Author's Note: I cannot tell, honestly, if this chapter is going to be loved or loathed. Either way, it's something of a big moment in the story.

Things are going to get a little wonky from here on in, kids. Have fuuuuun.

Chapter Nineteen: Aggressive Negotiations

How do you feel, Rin? Archer asked.

Stop worrying, mother hen, Rin thought, actually happy for the first time in a long time. As long as you both stay in astral form, it isn't so bad. I think the only real issue comes when you both have to operate at the same time, that's when the mana drain starts to get to be more than I can handle.

Rin was, of course, a genius. She was hardly going to be modest about that. And as such, she had experimented heavily with her new toy. The book acted as a combination of Command Seal and a link to Rider's magic circuits, allowing mana to be extracted from or (though Shinji had lacked the equipment) inserted into them. Once Rin had gotten her hands on it and flooded it with her own prana, the link between her and Rider had been forged, and as long as she had it, she was essentially Rider's Master so long as the real Master didn't choose to override it.

Rin had a lot of mana to spare. One Servant was well within her powers and didn't even really cut them by all that much, at least not during the War when the Grail system acted as a bolster. Two, however, posed a problem. As powerful as she was, keeping both Archer and Rider active at the same time acted as a Hell of a strain. It would be better later, when she wasn't tired from forging the initial connection, but best case scenario, she still believed that having both Rider and Archer active and in combat at once would leave her unable to use any magic of her own.

Worst case scenario, it would make blood gush out her nose and ears, but she was hoping it wouldn't come that far.

For now, though, she was pleased with the results. Her initial claims of ultimate victory might have been a tad premature (she had been excited, so sue her), but she had at least gained a lot of versatility from this play. Rider and Archer had vastly differing specialties and combat styles, and she could have either one of them active at full power at any given moment. If one was injured, she could astralize them and send the other out immediately. She could send them both out at half-power, maybe even go so high as two-thirds, without doing serious harm to herself; sometimes two smaller powers were more use than a single big one. And, as a last resort, well, she could always see how long she could handle both going full-throttle at the same time.

Probably not long.

… Definitely longer than Emiya could. So ha-ha-ha.

Still, there was one major issue that she could only put off for so long, above and beyond the mana situation. Once she got home, she would have to think this one over very careful—

I follow you for the moment because that book gives you power, Rider's soft, deep voice whispered into her mind. But my true Master gave it to Shinji. You may have hijacked the spell that gave it shape, but it is still hers, and she will not be happy that you stole it.

Ah. So Rider didn't want to wait, then.

I know that. And trust me, I have a plan for dealing with her, Rin replied. This was only semi-true... she had a plan to come up with a plan for dealing with Sakura. But it shouldn't be too hard; she had plenty to offer the girl, after all. The key point in negotiation was to approach from a position of strength, and she was there already. Shouldn't be too hard to work out a carrot Sakura would be most baited by. She'll be on board soon, and then you and I will be great friends, I think.

And if she refuses? Rider asked.

Then I will use this Command Seal before she destroys it. I don't want to hurt her, so I'll just have you kill yourself. Rin thought back, iron lining her mind. She paused for several long seconds, her breath bated. If she had just pissed the Servant off, something might have gone very wrong here, but the way that Rider had just abandoned Shinji like garbage the second the book switched hands made her hope...

She could feel Rider's small smile in her mind. That will do.

Rin let out a long, relieved breath. Every once in awhile, you got a Servant who really, really valued their Master. Usually it was the silly noble ones, like Saber (Rin took a moment, then, to mourn the fact that none of this would have been at all necessary if she had gotten her hands on that one... they would have just been such a flawless team it almost made her cry), but apparently Rider was in the same boat. She had suspected as much, seeing the way Rider regarded Shinji. She clearly loathed him, but hadn't taken the time to stab him in the back and go back to Sakura when she clearly could have; Shinji was far too proud of himself to see a betrayal coming from someone he considered 'property.' The only reason Rin could see for Rider to act this way was if Sakura wanted it that way, for whatever reason. Rider was loyal to Sakura. She wanted what was best for her.

Well, that was fine, since Rin was actually telling the truth. She had no intention of harming Sakura; quite the opposite, actually. Even a few minutes of pondering made that carrot clearer and clearer.

Well, she thought chipperly, a tiny skip entering her step, I'm glad we got that covered. So, here's how we're going to run this. For the next hour or so, we're going to spend ever so much time talking about all sorts of things, Rider. Things like the Matou manor, and their defenses, and anything you know about Zouken and his movements and abilities.

And then I'm going to take you on a test drive.

The walk back to the Emiya household was a silent one.

The topic that Shirou wished to bring up, sadly, was not one for errant ears. Saber had rather been hoping to never actually talk it over with him... they had not talked over the subject of Kiritsugu a great deal, but even from snippets it was not terribly hard to work out that the boy clearly idolized his father.

Saber... had not shared this sentiment.

She was not sure how or why, but Kiritsugu Emiya had clearly changed, drastically, in the time since she had met him. And telling his devoted son this had not been a prospect she had looked forward to, so she had planned to simply keep it to herself and ignore the Emiya clans issues in favor of focusing on the War.

Naturally, life was choosing to not allow this. Sometimes, Saber pondered if it did these things to her on purpose, if she was some kind of universal chewtoy. But she supposed it could have been worse. She could have been on fire.

Still, as she sat in the Emiya household kitchen, listening to Shirou make a meal, she found for the first time that she was not terribly looking forward to him sitting down at the table with the finished food.

He did so, and she barely even smelled it. "I was cooking," he said, "Because it clears my head, and my head needed clearing."

"I assumed. However, I fear I will not be able to clear anything up to your satisfaction, Master... the situation is more complicated than you believe, and I do not believe that knowing it will bring you anything like peace," Saber said softly. "Truthfully, I would have advised against you going, had I known the overseer of the War was aware of the Servants and Masters who fought in the last War. Most particularly... Kiritsugu Emiya. Your father."

"Foster father. He pulled me out of a fire... I was the only survivor. He saved my life, took me in. Gave me a home, a family. Taught me everything I have that's worth knowing."

"Yes," Saber said with a sigh. "Which is why I have such a hard time believing it is the same man I knew. Kiritsugu Emiya... he entered the War as a mercenary. An assassin in the service of the Einzbern Magus family. He was cold, aloof, ruthless. In all ways a perfect magus, with one exception. He..."

She paused, searching for the words, before deciding that at this point, bluntness was the only real recourse. Shirou would accept, or he would not. "He was broken. He was not a magus who was raised into the coldness and cruelty, but someone who was twisted into it by life. I could see that much."

Shirou sighed, rubbing his temples. "That can't be right. It... it has to be someone else, doesn't it? Anyone else. You can't be thinking of the same man."

"The fire, Shirou," Saber said gently. "The one he found you in. It was caused by the final battle of the War. I was battling Archer, the last remaining Servant besides myself, while Kiritsugu fought his Master. I do not know the details of their duel, but I know Kiritsugu emerged victorious, because only he returned alive after the fire started in their confrontation spread to the city. And that was when he betrayed me."


"With his third and final Command Seal, as the Grail was within our grasp, Kiritsugu ordered me to draw my blade and destroy it," Saber said, the bitterness of that memory still bringing a sour taste to her mouth. "I do not know why, nor did I care at the time. I merely hated him beyond anything I can describe. I was so close, and... and..."

She sighed. "It does not matter anymore. Suffice to say, yes: I knew your father. And no, it has nothing to do with you."

Shirou rubbed his temples and sank into the chair, groaning in frustration. "Well... it is something I should have known. But it doesn't explain a thing about those swords, or that woman, or..."


"Ah. Um. When I was unconscious, after I... um... made swords," Shirou said, for lack of a better term. "I saw a woman. I can't remember her too clearly, but she talked about my father, and someone I had to protect... it was probably just a hallucination, but it felt real. It's probably stupid."

"Do you remember what she looked like?" Saber asked, softly. It couldn't be. But... that girl is her child, and she was hardly a normal woman by any stretch of the imagination. Could some fragment of her have been preserved inside Ilyasviel after all?

Shirou sighed. "No. I didn't really see her face. And what's worse, I was falling in and out of it the whole time, seeing little chunks of what was happening to you too. That black thing... a golden sword that shone like the sun... a man with cold, red eyes..." he smiled sadly. "A lot of little things that don't make any sense. Just flashes that burned through my brain even when I couldn't really understand them."

Saber smiled slightly. "Well, I did want to debrief you, but you were in such a hurry..."

Shirou rolled his eyes and pushed the steaming dish of beef and rice over to her. "Here. Consider it penance. Now tell me what's going on?"

Saber nodded agreeably, her nerves cooling somewhat. Shirou didn't seem to be terribly upset with her for keeping her connection to his father from him; which she supposed was fair, given that he had not asked, and in the end it had not been terribly relevant. Unless the little princess really has altered things more than I thought. "Well, let us begin at the beginning..."

She shared with Shirou what little she could share on the weapons he created, which was not a great deal, but enough to make him look at his hands like he had never seen them before. Such projection was not impossible for a magus, but it should have required some kind of template to base the weapon on, and should not have been solid enough to repel Lancer's spear. Unfortunately, as she was no magus herself, there was little enough she could share on that. On the other factors, however...

"The black creature you remember, I believe to be some kind of curse. I do not know the details, but Il—" she caught herself barely in time; violating oaths was not something she would do if she could all avoid it. Inconvenient, but she was a knight and this was not going to change. "-it's connection to Lancer and the way it sought me out specifically suggest it is somehow connected to the Holy Grail. I believe Zouken Matou was aware of it as well, so I think it likely it is connected to his machinations. At the very least, he knows more of it than I do, and he is certainly hostile to us, so we should consider him a priority target if we get the chance to destroy him without endangering Sakura."

There! Informative, and yet leaving out anything that might give away the Lady Einzbern. Saber felt she was doing rather well at this subterfuge thing, and she didn't even have sunglasses.

"Okay, that makes sense," Shirou said. "I didn't see it, really, but I... it was more like I felt it. Like it was just this... endless void drawing everything in. I'm not sure, but... well, it would make sense, at least, if it were the reason people were hemorrhaging life energy all over town. Does that make sense to you?"

Saber blinked. She hadn't considered it, but... "Potentially. From what I've pieced together from Shinji's general vileness, and Rin's bizarre antics, it seems that the source of that effect is the Ryudou Temple, correct? The entire mountain is a powerful, mystical location. If that shadow-creature is the result of a magical ritual, that would be an ideal location to cast it from."

Shirou nodded. "Well, we have to patrol either way. We might as well start there tonight. If we can stop that energy drain, we can save a lot of people all at once. It seems the best tactic to me, anyway."

Saber winced. "I... do not disagree. But that Shadow is dangerous, Shirou. Please understand the immensity of what you are asking... my Noble Phantasm drove it off, but that is a very limited-use ability, and it did not permanently destroy it. That alone should be proof that this creature is a dangerous, possibly immortal curse. Destroying it may be beyond our abilities."

Shirou nodded. "I understand. But we have to try, don't we? If nothing else, I trust you'll be able to deal with anything thrown at you. I've seen you do some amazing things, Saber."

Both a bit annoyed and unreasonably pleased at the compliment, Saber found herself reacting with mixed blushing and wincing, which she imagined looked rather odd. She tried to hide it by taking a bite of her meal. "Yes. Well. Your confidence is appreciated..."

"Appreciated enough you'll tell me the name of your sword now?" Shirou teased.

"... but it also puts a great deal of pressure on me," Saber finished coyly.

"No fun."

"As for the man with red eyes that you saw," Saber said, pausing briefly to take a few more bites (It might have been simple beef stew and rice, but Shirou made it damn well), "he is perhaps even more problematic. Like myself, he was a Servant in the previous War. He took on the role of Archer in that conflict, and it was he I fought at the very end, among the flames."

"... Wait, what?"

"I do not know how he is still alive, his identity, or truly anything of value about him," Saber admitted. "Merely that he is powerful. Your father was a... forgive me my rudeness... much more accomplished magus than yourself. Under his command, I was close to the height of my power, and yet I could only manage to fight this Archer to a draw before we were forced apart. I never won a decisive battle against him. I do not know if I could. Our last battle only ended because his Master was mortally wounded, and we were separated before he could find a new one. He should have faded away with the destruction of the incomplete Holy Grail... yet he has not. I can tell you little else, I fear.""

Shirou's eyes widened. "Oh. Hell."

"Indeed. Compounding this is the fact his personality is... troublesome at best, horrific at worst," Saber said in a long-suffering tone. "And he is oddly fixated on me, and not particularly bothered with the concept of sanity. He has other goals at the moment, but he will come for us eventually, and when he does... it will not go well."

"So... another big obstacle then. Great," Shirou said. "Well, not a lot we can do about it now. We'll have to hope he doesn't show up when we're at the Temple, then."

Saber considered this. "Or, we could try feeding him to the Shadow, perhaps giving it indigestion which will allow our victory to proceed more smoothly."

"... Not funny, Saber," Shirou said, smiling despite himself.

"Of course, Master," Saber agreed, eyes twinkling. "May I have another helping, if possible? There are many hours until nightfall, and..."

"I made two pots."

"Your wisdom grows by the day, Master."

It was nearly night when she finally got the call she was expecting.

Sakura stepped into the basement of the manor for the second time, ignoring the worm pit as best she was able. Her heart was pounding in her chest as a spike of fear went down her spine. No matter how many times she faced him, there was always that brief moment of terror when she came before her grandfather.

"Sit," the voice of Zouken said, emanating from many mouths throughout the whole of the loathesome chamber said, the flickering candlelight illuminating an old wooden chair set up above the pit. Without a word, Sakura did as she was told.

"You wonder" "Why" "You are here?" the voice of the legion said, her grandfather's voice times a million, each cluster of words emanating from a different corner of the basement. As she watched, a thousand of the worms came together into a larger pile; Grandfather had been sleeping, apparently. He would be there in person soon, once his body was ready to move again.

"I wonder why I am home, sir. I thought you didn't care what happened to me. I thought as long as Shinji had Rider I was not needed for the War," she said obediently. There was no point in lying to Grandfather, he always knew. She had learned long ago to simply tell the truth, at all times, since he saw through every single lie, no matter how clever.

… Well, to be fair, she couldn't be completely sure of that. It wasn't as though he had ever said anything about it. But she firmly suspected simply based on the fact the sessions always hurt more after she'd hidden something. Grandfather had all too many ways of getting his point across non-verbally.

A mouth opened on the mass of writhing worms, her grandfather's smirk. "I had thought it to be true. I was wrong. Things have changed. You have suddenly become an even more important game piece than I believed you to be. "

Sakura blinked. "You want me to take Rider back? I can't, you know that. Even if I took her back from Shinji, the Crest Worm stops me from using her in battle for any length of time."

The figure shrugged, slugs falling off suddenly human shoulders, and Zouken smiled. "Oh, my dear, my dear. You have always been of more use than a common Master. But do not worry... what I need from you is much simpler than you believe it to be. There is no need for you to enter into battle, or anything so childish as that. All I need you to do... is sleep."

Sakura blinked in confusion at his words, before feeling the tug of the Crest Worm in her heart. A sharp pain filled her chest for a few seconds, causing her to fall forward out of the old chair, but it was followed in short order by an intense fatigue that filled her whole body, as though iron weights had been strapped to every inch of her, and her brain felt suddenly as though it was wrapped in a thick cloth. Her vision blurred, then went black and red around the edges...

Foolish old man has a death wish, then? She heard in her mind, just before her eyes finally closed and consciousness vanished into the void.

Zouken watched with a smile as the shadows in the corner of the room grew, running together, veins of blood-red beginning to run through them before they finally coalesced into the familiar form of his prized, if somewhat unpredictable of late, familiar.

It was time, then, to remind it who it belonged to.

From the depths of the Shadow, a very smug, female voice echoed through the chamber. "So. In my day, magi who lived to be as old as you had a much better sense of self-preservation. But then again, that was a better world in general."

"Welcome to my home, Servant Caster," Zouken said, inclining his head as the woman stepped from the pool of darkness, her solid black eyes glittering in the torchlight. "May I offer you something to drink?"

Without a word, Caster raised her hand sent a bolt of jet-black flame roaring directly through Zouken's chest. The flames spread through his aged flesh like it was made of tinder, leaving the decrepit body as nothing but a pile of ash in less than five writhing, agonized seconds.

"That was" "Both rude and" "Incredibly pointless." said the voice of the old magus, emanating from every corner of the crypt. "Now I need to" "Secure another body and" "that one was" "nearly brand-new."

Caster shrugged, her smile unconcerned. "I have been dealing with an unruly dog for the last day, and had frustration to take out on something. I confess, simply killing every single one of your loathsome slugs and leaving you a disembodied wraith fading away into history was not quite the pleasantly ironic way I had hoped to punish you for your sins, old man, but it has a certain appeal. Perhaps Lancer had a point about the direct approach after all. Ever since your little pet became my little pet, I confess the violence has been exhilarating."

"It's to be" "expected, for even an anti-hero" "such as yourself to be" "touched by the root of all sin..." the old magus chuckled from a thousand throats, not one of them remotely made for the sound. "It's the same as you" "isn't it?" "Just a broken puppet" "made of darkness and" "loss that thinks it is a person."

Caster's eyes narrowed. "Hardly a grandfatherly perspective. To say such hideous things about your own flesh and blood, stolen though it might be... you remind me of a man I once knew. Though he was at least handsome, for all his other many, many flaws."

"Oh, silly little" "puppet, I speak of Sakura and" "yet I do not. You will" "come to learn soon enough, as we" "begin to work together." "Such wonders I have" "to show to you, dear Caster."

"...Hahahahaha... hahahahahahahahahahahaha!" Caster laughed, a full-bodied, body-shaking chuckle, leaving her holding her sides in genuine mirth. "Oh! Oh, p-please, don't do that again! Oh, my, and people say magi have no sense of humor..."

"Ha." "Ha." "Ha." Zouken said.

Caster's eyes widened, and she fell to her knees, the influx of mana that allowed her to maintain her body cutting off suddenly, weakness filling her body, as though her limbs had become lead. She had enough power to survive on her own for some time, obviously, but the sudden loss of the external flow was a shock indeed. The Shadow, from its tranquil state, began to flail in agony, releasing a keening, inhuman wail. "What have you done?!"

"What a shame" "isn't it," "when such a fragile Master" "gets caught in the line of fire?"

Her eyes wide with horror, the Servant turned her eyes to Sakura. The girl was still asleep, of course, and in fact did not appear to be moving...

Oh, Gods, no.

or breathing. Her skin had gone ashen, and a thin line of blood leaked from her nose and ears. And under her skin, something was writhing...

"It is a shame, she" "was almost perfect. But if" "her existence is going to cause" "me such inconvenience," "it is probably best to" "start over later."

"No! You can't just-!"

"Can." "Will." "Unless you" "fall into line."

"NOW." The command reverberated throughout the old house, every twisted familiar in that pit speaking in unison, a roar so deep it made Caster's bones vibrate.

Caster's face was twisted into a primal snarl of absolute rage, captured magic snapping between her fingers like angry snakes. "You... you think that you can just...! I will burn you down to nothingness you animal!"

"Really? You will" "kill every piece of my soul" "before your contract expires?" "Or will you calm down, and" "realize that your Master's life" "is mine to take as I will? Submit, and" "I may be merciful. What I seek" "could be of great value to" "a Servant as well. But only a Servant wise enough to" "know her place."

For some time, the only sound in the room was the chittering of the worms, and the hissing of flames in Medea's hands. Then, after several long, painful minutes. Caster lowered her arms, the light fading from her hands. "Release her. And... we will talk. Once you take on a new body. I grow weary of the screeching of slime-covered leeches."

There was no human face to smirk, but the expression came through in the voice of the swarm as they hissed, "Return to the void. I will call for you soon."

Caster waited briefly, watching to be sure he had kept his word; the unconscious Sakura coughed lightly, barely stirring in her sleep, but as she watched the color flooded back into the girl's cheek. With the barest nod of affirmation, she stepped back into the swirling Shadow, and the writhing black pool slipped back into the cracks of the floor and vanished into nothingness, leaving not even a stain on the stones.

The worms writhed, awaiting the final setting of the sun, when they would be free to hunt a new body for the elder mage. His consciousness rested, secure in the knowledge he had won.

Zouken thought he had won.

Zouken thought he was in control.

Because that was what Caster wanted him to think. The threat to Sakura, she had not foreseen, but in the end, it was something she could turn to her advantage. Let the old magus think her brought to heel, leashed by the danger to her Master. For now, she would bide her time, study his methods further, gain even more information on the nature of the new power she had become a part of. With time and careful study, who knew? She might even discern the method to keeping Lancer under firmer control. Yes, this could be a great asset, despite the indignity.

And when Sakura came into her own, finally took on her true power... nothing that Zouken Matuou thought and planned would matter in the slightest.

The girl slept, and even as Caster slipped back into the darkness in her soul, she made sure the girl dreamed.

Sakura blinked, and opened her eyes... before rolling them. "Again?"

She knew she was not where she had been when she fell asleep. She had passed out on the cold stone floor of the family crypt, and now she woke up in perhaps the most lavishly beautiful bed she had ever seen. A deep blue canopy overhead, silk sheets, a down comforter, and enough space to fit an entire slumber party if she so chose. Truthfully, she wanted nothing so much as to close her eyes and go right back to sleep, it was so comfortable.

She actually giggled, snuggling deeper into the sheets. If this is her new idea of a Satanic temptation, I have to admit she's getting better at it. Better than that silliness about ruling the world, anyway...

"It wasn't silliness, my dear," an amused feminine voice said, making Sakura squeak and jump halfway out of her skin. "And I have nothing to do with Satan, thank you. I prefer to deal in gods that actually give some benefit."

Sakura narrowed her eyes at the blue-haired woman sitting at the edge of the bed, smiling gently. She was wearing nothing but a soft, mostly translucent shift that hid very, very little and accentuated what it did, which for some reason made Sakura feel a little uncomfortable. It wasn't as though Medea had anything she didn't see on herself when she took a bath, of course, but between the setting and oddly... skimpy outfit, the whole situation just seemed a little like the woman was...


Moving aside the covers, Sakura looked down at what she herself was wearing. She then turned bright red and squeaked again in dismay upon seeing a few strategically placed straps of of sheer violet silk and not much else, and moved the covers back.

Medea giggled, a musical sound (and the motion did some interesting things to her chest, not that Sakura was looking). "You don't like it? I thought it brought out your eyes nicely."

"It's the size of my eyes!" Sakura muttered, wrapping the blankets around herself like a protective cocoon. "I was wearing a sweater. Please give it back."

"Why? You have an amazing figure, dear. Would you put a sheet over the Mona Lisa?" Medea said, laughter still filling her voice and making Sakura very uncomfortable and slightly annoyed, in that order.

"The Mona Lisa doesn't have to go outside," she countered.

"You're dreaming. Nobody will see but me," Medea said. "And since I'm afraid I'll need to see more, I don't think that's a problem?"

"What? Isn't this just another one of your... your weird visions, where you try to tell me what I could do?" Sakura asked, blinking in confusion. She had thought she had worked this out fairly well. She 'woke up' in the dream, remembered, Medea would give her some silly notions of what she might do if she had Phenomenal Cosmic Powers, and then she would wake up in the real world and forget it all. But then, this was the first time she'd woken up in these dreams dressed as a harem girl with a mostly naked woman smiling at her (And why did she keep smiling?). It sent some... odd signals.

"Not yet, I'm afraid. You couldn't take it," Medea said calmly.

"E-eh? What does that mean?"

"What I mean, dear heart, is that your mana supplies are, despite my best efforts, critically low. I am supplementing as best I can your... other half, but I'm afraid the appetite is rather limitless there. And as an unfortunate result, I have neglected the true self. You gave much to Rider, and cannot regain it on your own thanks to your grandfather's meddling. I have prevented you from feeling the effects, but trust me: they are there."

Sakura narrowed her eyes. "Suuuuuuure."

Medea sighed, and twitched one finger lightly, and oh God it was not pleasant. A rushing wave of deathly chill and unbearable heaviness in her limbs, like her bones had turned to lead. The familiarity of it was obvious enough: it was how she had felt only a few days ago, when she'd ended up passing out in her sister's arms. She had thought she simply had sufficient mana to overcome the weakness thanks to Rider staying in astral form, but...

"That is what you actually feel like. What I've been keeping from your conscious mind. Do you believe me now?" the sorceress asked dryly.

"I... I think so," Sakura said, gasping for air and still crushing the blankets closer to herself for some relief from the residual cold. She had grown so used to the numbing ache of the Crest Worm, she had thought herself able to handle pain fairly well, but this was not something even she could shrug off. "So... so you want to heal me? I didn't think anyone could."

"Not... precisely," Medea said delicately. "The only one who can heal you, I'm afraid, is you. If you claim your full power, then even removing that vile thing from your heart will be simple enough for the goddess that results."

Sakura raised an eyebrow. "You said you weren't doing that pitch this time."

Medea gave that musical giggle again, and said, "No, no. A different pitch this time, I think. I know you don't particularly like the clothing I chose for you..."

"I wouldn't call it 'clothing'."

"... but," the woman continued, as if Sakura had not spoken, "It was not really intended so much for fashion as, say, ease-of-access. As I am afraid that transferring directly into a human's magic circuits is a bit more complicated than an extended mana formation, we shall have to take more..."

She leaned in, licking her lips, an odd light in her eyes.

"Direct approach."

The kiss was long, and soft, and Sakura was far, far too flustered to either return or push it away, so she just kind of froze and let it happen. She could feel a sudden heat running up the entire length of her body, but centering on... well... areas.

This should not be so embarrassing. It is not new. Why am I acting like a sheltered schoolgirl?! She thought furiously to herself in the small part of her brain that was still acting rationally. This was not, unfortunately, the part the controlled her body, which was alternately running overdrive and totally frozen.

Medea chose to take this as encouragement, apparently (I didn't encourage anything!), because she leaned in deeper, her fingers pushing aside the blankets to trace Sakura's curves, fingernails lightly scraping and sending shivers down her spine. Her entire body felt too hot, and too tight, and incredibly sensitive to every tiny stimulation, most particularly the petal-soft lips that moved against her own in such interesting ways...

A soft hand lightly brushed aside the fabric covering her breasts, and that finally seemed to shock her free. She fell backward onto soft pillows, gasping for air, a hand across her chest to preserve what little modesty she had left, and she managed to squeak out, "Wh-what are you...?!"

Medea just continued to smile that enigmatic smile, and slipped her shift off, letting it fall into a silken puddle on the floor before she crawled forward to perch on her hands and knees above Sakura. "I thought that was obvious."

Sakura shook her head, attempting to clear it, and said, "N-now, wait. I mean... well, you... I don't really know you, and... I mean... this... ahhh...!"

This last, it must be noted, was because Medea had leaned into begin suckling softly at the side of her neck, her strong hands brushing Sakura's arm away from her chest to begin softly kneading.

Sakura tried, very, very hard, to protest again. It was just that speaking was really, really not easy, and it was very hot in here, and quite suddenly even the tiny slip of fabric still covering her body felt like too much, and... and...

"Sakura," Medea said softly, as she traced her lips lightly along Sakura's neck, her hands continuing their gentle rhythm, as the girl writhed beneath her. "This is a seduction, not a rape. There is one other option we could pursue, though it's less pleasant. I will stop, if you want me to. Do you want me to?"

She should have told the woman to stop, the single tiny spark of resistance in her knew. There were many good reasons to turn this down, and only one, fairly lousy reason, to keep going.

Medea's hand slipped beneath the covers, and beneath the final piece of fabric on Sakura's body, as a pair of a soft lips found her left breast. The girl arced her back and let out a sound that was more primal moan than any sort of word. The Servant smiled, taking this as the obvious, and began to move her lips lower...

"W-wait, please..."

It was a barely above a whisper, almost inaudible compared to the blissful moan that had preceded it, but it still caused Medea to stop and look up, blinking in obvious confusion, her lips still lightly pressed to the girl's body. "Are you sure?" she asked in clear disappointment. She had been rather enjoying herself, frankly.

"You... you can't just... wait. Just wait. Let me think for a second," Sakura begged.

"... If you wish. There is legitimately no trap here. I'm doing this for your own good, I swear," Medea said. "If you just lay back..."

"Get your hand out of my... my... you know. And let me think," Sakura said, a bit more firmly. The blue-haired woman sighed, and slid off the girl, sitting back cross-legged and pouting. Sakura would have laughed at the petulant act if her head hadn't been so muddled.

She sat up, and gathering what little dignity one could when one was was still panting in exertion and wearing only a thin layer of sweat and a purple silk thong (she wasn't sure where the other strips had ended up, and frankly thinking about the process of them being removed didn't help her mental state) she said, "Now. What did you do wrong, here?"

"... Are you quite serious?" Medea asked.

"Not at all," Sakura said primly, which was kind of an odd tone for her to take when her bare breasts were, and there really wasn't another word for it, heaving with each breath she took. "You did something very wrong here, and please tell me what."

"I didn't do a thing. You need this to survive. I offered you the most pleasant way to do it. Even took the time to seduce you into it when I could... and I could... have simply forced you. I offered you a choice," Medea said flatly, her tone so childishly annoyed that Sakura very nearly laughed again. "Is there nothing that makes you behave rationally? You are... the most vexing girl."

"You offered me a choice you didn't give me any time to consider."

"That's more than your brother gives you, or your grandfather!"

"I know," Sakura said, taking the other woman's face in her hands. "Which is why it's so important. Medea... this is the first time I was ever given a choice. And if you... you give it, and then don't let me use it, you're not any better than they are."

Medea wrinkled her nose, indicating exactly what she thought of this logic, before sighing. "Well. If moaning loud enough to wake the dead is a sign you were not enjoying yourself, I apologize."

"I was not—I mean... no. It's not... that," Sakura said, painfully aware that disguising a blush while naked was impossible. "It's... it's principle. I guess. It's not that I wasn't enjoying myself, just... you didn't let me... well. I just needed some time to think about it. That's all."

Medea's smile was wicked, and made Sakura's entire body tingle. "And now that you've thought about it?"

"I need," Sakura said primly (and no, the tone wasn't any more fitting the second time), "to know my other option."

Medea sighed. "Well. This is a mental realm, but the rules of a contract still apply. Sexual contact to forge the connection, which means you stop being difficult and let me finish... or drinking blood."

"... … ..."

"I did tell you the other option was less pleasant."

"I was distracted!"

"You were approaching orgasm."

"Which. Was. Distracting!" Sakura snapped. God, this was just... so bizarre. It wasn't that she had no interest in such things. Indeed, she had... considerably more than most people. She had just never been able to exercise those urges of her own free will, and she had... not expected it to go this way. She had never expected to have the choice at all, really. But in her fantasies, when she had dared to let herself have them, well... it had most certainly not been like this. And yet here she was.

Medea was clearly not what one would call a shining pillar of morality. She had demonstrated that more than once, simply by virtue of the fact her first thought as to Sakura's innermost desires had been to assume she wanted to wreak bloody vengeance on the Earth. But... she did seem genuine in one aspect. She did, at least, want to help Sakura, in her own, somewhat twisted way. And in a bizarre way, this had all been kind of sweet of her. She hadn't gotten it quite right, but she had at least tried to make it as pleasant as she could.

And she was a great kisser... said the part of her brain that had been begging her to just shut up and let the woman work earlier, still a little sore at being kicked out of the driver's seat.

Sakura sighed, rubbing her head. This was all so strange, and well... there was still Senpai to consider. Did this count as betrayal? She loved him. She knew that, it was the one thing in this world she was sure of. But it didn't mean she wasn't attracted to other people, and the way Medea had rammed right through her conscious mind and into her libido suggested she was a bit more into girls than she'd expected of herself. And she did need the mana... and drinking blood, even dream blood, well...

She opened her eyes, to look Medea in the face. Or, well, she tried. "Stop staring at my chest."

"Hm? Oh! Sorry."

"Look," Sakura said. "I... well. I can't believe I'm saying this, but I'm choosing to trust you this once. I still don't know what your game is, but I think you do want me to be healthy, at least."

Medea rolled her eyes. "Of course you would say that. I swear, no matter what I do or say to you, it's never enough to make you... wait, what? Did you just say y-"

She was cut off at this point, by Sakura placing a finger under her chin and tilting it gently upwards to lean in and kiss her. Apparently not choosing to look a gift horse in the mouth, Medea melted into the girl, sliding her arms around Sakura's waist and pulling her close, deepening the embrace.

"Slow down," Sakura whispered, breaking the kiss and putting one finger on the Servant's lips to hold them apart. "I'm trusting you. So you have to honor that. If this is going to happen, then... well. It shouldn't be so mechanical. It should be something special between us."

Medea blinked. "It's only a ritual. I will make certain it feels good, but..."

Sakura giggled. "You are a bit silly, aren't you? What I mean is... don't treat it like a ritual. This is a dream, isn't it? In the real world, that is my life. This... well, this sort of thing, anyway, it's always all about rituals and, and need, and control. It's all done out of necessity or for power, and it's just... sick. In here, in our place, let it be about us. And that means I want it to be tender, and special, and I most of all want you to enjoy it too. Something pleasant, and gentle, that we can share. Just let it be a happy dream. Please?"

Medea stared for a long time, something softening in her eyes. "I... see. I'm not sure what to say to that, other than I... will try. It's not like tenderness is something I have a lot of experience with but..."

Sakura smiled, and brushed her lips against the other woman's to silence her. "Me neither. But I hope that isn't too late to learn a little."

The hesitant brush became a deeper kiss. Slowly, hands began to wander, bodies intertwined, and the two women descended back down to the covers together.

There was not a lot of talking, after that.

The swarm of demonic insects surged out from the Matou manor upon the setting of the sun, chittering for blood. It was only a matter of time before they found someone foolish enough to be walking the streets at night, and the immortal Zouken Matou would walk the Earth again in stolen skin.

Behind them, unseen save for the barest flash of a white skull in the dark, Assassin slipped into the night.

Her expression cold, Rider entered the empty manor, on her new Master's orders. She moved silently, making her way to the basement in seconds, and nearly snarled aloud at what she saw; Sakura, unconscious on a stone island, in the center of that pit of vileness her grandfather called his laboratory.

A few of the worms were slowly crawling toward the prone girl. Like a black hurricane, Rider swept down upon them.

They stopped crawling.

Without a word, the Servant scooped the prone girl up in her arms and sprinted for the door faster than a human eye could have hoped to follow. She did not, at any point, notice the faint smile or blush on Sakura's sleeping face.

Sakura smiled, yawned contentedly, and stretched, feeling more energized and healthy than she had in years. Beyond a strange feeling that she should be very embarrassed by whatever she had dreamed about...

Oh, u-um, I'm sure it was nothing. Just a silly dream. Ha ha. I should really stop thinking about it.

… but then, it was just a silly dream. She shouldn't bother worrying about something like that. How silly of her. She suspected grandfather wouldn't need her for anything in the near future, or she would already be summoned, so she rolled over, pulled the comforter up to her neck, and nestled back down in the soft mattress to rest.

… Wait.


But... the last thing I remember, I was in the basement crypt, and grandfather isn't exactly the sort to tuck me in...

"Pleasant dream?" asked a cheerful female voice that made Sakura's blood run cold. She opened her eyes to see perhaps the most terrifying thing she could possibly imagine: Rin Tohsaka, sitting by her bedside.


Sakura squeaked in dismay, leaping out of bed and hiding behind the mattress.

"No, then?" Rin asked, struggling not to laugh.

"This isn't where I fell asleep," Sakura said, in the tone of a small child accusing another one of stealing her cookie.

"Well, that didn't look very comfortable," Rin said. "So, since your loving family were all out for the evening, I sent a friend to go bring you someplace nice and cozy. My room, in case you were wondering... there's a guest room, but I'm still having Archer make it up for you. You will be staying, correct?"

Sakura pondered this, and said, in a polite and respectful tone worthy of the gravity of the situation, "Have you lost your mind?! You know we can't do that! No interaction outside of school! Certainly not in a Grail War! We've gotten away with slipping that a few times, but-"

Rin raised a hand.. "Sakura. Who made that rule?"

"Our... well, I mean your..." Sakura said, the words catching in her throat.

"Your grandfather... and our parents," Rin said, putting appropriate weight into this most taboo of phrases, something she was absolutely forbidden to discuss with the girl in front of her under any ordinary circumstances... but these were not, in any way, ordinary circumstances. The Tohsaka family's laws were sacrosanct, of course, but... to seek the Root was the ultimate goal of all magi, everywhere. She had a shot at that, if the von Einzbern brat had been correct... and really, who would know better than her? By those standards, as head of the Tohsaka family, didn't she have a duty to pursue that chance by any means necessary? Access to that limitless power and wisdom, putting the maligned Tohsaka family at the forefront of the global magical community. Wasn't that worth disobeying one command that she... well...

Wasn't it worth it?

Sakura winced at her tone. "You shouldn't have said that. You know that."

"Our parents, Sakura," Rin said, drawing strength from the words, "demanded we never again interact. Never meet. Never acknowledge our shared bloodline. Because they gave you to the Matou, and they wanted to prevent us from getting too close when circumstances might force us to fight. But... who says we have to?"

Sakura sighed. "Tohsaka... nee-san. It's a Holy Grail War. You are a Tohsaka, and I..."

"Am. A. Tohsaka," Rin snapped. "That ancient piece of trash might have tried to wipe out your true bloodline, but you are still a Tohsaka, and the Matou have done nothing but stagnate your potential. Or did you think that I wouldn't figure it out? That they... used you as a battery to summon Rider, and then gave your Servant, your Servant, to Shinji? Of all people! It's like they... they stole your diamond necklace to use as a collar for the family pet! They treat you like garbage, Sakura, and you don't owe them a speck of loyalty."

"How... how did you know about Rider?" Sakura asked, her tone barely above a whisper.

Sakura's eyes widened as Rin reached into the small nightstand next to the bed, and produced a very, very familiar book. "Let's just say I've been doing some light reading on the subject."

"You... you stole her?" Sakura asked incredulously. "From nii-san? Is that even possible?"

"Apparently, but only with your help," Rin said flatly. "The false magic circuit is transmitting my mana to Rider properly, but it's only a temporary thing without you. You can override it whenever you want, if I've figured it out correctly?"

Sakura nodded, not quite trusting herself to speak. If... if this was going where she thought it was going, then...

"Then I need you to not do that, Sakura," Rin said softly. She looked her sister dead in the eyes, and said, her tone barely above a whisper, "Because I think we should join forces, and claim the Grail together."

"We... we can't. Nee-san, you know we can't..." Sakura muttered, tears welling up in her eyes. She cursed her weakness, unable to believe she was on the verge of crying for the first time since she was a child, but some things were just too cruel, even for her. Rin was here, offering to save her? Offering her family, and comfort, and... and hope? Hope for freedom and escape, when she knew it was impossible? Could the universe really be so evil as to dangle that in front of her?

"Of course we can, Sakura. The two of us, united? The combined power of our Servants? Even Berserker couldn't touch us," Rin said, her tone cold, competent, logical. Absolutely certain in every way.

Sakura just kind of stared blankly at her, a deer in the headlights.

A cold pit began to grow in Rin's stomach. Was this not the right approach? Had she said the wrong things? Was Sakura having last-minute doubts? She needed this to work. The War was turning against her in a big way, with many of the other Servants joined in dangerously powerful alliances. An alliance with Rider was her last real shot at a comeback, the key to turning things around. If she couldn't get her hands on that key, it was looking more and more like she was dead meat.

"I know you're ill, your magic isn't what it could be, and that's fine! I can provide the mana for Rider. All I need is your blessing, and we'll claim the Grail as a team, the way we always should have been. Archer doesn't even have a wish of his own to make, so Rider has no reason to complain either. Don't you see, Sakura? The situation could hardly be more perfect!" she continued. She knew she was getting a little too energetic, but she didn't really care; Hell, it might be for the best if Sakura came to conclusion that Rin was begging, because in a very real sense she was, and for her life, no less. "I get to claim the prize, you get to use it. Everyone wins! I know it's not what our father meant, but that just makes it all the more perfect that we could turn it out this way! He thought we would have to kill each other, but we don't! This is our chance to surpass his wildest expectations and achieve something he never imagined we could!"

There. She had made her case. It was not the whole truth, if Ilyasviel was right about the need for all of the Seven to die in order to power the Great Grail, but she still needed to keep Rider docile... and truthfully, she couldn't tell the whole truth because the whole truth was that she was more nervous than she'd been since she was a small child sneaking into her father's workshop.

Sakura felt lost, like she was adrift at sea without a life jacket. Rin was so certain, so passionate. She had no idea what she was talking about, and it was killing Sakura with each syllable offering false hope of reuniting with her sister, standing proudly beside her as family again. She knew that Sakura had been mistreated, but she didn't understand how much so, didn't fully comprehend the nature of the leash around her neck... or rather, inside her heart. Grandfather would never let her go willingly. There would be no family for her.

But... does that really matter? Sakura thought, the thought like a bucket of ice water, shocking her back to coherence as a plan began to form. Rin's idea was naïve and doomed to failure, certainly, but it did offer her a unique form of leverage that she had lacked before. A certain freedom to act that she could not have managed while under the Matou's roof. She had a reliable mana source for Rider, now, and she had someone willing to work for the privilege of providing that mana. Nii-san or Grandfather might have been able to pierce the security at the Emiya household, but the boundary field here was far more dangerous, and an Archer-class Servant was an excellent defender, able to spot concealed foes and attack them from miles away if needed. The only way Grandfather could even interact with her here was by commanding the Crest Worm to kill her, and if he tried to coerce her out, well... she had been kidnapped. She couldn't exactly walk out the front door, she was being held 'hostage.' Threatening her loved ones again would be useless. Purposeless. And for all his cruelty, Zouken rarely acted without purpose.

A bloom of something like true joy welled up in her. No, there would be no family for her, no happy ending. She was, most likely, going to die in this house when her grandfather finally lost his patience and disposed of her as a failed experiment, lost to him. But first, she had a chance to do some real, genuine good with her life, for what might have been the first time.

Sakura wiped the tears from her eyes, and looked at her sister. "I have one condition. Senpai... Emiya-senpai. He's the Master of Saber... and I want him to win the War. I don't care about getting it for myself, and I don't care about his Servant either, but he must live through the War. And he must get the prize."

Sakura smiled, softly, at the sight of her sister's thunderstruck expression. "Any questions?"

Shirou Emiya and Saber left the Emiya household, the petite Servant glittering in her armor in the streetlights. The moon hid behind clouds, but this was no obstacle to either of them, and they made their way on the path to Ryudou Temple.

A creature not unlike a scorpion watched them, clinging to the branches of a tree near the Emiya manor.

A spider, weaving an oddly black web on a tree near the base of Mt. Enzo, watched them begin to climb the temple steps.

A thousand, thousand skittering, jagged, venomous insects and arachnids of all shapes, sizes and descriptions began to wake up. In the forest around the temple, on the roof, slithering through the pond and the tall grass, clinging to the ceilings in the darkened, abandoned rooms of the defiled holy shrine. All of the cast hungry eyes on the young man and Servant who stepped through the gate into the boundary field of the Temple of Medea, pausing only briefly as it began to eat around the edges of their life force. Not too much, not enough to drive them away. A web that drove away prey before they were properly snared was a poor web indeed.

And since coming under new management, the temple was indeed a web.

In the central temple, standing before a shattered statue of the Buddha, Zouken Matou saw through the eyes of his familiars and smiled. "Step into my parlor, said the spider to the fly..."

In the heart of the swarm, a white skull shimmered into view, grinning horribly against the night.

Author's Note: Man, I hope that was good. It was certainly something! I just hope that something was 'good'.

As always, check my author profile for additional works, both published and fanfic. People who read and enjoy are wonderful people who life will bless with kittens and hugs!