Author's Note: This story is dedicated to CrazyLich79. What began as a request for some Jeanne Alter x EMIYA Alter swiftly turned into a collaborative exercise, with all the times he had to rescue me from my sketchy knowledge of FGO and my desperate need for some course correction. If I could designate an additional author on FF, I wouldn't hesitate to tag him for this story. As it is, I can only credit him here in an AN. Thanks for all the hard work and support, Lich! Even if you've now entrenched me deeper than ever in rarepair hell, with a pairing I've yet to see any other material for.
It was sickening.
Still Jeanne Alter lingered at the doorway, unable to tear her eyes from the loathsome scene. It only made her hate it more; hate them more.
The tables and chairs of the conference room had been hastily pushed aside, turning the space into an impromptu ballroom. There, on utilitarian blue carpet, her idiot Master and that cat-eared bitch united in dance, slowly spinning together as their steps carried them here and there. The only music was the tune hummed by the youth, and whatever his talents as a magus, his sloppy pitch ensured he would be winning no awards in vocal performance. Yet the girl in his arms smiled warmly.
Their eyes locked on each other, as if each were a precious star somehow come to earth, the better to be embraced. Their breaths, short and trembling, as their flushed faces moved closer. Closer still, and now those lips would surely meet -
Jeanne Alter abruptly turned away. Any more of this, and she would burst into the room and turn it into an inferno of dragon's breath. That would serve the salope right, but she could not do that to Master. Never to Master.
So instead she forced her feet down the hallway, wrapping her black coat around her shoulders as if she could form a barrier to cut off the scene left behind her.
Fuck Master, anyway. She could accept his dancing with the ice queen bitch at Shinjuku Assassin's tacky party. That had been a quirk of time and place, and Master had a lot on his mind at the time. Enough to excuse him for accepting the clearly inferior partner. But they were back in Chaldea now, and he had all the time in the world to reflect on his choices. So why the fuck was he dancing with Atalanta, and not Jeanne Alter? Not that Jeanne Alter wanted to dance. But the worm could at least have asked.
Part of her whispered that it was only to be expected. Master tried to get along with all his Servants, but at his core he craved tenderness and brave spirits. Of course he would be attracted to shining eyes and swift-footed confidence and a heart full of love for the children. It was natural that he would choose the cat. What did the Dragon Witch have to offer him but rage and spite?
She hated herself most of all.
She took a deep breath. Brooding was for sissies. Violence, she knew, would put a smile back on her face and laughter back on her lips. Even if they were brittle, they were better than the hollow feeling welling up inside her breast.
She stalked the corridors for a suitable target, her hand threateningly placed on the hilt of her summoned sword. There was some petty satisfaction in watching the facility's staff scatter before her, but right then she wanted a challenge. Something that could take the full brunt of her resentment.
She glared around a corner, then grinned at what caught her eye. Exposed back, revealing dark skin and corded muscles. Arms and shoulders encased in familiar sleeves of black and gold. Even without them, she would have immediately recognized the short-cropped white hair.
Good. She owed him payback for her humiliation in Shinjuku anyway.
"EMIYA!" she roared. "Connard de merde! I'll burn you to ash, you bastard!"
His eyes flicked towards her, the only movement in his otherwise flat expression. "I must decline your challenge. Master would deduct the resulting damages from my compensation."
"Then we'll use the training rooms the weaklings love so much. Unless that's just the excuse of a coward."
He looked at her impassively for a moment, long enough that she began to feel a bit foolish. That only put her in a fouler mood. If she was brushed off by even the dead-eyed archer –
Then he nodded. "That is agreeable."
"Fine!" She spun on her heel and marched towards the nearest designated room. Although she never looked back – she would allow no doubt that he must follow her – she nevertheless felt relief when she heard the steady fall of his footsteps behind her.
A few short minutes later, they faced each other across an expanse of reinforced steel and concrete. Jeanne Alter grinned as she hefted her banner, the black of her wicked brand stark against pale white. "You got lucky before. This time you'll taste the bitter depths of my hatred!"
"Are all Avengers this noisy?" he asked as he materialized his weapons, bastard children of blade and gun.
"I'll kill you!" She shot forward without hesitation, a spear a shining point of malice before her. Summoned lances surged around her, shadows trailing purple flames as they sought to bury themselves in the archer's flesh.
Her opponent was a blur of motion as he ducked and weaved, deflecting her phantasmal weapons on his own blades. Then, with gritted teeth, he thrust them forward and unleashed a barrage of broken phantasms. They exploded in the air like dying stars, battering her with concussive force.
Most of the shrapnel failed to penetrate her defenses, but she welcomed the pain when some shredded into her left shoulder. Delicious agony flared through her. It fueled the adrenaline searing in her veins and the hatred roaring in her ears. That pain, she would revisit on him a thousand fold.
She laughed wildly as they clashed again, steel ringing on steel. Each time he sought to get some distance, she sent burning flames to corral him back towards her. They spun around each other in a deadly dance, relentlessly probing each other's defenses. Jeanne Alter felt her rage grow with each failed strike, and reveledin it.
"Take this and die!" She swept her hand and another wave of lances split the air between them. Then, to her shocked delight, EMIYA made his first misstep in the dance he weaves amid her attacks. Just a small one, but her shadowed lances were ever hungry for blood. One flew forward to pierce his shoulder, burying itself in his hardened flesh. Sweet crimson gushed from the wound.
"Tsk!" EMIYA barely flinched. He reached up with his other arm to grab the shaft, as close to the wound as feasible. Then with a pained grunt he broke it off, letting the remnant clatter to the floor.
Jeanne Alter paused long enough to nod her reluctant approval. Uncomfortable as it must be to leave much of the lance embedded, roughly pulling it out would only make the damage worse. Still, it wasn't every warrior who could make such a practical decision in the heat of battle, or find the grit to follow through. The other Jeanne, that stupid girl, would have praised it as courage. Jeanne Alter instead recognized the move for what it is – the dispassionate calculations of a machine.
Realization fell like a black curtain, threatening to smother her mood with it. He felt neither joy nor rage, nor even satisfaction from their battle. He was just going through the motions.
It pissed her off. More than she would ever have thought possible.
They collided again, their blades caught on each other. For a moment their faces were a hair's-breadth from each other. "Fuck you, EMIYA! Don't you get any thrill from this? Even the ice bitch does!"
He met her angry snarl with the merest hint of a frown. "Wasted energy," he said. "Perhaps you would have more success if you ran your blades rather than your mouth." Despite the harshness of his words, he delivered them with scarcely a hint of inflection. A tactical observation more than a taunt. It enraged her all the more.
Steel slid on steel, and they broke apart again. He slid back into his combat stance and watched her with cold brass eyes. He was a machine, bent on tactics and nothing else. He didn't feel anything about this. No, better to say he didn't give a fuck about this. Resentment coiled up in her gut, made her choke with hatred. Fine, if the bastard wouldn't feel joy or rage, then she would teach him fear.
She pointed her black sword directly at his heart, as if she could pierce it through the sheer force of her grudge. Flames lapped at her feet, then pulled hard on her remaining mana until they engulfed her in a raging pillar of fire. The fire of the pyre that always burned in her mind, hotter than any dragon's soul.
Triumphantly she sneered at her opponent. "Then thrill to the cursed howl of my soul! Le Grondement de la Haine!"
Flame raced along her sword to leap hungrily at EMIYA, setting the room ablaze as it passed. Nimble as he was, he had less room to maneuver, not to mention less distance, than in Shinjuku. Though he dodged the worst of it, trails of fire still licked his arms as he pushed through. Scorched black appeared on that dark skin, accompanied by the smell of burnt flesh.
Her sadistic pleasure was short-lived. His pained grimace gave way to a look of intense concentration despite the smolderingwounds. He leveled his red gunblade at her, his stare ruthless as he sighted down its length. Even through the roar of flames, she could hear his leaden voice recite. " – so as I pray. Unlimited Lost Works!"
There was a flash of black and red light. Something struck the armor above her right breast and detonatedin an explosion of blades. They expanded outwards from the contact point with a screech of steel grinding on steel. She felt agonizing pain as they tore through her flesh and essence. If she forced herself to look down, surely she would see only a gaping hole where her torso used to be.
Black blood spilled from her mouth. Still, Jeanne Alter managed to brace herself against her spear. She would not lose. Not while resentment coursed through her, more powerful than any lost blood. She would not yield; hate would not yield.
He was upon her now, but even through the pain she raised her sword to parry his strike. The blow descended, but with less force than she had expected. He was in bad shape too, no matter how he tried it under a mask of efficiency.
They both staggered back, circled each other again. But it had little of the savagery of their earlier dance. Their movements were slow and heavy from wounds and mana exhaustion.
Jeanne Alter's ire had ebbed, leaving a gnawing dissatisfaction in its wake. She had sparred with others before, craving the joy of inflicting hurt even if the rules prevented her from a true rampage. But even she could wrest no pleasure from EMIYA Alter's empty gaze.
In her reign as the Dragon Witch, she had been cursed at, pleaded with, raged against. But never had she been treated as a cog in some impersonal machine, just another problem to be solved. As if she didn't matter.
As if he didn't matter.
He seemed to sense the shift in her mood, for he abruptly disengaged. His gunblades disappeared as he straightened up out of his stance. He regarded her coolly.
"Are you satisfied, Jeanne Alter?"
"No," she growled as she wiped the blood from her mouth. She strode past him through a room still raining embers and ash, pausing at the door to deliver her verdict. "You're a disappointment. Just like everyone else."
She stomped down the hallway, unabashedly trailing soot on the white floor. She was all too used to disappointment. But this time, it was joined by aggravation. Because she had just witnessed something fundamentally wrong.
An Alter, in Jeanne Alter's very definite opinion, should be full of anger. Her hated rival seethed with it, even if queen bitch's was icy cold to Jeanne Alter's raging flames. That anger made killing enemies a source of great satisfaction as well as a deeply personal affair. But EMIYA Alter seemed entirely disconnected from his anger. He killed efficiently and dispassionately, and entirely without pleasure. It was offensive. It was like watching someone wolf down a fine steak without a hint of enjoyment.
It pissed her off. It pissed her off so much she couldn't let it stand.
Huffing angrily, she went to find their Master.
"What the hell is wrong with salaud EMIYA?"
Master almost choked on his spoonful of soup. Once the coughing fit had subsided, he looked up at her curiously. "You mean EMIYA Alter?"
"Who else?" she snapped.
He frowned. "Did something happen?"
"Nothing happened. That's the problem!"
"What do you mean?"
"I challenged him to battle. I shouldn't have bothered. I might have fought a zombie, for all the feeling he put into it." She thumped on her armor. "Even when he tore me open –" Master winced in sympathy, which made her heart shudder just a little before she pressed on, "Nothing. Not the faintest ghost of a smile. Isn't he an Alter? He should enjoy a chance to cut loose!"
"I don't think he thinks of fighting as enjoyable," said Master. "Not that he avoids it either! It's more like he sees it as a way to fulfill his mission."
"If he doesn't like to fight, then what the hell does he do for fun?"
She tapped her foot impatiently as he considered his answer. As much as she resented her Master, he was one of the only people in Chaldea she could (trust) tolerate for any amount of time. Perhaps it was because he was one of the few who ever seemed genuinely happy to see her. He saw Jeanne Alter herself, not just the dark wish that had created her.
Eventually he shook his head. "I don't think EMIYA Alter really does much for fun. He's very… focused. He's always concerned about his mission and how to get it done most efficiently. I keep trying to get him to take a break and do things with me – even just lunch – but he only says it's useless because he can't feel it. Can't taste, can't touch." Master sighed. "It's really sad."
"So he's just a puppet," she sneered.
"No!" said Master defensively. "I think he wants to feel, he just has trouble remembering how." He sighed again. "I think he has memory gaps, too. At least, he's always so careful about writing mission orders and things down in his diary-"
Jeanne Alter snorted. "He keeps a diary?"
"Is that weird? I mean, you wrote letters -"
"Before they burned me at the stake!" she snarled. "I haven't lifted a quill since."
He put up his hands in a gesture of appeasement. "Okay, fair enough." She glared at him, but as usual it didn't seem to bother him. He picked up his spoon and idly stirred his now-cold soup. After a moment, he looked up at her and smiled.
"What's with that stupid look?" she barked.
"I was just thinking. It's unusual for you to take an interest in someone."
"Only so I can kill him better."
Once again, the placating gesture and the sympathetic eyes. She growled as she turned away, back into the maze of hallways. She didn't want Master's sympathy. She got enough of that every time the foolish saint looked her way. And what she did want from him, she would never get. The cat bitch already held that place in his heart.
EMIYA Alter, she reminded herself. That's who she was thinking about, not some idiot magus. She would not fail to give the Archer a piece of her mind.
It was easy enough to find his door among the various rooms of the Servant quarters. Most of the staff knew the locations of the various Alters, if only to better avoid them. She'd only needed to grab a technician by the scruff to obtain his terrified directions.
She knocked angrily on its cold surface. A moment later she was rewarded when it slid open, and the man looked down at her with a small frown. Before he could say a word, she launched into her tirade.
"Why aren't you angry?" she growled. "You're an Alter, aren't you? Then be angry, mauviette!"
"I see." His tone was as flat as ever. "I was unaware that pointless displays of temper were required to qualify as an Alter."
"Resentment is what makes us who we are," she said. "Even the ice queen understands that."
"I have no use for anything that does not help me in my mission."
She glowered at him malevolently. Although their eyes were both gold, they could not have been further apart – hers were molten with rage, while his were cold as ruined brass.
"Fine!" She said after a moment. "I'm through wasting time on you. You can deny yourself all you want, I know it's there inside. You're no better than the rest of us."
She turned on her heel and walked away, irritation dripping from her every step.
He watched her until she disappeared around a corner, then went back to his desk. He opened up the plain black book that served as his diary - an unfortunate necessity given his splintered mind – and briefly scanned his last entry.
XXXX . XX . XX
Unscheduled duel with Jeanne Alter at her demand. Move appears intended to vent aggression. NP remains as dangerous as ever. ULW effective but insufficient. Fire resistant gear and higher firepower essential to any future confrontation. However, risk of such is deemed low given Jeanne Alter's stated disappointment in the engagement.
Was it still the same day? He wasn't sure, but given her agitated state he guessed as much. Best to combine it with the previous entry.
He picked up his pen.
Addendum: Despite earlier assessment, Jeanne Alter waited for me outside my quarters. She appears offended by my lack of anger. This limited perspective is likely due to her embodiment of Gilles de Rais' wish for a vengeful version of Jeanne d'Arc. Future contact appears likely.
He moved to close the diary, but paused when he found himself remembering Jeanne Alter's expression. Golden eyes burning with hate, but even more striking was the misery clearly written on her face. He felt a brief flash of pity for her. His rot was a result of his choices, but Jeanne Alter had someone else's choices imposed upon her. She had been formed in her iniquity before taking so much as single step.
He shook his head. If she got in his way, he would eliminate her without hesitation. That was the path he had chosen to walk. He was surprised by the twinge of discomfort the idea gave him, but swiftly buried it. Sentiment was unnecessary for a remorseless killer.
He firmly closed the book.
EMIYA Alter was not good with time. That was one of many losses incurred from the conversion of his inner mind into brute weaponry. So he wasn't sure when Jeanne Alter first started watching him train.
Even with his attention fixed on his target and his back turned to her, he could feel her malignant eyes on him. He fired off several shots in feigned indifference, but all the while he stayed alert for any movement from behind. She might attack him at any moment, or at least issue another furious challenge.
But she just stood there, a looming dragon watching a distant castle with bitter eyes. Eventually he sighed and looked over his shoulder.
"If you want me to turn your sword into a gun so badly, all you need to do is ask."
"You must really want to be beheaded," she said. But she said nothing more, so he turned back and resumed his practice session. Eventually she left, with as little apparent reason as she had come.
Only to return the next time, and the time after as well.
He wasn't sure how he felt about it. His instincts were highly attuned to threats, but she did not feel like one. She looked frustrated rather than hostile, rather like an angry child. And that seemed fitting, for wasn't that what Jeanne Alter was?
So he never protested, and in time she became another aspect of his routine. She would arrive silently and frown as she watched him go through his exercises, her eyes shadowing his every movement as if awaiting a revelation that never came. After an unpredictable interval of time she would leave again, just as silently.
One day, he wasn't sure how long since her first appearance, his ears caught on a sharper note in her footsteps. Her eyes seemed particularly brittle as she took up her usual position against the back wall. He should have ignored her, as he usually did, but he could not ignore such a bothersome expression. Some long-forgotten instinct rebelled at the idea.
So once again he broke his customary silence. "If you truly have nothing better to do, why don't you come down and join me?"
He half-expected that would make her leave, but instead she left her position on the wall and approached with long strides, her black boots clicking in the silence. Then suddenly she broke into a run as her bannered spear appeared in her hand in a flash of black light. She fell upon the training dummies in a burst of fury. Soon the entire array had been reduced to shredded cloth and smoking ruins.
She grinned viciously at him, clearly awaiting some reaction. When he simply raised an eyebrow, she gave a disgruntled huff and stomped towards the door. It was the shortest session they had ever shared.
But when she arrived the next time, she came down to join him instead of waiting silently at the back. That swiftly became their new normal. She would tear through her half of the targets with savage anger, then sit back and watch him methodically go through his. Then they would have a go at each other, sharpening themselves on each other's blades.
And if Jeanne Alter never seemed entirely satisfied with what she observed, the crease in her brow seemed a shade lighter each time.
Later – he wasn't sure how much – he was cleaning guns with the Assassin that shared his name. Although this Kiritsugu did not recognize him in the least, coming from a world line where he had never been embroiled in the Grail Wars, EMIYA Alter still found his presence strangely soothing. At the very least, the man shared his interests while being similarly inclined towards long silences.
It made for as comfortable a companionship as any he could recall in recent memory. Certainly much calmer than the spars he shared with Jeanne Alter. He didn't notice the small smile that ghosted on his lips.
They had worked in congenial silence for some time when Assassin turned to look at him. "There's a lot of ash on your guns," he said.
EMIYA Alter nodded.
"You've been training heavily with Jeanne Alter," the other observed. "She's a fierce target, but you should be sure to vary your opponents. Otherwise you risk falling into fixed patterns. That is a liability you cannot afford on the battlefield."
He nodded again as he cast his mind back over the last while. Had he really been spending so much time with the infamous Dragon Witch? A later glance at his diary confirmed it – she appeared consistently in his recent entries.
EMIYA Assassin was giving him good advice. Advice that he intended to follow. But when he walked down the hallway, looking for a fresh opponent – maybe one of the Casters, perhaps Tamamo-no-Mae – he found Jeanne Alter coming the other way. She grinned when she saw him, the challenge written in her eyes. And although he knew he should turn her away, he couldn't find it within himself to do so.
With a nod, he followed her into the training room.
XXXX . XX . XX
Certain broken phantasms appear to grow in power if ignited before detonation. Combined with Jeanne Alter's command of flames, this may have practical applications on the battlefield. I should see if she is agreeable to replacing our customary duel with a joint exercise.
"Why don't you ever play wench in the kitchen, like the other EMIYA?"
He glanced at her, his attention pulled from pummeling the training dummy. "I would rather not be reminded of that disgusting man."
"Can't stand what he represents, can you?" Jeanne Alter neatly bisected her own target. "That you could ever have been that stupid."
"Like yourself and the saint."
"Va te faire foutre," she said, but it lacked her usual bite.
A few more targets went down, mercilessly slashed to pieces or blown apart with extreme prejudice. It was just as well that they did not need to compensate Chaldea for damage to equipment, or both Servants would have been deep in the red.
"There would be no purpose to my being in a kitchen anyway" resumed EMIYA. "I can neither taste nor smell food. Nor can I remember any recipe, even were I inclined to cook for others."
"You're an Alter," she said as if that explained everything. "We are denied most human pleasures. We must find them in ugly desires. All the things our hypocrite other selves struggle to hide away."
"Ugly desires, is it? You think I keep pornography stashed under my bed?"
"Pornography is a human vice, fit for idiots like Cú Chulainn," she said, ignoring his sarcasm. "You should try something much sweeter."
"Revenge, I take it."
"That's right," she said approvingly. Finally the man was getting it. "Spew your hatred, like I do. Destroy those that did this to you, and laugh while you watch them burn."
"Nobody did this to me," he said. "I did it to myself."
"Fuck that! No one gets as broken as you without a helping hand. So come on, who led you down the path to perdition?"
He shook his head.
She glared at him for a moment, then shrugged. "Fine, don't tell me. But you remember, I know you do. It burns you up inside every time you think of them, doesn't it? You'll never rest until you get your revenge on them."
"Revenge," he said again, looking pensive.
Ahh, he did understand. He was like her after all. She felt a kind of vicious joy surge through her. She leaned closer, until her lips brushed against his ear. He was as unmoving as a block of stone, but she did not let it stop her.
"You say you can't taste anything?" she purred. "Revenge is finer than any chocolate. You can enjoy it long after the taste of other things has turned to ash."
"I see." He pulled away just far enough to turn and look at her directly. "Does it make you happy?"
"Huh?" She frowned.
"Does seeking revenge make you happy, Jeanne Alter?"
The wicked laugh died on her lips when she looked into his eyes. She saw neither fear nor mockery there, only honest curiosity. She was not analytical by nature, but for the sake of that curiosity, she tried to reach deeper into the dark cloud of her past experiences.
"Yes and no," she finally said. "Revenge is everything I am. It is what Gilles wished for me to be. I thirst for it always, it is burning oil in my guts. When I strike down my oppressor, for a moment it is like cool water poured, and I am well pleased." Her brow darkened. "But water cannot quench oil, not for long. And soon enough I feel that flame again, eating me up inside, and I must seek more violence."
"But that is alright," she said. "Because that is the only way I am of use to Master. What he needs is my hatred, not..." she trailed off for a moment, looking lost. Then the scowl returned. "You didn't hear that," she growled.
He nodded, but inwardly he couldn't help but wince in sympathy. Even if it was unconscious, Jeanne Alter was outgrowing her container, spreading out fresh roots from the corrupted earth she had been planted in. Part of him warned that it was of no importance to his mission, and thus of no interest. But another part remembered wanting to help someone grow. To help them believe they could be more than what fate had consigned them to.
Suddenly there was a slight pain in his chest, like the point of a knife had dragged along his skin there. It faded away just as quickly. What on earth? Before he could dwell on it, Jeanne Alter was speaking again.
"And you," she said. "If not for revenge, then why do you fight?"
"To accomplish my mission," he said simply. "To pull the maximum good from a situation, no matter the sacrifices that must be made."
"And you don't enjoy a bit of it," she sneered.
"It's not a matter of enjoyment, but of effectiveness. That is what means to be a good killer." He looked back at her. "Does it disgust you?"
"No," she said. "But it does piss me off. You're as selfless as that insufferable saint in your own way."
"Is that so. Then have I earned your hate?"
"I already hate you," she said lightly. "Just like I hate everyone else."
"Ah, should I assume you spend hours training with them as well? Perhaps with Marie Antoinette?"
She scowled at him, and he couldn't help but smirk in return. But when she spoke again, it wasn't the threat he had expected. "I spent hours watching you because I couldn't understand you. I thought you definitely had to be denying your hate and anger. But I see it now. You hate yourself." She gave a bitter laugh. "So in that sense, we are alike after all."
His laugh was as dark as hers. "I would say I wear my heart on my sleeve, if I still had one to affix."
"Perhaps that is the true nature of an Alter," she said. "Disgust at what we have become. For myself, I was always like this. But you, you chose to make yourself unhappy."
She glared at him, her anger returning." Why do you choose misery for the sake of others? You should reach out for the things that make you happy, even if they are selfish."
"Selfish," he murmured. What did that mean for someone who pursued justice? The image of his other self flashed in his mind, with his red coat and wry smile. Was that man selfish? He worked tirelessly on behalf of others, but he did not always take the most efficient path. And those selfish choices had allowed him to preserve an intact soul.
He felt a twinge of envy and self-hatred. It was reflected in a renewed pain in his chest. He glanced up to see that Jeanne Alter was watching him carefully.
"You do have a selfish wish, don't you?" she observed. "You should consider acting on it sometime. It would do you good."
"And what of you, Jeanne Alter? Have you tried being selfish yourself?"
She stared at him in surprise, before breaking out in a cruel smile. "What is the Dragon Witch but selfish? In the name of my vengeance, I burned down all those towns. And I enjoyed it, EMIYA. Every. Single. Time."
"As you were meant to," he said. "But you have desires outside of simple vengeance, or you wouldn't come here day after day. Unless," he drawled, "you truly think you can burn me with your gaze if you stare long enough?"
"Connard. You really must have a death wish," she snarled. "I'm doing this so I can kill you better, that's all." With an angry huff, she turned and walked away.
A memory danced on the edge of his mind as he watched her go. "I suppose I missed having a tsundere in my life," he said softly to himself.
The twinge in his chest returned, much sharper. When he looked down, he saw it, small but undeniable. A jagged line of gold cut across his skin.
EMIYA Alter relied on his diary to help him remember the details of his current mission. Chaldea, his Master, the Singularities... another threat to the world and humanity, to solve with blades and bullets. More pieces of his soul, chipped away and turned into weapons in the name of his duty.
Through his long and tortured life, he had become progressively numb to it. Eventually he wouldn't be aware of anything at all but his mission. He would become a true living weapon.
He thought he had come to accept that fate. But lately he had found himself thinking about meaningless things, with a growing sense of discontent.
His eyes skimmed across one of his irrelevant entries.
XXXX . XX . XX
Avenger - an abnormal Servant class that embodies the spirit of hatred. They know and want only pain. Yet Jeanne Alter clearly wants something more. It is unfortunate that I can do nothing to help her. But if she insists upon my company, I will not object.
He could not help her. To fulfill his contract, he had to stay focused.
Once, he would have insisted that he would find a way to do both. And even if he ultimately failed, we would have tried. His other self, for all his professed cynicism, certainly would.
Too late, he reminded himself. He'd made his choices and arrived at this destination. It was too late to wish things otherwise. Still, perhaps there were still some things he could do.
The shifting landscape of Agartha was dangerous for the unwary, travelled by all sorts of strange beasts. Unfortunately the unstable nature of the Singularity interfered with Chaldea's tracking equipment, forcing them to explore everything on foot. These realities had prompted their Master to assemble a team of Servants that both hit hard and were inured to hardship. That was how EMIYA Alter found himself fielded together with Jeanne Alter for the first time, along with Scathach. Truly a set of Servants fit to give any bystanders nightmares for the rest of their lives.
If they all lived long enough to encounter bystanders, that was. They had scarcely crossed over the ridge when they were set upon by a pack of monstrous beasts. The wyverns he had seen before, with their hardened scales and fiery breath. The massive cat-like beasts with the strange lumpy growths and black aura, however, were a new and unpleasant surprise.
It was a hard fight, especially since they were forced on the defensive. They could not let any of the fell beasts reach Master. Still, they were managing to hold them back with quick bladework and precisely-aimed detonations. The drain on their mana was taxing, but with their Master's support, it looked like they were finally pushing back the enemy.
As an Archer, EMIYA Alter had by far the best ranged attacks on the team. His broken phantasms could easily pick off the wyverns even when they strafed high above them. The most effective course of action would be for him to focus only on the sky and let the others worry about their own defenses. But when he saw one of the great cats rearing up behind Jeanne Alter, its savage claws poised to strike, he did not hesitate.
He threw himself forward to intercept. The massive paw crashed down on him, dragging him to the ground with it. Wicked talons flew past his parrying gunblade to score deep lines down his shoulder and collarbone. He grunted as blood poured from the wounds, but forced himself into a crouch. He then sprang up, using his momentum to bury his blades deep in the beast's belly.
It screamed in pain and surprise as it staggered backwards. Only to suddenly find itself impaled on a spear of shadowed steel. He glanced along it and found himself staring into furious eyes of molten gold.
"I can take care of myself!" she snarled.
"I know that," he replied as he aimed his guns up towards a circling wyvern.
The sudden blaze of fire raining down on them cut the conversation short, as both Servants flung themselves out of the way. The next moments were a blur of threats and targets, but already he could feel the tide of battle start to shift in their favor. The ridge was littered with broken bodies of scale and stone, and the remaining creatures were clearly having second thoughts about these particular prey. Another monster fell to Scathach's blood-red spear, and that seemed to decide the rest. They turned and fled back down the hillside to seek shelter in the forest below.
Tempting as it was to follow them and finish them off, it was more important to check on his Master. EMIYA Alter found him slumped on a rock under Scathach's wary eye, panting hard and his uniform soaked with sweat. Even with Chaldea's support, directing three Servants at once would tax the most powerful of magi.
"EMIYA, you bastard!"
And of course his third companion. She glowered at him, menacing despite the ichor splatters and smoldering embers staining her armor. "When I said to be selfish," she growled, "I didn't mean that."
"Upset that I stole your kills?" he asked. "Next time I'll be sure to stand back so you can show me your prowess."
She glared straight into his eyes, unwilling to be distracted by his sarcasm. "I meant to be selfish so you could enjoy yourself, espèce d'enculé. Not throw yourself away to protect an accursed witch!"
"Being selfish means doing what you want to do, even if it's not the soundest option." He smiled at her. "And at that moment, I wanted to protect you."
Something painful flared in his torso again, but it didn't feel like the injuries he had so recently suffered. It felt deeper, as if he was being torn in two from the inside. He flinched, his breath caught in his throat as the sensation washed over him.
Jeanne Alter seemed to misinterpret the cause, swearing angrily as she took in the livid claw marks that marred his chest. "You're a fool. If you keep this up, you will surely be consumed to ashes."
She spun on her heel and stomped off to keep guard a little distance away, while their Master recovered his strength. But with his excellent eyesight, even from here he could see an odd twitch to her lips. A twitch that threatened at any moment to bloom into a smile.
XXXX . XX . XX
Jeanne d'Arc sought me out after our return from the last mission. This is a definite departure from her usual approach, which involves pitying me from a distance. Heroes of justice never seem to realize just how irritating such affectations are for their recipients.
She wanted to thank me for looking after Jeanne Alter. I told her I was only acting according to my whims. I am not a suitable man to take charge of anyone's welfare. This did nothing to wipe away her smile; if anything, it only widened. At least the saint should have the good sense not to repeat this conversation with its subject, lest Chaldea find itself half-consumed by flame before the day is out.
Jeanne Alter's eyes narrowed as she watched EMIYA Alter walking down the hallway towards her. She had dismissed it as her imagination when she had spotted the first glint on his exposed chest, but the gold lines had spread since then. They shone along his chest and back, rough and uneven lines that bore an uncanny resemblance to cracks in old pottery. A thinner one ran up his neck, along the same path an assassin's knife might have taken to slit his throat. Their bright contrast was attractive against his dark skin, but for some reason they made her uneasy.
The idiot could at least have taken steps to cover them up, but of course not. If anything, the black-and-gold waist cape he now wore alongside his sleeves only served to accentuate the lines.
She scoffed as he approached. "A new fashion statement?"
"Something like that," he replied.
"I hate it."
"I'll be sure to include more gold next time," he said, with something dancing in his eyes that she could not recognize. It annoyed her, but that faded when he held his palm out to her. "Shall we go train?"
She found herself staring at his hand. On every previous occasion they practiced together, she had been the one to impose herself. This was the first time he had explicitly invited her to join him.
No, more than that – this was the first time another Servant had invited Jeanne Alter to do something with them. Giles urging her to defy God did not count – that had not been a request so much as a demand that she rampage for his satisfaction. This was different, this feeling of... togetherness, for lack of a better word. It felt a bit like the warmth that rose inside her whenever Master smiled at her.
It scared her. For if she had felt a gnawing resentment when first summoned by Master, it paled compared to the bitterness that filled her after he chose the cat. Feeling this way about her fellow Alter was sure to end in more pain. She didn't want to feel more pain.
So she met his smile with her coldest sneer. She brushed past him, and she must have been imaging the brief look of hurt in his eyes. Because when she glanced over her shoulder, she saw nothing but his usual indifference.
This was the best course of action. The Dragon Witch should not pretend at human desires. How frustrating then that she could not cage the confused roil of her emotions. They gnawed at her brain, made every step feel like she was struggling through quicksand.
So of course that was the precise moment that the ice bitch would show up. Artoria Alter's pompous black dress billowed behind her as she approached, making her look like an overgrown crow. Cold eyes swept up and down Jeanne Alter's face, dissecting her for the merest sign of weakness.
Her lips curled the tiniest bit upwards. It would have invisible for most observers, but Jeanne Alter knew her hated rival well. She could recognize contempt when she saw it.
"Not in the training room today with EMIYA Alter?" said the ice bitch in her black monotone. "How very unusual. Did the two of you quarrel?"
"None of your concern," spat Jeanne Alter. "And if you keep running your mouth, I'll close it for you." She let her fingers rest meaningfully on the hilt of the sword that suddenly hung at her side.
She was about to push past when Artoria Alter called out. "So that's your replacement for Master. He wouldn't look your way, so you found someone who would. Who knew the black saint was just another desperate girl?"
Jeanne Alter drew her sword with an ugly snarl. The black swordswoman drew her own in response, its cursed runes gleaming red on black.
There certainly would have been bloodshed if not for a sudden rush of wind, enough to make both their hair and clothes blow wildly in its wake. When Jeanne Alter turned back, she found herself confronted by silver armor and flowing blue cloth. Glancing up, she saw golden hair tied back in an elaborate braid. Artoria Pendragon in her Saber incarnation.
Artoria Alter glared coldly at her counterpart before turning on her heel and walking away. For all that she hated Jeanne Alter, she hated her heroic self even more. Enough to immediately quit the field whenever she appeared.
Not that the black saint was much fonder of the King of Knights. Their few exchanges had been characterized by mockery on her part and cold aloofness on the other's. But Artoria's green eyes were uncharacteristically soft as she turned to her.
"I apologize for my other self's conduct," she said.
"Stop that. You're not her, any more than I'm that ridiculous saint."
Artoria nodded solemnly at her. It was not an expression Jeanne Alter was used to receiving from one of the so-called heroes of justice. She huffed and moved to walk away when Artoria suddenly spoke up.
"How is EMIYA Alter doing these days?" she asked.
"Ask him yourself!" snarled Jeanne Alter. "What am I, his keeper?"
She stalked off, but the words of both knights weighted on her. Come to think of it, she had been spending an inordinate amount of time with EMIYA Alter of late. As idiotic as his behavior could be – not to mention that insolent mouth of his – it did ease the burning in her stomach, just a little bit.
It was the same relief that Master's smile gave her. But it was also different. For when Master looked at her, he saw what he wished she might become. Something closer to her model, with dreams of justice and nobility. EMIYA Alter saw her as she was; the Dragon Witch, malignant and prideful, with a belly full of spite and a banner soaked in blood. He knew she would never give that up, any more than she could stop breathing. And he accepted her anyway.
Jeanne Alter pivoted on the spot and started walking back the way she came. She was going to join EMIYA Alter for a spar after all. And do whatever else she felt like, and who the fuck cared what Artoria thought. Any Artoria. What the hell did they know, anyway?
XXXX . XX . XX
I am breaking. This pain, and the accompanying spread of gold, is the proof of it. My rotten soul rebels as it awakens and realizes what I have done to it. Yet I am enjoying myself. Spending time with Master, who tries to work even with someone like me. Spending time with Jeanne Alter, who sees my ruined self and yet still seeks only my company, not to change me.
If this keeps going, I will soon be unfit for purpose. I must put a stop to it.
He had meant to close off his unruly emotions in favor of a renewed focus on his mission. He really had. But that was before Jeanne Alter came by with the blanket.
"Take this!" She thrust something soft and black into his hands as soon as he opened his door.
"For me?" he said automatically in his slow drawl. "You shouldn't have."
She ignored him in favor of sweeping past him into his room. He looked down at the bundle in his hands. He couldn't feel it, but it looked like thick sheep's wool. A bit coarse, but intricately hand-woven.
Jeanne Alter sat on his lone chair. Her nose crinkled as she took in its austerity, the bare furnishings and lack of personal effects. "You call this a room?" she grumbled. "There isn't a trace of you in it. It might as well belong to a stranger."
"I don't generally stay in one place for very long," he said with a shrug. He looked down at the blanket again. "Are you sure?"
"Don't be stupid. I didn't go through all the trouble of making it just to have you reject it."
"You made this?" He couldn't quite keep the surprise from his voice. The Dragon Witch weaving something this… well, wholesome. It was a hard image to reconcile with her fiery persona.
"I used to have one like it, back in Domrémy." She hesitated. "Well, no. I didn't, because I was never Jeanne. I am only a fake, infused by a Grail with her memories. But I still wanted you to have this."
He swallowed hard. "You already know that I can barely feel things when I touch them. Something this fine is wasted on me."
"That doesn't matter. It's from me, so accept it or I'll kill you."
That was more like the Jeanne Alter he knew. He couldn't help but smile. "Very well. Then thank you. It is after all the thought that counts."
She snorted in disdain, but he only smiled and deftly spread the blanket over his bed. He had to admit that it did look good. It was a reminder that someone still wanted to give him something other than orders or weapons. And while Master tried to reach out to all his Servants, he knew what he was witnessing from Jeanne Alter was rarer than a blue moon.
He should give her something in return. Not just because that was the expected protocol in this situation, but because he simply wanted to. He opened his drawer, looking over his various tools to see which one might suit his fellow Alter.
"What are you doing?" she called from her seat.
"When you receive a gift, it is traditional to offer one in return. I'd offer you a French king on a platter, but sadly I seem to be out. So instead –"
"I don't want any of your stupid toys," she pouted.
"A spar then? Since we do that regularly, I thought –"
"You," she snapped. "I want you."
She lunged off the chair to lock her hands on both sides of his face. She then yanked him down so that their lips crashed together. It was a dragon's kiss, hungry and greedy. Teeth clamped down on his bottom lip, drawing a bead of blood. Certainly not the sort of kiss one would expect from a maiden. Yet when she finally pulled away, there was a slight flush to her cheeks.
He couldn't help but laugh, even though it earned him another scowl. "So even a black saint can feel shy," he said.
"You must really want to die, speaking to me like that."
She huffed and turned towards the door. But before she had taken a step, he reached out and caught her wrist.
"Thank you," he said.
She grumbled and pulled away. After the door swung shut, he sat on the bed and ran his hand along the blanket. He imagined the wool tickling at his fingers. It would feel soft, he mused.
Pain suddenly flared in his forehead, sharp and throbbing. If he had not been sitting down, he would surely have staggered from the sheer force of it. He reached out to touch the area, and felt a patch of unnatural smoothness. He traced it down to his brow, and then along the ridge of his nose.
If he had a mirror, he knew he would see new gold shining back at him.
XXXX . XX . XX
Despite knowing that her memories are borrowed rather than her own, Jeanne Alter appears to hold significant nostalgia for them. I think she might enjoy ratatouille, a traditional dish in the French countryside. If I am wrong, or she realizes that I obtained the recipe from the saint, I can expect to wear that ratatouille on my head. Jeanne Alter never hesitates to make her displeasure known. Nonetheless, I consider it an acceptable risk.
She peered suspiciously at the dish. "Aubergine, courgette… is this ratatouille? You said you didn't cook."
"I don't. I can barely remember the basics. But I wanted to try this anyway." He gave her a wry smile. "And even if it turned out badly, neither of us tastes much."
"And it's the thought that counts," she said mockingly.
He only smiled at her. "Exactly."
She stared at him for a long moment, then abruptly snatched the bowl from him. She shoveled still-steaming vegetables into her mouth.
"It tastes like shit," she said. Then she plunged her spoon back in.
He glanced around the room as she ate. If his room was oppressive in its severity, hers was just as discomfiting in its own way. The walls were lined with tattered standards and broken blades, half-burned maps with entire cities scorched off. A paean to her hatred and the scourge it had cut across France.
She noticed his gaze and paused in her meal. "Do you find it disgusting?"
"No," he said. "Even if I don't share your hatred for France, I can understand what brought you there."
"From anyone else, I would despise that sentiment. But somehow, when it's you I find that I don't mind." She let the spoon clatter back into an empty bowl. She had eaten every last bite. "Because you understand what it is to be set on a path you hate, but cannot break away from."
"You no longer wish to be the Dragon Witch?"
"Une chimère.I cannot change what I am. But when I'm with you, sometimes I forget about it for a little while." Her eyes narrowed. "And if you ever repeat –"
"You'll kill me. I know."
"That's right," she said approvingly. She drummed her fingers on the table. "You know, you still didn't pay me back for the other day."
"You seemed to enjoy the dish well enough despite your complaints. Well, I suppose a blanket does represent more work."
"Not for the blanket, you fool. For the kiss."
"Oh," he said, and found himself blushing. It was impossible, he had long lost the capacity for it. Not to mention he had known plenty of women in his difficult life. But here he was, flushed in the cheeks like a goddamned schoolboy.
Especially when she leaned in to settle against his shoulder. "Judging from the other day, you don't at all understand what a black saint is. Let me show you."
And when she pushed him down on the bed, he found that he welcomed it.
XXXX . XX . XX
Despite my resolution, the cracks are growing more pronounced. Longer and wider, in some areas they form entire patches of gold. Jeanne certainly noticed. She ran her fingers along their lengths while we were cooling down. She asked about them, of course. I told her not to worry about it. She was obviously dissatisfied, even angry. It is fortunate that a Servant can remanifest their clothing at any time, or I might have shocked a few people on the way back to my quarters.
But how could I explain the problem to Jeanne? The more I regret what I am, the more the lines spread. And I find myself regretting it most when we are together, for I wish I had more to give her. If I told her, she would be furious with me for allowing the cracks – which would be fine – but she would also blame herself. She hates herself too much already. I will not willingly add to it, even if it means I must deceive her.
He was sitting in the briefing room when Jeanne Alter stormed in. She was carrying a large bowl, one of the many used for serving meals in the cafeteria.
"See this?" she sneered. She hurled it down to the floor. Crash! Shards of white ceramic scattered the floor.
"Something terrible happens, and the bowl breaks," she said, waving her hands at the scattered pieces. "But instead of letting it be, they force it back together so they can keep using it. Oh, but they do it with gold, so it's all okay!"
He should have known she would find out. Jeanne Alter did not graciously accept things that irritated her. She had forced answers from someone, and now here they both were.
"Kintsugi," he murmured, his eyes inexorably drawn to the shards no matter how much he tried to look away. "A celebration of the history of an object, by highlighting rather than hiding repairs. To show that damaged things can still be beautiful."
"That's you, isn't it?" she growled. "That's why you have those gold scars all over you. Because you're breaking."
"Are there other insights you wish to share with me?" he asked drily.
She gave the nearest fragment a ferocious kick, sending it to further splinter against the wall.
"The gold is just a way of making everyone feel better. So they can pretend that you're good as new, or even better. That way they don't have to feel bad that they let you break." Another kick, and more shards went flying. "If they gave a damn, they wouldn't have let you get smashed in the first place! They should feel bad! Just like that stupid saint. They gilded her with praise and lies, so she never noticed how badly she was breaking. Not until they put the stupid girl on the pyre. I will never forgive them for it."
She took a deep breath before looking up to meet his eyes. "How could you not hate them? The ones that made you break."
"Jeanne Alter," he said softly. "Nobody is doing this to me. I am doing it to myself."
"By forcing yourself on missions, huh?" He opened his mouth to correct her when she straightened up. Suddenly she was the battlefield commander that had compelled hundreds of men to war, her voice proud and commanding. "I will discharge both our duties from now on. There is no place for weaklings on the front. So just stay home."
He couldn't help but smile. The insulting tone hardly hid that Jeanne Alter was worried for him. Still, he had some pride as a man. "I cannot abandon my mission," he said. "But if you would accompany me and keep me safe, I would be most appreciative.
"I suppose that's an acceptable compromise," she grumbled. "But you had better not let your frailty hold me back too much."
She nodded at him and left. Leaving him to pick up all the broken ceramic, of course. Some things never changed. He smiled.
The moment after, agony tore along his right shoulder blade. He barely caught himself against the wall as pain wracked through his body.
He needed to hold himself together. As grateful as he was for Jeanne Alter's concern, he could not leave his mission to her. He owed a duty to his Master and to humanity. He had to rebury these emotions and ignore the yearning in his heart.
He was doomed.
XXXX . XX . XX
I stumbled across Jaguar Man today. I usually do my best to avoid her, but I needed to visit the kitchen for ingredients. I know she was offended that I did not return her greeting, but it's too painful.
That face, that voice... I know she's from another world line but I can't help it. How could I not be reminded of her? I miss her, even after all these years. Her infectious grin as she came in the door and greeted me. Her enthusiasm for her beloved shinai, matched only by her enthusiasm for my cooking. Her scoldings, and the way she would frown when she knew I was only appeasing her and I'd turn around and keep doing the same thing no matter how many times she lectured me.
No, I shouldn't think of her. I don't have the right to do such a thing. Not after I failed her. Her and her son. When I close my eyes I can still see the gunshot wounds and the blood. But worse than that, her empty glassy gaze. I deserve it. I deserve to carry that image with me forever.
I despair when I look at Jeanne. I will only hurt her, fail her, as I inevitably do to anyone who stands by me. She will shatter her heart on me and be left more broken than ever. I should spurn her now, before she gets any more attached. But no matter how many times I tell myself to push her away, my hands can't seem to let her go.
I really am a vile man.
Her hair smelt of ash as he buried his nose in it, but he didn't mind. It was hers.
He carefully moved his arm under the silk sheet to encircle her waist. Pull her more tightly against him. She hissed, but did not pull away from him. Encouraged, he bent his head lower to press kisses against her bare skin. He avoided those areas that were still marked purplish-blue with bruises. He felt a bit badly that he had gotten carried away, but perhaps that was excusable for an Alter. His own torso and shoulders were scored with scratches and small burns, after all.
EMIYA Alter generally tried to keep his mind as blank as possible, the better to focus on his duties. But that was impossible when they laid together quietly like this, basking in their spent passion. For all his dulled senses, he could keenly feel her warmth everywhere their bodies touched.
Comfort and fatigue sent him into a rare doze, and he found his mind wandering. When had he last felt this content? It had been so long. The last time had been before…
"There was a woman," he said. It slipped out before he could stop himself.
"What?" Jeanne Alter roughly disentangled herself from his embrace. Her eyes burned with jealousy as she glared down at him. "Why are you telling me this? You want me to kill you, then her?"
He shook his head. "It's not like that. We never did anything." He took a deep breath as fragments of memories washed over him, threatening to drag him away with their tide. "Her presence was a poison that spread out and hurt others. It seeped into their minds and made them dangerous. I had to put a stop to her. But to do that, I had to get to her. I had to kill those whose minds were…" He shuddered violently. "There were so many of them. All that blood on my blades. I…"
"But you got the bitch in the end," said Jeanne Alter.
"Did it justify what I did to all those people? I told myself it did, but…" To her astonishment, he began to cry. Small sobs that many would have strained to hear, but that were the equivalent of agonized howls from the stoic man before her.
She understood now. This was what had caused EMIYA to become an Alter. Not revenge or anger, but despair.
She hesitated, then tentatively wrapped her arms around him. It felt unnatural to every instinct, which screamed at her to hunt down the woman and kill her in bloody vengeance. But right now, it seemed to be what EMIYA needed.
Suddenly his entire body spasmed hard in her grip. Then she felt it where her hand rested on his shoulder. The rough skin was gone, replaced by smooth gold. She pulled away and stared at him. The cracks were expanding, gold eating away at dark skin before her very eyes.
"You're breaking," she said with quiet anger. "It's not because of battle, is it? It's your feelings breaking you."
"My soul," he sighed. "Or what is left of it. I sacrificed so much, made so many mistakes. As long as I managed to numb myself, I could carry on. But now that I see the full weight of it, my soul is rebelling. So the cohesion of my body…"
"It's eating up your lifespan," she snarled.
"Yes." He had no choice but to admit it.
"You'll die and leave me all alone."
"Jeanne Alter – "
"Bordel de merde!" she roared. "I should have known you were just like Master! That you would only betray me!"
Her fist quivered, and he was sure she would strike him. He welcomed it, if only to distract him from the pain in his ruined heart. But after a moment, she turned away with a snarl and stormed off.
A fresh wave of self-loathing threatened to drown him. He should never have allowed himself to get close to Jeanne Alter. Bringing happiness to people was for people with whole souls, people like red EMIYA. In wanting to help the Dragon Witch, he had only made himself break apart more quickly. The very thing that was hurting her now.
He really couldn't do anything right, could he?
XXXX . XX . XX
I have not seen Jeanne for some time now. Master asked me what happened. Apparently, he mentioned fielding us together. She swore that if he dared, she would kill first him, then me. I could only tell him that it was my fault. That I hurt her. Instead of being angry, he sympathized. What a foolish master I have, to feel sorry for an idiot like me.
I can feel the lines spreading as my soul breaks me down. I know that my time here is limited, but I cannot bring myself to regret it. For the first time in countless years, I feel like myself again. Jeanne was right – I am selfish after all.
I miss her, but the only thing I can do for her now is to keep my distance. I hope that I have not damaged her again irreparably. But if I could be just a little more selfish, I wish that I could see her smile again. Even one last time.
EMIYA Alter hacked the target up with his blades, tearing through metal and concrete. It had taken some work establishing a new training schedule, but he had no other choice. At least some of his fellow Servants had been willing to serve as his dueling partners, even though none could replace his erstwhile partner.
He sighed and looked towards the next mark, forcing himself back into a combat stance. As he did, he heard the door open behind him.
Jeanne? He hated the way his heart leapt at the thought. He thought they had settled this. Still, he couldn't help but look over his shoulder at the new arrival.
The face was similar, yet at the same time miles away. Artoria Pendragon stood before him in all her glory, shining armor and proud bearing. Yet her eyes were gentle as she looked at him.
"Archer. Would you have a moment to spare?"
When EMIYA Alter had first arrived at Chaldea, he had dreaded encountering her. She evoked strong mixed feelings in him, even through the haze of his apathy. She both reminded him of the ideals that had destroyed him, and made him want to reach for them all over again. But now he found he was truly happy to see her, even if it also hurt him.
"Oh? Has the great King of Knights decided to honor me with her presence?" He still greeted her with sarcasm, though. Some habits died hard.
"Perhaps I am not the best person to talk to you about relationships –"
He spluttered, staring at her as if she'd suddenly said she was marrying Lancelot. Then he coughed, trying to recover his usual mask. "If this is about the birds and the bees, you long ago missed your chance."
She looked at him seriously. "I am in earnest. I need to speak to you about Jeanne Alter."
"There is nothing to say. I made a mistake." He shrugged. "Now the best I can do is stay away, so I don't make it worse."
"Shirou," she said, and he thought his heart might snap in two.
"Nobody has called me that for a very long time, Saber," he said quietly. "Not since even before I lost my way."
"You're always Shirou to me, no matter what path you have trod." She smiled softly at him. "And I wish to stop you from making the same mistake you always do."
He stared at her helplessly. For a moment, he was the boy that had once gazed up at a shining knight, resplendent even in the darkness of his shed. His ideals made flesh in an impossibly brave and beautiful girl. Even as sudden pain lanced through him, the gold cracking him ever further, he could not look away from her.
"You think so little of yourself that you can't accept that you make others happy," she said. She raised her hand to him, delicately brushed away the denial forming on his lips. "Your time together may be limited, but that's precisely why you need to make the most of it. As King of Britain, I had to accept that any of my knights might die in our next battle. My error was holding myself aloof from them, rather than celebrating what time we did have together. You are making that error now."
She gently pushed him towards the door. "Go to her."
He stumbled out into the corridor, carried along by the strength of Artoria's conviction. Was that what it meant to have the Charisma skill, he chuckled to himself. But she was not entirely wrong.
He wondered where he might find Jeanne Alter. He let his feet carry him down hallways and around corners, hoping to catch a glimpse of a dark furred cloak and pale hair. No luck, but he would not give up. Not when –
He heard a roar behind him. "EMIYA! Connard! You dare show yourself in front of me?"
He spun around at the sound of that voice. The black saint was striding down the hall towards him, her lips curled back in a snarl. She was as beautiful as ever, even in her anger. Even better than the memory of her that he had forcibly imprinted on his tattered soul. He couldn't help but smile at the sight.
'What's with that stupid look?" she said impatiently. "I'll burn it off once and for all!"
"To the dueling room, then?" he grinned.
She huffed angrily, but she followed him anyway.
Their blades clashed again and again, red and white against black steel. Sparks flew as they lunged and weaved around each other, each looking for the decisive opening. EMIYA Alter saw her fierce grin between thrusts of her spear. He couldn't help grinning back.
A particularly hard blow sent him staggering back. Instead of pressing her advantage, she pulled back and drew her sword. She pointed it at him in a stance that had become entirely familiar to him.
"Let all evil gather here," she intoned. Fire flickered around her feet, its tongues spreading up her black armor. But instead of building in intensity, it sputtered and died. She frowned and jabbed her sword forward again. Red flame briefly came back to life, but then fell back apart into embers.
"Pathetic," she said. "I am hate and rage. Its roar is the dragon's breath that fuels le Grondement de la Haine. Always it has responded to my twisted soul. Yet when I look at you, it all slips between my fingers." She barked a laugh. "Pathetic. I am a failure of a Servant."
She waved at him with exaggerated casualness. "Well, go ahead then."
"I must decline your invitation," he said, letting his guns vanish. "Unlimited Lost Works fires pieces of my soul. I lose a bit more of it every time I use it. And I won't risk losing the part that you inhabit, Jeanne Alter."
She stared at him as he shrugged. "With how much of it you insist on occupying – without permission, I might add – the risk is unacceptably high. So I must confess to being a failure too." He gave her a wry smile. "What an unfortunate Master we have, to summon such a pair of useless Servants."
She looked like she might scream at him, but then she burst into laughter. Full, honest laughter, without the strange pitch of the Dragon Witch. It made her sound like the young woman she actually was. And EMIYA Alter couldn't help but join in.
Outside in the hallway, two Servants suddenly stopped in their tracks. Artoria and EMIYA exchanged disbelieving looks before cautiously sliding the door open. They blinked at the sight before them.
"He never laughs like that," said EMIYA in wonder. "Not with joy."
Artoria merely smiled and walked ahead, but not without a renewed spring in her step.
XXXX . XX . XX
It's been so long since I last baked that it took me three tries before I managed a decent cake. Blue icing, of course. Jeanne likes blue, but she doesn't like admitting it because the saint likes it too.
Jeanne told me I was wasting my time, but I insisted. I wanted something sweet to mark our reunion, to make up for our earlier bitterness. I want to give her as much as I can, while there is still time left.
"Hold it like this, so the sight lines up here."
EMIYA Alter adjusted his counterpart's grip on his version of Kanshou, moving the gun into the correct alignment. The red Archer couldn't quite suppress the excited grin on his face as he squeezed the trigger. The far target exploded in most satisfying way.
The Alter was about to hand him the other gun when he suddenly doubled over in pain. More cracks tore through him, everywhere from his face to the bottom of his feet. His heart was pounding, his entire body trembling. Distantly he heard EMIYA's shout, but with gritted teeth he waved him away. It would pass, he just needed to bear it. He squeezed his eyes against the pain, helplessly letting it wash over him.
Then he felt a cool touch against his shoulder. It did not dissipate the pain, but it gave him an anchor point to latch onto. He concentrated on that touch as it shifted around, hoisted him over a slight shoulder. Distantly he heard an angry voice yelling, before he was awkwardly half-carried, half-dragged along.
He blinked and found himself being pulled along the corridor by familiar arms. Jeanne Alter was smaller than him, but she did her best to support his weight.
"Where-?" he managed.
"To my room," she said shortly. "Don't read into it! It's closer, that's all."
She carefully laid him out on the bed, then sighed in exasperation.
"Idiot. Spending time with red EMIYA always sets you thinking to what you might have been. It always makes it worse."
"But you didn't stop me."
"It's who you are," she said simply. "Even if it means you'll break apart that much sooner."
"It's fine," she shrugged. "Master has many other Servants. He will manage even without you. The mission will go on. You can afford to be selfish for once."
"Jeanne, I'm sorry."
"I'm being selfish too," she said. "Because the part of me you helped grow – the part that is more than what Gilles wished for – wants to see you at peace. Even if it means your death. Because it gives me hope that maybe someday, I will find something to compensate for my hatred. So I can die with something more in my heart."
He tried to sit up, but she gently pushed him back down. "Hush. Let yourself fall apart. Die as yourself, remembering your dream of justice. I will catch your fragments and hold them to my lips. And you will not be nameless, so long as I live, so long as I still burn. This is the last gift I can offer you."
"I'll remember you too," he promised.
"That's impossible." She snorted. "You'll forget all about me when you return to the Throne of Heroes, as you should. I will not join you, you know. I am only a fake, born from a twisted wish on the grail, however heartfelt it was. And when my rage finally burns out, I will not go to the Throne. I will simply cease to be."
"Even so, I will remember you. Always." He reached out to stroke her cheek. "So unless you want me to remember you with a frown…"
"Idiot," she said, and smiled at him.