that she was here, she found herself desperately searching her memory for what she could recall of her Western literature class.
"Oh? Did you come to beg for mercy? Or ask for a truce?"
Rin shook her head.
"I came here as a guest."
"You mean we're going to just let her in!?"
Issei practically shouted as he and Caster watched Rin sauntering around the temple grounds.
"She invoked the rite of hospitality – "
"But she's the enemy!"
Caster lifted her gloved finger, putting it to his lips.
"Not a word! Manners and etiquette are one of the pillars of civilization", she chided. "It's what separates us from the barbarians. I won't tolerate you bringing any embarrassment upon me – or yourself."
Issei glared. But there was nothing he could do, and so he resigned himself to watching Rin as she made her way from station to station, reading each of the little historical markers in turn.
Looking around, Rin realized with a flush of jealousy that Caster had converted the entire mountain top into one giant, open air magician's workshop. The fiery bulls were at one end, grazing lazily, their fiery coats throwing off the occasional spark, while a pair of mechanical arms followed them overhead, converting their aimless wanderings via a series of gears into a rotary motion that drove some strange machine, its output unknown.
Beside them, a large corkscrew device spun slowly, carrying water uphill, to where it spilled into a small pool before flowing back downhill again in an unending hydraulic circuit, passing along its way through a series of bronze bars that were evidently of some magical significance.
Off to one side was a small greenhouse, filled with enough specimens to make any apothecary envious, some local, some wild, while others until now Rin had thought only existed in myths and legends. One of the bone golems was tending it dutifully, while outside Lancer, having lost his spear, as a punishment had been given a large paddle which he used to stir the waters of a great cauldron, while another of the golems occasionally threw in various herbs and other ingredients. He did not look at all happy about it.
Everywhere she looked there was motion – one of the bony creatures was busy brushing out the coat of a golden fleece, while beside it a magic quill was writing out spells on scrolls of parchment. At the other end, over by the cemetery, a series of copper wires glistened, evidently gathering the latent magic energy of the dead.
Rin put her hands on her hips and looked around.
"I must say, I DO rather like what you've done with the place – oh – thank you", she said, accepting a hot towel that one of the strange bony creatures offered her.
"That IS the custom in this country, I understand?" Caster asked, evidently anxious that there should be no gaps in her hospitality.
"Mmm, yes – that feels soo good –" Rin answered, using the steaming cloth to wipe her hands and then pat her face, before folding it neatly and handing it back to the creature again.
"Shoo!" Caster said, waving Issei away as two of the golems helped Rin to a seat at a wrought iron table.
"But – "
"Off with you! This is girl talk –"
Rather sheepishly he slunk away, while Caster took a seat at the opposite side of the table, as two more of the golems brought them plates set with pastries, and poured them each a cup of hot tea.
"Now", Caster said, folding her velvet gloved hands. "There's something I'd like to discuss."
"First, let me kill the boy – "
"Wha - !?"
Rin recoiled, leaving crumbs from the pastry still on her cheek.
"Oh come now – don't act so surprised – "
"But – look – I know we're enemies – but Shiro is so good natured and warm hearted – he – "
"I'm sure he is. But that's the problem. That boy is kind to everyone, friend and enemy alike. In the end, that goodness will be his undoing. And yours, too, if you allow it.
'It draws everyone to him – you, Saber, that little white haired girl from the Einzbern family, your sister Sakura – "
"Wait! How did you – "
"A witch knows many things, my dear", Caster said, not missing a beat. "Because of how good he is, and how kind, you'll all do anything in your power to help him, and to protect him. If he were a charlatan, that would be simpler. I would just expose him, and then kill him. But he really IS good – and that's what makes him dangerous.
'You'll do ANYTHING to help him, and in the end, it will make you miserable. And when he realizes that he is the source of your pain, it will make him miserable too. No, better to do it now, while the both of you are still young and fresh. I promise I won't be cruel. I can use a dagger, and make it quick. Or else use poison, and make it painless. Or I can draw things out a bit, if that's more what you would like. But let me do it now, and prevent you both from any more suffering."
Rin sat back, horrified, as Caster leaned forward, putting her gloved hand under her chin, watching the storm of shadows play out across her face. At last she was able to speak again.
"No . . . I – could never do that . . ."
Caster took a long sip, finishing her tea.
"I figured you'd say that. But I had to try, you understand? I had to give you a chance to be happy."
"But oh well – history is full of foolish women who've made bad choices for sentimental reasons. At least you've got plenty of company in that regard. But for now we must speak of other matters", she said, taking a tiny metal box from her sleeve.
Rin regarded it suspiciously, thinking it might really be poison. Caster opened the tiny hinged lid, and poured its powdered contents over one of the candles that lit the table. At once a swirling blue smoke went up, fragrant like incense. Taking her staff that was resting against the table, Caster touched it to the middle of the cloud. At once the swirling ceased, leaving in its wake a steady haze. Images formed on it, like the effect of a projection screen. Rin recognized them at once. They were a map of Fuyuki City.
"What's this?" she asked, feeling silly for saying it. She clearly knew what the map was, but she did not understand its significance.
"The blast radius."
"Blast radius!?" Rin shouted as Caster casually drew a red line around part of the city.
"Yes – from the end of the Fourth Holy Grail War."
Suddenly Rin remembered.
"Shiro . . ." she whispered, thinking of the ruined park from when they'd had their date.
"And this is what the radius will be when this war ends – " Caster went on, drawing a second red line.
"Hold on – "
Looking in horror, she followed the red squiggle as it made its way around the entire city.
"What do you – "
"Are you familiar with the concept of a thermobaric explosion?"
"A thermo-barry – no", Rin said, deciding it was best not to pretend with someone as knowledgeable as Caster.
"It's the phenomenon that sometimes causes explosions in grain silos, or in coal mines. Even in my age, grainaries were sometimes known to combust, if the buildings were too enclosed, and if things were hot enough and dry enough.
'The mechanism for the whole thing is actually rather simple. You just need enough of a fine flour or dust dispersed inside an enclosed space that is big enough to let it mix with the air, but confined enough to contain the blast, transforming it into an explosion. From there, all it takes is a single spark and – poof!"
Caster lifted her velvet fingers demonstratively.
"Poof", Rin repeated, not at all liking the sound of the world.
"Only in this case, magic energy is the dust. And Fuyuki is the container."
"The whole city? But it's open air – the east end faces the sea – "
Caster shook her head.
"Magically speaking, Fuyuki City is an enclosed space. For years now it's been the site of multiple Grail Wars, stretching back for centuries. Most of these were more or less successful, but the last two did not have conventional endings. Add to that there's hardly anyone left who knows how to properly conduct the ritual – most of the founders are all gone, leaving things to devolve into the current debacle. No one knows how to set wards or follow lines, how to go out or come in – there's hardly anyone alive in this age who can even issue a decent invocation.
'And so the magic energy builds up, until the city is thick with it. Under those circumstances, all it would take is one spark – and your blonde friend is certainly good at throwing off sparks – "
"Saber – "
"Of course, there's no reason to assume it will stop there –"
And here, Caster took her staff, and touched it to the map again. The view pulled back, zooming out to show a view of the entire country. With a sinuous flame, the red line redrew itself, this time taking in almost all of the island of Honshu, with a red streak running from east to west, dividing it in two.
"These islands – geographically so small – and yet with a history so deep – so ancient – they remind me of home in that way", Caster said with a smile.
'Mountainous and rocky, they funnel people into the available habitable spaces, and along with them, their magic energy. And what a people – once so rich in belief, but now . . . there's hardly anyone who believes in magic anymore, much less who knows how to use it . . ."
And here, Caster touched her staff to the map again.
"In their own way, these islands are also an enclosed space . . ."
Rin fell back in horror, putting her hand over her mouth. The circle of destruction widened again, this time reaching as far as Hokaido to the north, and taking in all of Kyushu to the south, almost down to Okinawa, while the red streak grew long, its eastern arm reaching far out in into the waters of the Pacific, while in the west its trail stretched across the inland sea, into the continent beyond.
"At this rate, even the lands of Goryeo would be affected – the Three Kingdoms, and the old lands of the Qin. From there – one can hope that it would not jump continents, but who knows? Asia and Europe are technically one landmass. And the lands of the west suffer a similar affliction – Post Modernism, I think they call it – a rather cheeky word, if you ask me. There are very few people with the ability to look BACKWARDS at the future, and I'm one of the few people old enough to have an opinion about it – "
Rin stared at the map, wide eyed.
" – The Americas should be safe. I doubt it can cross that much water. And its people are rather banal, and lacking in magic. But if the conflagration were to go into the upper atmosphere – some of the civilizations there were quite ancient. And even some of the younger ones have ties to the Old World that might be stronger than the likes of those in the Clocktower would think . . ."
Rin stood up, putting her hands on the table to steady herself. With a touch of Caster's staff, the swirling smoke dissipated.
"This Holy Grail War must end properly."
"She has to be stopped."
Caster reached into her robe, and took out a knife.
"Mages haven't always used wands, you know. A good staff has always been popular – " she said, giving her own trusty staff a shake. "Others use swords, or the ritual dagger, or athame, to conduct their work."
And here she pressed the handle into Rin's palm, making her recoil at how cold and hard it was.
"Consider it a gift", Caster said as Rin looked at her wildly. "How you use it – and if you use it – are up to you. And know that I won't fault you whatever you do – even if you do nothing at all. But I had to warn you – I had to at least try. Just take that as a bit of friendly advice. From one witch unto another."
Sakura looked around furtively. She'd gone to the place she had been told, at the time appointed, and from what she could tell, she hadn't been followed, but she couldn't shake the nervous apprehension that somehow she was still being watched, or was doing something that she shouldn't.
Glancing over her shoulder, she saw no one, and so she told herself she should try to relax. But she just couldn't. The inside of the café was utterly pedestrian. Part of a fast food chain, the sight of the booths with their vinyl cushions, self-service trashcans, and plastic trays was totally and completely normal.
But to Sakura, everything about them was absolutely foreign – as alien and strange as the world they represented. Going places after school, hanging out with friends – these were things she never did. Fighting in a Holy Grail War, Servants and spells and incantations – these were things she understood. But for her, just being here was terrifying.
Who would choose to meet in a place like this? For any reason – much less one of secrecy, and some unknown importance. Anyone might be watching. Even as she thought it, she realized that very reason was probably why such a place had been chosen. Somewhere absolutely ordinary, with no special significance. Anyone might come here – for any reason, or no reason at all. And the city was full of hundreds, perhaps thousands of such places. Anyone might be here, and anyone might be watching. And that was precisely why no one would be.
"Early . . ." Sakura said, checking the time on her phone. It was an older model, the kind that folded, very basic and unglamorous. She'd bought a phone charm, one that matched the keychain that held the key that Shiro had given her, in an effort to make it seem less impersonal, but it still seemed strange to her.
"I shouldn't be here", she said, biting her lip, feeling the phone's hard plastic edges and corners in the palm of her hand. "I should go – "
That was when a hand clapped down on her shoulder.
"Did I keep you waiting?"
Just the sight of Saber made her cower. She wasn't wearing her armor, or even her black dress – just a black camisole, together with a black miniskirt and a short black leather jacket over her shoulders, and a pair of black ankle boots – very smart and modern looking. But she was still imposing, and Sakura pulled her white cardigan tightly around her shoulders as she fought the urge to dive under a table, or go running out the door and out of the entire building.
"Here", Saber said, taking one of the plastic trays and putting it on the polished steel runners in front of her, then taking a second one for herself. "Order whatever you like – "
"But – "
Saber shook her head.
"Mmm – mm – I was the one who arranged our little meeting, so as the host, it is my duty. This is my treat."
Vainly Sakura looked at the overhead menu, hoping for some kind of guidance, but the array of numbers and combinations was dizzying, not to mention all of the side items. In the end she decided to order a salad – something that seemed respectable and modest – like the kind of thing a girl ought to eat.
Saber, for her part, did not hold back, but ordered a hamburger combo meal, together with a fried chicken sandwich and a side order of fries (extra-large of course), and an extra-large soft drink.
"So – " she said, whisking up both of the trays before Sakura could grab hers, holding them in either hand as she led the way to a large booth over in the corner. "I'd like you to hear me out. You're under no obligation, of course. And no threat, either. Whatever you decide, we'll both leave here peacefully. But before you make your decision, I'd like you to hear what I have to say."
"I have just one question," Sakura said after Saber had finished speaking. She leaned forward, putting her elbows on the table, and folded her hands, doing her best to imitate the same power and confidence that Saber exuded, but she was certain that she was failing miserable. "Why me?"
Saber answered without hesitation.
"The strongest Servant, and the strongest Master – it makes sense, don't you think?"
"Well, yes, but – "
"You have a problem" Saber said, leaning forward. With a deliberate hand, she took up the salt shaker (which she had used to give her French fries a near lethal dose of sodium) and set it on the table between them. "You have more magic energy than you can possibly use – more than you can even contain –"
Sakura did her best to conceal her agreement, trying to keep her face a blank slate, but what Saber said was true – even now, she was fighting it, resisting the urge to start squirming.
" – You can barely keep yourself under control. While I – " she said, taking up the black pepper shaker, and placing it over by the corner of her own tray, then quickly arranged a small army of ketchup and mustard packets in between them. "I have a Master – former Master – who can barely generate enough magic energy to be considered a Mage.
'Both of these things are problems", she said, plucking up the pepper shaker again and using it to push the packet army aside, before setting it beside its white companion. "But taken together, they become a strength."
'With you as my Master, I could use my Noble Phantasms as much as I want. All of them. You wouldn't even be phased. If anything, given the level of magic you possess, it might actually be a relief – it would let some of the pressure off. All I ask is the freedom to do as I want – to prosecute the war however I see fit."
"What about Shiro . . ?"
"What about Shiro?" Saber answered, leaning back to place her arms on either side of the booth. "With his mana, I could barely use Excalibur even once – "
"That – isn't what I meant – " Sakura said, turning her head to the side.
"Check his Command Seal. Look at his hand when he doesn't notice – you'll find it's gotten quite blurry. A lingering attachment – but nothing that would prevent forming a new contract –"
"That – also isn't what I meant – "
Sakura continued to squirm.
Saber lowered her eyes.
Leaning back, she uncrossed her legs, then crossed them again on the other side.
"You needn't trouble yourself about THAT. I don't really care what happens when I'm not around. I'm sure we could come to some arrangement. We could split up the nights and weekends. Or perhaps we could even share him, if you like."
"Let's . . . NOT . . . do that again . . ."
Illya said weakly. She was laying beside Shiro in his futon. Her Command Seals had retreated, back to her own body, no longer wrapping around him, while the green lines of his magic circuits were no longer running through her, though she could still feel them, especially in her face.
"Yeah . . ." Shiro said breathlessly, rolling over to prop up on his arm as he looked at her. Her hair was long and disheveled, in desperate need of combing, and there were dark circles around her eyes, while her skin was even paler than usual, taking on an unhealthy powdery cast. But he didn't notice any of those things.
"You're so beautiful – "
"I don't FEEL beautiful", she said as he took the strands of her white hair in his hand, studying the way it parted, coming down long on either side, while in the middle her bangs were shorter, covering her forehead, up to the edge of her face.
'I feel like a MESS – "
"A beautiful mess – "
They both laughed.
"That feels SOOO GOOD . . ." she said, turning to face him as he continued stroking her hair, putting down the locks on one side and picking them up on the other.
'I've decided", she went on, when she was able to speak again.
"About my new name. It's going to be 'Illya Emiya Einzbern' – I decided to drop the 'von' – it just makes things too long. Illya Emiya Einzbern – it has a nice ring to it, don't you think?"
"Mmm – yes – wait – what!?"
Before he could question her further, they were interrupted by the sound of the bell at the front door.
"Trace – on –"
Shiro whispered. The effort nearly killed him. The exertion of powering Avalon all night had left him so drained, he was only able to form one of his usual pair of twin swords, and he had no strength left to fight with, so he had no idea what on earth he was going to do if he encountered an enemy – only to be confronted with a completely different problem when he saw who was standing on the other side of the door.
"Miss Taiga . . ?" he asked, holding the sword behind the doorframe, where he hoped she couldn't see.
"I'm coming in."
"Wait! That's – "
He tried to stop her, but in his weakened condition she breezed right past him, leaving him to scramble to shut the door as she strode boldly into the hall, where she stood looking imperiously around the foyer.
"Um, Shiro?" Illya called weakly from the other room.
"Miss Taiga – wait – "
But he was too late. Without stopping, she stormed right past him, into his bedroom. Glaring, Taiga looked at the pastel purple pajama pants strewn on the floor, then the unbuttoned pajama top draped on the back of a chair, and then at Illya, who way lying in one of Shiro's blue and white t-shirts with the futon covers pushed down to her knees, emphasizing the bareness of her pale white legs.
"What's going on!?"
"It's not what you think!" Shiro said, his voice in a panic. "Illya was sick, and – and I was scared, and – and I didn't want to leave her, so – "
Illya interrupted them with a loud groan, before falling over, back into the futon.
"Miss Von Einzbern!" Taiga shouted, rushing to catch her. "Are you all right?"
"Blehhh . . ." she attempted to answer, going limp as Miss Taiga struggled to hold her up in her arms.
"You idiot!" she shouted, turning her wrath on Shiro for completely different reasons. "You should have taken her to the doctor! Maybe even the hospital!"
"I know – I – "
"Good grief! You look ready for the hospital yourself! Get me a thermometer!" she commanded, lifting Illya's bangs and feeling her forehead with her own. "And a bowl of water with a washcloth – lukewarm, not hot!"
"Normal", Miss Taiga said, after Illya had sat sheepishly with the thermometer in her mouth, waiting until the timer on her watch had beeped. "It's a little high, but no fever, that's good. Here, wash your face", she said, handing Illya the wash cloth Shiro had brought, after dipping it in the water.
'Shiro, go in the kitchen and make up some tea. For all of us. And bring Miss Von Einzebern something to eat – something light, like crackers or pretzels or something."
"I told you, I'm actually feeling better", Illya said, while Miss Taiga watched Shiro leave, waiting until he had disappeared into the other room. "You wouldn't believe it, but this is actually lots better than I was yesterday."
"There, that should keep that idiot busy for a while. Now, how about you tell me what is ACTUALLY going on?"
Illya blinked in confusion.
"What do you mean? It's like Shiro said, I was sick, and – "
"Oh come now, don't you play dumb with me. I was young too, once – it might have been a while ago, but it wasn't so long ago as you might think. You've practically moved in here – " Taiga said, gesturing to a robe and the strewn pajamas. "I can be your biggest ally – or your worst enemy, so it's in your best interests to tell me the truth. And don't leave anything out."
Illya looked towards the hallway for rescue, but Shiro didn't appear to be coming back anytime soon, so she sat back against the wall, her pale legs still wrapped in the futon, and contemplated what to do. What would Shiro do in a time like this?
"He would probably be honest", she admitted. And so she decided to tell the truth.
"Kiritsugu Emiya is my Father . . ."
"E – e – e – e – "
Taiga's lips made a whistling sound as she breathed in, turning away so that Illya wouldn't see the emotions that spread across her face.
"Was he . . ?" she asked, when she was able to speak again.
Evidently, in her weakened condition, Illya didn't notice the effect her words were having.
"There were – problems – with my Mother, and her family. That's why my last name is different, but – "
"You realize that Kiritsugu adopted Shiro?"
"But I don't care. At first I hated Shiro for it – I thought Dad was trying to replace Mom and me. But then I met him, and I realized that wasn't it at all. He was so nice . . . and so good to me, even when I was awful to him –"
Taiga balled her hands up into fists, then put them on the back of the chair at Shiro's desk, fighting to keep herself upright.
" – That's why – Leysritt and Sella are very precious to me, and I love them dearly – but Shiro is my only link to Father – he's all I have left in this world, so – "
"Hey – " Taiga said, suddenly remembering herself, and growing worried about the state of agitation this topic was having on Illya.
" – It's not that I LOVE him – I mean, of COURSE I love him, but – it's more than that – it's – "
"It's okay", Taiga said, taking Illya's shoulders in her hands.
"That's why – Shiro and I – we're together . . . that's just how it is."
"Is everything all right?" Shiro asked. He had just come up holding a tray with three cups of tea and a plate of crackers, and was concerned to see the strained look on Illya's face.
"Yes, Miss Von Einzbern and I were just having a little discussion – Shiro!" Miss Taiga suddenly broke off her sentence mid-thought.
"Wha – what?"
"You forgot to bring any napkins! I mean seriously – "
"I'll be right back!" he said, bowing and apologizing before hurrying away. Miss Taiga looked at Illya as she sat leaning against the wall.
"You know, I could make things very difficult for the both of you – "
Illya looked up plaintively.
"Shiro is my ward, after all. I could call in the authorities. Heck – in this situation, I AM the authorities – as scary as that is. But – I'm not going to do that."
Illya's worried look changed to one of hope.
" – Not yet, at least. I don't think it would be good for you – it would be too much of a shock in your present state. And I don't think it would be good for him, either."
Miss Taiga sighed.
"For years I've tried to get that boy to take some sort of interest in his future – where he'd go to school, what he wanted to do for college – what he would do for a job. After all, I can't imagine that being a Hero of Justice pays very much", Taiga smiled wryly.
'But he never took an interest in any of it. Then YOU come along, and it's like, BAAM – suddenly he cares about things like money and finances, where he's going, what he's going to do with his life. You're – good for him like that. And so – I think I'm going to let things go – for now at least.
'But if I get ANY inkling that anything INAPPROPRIATE is going on, I am going to come down on the both of you with all the wrath of a REAL tiger – got it?" she asked, loudly enough to be sure Shiro would hear as he reappeared in the doorway.
"Yes Miss Taiga."
"Good. Now hurry up! Miss Von Einzbern and I are getting hungry!"
After they finished their tea, and Illya had munched a few crackers – which was barely a meal, but felt like an impossible feast in her present condition, the three of them remained sitting and talking for a while.
"How are you feeling?" Taiga asked.
"Better – a bit tired, but better than I did before."
"It will probably help if you brush your teeth. Do you feel strong enough to get up?"
Illya leaned forward, but still looked decidedly wobbly.
"Do you want me to help you?"
With a hint of embarrassment she looked to the side.
"Do you want Shiro to help you?"
Illya nodded shyly.
"Shiro, help Miss Von Einzbern to the sink. And stay with her – don't you leave her side, even for a second! Hold her up if you have to!"
With some awkwardness, and a good deal of blushing, Shiro helped Illya to get up, and held her around the waist while she brushed her teeth (getting toothpaste on his shirt in the process) and washed her face. The effort left her looking and feeling decidedly drained, but also refreshed, and she was very glad to get back to the futon, where Shiro helped tuck her in, before seeing Miss Taiga to the door.
"Seriously, just call next time, okay? I know you want to be all grown up, but sometimes being grown up means knowing when to ask for help."
"Okay . . ."
"Speaking of grown up, where's Miss Saber?"
"Oh – uh – she's been away for several days. On business."
"Ah, well, I guess even foreign blonde beauties have matters they have to take care of, once in a while. That's been one consolation to me", Taiga said as the fastened the chinstrap of her helmet. "At least with all of you under one roof, nothing is likely to happen, because if it did, everyone else would come clamoring to tell me."
Shiro looked down sheepishly.
"Well, see to it that Miss Von Einzbern gets some rest. And call if you need me!" she said, waving from her scooter. "Heh, kids – " she thought, smiling to herself as she drove away.
Shiro was still watching after her when he saw Rin, walking up the sidewalk.
"Hey!" he called, smiling good naturedly as he waved.
"Is everything all right?" he asked.
Rin had stepped inside the foyer, but did not remove her shoes. For a moment she just remained standing. She could feel the dagger in her coat pocket, digging into her like an accusation.
"Shiro, I – "
That was when Sakura came running up the walk.
"Sakura, what's going – " he asked as Rider breezed past him, the long strands of her purple hair tickling his cheek.
"Sempai, I – "
She fumbled with her words as Rin took advantage of the opportunity to make herself scarce.
"What's going on? Is everything all right?"
"It's not that – it's – "
"What is it?" he asked, reaching out in an effort to take her hands, but with an uncharacteristic forcefulness she pushed him away.
Just as quickly as she had vanished, Rider reappeared at the door, carrying a pair of paper bags.
"I'm – I'm sorry – it isn't your fault in any way, but – "
"Sakura, what's gotten into you!?"
Sakura bowed very low, so that her hair covered her face. Reaching out to take her hands again, Shiro felt her fingers shift in a furtive gesture, as something dropped into his palm. Something cold and metal.
"Sakura – what are you – SAKURA!" he shouted, opening his hand to look at its contents, and found that he was holding her key.
"I'm sorry, Sempai, but I can't stay here any longer – " she said through the tears that streamed from her eyes.
"I JUST CAN'T!"
The sudden forcefulness of her outburst caught him off guard. Stunned, he watched her turn and go, pausing for a moment to look over her shoulder as the tears still welled in her eyes.
"I'm sorry – it's just – I – I'm sorry!" she shouted, before hurrying away.
Shiro moved to follow her, but before he could, Rider stepped between the two of them, giving him a warning glance that cautioned against trying to follow them before she too turned and went her way.
Shiro looked down at the shiny silver key. It was dangling from a fob with a rather cartoonish character that was the mascot of some anime show he felt he ought to know, but couldn't quite recognize.
"She forgot her keychain . . ." he said sadly.
"She didn't forget", Rin said softly, reappearing at the door. "She did that on purpose. It means she thinks of coming back."
"Does it?" he asked absent mindedly. That was when he noticed the black suitcase she was carrying.
"Rin – what are you – "
"Look, Shiro, don't make this any harder than it needs to be – "
"But there's no reason for you to – "
"There's EVERY REASON – " Rin shouted, looking up, no longer bothering to try to conceal the tears in her own eyes.
'I thought I'd settled for second best", she sniffed. "But then SHE swoops in, and now it seems like I'm third – for me even second place isn't good enough – "
"Tohsaka, I – "
"DON'T YOU TOHSAKA ME !"
Rin's voice exploded in the doorway.
"I'm going home. Back to the Tohsaka estate. Yes – that's where Miss Tohsaka lives. I've been away for far too long.
"I emailed you the terms of the lease. I trust everything is to your satisfaction, Miss – "
"Pendragon", Saber answered for her, sparing the agent her confusion over how to pronounce such a foreign name.
For the occasion she'd chosen a black suit – a blazer with a pair of matching slacks, together with a black silk blouse and a pair of low heels. Her hair was tied back in a low ponytail, and overall, she gave an impression of a corporate business woman that was very convincing.
"And this is?"
"My associate, Miss Matou."
"Hai", Sakura said, holding the handles of her black school bag in front of her with both hands and bowing very low, in a manner that she hoped would not be too embarrassing.
"Your – associate – " the agent repeated, her eyes lingering over Sakura's book bag and youthful appearance. "Well then, shall we commence with the tour?"
Sakura had no idea how Saber had been able to afford an apartment in the NeoFuyuki Tower – much less a top floor penthouse – but evidently she had her methods, as the agent immediately proceeded to give them a walkthrough.
"The living room and common space is there – you've already seen the hall and the entryway. The windows overlook the harbor and Fuyuki Bay – it's really quite a sight. The kitchen opens out to a small formal dining area – quite modern – "
Sakura noted the stainless steel appliances and granite countertops – they were beautiful, but so different from the warm feel of the kitchen at the Emiya estate. Saber nodded appreciatively.
"Somehow", Sakura thought, "I can't see HER doing much cooking."
" – there's a half bath off to the left for guests. The Master bedroom has its own full bath, of course, with a Swedish shower and Jacuzzi tub. The second bedroom also has its own bath, ensuite. Both rooms have walk in closets", the agent added with a wink in Sakura's direction.
Sakura bowed awkwardly, unsure of what to say. She couldn't possibly tell her that every article of clothing she owned was crammed into the one bag she was carrying.
"Shiro bought me most of them", she thought to herself.
"The unit has its own garden, or jardin", the agent went on, her voice suddenly changing as the sliding doors let in the city sounds of people and cars below. "The view is a bit industrial on this side – I'm afraid there isn't much to look at after dark – "
"On the contrary", Saber said, "I like the bustle and the air and all of the lights."
The agent smiled.
"If you appreciate that kind of thing, the view of Fuyuki Airport is quite stunning. You can see the lights and watch the planes coming and going at all hours."
The doors slid closed, and instantly the interior of the unit was perfectly quiet again.
"You'll have your own trash service – you can just put things outside, under that awning over there. Housekeeping is Mondays and Thursdays – that's the schedule the previous owner had arranged. I'm sure things could be adjusted if that's not convenient – "
"I'm sure that will be fine for now", Saber answered. "What about access?"
"There's a private elevator from the lobby as well as the garage. It goes directly to the penthouse level, without stopping on any other floor. You access it with your key. It also serves the connector from the terminal – I understand your – associate – came by rail?"
"Are you sure you don't want the Master?" Saber asked, after she had finished signing papers and affixing her own personal stamp. She put her own copies in a small black attache case, after which the agent had bid them good night. "You are the Master, after all."
Sakura shook her head.
"Mm – mm, this is fine with me."
They were standing in the second bedroom, where Sakura had put her bag on one of the beds.
"Well, then, suit yourself. If you need anything, I'll be on the other side of the hall. But for now, I'll say good night."
After she left, she spent several minutes putting her things in the closet and dresser drawers. It did not take very long.
"Rider, look – " she called, as Rider materialized out of thin air. "We've got two beds – and they're both queens. Now you don't have to stay in your Spirit form all the time anymore – "
"I don't mind keeping my Spirit form, my Lady – "
" – and there's even a shelf for your books – "
Rider put her hand to her chest and bowed.
"I assure you, you don't need to take any thought over me."
After she finished putting her things away, Sakura stepped out into the hall. Saber's door was already closed, so she took a moment to look around the apartment. It was very beautiful, and she had no doubt that it must have been very expensive. All of the design was very modern and sophisticated, with clean lines and edges. But it was also very cold.
Stepping up to the window, she paused to look out at the view of the city below. Off to the right, the lights of the old Fuyuki tower glittered, shining warmly against the frosty night air. They glimmered beautifully. But they were just as cold and as distant as ever.