Saber Alter felt the trepidation building within her from the very moment she'd somehow managed to knock herself out and get back to her alternative record. Things were just as she'd left abruptly left them; her alone and stewing in her unease, and Merlin looking over the magic seal placed on Shirou.
Walking quickly to where she knew Merlin and Shirou, she pushed open the door to her personal quarters and saw Merlin examining Shirou with a nod.
Was that a good sign?
Saber Alter's heart hammered in her chest. "H-How is he?" She stuttered just trying to get the words out, the thought of Merlin potentially failing effectively hindering her oratory faculties and her façade of composure.
Merlin didn't answer immediately, trying to be mysterious and bring levity to a situation Saber Alter had no patience over.
She bit down on her lips, hand balled hard into fists, and suddenly Merlin grew just a tad more serious, back straightening and staff poised at his side. The wisdom of a Wizard befitted him at this moment. Evidently a good sign if he was in the mood to rattle her or joke.
"I did it," Merlin said with an air of smugness that Saber Alter frankly didn't care for.
Saber Alter almost lost herself in the urge to hug Merlin in her relief at the good news, but still had enough control to know not to give the lech anything more to hold over her. She already knew he'd flaunt that she'd cried into his shoulder over her, but despite her reservations, the way she looked at her teacher had become noticeably softer.
"Still, I'm afraid Morgan had only added reinforcement to whatever magic was blocking Shirou's memories to begin with. This just means that his memories likely won't return all at once," Merlin warned in good faith, tapping Saber Alter shoulder as he made his way out. "Give him some time to wake up, and see if he remembers anything then. It may take a few day, but I take it you won't be leaving this room?"
Saber Alters action to sit by Shirou's bedside was enough of an answer.
For a moment, just for a moment, Merlin grew wistful at the scene carrying the innocence of the youth that had connected these two together so many years ago.
"Then I'll be on my way," Merlin sent his regards before blowing away in a flurry of rose petals.
Saber Alter nodded, but remained where she was, one hand clasped over Shirou's own; her thumb brushing back and forth against his, feeling his warmth, cherishing his presence.
And so, she waited, just like that, neither moving nor resting.
Several days passed with her assuming the same position.
She didn't eat, nor did she sleep to the point of heavy bags under her eyes, refusing to return the nexus where her alternatives resided until she saw things through.
Needless to say, but in her alternative record, she didn't possess the body of a Servant, but her original body. The stress it was taking by neither eating or sleeping for the past few days was apparent, but she held on through using her magical energy as a substitute to keep herself together.
Her efforts eventually paid off, as she would the first her Shirou would see when his eyelids began to stir, and his eyes fluttered open.
For a fleeting second, anxiety clutched at her chest, dreading if he'd react negatively to her once again.
He stared, and she stared back, her grip on Shirou's hand which she'd been holding, squeezing almost in a sign of pleading.
"Arturia," he finally said with no small amount of disorientation, but to Saber Alter, it meant the world.
She was never much of a talker, or socializer in general, but she eagerly leaned forward, a cry of relief escaping her throat while raising up Shirou's hand and pressing her forehead against it.
It was verification. All that she ever needed.
"Shirou," she whispered, turbid eyes wavering in the glow of the light from their mistiness.
Shirou didn't recoil from her touch. Instead, he winced as if warring with a heavy migraine.
Saber Alter bit down on her bottom lip. Reminding herself constantly that Merlin had said that Shirou may not immediately possess all of his memories. Yet at the very least, he'd called her name, meaning that he had to have remembered her to a degree.
She quivered, frail, yet hopeful all the same.
"Y-You must be thirsty- no hungry. It's been days since you've been unconscious," her hands trembled in her agitation and solace of his wellbeing. She stood up; knees shaky yet determined.
Let this be said, but she'd never been this open and proactive about anyone else.
"Arturia, is that you?"
He said her name again! This feeling of constriction in her chest, these butterflies, this feeling of contentment and joy, how long had it been since she'd felt like this?
Saber Alter flushed, trying to maintain her composure, but soon caring little for it towards someone she knew she could spend the rest of her life with.
Shirou tried to speak to her, perhaps to dissuade her, a King from serving him, but to him Saber Alter would give the honour. Thus was his position in her heart.
It was truly unfortunate that whatever she or Shirou had to say would be cut short by a sudden explosion reverberating through Camelot's stone walls and causing the ground to vibrate.
Saber Alter frowned at the sound of commotion, but was too invested in her Shirou to care. Let the Enforcement Knights deal with it. No, wait; carelessness was the cause of any defeat, and she she'd be damned if she'd let that happen now when her Shirou had just returned.
"I'll be back," Saber Alter said hurriedly, not noticing an abnormality in her Shirou in her haste.
Shirou nodded stiffly. Saber Alter thought it was because he hadn't gotten used to her again just yet, but failed to realize it was due to a certain 'someone' gesturing frantically at him from a distant window.
With purpose to investigate whoever dared slight her in this instance, she left the room.
It would be her folly, an honest to goodness mistake as someone who was never very subtle ended up being very subtle.
Just as Saber Alter left, Mordred climbed into the room, stunning Shirou…and the rest was history.
Saber Alter returned several minutes later, disappointed that her investigation had led to nothing, and that she'd wasted her time. Of course, there could have been some other underlying plot, but she'd detected nothing too off. As such, she'd made a personal trip to the kitchen instead and made her way back to her personal quarter with some refreshments she'd sequestered.
Tragically, she ended up dropping everything at the entrance of her own room.
The room was empty.
A metal platter clanged over the ground, cups, fruit, and braised meats clattering everywhere as Saber Alter fell into a daze.
No guards would dare draw near her room, and if Shirou had remembered her, there shouldn't have been a need from him to flee. Hence, Saber Alter had never even considered leaving anyone to monitor him. Then what did this mean? There were no signs of struggle in the room, with only the door slightly ajar.
Saber Alter wasn't a fool.
A lump formed in her throat.
H-He left on his own? Left her? Gone. Gone. He was gone.
She just stood there, not knowing how devastated or tragic she looked, until Merlin willingly appeared next to her without her beckoning.
Merlin quietly and carefully picked the things off of the ground and placed them on a table inside the room, not saying a word to her due to her utterly pained expression behind a frosty exterior.
"M-Merlin," Saber Alter eventually swallowed down the lump in her throat and called out, her voice a pitiful croak. Shirou had left her. He'd left even with whatever memories he'd regained. H-He'd abandoned her like the rest. "Why…W-Why did he leave me? D-Did I do something wrong…?" She cupped her face with her hands, muffling a sob before she spun on her heels and tried to leave in pursuit.
Merlin stopped her.
"Sometimes, to take a step forward, one must take a step back. He may just be confused, and going after him now may cause him to distance himself from you more with your current reputation," Merlin chastised with little effect. "His memories of the past and the present may be warring with each other. Give him some time."
Saber Alter was no longer listening to anything Merlin said, features seemingly blank and neutral, yet…she was drowning in the misery of abandonment.
Numerous betrayals and disappointments had shaped Saber Alter all her life. She didn't even react when the castle shook once again, battle shouts echoing in Camelot's halls.
For once, Saber Alter didn't care. Shivering, she hugged herself instead, despondence pervading her form.
"Why? W-Why did he leave? He promised," Saber Alter echoed hollowly, crestfallen, betrayed. She just couldn't understand.
Only one thing was clear in the haze of her emotions.
Once again, she was alone.
Nothing was making sense.
Shirou pinched the bridge of his nose and shut his eyes in an attempt to quell a sudden onset of dizziness. After Mordred had suddenly appeared to 'rescue' him, he'd ended up following her out of habit and concern. If Saber Alter found her, or she alerted the patrolling knights, Mordred was dead. Deader than dead. Somehow, he just knew this would have been the result, and now here he was still struggling with a migraine and staying near Mordred for her own safety.
It didn't help that his mind was in a flurry of confusion, a mix of doubt and a gut feeling that something important was just on the edge of his tongue. For the life of him though, it just wasn't coming yet.
"Are you alright?" Mordred asked while puling him along before growing concerned about the expression on his face, brows furrowed, forehead creased. "S-She didn't do anything to you, did she?"
By 'she,' Mordred obviously meant Saber Alter.
Shirou's mouth opened and closed before he wet his lips, his throat dry.
Bringing Saber Alter up, the image of her shocked, almost terrified, expression when he'd first roused from consciousness immediately came to mind. Rather than the cold and apathetic face of the tyrant described by many, all he saw was a woman who seemed like her world was ending, her hopes crushed and smothered without mercy. Her expression back then…Honestly, it plagued him.
"No, no she didn't. She was, not what you'd expect," Shirou murmured while navigating Camelot's long halls, almost crestfallen.
Tactfully, Mordred released her grip on him when she noticed Shirou's inner turmoil and decided to give her self-proclaimed 'shield' a moment to collect himself.
"We can rest here for a bit, and wait for the stationed Enforcement Knights to make their rounds," Mordred offered, cycling between tapping her foot on the ground or tapping her index finger on her bicep. Patience had never been one of Mordred's greatest virtues.
For his part, Shirou was thankful for the short reprieve as a congregation of magic sealed off by Agatha, the Elemental Spirit finally began to unravel.
Shirou's knees wobbled while his mind reeled from a sensation similar to haptic feedback.
A memory suddenly played unbidden. One that he'd obviously held dear to him:
A promise once made to a woman on the verge of tears.
'Even if I don't know why you can't believe in anyone else, at the very least I'll stay by your side.'
...How could he have forgotten?
The sheer relief, no, it was more than that; the sheer reassurance his words had had on her in that moment was damning. It was the first time she'd let anyone truly know her; to see her vulnerabilities and cherish her truest trust and faith.
His Arturia had looked so content.
What was he doing right now?
"Let's go!" Mordred urged hurriedly after several minutes had passed, tugging on Shirou's sleave and causing Shirou to frown at her urgency. Mordred noticed, and quickly explained. "Mother and the other knights intend to siege the castle and we have to assemble with them for safety. I don't know what changed in mother's plans, but she said that the King will be vulnerable and that this is the best time to attack."
Vulnerable? Shirou balled his hands into fists.
The image of a smiling Saber Alter was abruptly replaced by one of despondence.
Wasn't that his fault?
Memories of a young, prideful, and all too smug Saber Alter came to mind when they were kids. She had always been distant and standoffish, only softening up to him in their competitiveness and growing comradery. Eventually, after trail and error, she'd opened up to him on fateful evening under the stars.
More memories slowly came.
Then there was the realization that Saber Alter had once confided in him that her greatest fear, her greatest torment, was being abandoned…hadn't he done just that?
Guilt and regret left him feeling weak, following behind Mordred even as he kept looking back the way that he'd come from.
The longer he looked, the more he understood the growing longing within him, and the desire to make things right.
"Enforcement Knights," Mordred suddenly muttered under her breath after travelling in silence. She crouched low behind a support castle column. A few minutes later, she made sure that the Enforcement Knights had passed by before moving away from her position by the pillar. "It should be safe from here if we sprint," she deduced. Even if they were caught, the pursuers wouldn't be able to catch up to them in time before they reached her mother's resistance forces. "Are you ready to go?"
Mordred frowned, her lips pursing before she glanced behind her.
"Shirou?" She called out dumbly when she realized that no one was behind her.
Shirou was gone, not having made a single sound.
After quietly separating with Mordred, Shirou had ended up drifting as if directly reflecting the current state of his emotions. His eyes looked upon a direction, and his feet simply carried him forward, neither with purpose or intent, but just for the sole act of not keeping steel.
In the hazy memories gradually returning to him with Agatha's aid to prevent overload, certain aspects and events, important ones were the first things he remembered. Among them, the promise he'd once made to Saber Alter above all things took the greatest weight.
An oath had been sworn, and he'd be damned if didn't follow it.
What sort of face must his Arturia be making right now?
He grimaced in guilt.
The thing about his current predicament was that from his own perspective, no party involved in this conflict of the throne was wrong.
Saber Alter had been grieving at his supposed loss, and the darker aspects of her personality that he'd noticed since young had taken full hold of her. She was a tyrant through and through, ruling by absolute order and forcing peace over the country through submission and terror.
Then there was Mordred, and Morgan who led the resistance against the King who pillaged villages and towns indiscriminately at the slightest rumour of Morgan being sighted. Resistance was met with lethal force to serve as an example, and didn't help paint Saber Alter's image any better to the common masses. Instead, it was Morgan who offered charity and aid to those afflicted, never mind the fact that she was the cause of all this hate from Saber Alter.
The topic inevitably returns to Morgan, and as hard as it was to admit, Shirou could see similar aspects of her and Saber Alter that wasn't just colour scheme.
The two really were sisters. The only real difference was in how they ruled and how their subjects treated them. Both were strict and merciless to offenders, but Morgan was the better one in management and leadership. How else could an entire resistance group comprised of a several Knight corps elude Saber Alter for so long?
Shirou himself had seen Morgan lead, and had also seen that in her own twisted and cold sort of way, she cared for her country and people. The former Knights of the Round who'd joined her cause had been able to see this side of Morgan due to the setting Saber Alter herself had caused.
Mordred, Lancelot, Agravain, Tristan, Percival, and Bors, were among many enlisted in Morgan's cause including himself recruited by Mordred.
As for Saber Alter, other than droves of common Enforcement Knights, she was practically isolated in her own faction.
'This wasn't supposed to happen.'
A pang of regret ebbed from deep within him as he coincidently entered Saber Alter's personal armory within Camelot.
There were many things Shirou had gotten to know about Saber Alter in their time together, and he knew very well that she viewed words as dirt, and only actions as gold.
Shirou stared up at the armoury before him.
He knew this place. He'd been here before, yet what truly caught his attention was a set of black armour. The steel was tinted from the forge, and metal woven in the likeness of scales jutted out from the shoulder guards and front plate.
To others, it may appear as just some decorative piece, but for Shirou and Saber Alter, it carried a certain meaning regarding an event shared only between them in the past.
…This armour, of course she'd still have it.
Morgan, Mordred, and the rest, or Arturia whom he'd promised to devote everything- he'd already come to a decision.
Neither side was wrong in this case, and both would feel betrayed regardless of the choice he made, but at the very least, Mordred and the others had people to rely on.
In contrast, Saber Alter had nothing but Merlin who couldn't even really be considered human.
Morgan should be laying siege on Camelot with the other knights by this point if what Mordred said was true.
Time was of the essence, and by wearing the armour it would at least grant him anonymity from Mordred and the rest.
Only Arturia would be able to know it was him at a glance, and that was fine.
On autopilot, Shirou meticulously fastened the armour's grieves, pauldrons, chest plate, and everything else until he was fully suited in the armour resembling the dark hollows or pith-coloured scales of dragons.
There was once a time where he considered himself to simply be Saber Alter's sword and sheath, but all along that wasn't what she needed. Her sword did not need to be laid to rest, nor did Saber Alter seek the respite of Avalon. She was strong, stronger than most…yet emotionally stunted and weak of heart.
Resolve grew ever stronger within him before the black helmet was placed over his head, fluted visor closing over his face and glowing a dim red.
He would neither be sword nor sheath, but what Saber Alter needed most, never betraying her, never leaving her even in the face of atrocity or public opinion.
A Dark Knight.
-Even if no one else would stand with her, at least one knight would.
The Fabled Black Knight.
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