PRELIMINARIES: None of this belongs to me. Fate/stay night, and all characters, settings, etc. associated with it, are the property of Type-Moon. Type-Moon is not affiliated in any way, shape, or form with the creation of this story (a fact for which, I suspect, they would be profoundly grateful). I have made liberal usage of their characters and settings in this story; this was done without their knowledge or permission, and is technically an infringement of Type-Moon's copyright. As this story is, at the most pragmatic level, free promotion of the Fate franchise, it is hoped that they will regard this story (if at all) with a benign ignorance.
If you paid a wooden nickel for this story, not only have you been drastically overcharged, but whoever charged you has done so illegally, and I disavow any association with said individual(s).
It should be noted once again that as far as terminology goes, I am relying primarily on mirror moon's translation of the game (e.g. majutsu/mahou as magic/sorcery) with the official releases of the anime as a secondary sources.
All feedback is welcome, up to and including line-by-line critiques (provided they fit in my mailbox).
Many thanks to Shack, my last prereader standing, who did what he could with this badly-stopped chunk of verbal constipation. (Please don't hold that against him.)
A while back, in a temporary burst of insanity (and back when I had delusions of getting this chapter out in 2017) I threw together a small FFN forum for this story. There is a link in my profile; please feel free to stop by and play with the tumbleweeds.
Now, sit back and either enjoy the ride, or (more likely) enjoy thinking of what you'll do to me at the end of it...
The first Servant had fallen.
And the results were not promising.
The false vessel had been far closer than the true vessel. She had been as close as she possibly could be - she was practically at the site of the battle! - but she was still unable to claim Assassin.
If he'd still had a body, Matou Zouken would have sighed. He could not have asked for a more promising setup, and yet without his assistance, Sakura was unable to capitalize.
Had he made a mistake?
He'd known of the golden Servant's continued existence for many years. He had not been troubled by the Servant's attack; on the contrary, he had been heartened by it.
The fact that that Servant felt the need to remove him from the equation was an undeniable sign that his experiment was on the right track.
Even afterward, he had still had hope for Sakura. She was so well-made, so perfectly suited to the Grail - surely, even without him, she could have -
But she hadn't.
And she wouldn't.
If she couldn't seize a Servant this time - with the pull of the true vessel at its weakest, the Servant in question already an improperly summoned anomaly, and Sakura practically on top of the Servant when he perished - then there was no point in even contemplating any possibility of success in later battles.
Perhaps it was time to give up on this Holy Grail War. His best chance had passed, and with the golden Servant taking an active hand, there was nothing more he could do -
That wasn't entirely true, was it?
Certainly, at the time he lost his body, no other road had been open to him; but now - now, there was one more possibility.
One more thing he could do.
His chances of success had never been lower - even compared to before - but still, Zouken had a chance to salvage something from this Holy Grail War.
He just had to be subtle about it.
THE WORLD WITHOUT
A Fate/stay night Fanfic
Sakura could feel the others' eyes upon her as the silence extended. The single word hung in the air, almost tangible; even as the pressure grew, though, she could not take her eyes off of the one to whom she'd spoken.
There was no doubt in her mind. It was impossible for her to be mistaken. But even so, she was beset by confusion and bewilderment, because -
And now, all eyes were on her sister.
Rin spoke in a low, flat voice. Her eyes were narrowed, and her fists were clenched; she spat out the word, then snapped her mouth shut so quickly Sakura could hear her teeth rattle.
Archer raised an eyebrow. "So quick to believe, Rin?"
"Cut the crap, Archer. You know what I've seen." Rin scowled. "You were fighting soldiers. Modern soldiers, with uniforms and rifles."
~His hands move forward~
Sakura inhaled sharply, and looked over at her sister in shock.
Her Servant was not in any better shape.
"Wait, Rin." Saber shook herself, almost involuntarily. "You say that you saw Archer...you're talking about what you've seen of his past?"
Rin glanced over at Saber, and nodded.
Saber's eyes widened. "So...it's true, then? Archer really is..."
"I've known for a while that he was from modern times. I didn't know who, exactly, he was...but it fits." Rin turned back to Archer, and glared. "Now cut the crap and answer the damned question! How in the blue hell did I manage to summon that third-rate hack of a mage as my Servant?!"
"You know how summoning works, Rin." He smirked. "If you didn't use a catalyst, then - "
"Archer." It almost felt like Rin should have been smiling. She wasn't, though. And even though the scowl on her face fit her tone of voice, it was wrong. "You are ten seconds away from sodomizing yourself with your own bow. I suggest you think very carefully about finishing that sentence."
Archer snorted, and shook his head. "What a frightening Master I have. Well, if you insist..."
He reached into his coat, pulled something out, and tossed it to Rin with a lazy flick of the wrist. It traced through the air in a glittering red arc, landing on the table before her with a noisy clatter.
"What..." Rin picked up the object, and held it out. It was a silver necklace, with a large red jewel at the end. "My pendant? Why did you take this from - "
"Do not misunderstand, Master. The pendant I handed to you six days ago remains safely in your room, right where you left it." Archer crossed his arms. "That pendant was one that Emiya Shirou carried throughout his life - the memento of an unknown savior, who healed his wounds and restored his life after he had been run through by Lancer on the first night of the Holy Grail War."
She tried to speak, but Archer continued before she could get a word out.
"The pendant you now hold is one that Emiya Shirou absentmindedly set down in his room six days ago, while searching for a raincoat for his newly summoned Servant."
Saber growled softly at that, and Archer smirked as he continued.
"Earlier that night, he picked it up from the hallway of his school, where you dropped it after using its reserves to reconstruct his heart.
"And two days before that, it was the catalyst that drew me off of the Throne of Heroes."
Rin stared down at the pendant in her hand. "So when you said you had no memories of who you were..."
"It was not a lie, Rin." Archer shook his head. "At the time, my memories really were that scrambled. I had recalled a little of it by the next morning - enough to figure out where and when I was, in relation to where and when I had lived - but I did not remember the last of it until we found Emiya Shirou's body in the school that night."
"So...six days." Rin's eyes narrowed, and she slowly rose to her feet. "Six days that you've known everything."
She looked down at the pendant still clenched in her hand, and her fist began to shake.
"Six days that you've known everything, and haven't told me anything."
"Would it have made a difference if I had?"
"Would it have made a difference...?"
Sakura swallowed hard. Rin was finally smiling again, but Sakura suddenly wished that she wasn't.
"Would it have made a difference?"
Sakura caught a brief motion in the corner of her eyes. Before she had time to process it, Saber appeared in front of her in a defensive crouch, pushing her back with one hand.
"ARCHER, YOU BRAIN-DEAD, HALF-WITTED MORON!"
Sakura cringed back from the outburst. Archer, though, simply crossed his arms, and raised an eyebrow.
Rin hurled the pendant back to the table. It bounced across and landed on the floor, at Saber's feet. Rin didn't notice, though; she'd already turned away, and stormed over to her Servant.
"You hid your background from me! Me - your Master! You hid your weaknesses! You hid your powers!" Rin threw her hands in the air. "Do you or do you not remember what I told you the night I summoned you? How the hell am I supposed to plan strategies and tactics for this War when MY OWN SERVANT is running counterintelligence against me?!"
"I'll repeat what I said then, Rin: It's a trivial matter. You don't need to know any of that." He smirked. "You summoned the strongest Servant. That was all you needed then, and it's all you need now."
Rin's jaw dropped. Her face flushed with rage, and her mouth moved soundlessly, as if trying to think of something to say. Her fists were clenched at her sides, and her entire body vibrated in place, as if she were barely restraining herself from whatever it was that she wanted to do (Sakura's imagination suggested more than a few possibilities, each worse than the last).
"Let us have you explain that strength for us, then."
Rin jerked as if struck, and both girls looked over.
"When Shirou summoned me, he was unable to cast even a simple healing spell. I cannot deny that I am curious as to how a man like that not only made his way to the Throne, but can now claim that he is the strongest."
Saber glanced at Rin.
"Apparently, I am not alone in my lack of knowledge."
Rin's eyes widened. Her gaze snapped over to Sakura, then back to Saber. She went back and forth between the two, faster and faster - as if she'd only just then remembered that they were there - until finally, she buried her face in her hands, and groaned.
"Um...Nee-san, it's all right. If...if Archer-san hasn't told you, then there's no reason to - "
All eyes went to Archer.
"If it's come to this, Rin might as well hear everything. And knowing my powers won't help you two at all. So..."
He shrugged, and gave them a crooked grin.
He'd been wrong all along.
Shirou had not been sure what to expect when he delved into his magic. Figuring out how to do it in the first place had been difficult enough; his magic was the only thing he had left to "see" with, and using it to examine itself was just as difficult as it once would have been to look at his own eyeballs without the benefit of a mirror.
And when he finally managed that trick, what would he find?
Swords, obviously. There was no question about that. After all, his magic had been the source of his visions of swords for as long as he could remember.
Structural Analysis seemed likely, though he wasn't sure how it would manifest. It was the magic he was most proficient in, and the only one he could use consistently without failure.
Reinforcement, perhaps? He'd had a few successes there.
Maybe even his countless failures at Projection.
He had considered all those possibilities, and braced himself to find something of each.
He hadn't expected to find this, though.
What Shirou beheld as he examined his own magic was...nothing.
And at the same time, everything.
It was all the same. His magic stretched out before him, a vast, formless white void - and yet, all he had to do was think of something, and it was there.
A sword - any sword, from the countless array he had seen in his dreams over the years - came to mind, and it immediately appeared before him.
The poster he'd Reinforced against Lancer came to mind - and immediately, it appeared before him.
His failures in Projection appeared almost before he could think of them. Each one displayed itself to his mind in splendid, exacting, excruciating detail - and now, with it all but highlighted before him, he could see where he had gone wrong, each and every time.
First: Judging the concept of creation.
Second: Hypothesizing the basic structure.
Third: Duplicating the composition material.
Fourth: Imitating the skill of its making.
Fifth: Sympathizing with the experience of its growth.
Sixth: Reproducing the accumulated years.
Seventh: Excelling every manufacturing process.
Always, the same seven steps.
Every success followed them.
Every failure deviated from them.
It never changed.
And it was not just his Projections, either. Every magic of his followed the same process, and ended with the same result.
Whenever he performed Structural Analysis, the blueprint formed here.
Whenever he attempted Reinforcement, the desired result would form here.
Whenever he tried Projection, the result would form here.
Structural Analysis...Reinforcement...Projection...Could he even call them that? What he did, what he called by those three names, was nothing like what Kiritsugu had taught him about.
He had been wrong all along.
None of his magic affected the real world. It only affected here. Only afterward could the results be overlaid upon reality - but it would only succeed in reality if he had done it properly here, first.
No matter which of the three he was attempting, it was always here. Always the same seven steps. Always the same magic.
The whole of Emiya Shirou's magic consisted of giving shape to his own mind.
That was the only thing he had ever done.
That was the only thing he was capable of.
"Archer. What are we doing here?"
"Patience, Saber. I promised an explanation, did I not?" Archer gestured to his surroundings.
Sakura looked around. She couldn't see very far - the only light in the shed was the moonlight coming in through the door - but from what she could see, the shed was still a mess. She hadn't been able to bring herself to set foot inside since she learned what had become of its owner; thus, no one had cleaned it, and it remained the chaotic jumble that had been left over from Lancer's attack and Saber's summoning.
Rin glared at her Servant. "Answer Saber's question, Archer. What are we doing here?"
"You couldn't tell already?" Archer shook his head. "Well. Perhaps you would find it difficult to understand."
Rin scowled. "What is that supposed to mean?"
"You are too used to success, Rin. You do not grasp the many ways one can fail, because you so rarely fail, yourself. Emiya Shirou, on the other hand, was intimately acquainted with failure. Because of that, there is no better place to explain his potential than here."
"You mean because it's Senpai's workshop?"
The others turned to Sakura in surprise.
"I wouldn't have called it that while I was within striking distance of Rin - "
Sakura did her best to ignore the sound of her sister grinding her teeth.
" - but yes, that is correct. This was where Emiya Shirou practiced his magic." Archer raised an eyebrow. "How did you know that, though?"
"I..." Sakura hesitated. "I...spied on him, once. Not on purpose, though!"
Not for this, anyway.
"I'd forgotten something one night, so I came back here to get it. I heard something in the shed, and then..."
"Wait, wait." Rin frowned. "You heard something?"
"Then you went to the shed, and saw Emiya-kun?"
Sakura nodded again.
"And he didn't notice you?"
Rin didn't wait for Sakura's response this time before turning to her Servant. "Archer, what the hell?!"
Archer gave her an amused look. "You said it yourself, Rin. Emiya Shirou is a third-rate hack. Why in the world would he have given any thought to sealing off his workshop, or setting some kind of alarm or defense? Honestly, I'm more surprised that Saber's Master only spied on him once."
"I...I couldn't. I couldn't watch that again." Even now, just thinking about it made her feel sick, and she forced herself to swallow her bile. "What Senpai did to himself...it was like he was stabbing his own throat. Seeing it once was too much. I should have stopped him, but..."
Rin blinked. "Stop him?"
Sakura could almost see the thoughts going through her sister's mind.
She and Sakura were both heirs to their families' magic. They both possessed Magic Crests (well, as far as Rin knew, anyway) and they both understood the importance of magic to its practitioners.
And Sakura had wanted to stop her Senpai from using his magic?
"Sakura, why in the world - "
"Nee-san. Senpai created a new Magic Circuit from his nerves for each spell."
Archer's chuckles drew the others' attention.
"I had almost forgotten about that," he said. "At this point in time, Emiya Shirou was laboring under the delusion that he had no Magic Circuits of his own. He did find a way to compensate for that, but..." He shook his head. "You can imagine what it did to his body."
"To your body, you mean," Saber said.
Archer shrugged and nodded. "In fairness to him, it's not entirely his fault. Kiritsugu didn't want to teach him magic to begin with; when the boy finally wore him down, the guidance he imparted was...lacking certain details, shall we say?"
Rin's face was turning visibly green in the moonlight. Sakura couldn't blame her.
For everything Sakura had gone through - all the experiments, all the training, all the torture - the one thing she had never doubted was that her grandfather knew what he was doing. And if that was true for Matou Zouken, it was doubly true for Tohsaka Tokiomi, who was probably not experimenting with shards of the last War's Grail in Rin's training.
And meanwhile, Senpai's teacher had botched something so basic - !
Saber scowled. "If this is supposed to convince us of your power, Archer, its impact thus far is lacking."
"There's a reason for that, you know." Archer smirked. "Your Master distracted us before I could actually get started."
Saber merely arched an eyebrow, and gestured impatiently with one hand.
Archer snorted. "Very well. What I wanted to show you here...was this."
He reached down to a pile of junk at his feet, and picked up...
Rin gave him a skeptical look. "A kettle?"
Archer chuckled. "Not the most impressive thing, I'll admit...at first glance, anyway."
"What's the catch, then?"
"See for yourself."
Archer tossed the kettle over. It landed squarely in Rin's hands, and almost immediately, she began to frown.
"This...what is this? There's something about this kettle, but...it feels wrong, somehow...it was created? Yes, but that's not what..." Rin trailed off, and shook her head. "Archer, what am I missing, here?"
"What if I were to tell you that that kettle was created by Emiya Shirou with Projection?"
Rin looked up sharply. "Projection? You mean that you made this - "
"Not me, Rin. Emiya Shirou."
"Emiya-kun?!" Rin shook her head. "Archer, that's impossible! It's..."
Sakura stared at the kettle in her sister's hands in shock.
She had seen Senpai make Projections in between his attempts at Reinforcement, but she hadn't given it much thought. She hadn't paid any attention to the items he made - anything formed with Gradation Air would be erased by the world in a matter of minutes, so what was the point?
But if Senpai made that kettle -
Her eyes went to the pile of junk at Archer's feet. Had Senpai Projected all of those, as well? If they were like the kettle, they had been here for...
Rin finally found her voice again.
"Seven, at least. It's not like he had any time to practice his craft, that last night." Archer shook his head. "I understand why you wanted my identity, Rin. You wanted to know about my Noble Phantasm, so that you could plan how best to use it.
"But the simple truth is that I have no such thing. I left no legends behind when I died; there was no holy or demonic sword I wielded during my life, that followed me to the Throne. If there is anything that might be called my Noble Phantasm - the symbol of the Heroic Spirit EMIYA - it is this magic: a new kind of Projection, far deeper, more thorough, and longer-lasting than that employed by any other mage. Even an incomplete failure like that kettle has endured for a week, with almost no degradation...and Emiya Shirou accomplished that while still ignorant of the one factor that would truly unlock his potential."
Saber frowned. "And what would that be?"
"Emiya Shirou's elemental affinity is 'Sword.' "
Rin inhaled sharply.
"I see you understand, Master." Archer smirked. "Any blade I have ever laid eyes on, however briefly, is mine. Even among my Projections, their quality stands out - and the blades of other Heroic Spirits are no exception to this. I can't reproduce them perfectly...but I can come close. I can reproduce their materials. I can reproduce their history. I can reproduce their powers. I can reproduce the skills of their wielders. If need be, I can alter them, as well."
"Alteration...so that's it." Rin frowned. "I'd been wondering about how you could keep using the same Broken Phantasm, but if you're Projecting it..."
Archer nodded. "Because of its extremely limited duration, most mages only resort to Projection as a means of creating something that will be immediately sacrificed in a ritual." He smirked again. "The scale and quality of my Projections may differ, but I engage in the practice, as well."
"So...that truly was Caladbolg, then." Saber's eyes narrowed. "You saw Fergus' sword, Archer? How?"
"How, indeed?" He crossed his arms, and chuckled. "You are asking the wrong question, Saber. How did I see the sword of the King of Ulster? That is not what you should concern yourself with. What you should be asking is: How many other swords have I seen?"
Sakura gasped, and Archer's smirk widened.
"This is why knowing about my powers does you no good. Tell me, Saber - which Projected Noble Phantasm of mine will you prepare for? You cannot choose just one. If you would prepare for me, you must prepare for everything."
"I see." Saber frowned. "Such versatility would grant you an advantage over almost every Servant, if you can discern their identity and find their weakness. This is the reason for your boasts?"
"Very well. I have only one further question for you, then."
"Your Projections - they extend to any sword you have seen?"
Rin frowned. "Um, Saber? Didn't Archer just say that? What are you - "
"Answer the question, Archer. Any sword?"
And then, Sakura understood.
If he's Senpai, then he summoned Saber - he was her Master. If he fought with her in the Holy Grail War, then he would have seen -
Archer's grin turned sharklike.
Shirou was unsure how long he "stood" there, after finally coming to terms with what his magic was.
It was something so basic, it seemed practically useless - and yet, if used properly, it had the potential to do so much.
...as long as it was used properly, anyway - something which Shirou was forced to admit (with no small amount of embarrassment) that he had never even come close to.
Still - now that he knew, there was something he needed to use it on, without delay:
The "thing" that dwelled within him, that had revived him, that even now continued to draw magical energy from Ilya in a near-torrent that he couldn't believe she hadn't noticed.
Now, armed with Structural Analysis - and a full understanding of what he was actually doing - he could at last identify it.
Concept of creation.
The "Apple of Immortality," distilled and applied.
95 centimeters long, 18 centimeters at its widest, tapering to 14 centimeters at its point.
Gold, decorated with blue enamel.
The skill of its making.
Not the work of man, but -
And suddenly, he realized:
It was a scabbard.
No, not just a scabbard. Far from it; it was infused with so much magic - not mortal magic, fae magic - that Shirou found himself amazed that anyone was able to even touch it. The mere image of it burned in his mind, searing through his nerves with a force that should have destroyed him instantly, but somehow didn't. And with the image, there came a name:
Experience of growth.
Its history unfolded before him, faster than anything he had ever Analyzed before. It was as if the knowledge was programmed into his very cells.
Avalon: The sheath of the legendary sword Excalibur. Like Excalibur, originally the possession of Arthur Pendragon, the legendary King of Britain. Said to have protected the king from ever suffering a wound in battle.
That was what was inside him.
The sheer magnitude of the finding left him stunned for a time, though he was once again unable to tell for how long.
How had something like that ended up inside him?!
As if in response, the history still playing out before him shifted, from Avalon's earliest times to its most recent. And there, ten years ago, he found his answer:
Ten years ago, during the last Holy Grail War, Kiritsugu had fought as a Master.
...He knew that already. He'd realized, when he saw his sister's past, when he saw the role that she and her mother both filled, just what her parents must have left to participate in. Even before that, when the false priest had revealed the connection between that War and the fire, he'd unconsciously grasped it - what it meant for Emiya Kiritsugu, a mage, to be present in the dying fire, in the immediate aftermath of the end of the War.
But still, now he had explicit confirmation: Kiritsugu had been a Master.
He had to shake himself to return to what he was looking for.
Kiritsugu had used Avalon as the catalyst for his summoning. His Servant had been none other than King Arthur himself. Afterward, though, Kiritsugu had kept the sheath for his own use.
Avalon was among the most potent healing Noble Phantasms to ever exist. Its legends were no exaggeration; when in Arthur's possession, the king enjoyed near-immediate and complete healing of any and all wounds, up to and including the ravages of age. As long as he held Avalon, he was effectively immortal.
Kiritsugu, while contracted to Arthur, was recognized by the scabbard as a second owner, and enjoyed those benefits as well.
Even without the contract, Avalon could still function with a high degree of potency, as long as the bearer was in Arthur's presence. Kiritsugu's wife Irisviel had used it in this fashion to temporarily stave off some of the effects of her body breaking down.
And even outside of Arthur's presence, it could still function. As long as any of Arthur's magical energy was still present, it could draw in other energies, and use them to heal the bearer's wounds, albeit with a drastic reduction in speed and potency.
This, Shirou saw, was what had happened to him.
Kiritsugu had implanted Avalon in Shirou's body when he found him, dying in the fire. The sheath took Shirou's energy, and used it to save his life.
And afterward, through all the years that followed, because it remained within his body, it continued to draw on Shirou's meager reserves, never having to exhaust the last of Arthur's energy, but instead converting what it could take from him to grant him a minor protection from illness, as well as from the worst effects of his nightly magic practices and the chronic sleep deprivation that accompanied them.
This continued all the way up to that fateful night in the school, when the Servant Lancer pierced his heart and left him to die.
That should have been the end. Avalon had been able to extend his life by a few seconds, but even if the wound had been dealt by a normal weapon, that was all it could have done. A cursed wound from a demonic spear was even further beyond its capabilities.
But help arrived, just as Avalon's power was finally about to run out.
He hadn't been thinking clearly at the time. Now, though, he understood what must have happened.
Who else had been at the school that night?
Whose Servant had been fighting Lancer?
Who would have been in a position to have helped him?
Who used jewels like the blood-red pendant whose contents had been dumped into his body?
He wasn't sure what Tohsaka had been trying to do. He doubted she'd realized what had actually happened, though, because under any other circumstances, it wouldn't have worked.
A mere ten years of stored mortal magic were no match for the curse of Gae Bolg. Her attempted healing, however she had gone about it, would have failed...if not for the presence of Avalon.
Avalon had seized upon the magical energy Tohsaka had given him. It was able to convert it and use it to rebuild Shirou's heart, leaving behind only scars to mark the entrance and exit wounds.
Now, with Ilya's magic behind it, Avalon had healed his mind, and made it whole once more.
...It was doing something more, but he didn't pay much attention to that. Something about what it had already done was uncomfortably familiar. Something more, something -
As he traced the paths of his healing, swords of every kind came abruptly into his "sight." Short swords, long swords, broadswords, bastard swords - blades wielded by heroes, blades wielded by brigands, blades wielded by knights - the swords that had led him to delve into his magic in the first place, seeking the reason why he saw them - all emerged without warning, from the very fabric of his soul.
And all bore the unmistakable energy signature of Avalon.
Shirou was surrounded by all the swords that had haunted his dreams for as long as he could remember. Now, for the first time, he saw them all clearly. Almost instantly, he grasped their essence.
Tens, hundreds, thousands of others.
And then, finally, he understood.
Shirou should have died long before Kiritsugu found him. He had endured as he lurched through the fire only by discarding, one after another, step after step, all the things that had once made him human. By the end, he had been completely empty, the self-inflicted damage to his soul all but irreparable.
Even so, Avalon had tried.
Just as it had healed his body, just as it had healed his mind, it had tried to fill the gaping holes that Shirou had ripped in his own soul.
But Shirou was human.
And Avalon was a scabbard.
It couldn't understand his soul. It didn't know what needed to be done. Still, it had done what it had could to fill the gaps. And, being a scabbard, it had used the only things that it knew.
It had filled him with swords.
It was an uncomfortably silent group that returned to the household proper.
Saber had not stopped glaring at Archer since they left the shed. The Servant's rage was palpable - Sakura wanted to think that she was just imagining Saber's armor flickering in and out of existence around her, but...
Her sister was not much better. As they left the shed, Rin had abruptly stopped, whipped around, and stared back inside. Sakura didn't know what Rin had seen, but whatever it was, it had caused all the color to drain from the older girl's face. Rin had turned back to Archer and started to say something, but stopped, glanced over at Sakura, and shook her head. She walked back ahead of the others.
And as for Sakura herself...
"You are unconvinced."
She reflexively checked the others before answering her Servant.
"I am. I shouldn't be - you were right, Rider; it all makes sense - he even confirmed it himself! But..."
"But you don't recognize him."
"...No. I don't."
Sakura had spent nearly two years watching her Senpai, both for her grandfather and for herself. She had learned his traits, and had come to know his quirks, and almost none of them were present in Archer - only the dry wit remained, but sharpened and lean, almost painful.
Where Emiya Shirou was kind, straightforward, impulsive, intolerant of injustice - she remembered how he'd attacked Shinji for hitting her - Archer was cynical, coldblooded, manipulative, and indifferent to the suffering he caused.
Her head told her that this had to be her Senpai.
But her heart refused to accept it, no matter how she tried.
Senpai...what happened to you?
As the group returned to the living room and took their places around the table once more, Rider finally spoke again.
"You have not yet heard Archer's entire story, Sakura. There is still more...if you wish to ask it."
"What do you mean?"
"He does not have a Noble Phantasm. He has no legend. Even now, everything I know about him comes from you - the Throne tells me nothing."
Sakura blinked. "But...that's impossible, isn't it? If he doesn't have a legend - "
She inhaled sharply, drawing the others' attention.
"Archer-san...how did you become a Heroic Spirit?"
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Saber go rigid.
Archer shook his head. "The fact that you're asking that question means you already know the answer."
Sakura swallowed and nodded. "If you don't have a Noble Phantasm, you don't have a legend. And if you don't have a legend..."
Her sister finished the thought. "The only other way onto the Throne of Heroes is by contract." Rin scowled. "That's it, isn't it? You're a Counter Guardian."
"Is that why you were so hostile to Saber, earlier? Because she's trying to be like you?"
"In part, yes. No one should want to become one of the world's dogs." His mouth twisted. "But I would be lying if I said that there was not some spite involved, as well."
"Spite, is it?" Saber's eyes narrowed. "What grudge do you bear against me, Archer?"
He smirked. "Isn't that obvious? You're the one who gave me the idea in the first place."
"I gave - ?!"
Saber reined herself in with an effort, and Rin glared at her Servant.
"I think I'm going to need you to explain that a little more, Archer."
Archer settled back against the wall, and crossed his arms.
"To fully grasp what happened to me, there are two things it is necessary for you to understand. The first is that Emiya Shirou is broken. The second is that Emiya Shirou is an idiot."
He fell silent, and the others exchanged confused looks.
Finally, Saber spoke up. "Broken, Archer?"
"That's right." He cocked his head. "Now that I think about it, I guess I could say that that is your fault, too."
Rin interrupted before Saber could respond.
"Stop baiting her, Archer, and start explaining."
"Do I really have to?"
Rin narrowed her eyes.
"Fine. As my Master commands." He sighed, then shifted against the wall, face hardening. "Ten years ago, the fourth Holy Grail War ended in a stalemate. During the battle between the final two Servants, Emiya Kiritsugu made a curious decision."
"Curious." Saber spat out the word.
"He used his final two Command Spells at once to force me to destroy the Grail. There was nothing curious about that betrayal!"
Rin whipped around. "Wait, he what?!"
"He threw away the Grail." Saber grit her teeth. "He betrayed me, he betrayed his wife, he betrayed everything he claimed to have fought for!"
She paused a moment, closing her eyes while visibly forcing herself to take a breath. "I have never so loathed the Command Spells as I did on that day. My only consolation was that with the Command Spells exhausted, our contract, too, was at an end, and I would never have to see that man again."
"I take it, then, that you didn't stick around afterward to see the results of your handiwork."
"Archer, what are you talking about?"
At the same time, Rin inhaled sharply. "Archer, you don't mean - "
"Saber would not know, of course. But it is an event that everyone who lives in this town cannot help but be aware of. When Saber destroyed the Grail, its contents spilled out - and everything burned."
Saber's eyes widened.
"A hundred and thirty four buildings destroyed. Five hundred killed or wounded. And from the heart of the inferno...only one survivor."
"In a manner of speaking."
"How so?" Saber asked.
"The boy who would become Emiya Shirou emerged from that fire, yes. But the boy who owned that body beforehand was...discarded. And not cleanly."
"What..." Sakura swallowed. "What do you mean?"
"Emiya Shirou was the only one to emerge from the flames alive. But that is not to say that everyone else perished immediately. There were things that he saw. There were things that he saw others do. There were things that he did himself. By the end...well. When Emiya Kiritsugu found him, even setting aside his physical state, there was not all that much of him left."
Saber leaned forward. "Amnesia?"
"If only it were that simple." Archer snorted. "Certainly, it's true that I've forgotten the name I was given at birth. By now, though, I can't be certain if it was from the fire, or from the choices I made afterwards. Regardless, that is not what I meant. What Emiya Shirou lost was the knowledge of how to be human."
Sakura shivered in spite of herself. Archer cocked an eyebrow, but she only shook her head, and after a moment, he continued.
"I have forgotten a great deal. But it would be impossible for me to forget the sight of Kiritsugu looking down at me, weeping in joy that he had found someone alive in that hell. At that time, Emiya Shirou thought that he wanted to smile like that." He shook his head, and his voice took an acid tone. "So, obviously, the only possible way to do that was to be just like the man who had smiled."
Saber frowned. "I find it hard to believe that man was capable of smiling. But even so, if Kiritsugu took Shirou in, what was wrong with that? Would it not be only natural for Shirou to look up to him?"
"If it had only been admiration, I wouldn't be in this mess." Archer shook his head. "He took it far beyond that. Kiritsugu was a mage, so Emiya Shirou insisted on learning magic. Kiritsugu had saved him, so Emiya Shirou became obsessed with saving others."
His mouth twisted. "Kiritsugu dreamed of being an 'ally of justice.' And so, Emiya Shirou swore on his life that he would make Kiritsugu's dream come true."
Sakura blinked. "Ally of justice..."
"You've heard the phrase?"
"Once. Fujimura-sensei..." She paused, but only for a moment. She couldn't let herself dwell on it. "She said that Senpai had always been the type to help people in trouble...that as a child, he wrote an essay about how he wanted to become an ally of justice."
"Hmm. I see...and how did he react to that?"
"He..." She frowned. "He wasn't happy that she'd brought it up...but he didn't deny it, either."
"He wouldn't have. It's not something to go around proclaiming, but simply because of that, it was all the more important for him to protect that ideal. It was all he had." Archer gestured down at himself. "And the result of that is what you see before you now."
"That makes no sense, Archer," Saber said. "You are saying that you represent a future of Shirou, where he accomplished his goals? Then how could you call that - "
How can you call that broken?
"Tell me, Saber. What do you think an ally of justice - a hero - is? Is it someone who saves people?"
Saber blinked. "I...yes, I would agree to that definition."
"As would I. But it holds a fatal flaw." Archer frowned. "A hero can only save those people with whom he chooses to ally himself. If two people are fighting, you can only save one by killing the other.
"Saving someone means not saving someone else. However much I tried to deny it, that is the truth of Emiya Shirou's ideals."
No one spoke. No one dared.
"I would save whoever came into my sight. To save one, I trampled on ten. But my vision expanded. Now, I saw the ten I trampled. To save them, I trampled on a hundred. After a hundred...?
"I got used to it, after a while. And eventually, I came to the same realization as Kiritsugu: You can't save everyone. Happiness is limited; there will always be fewer seats than there are people to fill them. You cannot save everyone...so someone will have to be sacrificed."
He gave Saber a pointed look.
Her eyes widened, and she rose to her feet. "Wait, Archer! Surely you are not suggesting that I am like - !"
"Oh, but I am. It was a constant practice of yours to sacrifice a few people to save the kingdom. You were not wrong to do so - but by the same token, neither was Kiritsugu."
Saber sank back into her seat, looking like she'd bitten into something sour.
"And I followed in his footsteps, and in yours." He scowled. "Since some had to die, I killed those people quickly, to minimize their suffering. I killed so many that I stopped caring about the innocent, and I saved a thousand times as many as I killed. I saved a multitude by bringing despair to a few in the darkness."
Archer shook his head. "Kiritsugu and I were not like you, Saber. Neither of us was nearly so strong. The contradiction inherent in our actions ate away at us both. We always hoped that the next time would be different, but we both knew better. We lacked the power." He shook his head again. "From what I was able to gather, that was what drew Kiritsugu to the Holy Grail War - a chance for a miracle, to finally make his dream come true. I, though, had learned of another option. And when the opportunity arose, I took it."
"Your contract?" Rin blinked. "Archer, how does that - "
"It's as I said earlier, Rin. It was Saber who gave me the idea." He glanced around. "Once, I lived here, in this house. I summoned Arturia Pendragon out in that shed, and with the benefit of roughly ten thousand lifetimes' worth of dumb luck, I managed to survive this Holy Grail War as her Master."
He glared at Saber. "I learned all about her stupid, self-destructive wish. I learned about how she desired to undo everything she had done, un-save everyone she had saved, to spit on everything that she and her followers had been through. I learned about how she was willing to become a Counter Guardian, how that was the price that would be exacted for her folly.
"For me, though...the price was the whole point."
He clenched his fist. "I made my contract in a time of need, but only in the most technical sense. I was merely looking for an excuse. When I came across a natural disaster, I bargained for the power to save those in front of me - but as far as I was concerned, the power I gained was secondary to the bargain itself. I would save a few hundred now...and then, I would save tens of thousands after my death."
"You..." Rin gave him an incredulous look. "You became a Counter Guardian...to save people?!"
He smiled bitterly. "As I said: Emiya Shirou is an idiot."
"Archer, wait. I do not understand," Saber said. "I had heard that the Guardians are those who became Heroic Spirits after their deaths, in order to protect people. If such was your goal, then how could joining their ranks have been a mistake?"
"What you heard is nothing more than a convenient, self-serving fantasy." He sneered. "It would be nice, wouldn't it? To think that the afterlives of those who sold themselves would be spent in the protection of those who yet lived?"
He gave her a flat look. "That should have been a flashing red warning light. You know as well as I do that the world is not such a kind place. The Guardians are not protectors - they're cleaners."
"What do you mean?"
"Think for a moment, Saber. Just what are we supposed to be protecting people from?"
Saber frowned. Then her eyes widened, and she inhaled sharply.
"I see you've realized your mistake. Yes, the threats to humanity that we are deployed against are not external, but internal. Our enemies are other humans. Now, take that a step further. When do you think we are deployed?"
"...No." Saber went pale. "No, that can't be! Archer! You're saying - "
"We're sent only as a last resort, when things are already beyond repair. We are not called to rectify the situation - we are called to remove it. We eliminate the threat, and anyone related to it, regardless of guilt or innocence." He scowled. "We do not save people. We only kill those people who couldn't be saved.
"As a Counter Guardian, I have no free will. I have no right of refusal. I am forced to see it, every time I am sent. Meaningless massacres. Meaningless equality. Over and over and over - the whole of my afterlife consists of watching people destroy themselves through their own actions, then burning away the refuse."
"So yes, Saber. I bear you some small degree of resentment." He suddenly slammed his fist against the wall behind him. "This was not what I wanted! I did not become a Guardian for this!"
He let his hand drop back to his side. In the silence following his shout, he slumped a little, as though the energy had gone out of him.
Sakura was grateful for the silence. She didn't know what she'd thought Archer would say when she asked how he'd gotten to the Throne, but the sheer volume of his answer threatened to overwhelm her.
To say nothing of the content.
She had known of the fire, of course. It was as Archer had said; it was impossible to live in Fuyuki and not at least know the rough outlines - the destruction, the casualties, the rebuilding.
But that was all. When the fire happened, she was already ensconced in the basement of her new family, undergoing her grandfather's training. It had had nothing to do with her.
And in spite of having spied on him for years, she had never even imagined that the fire had touched her Senpai.
Something so fundamental - so foundational - and she had missed it!
What else have I missed?
The rest...no. Was she even in a position to judge how plausible it was? She needed to hear more.
"Archer-san..." Her voice broke the silence, and the others turned to her. "Is...is this why you joined the Holy Grail War? You want to use the Grail to..." She trailed off at the flat look Archer was giving her.
"Master of Saber. I repeat: I have no right of refusal. Any time that I am called, I have no choice but to obey the summons. The Holy Grail War is no exception to that." He shook his head. "Even if it had been my choice, the Grail is useless to me. It cannot grant my wish."
Saber frowned. "Archer, what do you mean? How could the Grail be unable to grant your wish?"
"The only thing I want is to be free of this endless cycle. My wish, such as it is, would be to escape from the Throne of Heroes. The Grail is powerful, make no mistake - it is powered by collecting the essence of the Servants who have fallen. But powerful as it is, it is not enough." He shook his head again. "Sacrificing six Servants might be enough to add to the Throne. But subtracting from the Throne? That is a very different story. The world will not so easily relinquish its grasp on those who have fallen into its clutches."
Saber looked down. "There is no hope, then? You will always be..."
"I didn't say that." He smirked at their surprised looks. "Your Master was not correct, Saber, but she was not entirely wrong, either. The Grail is useless to me...but the Holy Grail War is not."
"You have a plan, then?" Saber asked.
"I do, but..." He hesitated, then shrugged. "At the same time, I don't. Not right now, anyway."
"What do you mean?"
"I know how to escape the Throne. I am kept there by the power of the world - so to get off, I need to turn the world's own power against it. And for that, there is no better time and place for me to be than right here, right now."
"...Emiya-kun." The others turned to Rin in surprise, but she ignored them, eyes narrowed in thought. "That's it, isn't it? Your plan is to use Emiya-kun to create some sort of paradox, and...wait. That can't be right..."
"No, you're on the right track, Rin."
"Then you're on the wrong one." Rin gave him a flat look. "When you became a Counter Guardian, you were removed from the cycle of rebirth. You're two different beings now - that's why you could be summoned here in the first place. No matter what happened to Emiya-kun, it wouldn't alter your - "
She stopped abruptly, and the color drained from her face.
"That's right, Rin. There's one exception to that."
"No...Archer, you don't mean - that's your plan?!"
"To trigger a paradox, I need an impossibility - the bigger, the better. And you can't deny that it would be hard to think of a greater impossibility than that."
Saber interrupted. "Archer, what are you talking about?"
"As Rin said, I'm a separate entity from my past self. His choices do not affect me, and almost any interactions between the two of us would barely leave a ripple in the fabric of reality." He smirked. "But the world would have a hard time ignoring the damage done, if Emiya Shirou were to die at the hands of another Emiya Shirou."
Saber's eyes widened. "That is your plan? To kill your past self?!"
"Or for him to kill me." He chuckled at the others's surprised looks, and shook his head. "I won't deny that it would be helpful to also have him die before he can become like me - but the primary paradox I seek is a scenario where 'Emiya Shirou is killed by Emiya Shirou.' As long as that is fulfilled, it does not matter which Emiya Shirou is the slayer, and which is the victim."
"But then...your plan is impossible, Archer. Shirou is already dead."
Rin's face twisted at that. But before Sakura could question her, Archer responded.
"It's impossible here, true. But why should that be a hindrance?"
There was a pause - then, Saber's eyes widened.
"You," she breathed. "You were not killed. You survived the Holy Grail War. You are not of this timeline."
Archer smirked, and nodded. "The Throne of Heroes draws upon all timelines, and is drawn upon by all timelines in turn. This is not the first time I have been called to this War, nor will it be the last. I will have other opportunities."
"How can you be certain of that? If you have already failed so many times - "
"I can be sure of that because you are on the Throne."
Saber frowned. "I became a Counter Guardian?"
"On multiple occasions - there are several iterations of you that completed their foolish bargain. But that is not what I was referring to, Saber. You are on the Throne as a Counter Guardian, yes...but you are also on the Throne as a true Heroic Spirit."
Saber's eyes widened.
"Somewhere in the endless realms of possibility, there is a timeline where someone will free you from the doom you have set for yourself. It doesn't appear that it will be this time, and the next time, I will be summoned again as well - your contract is an integral part of the circumstances that give rise to both Emiya Shirou and to myself.
"Also...you seem to be misunderstanding something, Saber. I have succeeded in killing Emiya Shirou in the past."
Sakura's eyes widened, and her hands went to her mouth.
Archer gave a mirthless grin. "It is still small, but the paradox does exist. Each time I am summoned, I have another chance to kill Emiya Shirou. And each time I succeed in doing so, the paradox will grow. Eventually, it will reach a critical mass, and the world will have no choice but to act. In its own defense, it will be compelled to remove the paradox, and when it does, it will do so in the same fashion as it does whenever it sends us to remove a threat: with overwhelming force, and no sense of moderation. Emiya Shirou is the cause of the paradox, so the world will erase Emiya Shirou - every Emiya Shirou - from existence.
"And when that happens, I will finally be free."
Archer fell silent. Rin and Saber stared at him, appalled.
Even she could see it. There was no possible way that Archer was not aware. Even if the paradox he sought grew, the fabric of the various timelines would grow all the faster, and it would shrink in proportion. Even one failure would make the barrier all but insurmountable; by now...? No matter how often he succeeded (and she was trying very hard not to think about what, exactly, he would be succeeding at) he would never -
But he wouldn't give up, would he?
It's the same.
He didn't care about the impossibility. He didn't care about the circumstances. All that mattered was that he was faced with an obstacle, and he would never back down.
It's exactly the same.
He would never clear the bar. Worse, the bar would be raised after every attempt. But even so, he would never stop jumping. He would never stop trying.
And this time, night would never fall.
The last of Matou Sakura's doubts fell away.
The Servant Archer was, without question, Emiya Shirou.
Perhaps it was a measure of the growth of the connection between Shirou and Ilya. He could not say for certain. But, regardless of the cause, images and memories still came to him through the link, carried along by the seemingly endless flow of magical energy, even when he was no longer searching for them.
Was it possible that they were influenced by Shirou's own thoughts? That, too, was unclear. Nevertheless, as he absorbed the truth of Avalon, and of Emiya Kiritsugu, Shirou received a memory of the man himself.
Kiritsugu was walking alongside his daughter, through a forest in the snow, pointing at the various trees. Shirou could see the three Command Spells, arranged in a vivid red cross on the back of Kiritsugu's right hand - this must have been right before the Holy Grail War. Shirou couldn't hear what they were saying, but something about it upset Ilya; the girl began pounding on her father's knees, shouting angrily.
Kiritsugu apologized with an amused look on his face, then swung her up to sit on his shoulders, straddling his neck and riding him like a horse. She laughed as they emerged from the woods, and a castle came into view.
...Someone was watching them.
He couldn't tell how he knew, but Shirou could sense it - and then, even though Ilya couldn't possibly have seen it from where she was, his vision zoomed toward the castle, and to one window in particular.
He did not know the white-haired woman standing there, dressed in an elaborate sleeveless white gown with looping, yellow-striped shoulders. It was obvious, though, who this had to be; the resemblance to Ilya was too strong to leave any doubt. This was Irisviel von Einzbern, her mother.
However, Shirou barely paid her any mind - because while he did not know Irisviel, it would have been impossible for him not to recognize the woman standing next to her.
Golden hair, drawn into a tight braided circle surrounding the back of her head. Vivid jade eyes, narrowed in thought. Her blue dress and white bodice lacked the armored plates, but it was unquestionably the same one that she had worn the entire time that he had known her.
Shirou's Servant, the same woman whom he had summoned on that night, and whose contract he had given up only hours later, stood at the window of this castle in the heart of Europe, in the dead of winter, more than a decade into the past.
What is she doing here?
But that was obvious, wasn't it? Saber herself had said that she'd been summoned to the Holy Grail War before. If she was here, then this was the War for which she had been summoned, and her Master must be -
But hadn't Kiritsugu summoned...?!
He was not surprised. He didn't know why he was unsurprised, but he was unsurprised, all the same.
Saber was Arthur. Arthur was a girl.
More pieces slotted into place.
Ilya's Servant had been chosen. When Kiritsugu summoned her, Saber had been chosen as well. Shirou, though, had not chosen her - had not known what he was doing at all. Yet, he had called her, just as his father had.
Different place. Different time. Different intentions. Everything about Shirou's and Kiritsugu's summonings was different -
Except for Avalon.
Avalon had been the catalyst that Kiritsugu used to summon his Servant. And Shirou, too, had possessed Avalon, even though he hadn't known it at the time.
So that was why. The same catalyst to draw forth the same Servant.
But then...so what?
If he had known these things, would anything have changed? Even now, regardless of what had happened to him afterward, he couldn't bring himself to believe that his choice to forfeit had been wrong. The thought of killing the other Masters was viscerally repulsive to him, and -
"Mother, I had a nightmare."
Shirou "blinked." The scenery had changed without his realizing it. Now, he saw a bedroom, with a roaring fireplace standing against the winter storm outside the window.
Saber was gone. Ilya sat on the edge of the bed; Irisviel knelt before her, holding her, and Ilya clutched at her mother's arms in turn.
"I dreamed that I turned into a cup."
Irisviel's eyes widened, but Ilya didn't seem to notice.
"There were seven huge lumps in my heart. I felt like I was going to break, but I couldn't run away. Then I heard Justeaze-sama's voice, and there was a big black hole above my head...Mother, why are you crying?"
Irisviel stared at Ilya for a long moment, then embraced her tightly, as the younger girl also began to cry.
"It's all right...it's all right...You won't have to see those things, Ilya. It will never happen to you." Irisviel's voice strengthened. "I will finish everything. Your father will gain his wish, and you'll be freed from these shackles of fate..."
She continued to whisper to her daughter, as Ilya cried herself to sleep.
And off to the side, outside of the vision, Shirou grit his teeth and clenched his fists.
Irisviel had failed.
It was the only possible conclusion. The War he had gotten wrapped up in couldn't have happened otherwise.
Irisviel had failed. Kiritsugu had failed. And now, Ilya was condemned to the same fate, the one her mother had so desperately tried to save her from.
His sister was here, in the Holy Grail War, fated to have nothing, to break down and die.
He had to save her.
But how? What could he possibly do for her?
...That was a stupid question.
Forget what he could do for her. At the moment, there was only one thing he could do at all.
Shirou turned away from the vision, and returned to his magic.
He called up a sword, and began to go over the seven steps once more.
Sakura winced at the slip. The Servant cocked an eyebrow, but otherwise did not respond.
Sakura swallowed, and very carefully didn't look at her sister.
"You went through this War as Saber's Master, didn't you? Do you remember...?"
"Only to a degree."
Saber frowned. "What do you mean?"
"I can recall some of my time as your Master, Saber, but not with any great certainty. Outside of four or five particularly vivid memories, the dry facts of what happened are mixed up with the records of my various summonings as the Servant Archer. There are a few things I'm sure of, but not that many."
"So if I were to inquire as to the identities of the other Masters...?"
"You'd be out of luck." He shook his head. "In my original War, I never figured out who Caster's and Assassin's Masters were. If I managed to work out their identities in other Wars as a Servant, that didn't make it into the records I got on the Throne. And that's not accounting for variations - you're almost always the same, Saber, but you and I are the only constants. Sometimes an actual Assassin is summoned, and I'm not sure Caster always ends up with that teacher as her Master, either; her actions in some of those Wars..."
He shook his head again, and turned back to Sakura. "But we're getting off-topic. Was there something in particular you wanted to ask?"
"Yes." She took a breath. "About Senpai...Do you have any idea who might have killed him?"
Archer's eyesbrows both rose. He exchanged a surprised glance with Rin, and they both turned to look at Sakura.
...Wait, that was wrong. They weren't looking at Sakura, they were looking at -
"You didn't tell her?"
Sakura's eyes widened. "Saber?"
"I...I apologize, Sakura. If you had not realized it for yourself, then I..." She grimaced. "Also, I must admit that I had hoped I was wrong."
Sakura frowned. "When did you figure it out?"
Saber did not answer her directly. "Do you recall when we first came upon the scene of Shirou's passing? I told you then that in principle, any of us could have been responsible for it. At the time, I did not know enough about the other Servants to rule out any of them."
Sakura nodded slowly.
"That is no longer the case. We have now encountered every Servant in this War, and I have faced all but Rider in battle. If you recall the state of the scene, it should be apparent who was responsible for that...destruction."
Something about Saber's words tickled at her memory.
It was strange that she should emphasize the destruction. It was hard for Sakura to bring herself to remember, but when she did, the first thing that came to mind was the blood. There had been so much dried blood that it looked like the crossroads had been painted, and the craters -
Sakura's breath caught in her throat.
That was what Saber meant. She had seen those craters in another fight. And the Servant responsible for them was...
Saber nodded solemnly. "It is the only possible answer. Although..." She trailed off and shook her head.
"What is it?"
"When I came to your home, I passed through the area where Shirou later died. Even if Berserker was not on the scene at the time, he was likely nearby. Why, then, did he not attack me?"
Archer chuckled. "That, I believe I can answer for you."
Saber's eyes narrowed. "You recall this?"
"I faced Berserker as a powerless human. Do you think I could have forgotten that?" Archer's mouth quirked. "Admittedly, not everything is the same. I did not drop out of the War, for one thing - why did this world's Emiya Shirou do that, anyway?"
"...He said that he did not wish to kill the other Masters."
Archer's eyebrows shot up. "He actually realized he'd have to do that if he stayed in? I'm surprised. Usually, at that point he'd have some vague notion of saving all six of them."
Saber glared at him. "I take it you speak from experience?"
"I did say that Emiya Shirou is an idiot." He shook his head. "Anyway. I agreed to be a Master in the War. Rin and I rejoined Saber outside the church, and the three of us headed back to Miyama. On our way, we found Berserker waiting for us...or rather, we found Berserker's Master waiting for me."
Saber's eyes widened. "When you say she was waiting for you - "
"She was not waiting for the Master of Saber. She was waiting for the adopted son of Emiya Kiritsugu." Archer crossed his arms. "That girl bears a heavy grudge against the house of Emiya. Her only goal that night was to kill Emiya Shirou. If she could do so within the confines of the Holy Grail War, all the better - but even if he did not have a Servant..."
She killed him.
Sakura could remember Berserker. Archer was right; she couldn't have forgotten, even if she had tried. That monster was impossible to fight; it was almost impossible merely to stand upright before him - and Senpai had faced him alone, without warning, without protection.
She killed him.
Saber had told her that the victim at the crossroads had been killed before he even had a chance to move. The women gossiping at the scene had told her there were body parts.
SHE KILLED HIM.
The white-haired girl had given her Servant the order. Berserker had swung his axe, and -
SHE KILLED HIM.
Ilyasviel von Einzbern.
She had killed Senpai.
So Sakura would kill her.
SHE KILLED HIM!
She would take down her Servant. She would drain her - not just to defeat her, as she'd intended on that night, but completely, until there was nothing left but a tiny husk. She would return the pain that girl had inflicted on him, ten times, a hundred times, a thousand -
The starting penalty is five.
Sakura blinked. Saber stood before her - wait, when had they stood up? - with her hands on her shoulders. Behind Saber, Rin was also standing, away from the table and with Archer at her side.
All of them were looking at her.
"Saber? Nee-san? What...?"
There was a sudden shooting pain. She winced, and brought one hand up to her temple.
"Sakura, are you well?"
"I'm...I'm fine, it's just a headache."
For some reason, Saber's posture shifted at her answer. A tension in the room that she hadn't even noticed until then drained away, and her sister and Archer also seemed to relax.
"Um...what were we talking about...?"
The others exchanged a look, and Saber shook her head.
"I believe that we are done for the night. Come, you should bathe."
Sakura nodded mutely, and followed her Servant out of the room.
She wasn't sure why, but all of a sudden, she felt very tired.
Rin barely managed to contain herself until the pair had left the room and were out of earshot. The moment she was sure they couldn't hear her, she turned on Archer with a snarl.
"All right, what the hell was that?"
"I'm afraid you're going to have to be more specific, Rin."
"Don't even start," she growled. "Are you seriously telling me you have no idea what that was just now?"
In some ways, it had been like that night when Sakura had faced Berserker. Once again, there had been no buildup of magical energy, nothing that Rin could sense.
In others, though...
There had been nothing visible, nothing tangible. To all appearances, nothing had changed. And yet, in the space of a few seconds, all the light and warmth had been leeched from the room. They were about to die; Sakura was going to kill them all, and there was nothing any of them could do about it - but even so, Rin had no idea how, or why.
And apparently, Sakura hadn't even realized she was doing anything at all.
"There are any number of things it could have been," Archer said. "Without more information, it's pointless to speculate."
"And nothing in your memories tells you anything?"
"...When I was alive, I left this city after graduating from high school. She saw me off when I departed." Archer shook his head. "I never saw her again."
"She wasn't in the War?"
"Why would she have been? I never gave up Saber; without that opportunity, the closest she got was probably Rider's Master taking out his frustrations on her."
Rin glared at him.
"If it makes you feel any better, I can recall very few Wars where he made it out alive." Archer shrugged. "There's probably a variation or two where the girl somehow slipped in at the peripheries, but I can't think of one off-hand."
"Really?" Rin scowled. "You can remember Shinji dying, but you can't remember this?"
"It's more that he dies so often that the sheer volume of the pattern leaves a mark." Archer frowned. "Rin, what's this about? You're acting like I'm still hiding something."
"That's because you are!"
Archer raised an eyebrow, and Rin had to restrain herself from reaching out and throttling him.
"Did you think I wouldn't notice? Projections have to be maintained by the caster's magic! If Emiya-kun Projected those things in the shed, then - "
"Emiya Shirou is still alive, yes."
Rin stared at him in shock.
"What's wrong, Rin?"
"What's - What's wrong?! You...This...You didn't think this was something we should know?!" A sudden thought - "That Sakura should know? The whole reason she's fighting is to bring him back! When she finds him - "
"She will still need the Grail."
Rin blinked. "Wait. What?"
Now Archer looked surprised, as well. "Huh. Maybe you hadn't figured out as much as I'd thought."
He expected this?
Rin glared at him. "Explain. Now."
"Emiya Shirou is still alive, in a technical sense. His soul has not left this plane. But that is all." Archer nodded at her. "His soul is still here, but you saw firsthand what happened to his body."
Rin grimaced. "Point made. But then, how?"
"He fell into the hands of Ilyasviel von Einzbern."
She frowned. "We knew that already."
"I'm not talking about the Master of Berserker, Rin. I'm talking about one of the most magically potent homunculi ever produced by the Einzberns - a family of alchemists who once wielded the Third Sorcery."
He didn't need to say any more than that.
The Third Sorcery - Heaven's Feel, the materialization of the soul. Even if the Einzberns had lost that particular ability, the fact that they had once wielded it meant they were still more than capable of lesser manipulations in the same field.
Considering the girl's grudge against the Emiyas, Shirou might still be alive...but whatever his soul was attached to now, it was not likely to be pleasant for him.
"At this point, finishing him off would probably be a mercy." Archer paused, then chuckled.
Rin gave him a suspicious look. "What is it?"
"Nothing, really. It's just...Whenever I'm summoned, I almost always try to kill Emiya Shirou. I just realized that this time, for once, I'm going to be saving him, too."
When Sakura returned to her room after her bath, she found Archer waiting for her.
"I take it you're feeling better?"
"Yes, I - "
Her mind suddenly made several connections.
Archer was here, waiting for her in her room.
He was here for the same reason as he had been the night before.
Archer is Senpai.
She and Senpai were about to - had already -
"Are you sure you're okay? Your face is red."
She felt herself flush even more deeply, and looked down at her feet.
"Senpai, I - "
"Master of Saber."
The sudden, cold harshness in his voice caused her head to snap up.
"You seem to be laboring under a misconception. Allow me to take this opportunity to clarify things."
His eyes bored into her.
"I am the Servant Archer. I was summoned by your sister to fight in the Holy Grail War. You and I first met two days ago, on the roof of your school."
Sakura swallowed. She understood what he was saying, but...
"Even so. Senpai, you're still - "
"I am not."
"Then what's different? You said yourself that you lived here, you summoned Saber - " She paused at a thought. "Was I not here for you?"
Archer's face hardened. "No. She was here."
"Then why?! You were my - "
"Because she died, just like he did."
Sakura's eyes widened.
"Your Senpai fell at Berserker's hands, on the first night of this War." Archer turned away. "And my Sakura perished, without my ever even realizing that she needed help."
"Sen - " She shook herself. "Archer...san...?"
"I told you before that I saw the room where you trained. I hadn't put it together while I was alive...but now, I understand what happened to her." He growled softly. "She died - alone, and in agony. When I should have saved her, I was out gallivanting around the world like an idiot, instead."
He shrugged off his coat, and shook his head. "Focus on your own situation, Master of Saber. Once this War is over, you will not see me again, and you should be thankful for that." He turned back, and cocked his head. "Shall we begin?"
Sakura blinked, took in his semi-clothed state, and blushed. "Oh! Right, sorry."
She began to disrobe. But as she did so, her mind went back to his words.
'When I should have saved her, I was out gallivanting around the world like an idiot.'
The image formed before her: A boy, illuminated by the setting sun, charging at a bar he couldn't possibly hope to clear, and in the process dragging a girl who watched in secret out of the abyss.
'When I should have saved her...'
Day after day in his home. Learning from him. Laughing with him. Ministering to him. Simply being with him.
'I should have saved her.'
He had given her back her life.
He thinks...he didn't save me?
Memory after memory, of all the things he had done for her - and before each, after each, overlaying each, the same bitter denial.
He thinks he didn't save me.
The litany repeated in her head, endless, relentless.
She continued to undress, mechanically going through the motions, but the words never stopped.
They were still repeating long afterward, as she laid in bed with Archer at her side - unable to look at him, unable to speak to him, unable to do anything.
He thinks he didn't save me.
Sleep was a very long time in coming that night.
INVENTA AUTEM UNA PRETIOSA MARGARITA
ABIIT ET VENDIDIT OMNIA QUAE HABUIT ET EMIT EAM