Author's Note: First and foremost, sorry about this. I'm already pretty well known for my horrible update schedule, but this has been beyond the pale. I've already explained it elsewhere, but the gist is that a giant nasty storm of REAL LIFE hit me all at once and destroyed both my time and will to write much of anything. Hopefully I will now be able to get back to my normal status of just 'horribly slow' instead of 'unforgiveably slow'.

It helps that this story has about... three or four chapters left at most, too. Wow. That's weird to think about, huh?

(*)

Chapter Thirty-three: Bonds

(*)

"That son of a bitch."

"Tohsaka..." Shirou said, hesitation clear in his tone for, well, fairly obvious reasons. Rin was pure coiled wrath, radiating a hatred as pure as any he'd seen. And the Holy Grail War, while easily the most awful experience he'd been through since the fire that orphaned him, had certainly given him plenty of chances to observe seething hate.

"Do not tell me to calm down," Rin snapped. "I trusted him. God knows I never liked him, but I trusted him. I ignored him while he did whatever he liked. It's my fault he was in a position to pull any of this off, and he took advantage of it so completely my head is still spinning."

"You've known him since you were a kid. You couldn't have known."

"Of course she could have. He's obviously a sinister man," Gilgamesh said cheerfully.

"Stop. Helping," Shirou hissed.

"No, see, that's the really galling part," Rin said with a bitter chuckle. "The little monster is right. It is obvious. He doesn't even pretend to be a good person. And I've been treating him like an...an annoying relative when he's actually a damn enemy combatant! I knew he was a snake, and I just sat there ignoring him until he bit me."

"Rather dense," Gilgamesh said.

"Stop that," Ilya said, smacking him upside the head. "She feels bad enough already."

"Ouch! Heeey, I was just being honest. And mortals shouldn't lay hands on the king of kings," the king of kings said with a pout.

Rin arced a confused eyebrow.

"Don't look at me like that," Ilya muttered. "I don't like you, but I know what it's like when you find out you were wrong to trust someone. Even you don't deserve that."

"Thanks, Ilya," Shirou said, patting her head and prompting a blushing smile. "Things are dark enough right now, erm...Gilgamesh. Adding more pain never helps."

"It isn't like I was trying to torment her. As king, I am a font of wisdom who sees the world as it truly is and must face that, whether it be painful or pleasurable. Of course I speak the unvarnished truth at all times."

"Just...please, a little tact?" Shirou begged.

"Tact is for peasants."

"Oh, just ignore him," Rin said with a sigh. "I don't mean to sound dreary, but it's over. Our Servant forces are basically destroyed. Saber has gone rogue and Archer is...gone. Rider is still here, but can we really trust her if the enemy is Sakura? Sakura who, I might add, has apparently seized control of that Shadow monster in addition to having Assassin and Caster under her thumb."

"Caster is dead," Ilya said offhandedly. "She isn't inside me with Berserker, but I definitely feel she's gone. And… Assassin is dead too, but he's still here somehow? It's odd."

"... Heh. Well, at least something went right here," Rin said with a bitter chuckle. "Fact remains, though, we're up against the corruption of the Holy Grail, a Servant of unknown ability, and the overseer of the War is directly supporting them. And in our corner, we have nothing."

"How glum," Gilgamesh said cheerfully. "I'll help you. There, feel better? You're certainly going to win with my aid. In fact, we could probably go and defeat all your enemies this very night, haha!"

"... What?"

He chuckled. "I told you. Kotomine betrayed my adult self. They weren't exactly friends, and truthfully he did rather have it coming, but I should still take revenge for it. I will aid you in this quest, and I am quite powerful."

He tipped over, falling to one side with a light thunk. Shirou dutifully straightened him.

"Well then. All our problems are solved," Rin said dryly.

"When I have acquired a new mana source, of course. I don't suppose one of you wishes to make a contract?"

"Get on that, Rin," Ilya said.

"Ew, no. You take him."

"No way! My only Servant was Berserker. You're the one who likes to collect them."

"If it helps, I find you ladies equally coldhearted and vindictive, so I truly care not," Gilgamesh said. "But if I am to help you defeat that Saber and Assassin, power will be required. And obviously, one of you shall have to empower this helpful slave as well."

"Eh? What do you mean by that?" Rin asked, leaving Shirou a little sad nobody had disputed his position as a slave.

"He has the same powers as that counterfeiting Archer, of course. During their clash with my elder self, he even managed to copy much of the Servant's skill and arsenal," Gilgamesh said. "I will find this distasteful in a few years, but for now it isn't so bad. I bet you could find a use for him if you try."

"... Huh," Rin said, looking at Shirou in a new light. "Emiya, elaborate?"

"I don't really know," Shirou admitted. "I've always had some talent with Projection magic, but it wasn't until I started fighting in this war, with Archer around, that it started to...expand, I guess. It really was like I was drawing knowledge from him, especially tonight. Things I never knew how to do before came to me so easily it was like I had been doing them for years. Like they'd been burned into my muscles to the point they became instinct, no conscious thought needed."

"He couldn't keep up with a real Servant, but he has potential," Gilgamesh said. "His mana reserves are pitiful and his body is weak, but if you can fix those problems he should be an efficient combatant. It will be hard now that he doesn't have a time displacement to leech off anymore, though."

Rin blinked. "What do you mean by time displa-"

"I can fix that!" Ilya said quickly. "The, uh, the mana thing. I can fix that."

"... Oh Hell no!" Rin squawked, her entire face going as red as her sweater. "This is not the time or place to be talking like that, you little demon girl!"

"Wait, what?" Shirou asked.

"Nothing! Nothing at all! Don't think about anything and for God's sake keep your pants on!" Rin snapped.

"... ... ..."

"Women are fun in any era," Gilgamesh said wisely.

"Well, now that this is settled…" Ilya said.

"It isn't!"

"…I have to...get some items together. Shirou, meet me in my room in half an hour?"

"No!" Rin squeaked.

"Okay," Shirou said.

"How dense are you, man?!"

Heshrugged. "I know you don't like Ilya, but she really only lies when she's trying to be annoying. This is a serious situation, so I know she wouldn't pull anything like that now. And, erm… Gilgamesh here isn't wrong. We're out of time. If we're going to attack, it should be tonight, so we'll need every weapon we can get together in as short a time as possible."

"You make it sound like if it wasn't serious I'd be tormenting you two for fun," Ilya said with a pout.

Shirou didn't say a word. He just stared at her, eyebrow arched in a way that reminded Rin uncomfortably of the way Archer would look at her when he was clearly thinking something he knew would infuriate her, but he wasn't just going to admit it. He wanted to force her to admit it to herself.

It made her blood run a little cold, and it looked like Ilya felt the same way, because she coughed lightly and looked away in short order. "Erm. Well. Yes. Half an hour, please."

Rin watched the little twerp walk off, blinking in confusion. "Emiya, were you just...cool?"

"He learned it from me," Gilgamesh said.

(*)

For perhaps the billionth time in the last few days, Ilya felt guilty.

She didn't think it was fair this time. She had tried her best with Sakura, even though she really didn't like the girl, and that had ended up going terribly wrong. She hadn't had good intentions for very long, so it had come as something of a surprise to her how very little they actually helped at times.

Now, though, she was not so sure her intentions were entirely good. She thought so, and she was fairly sure they would help, but there was a lingering sense that she was doing something wrong somehow. Something grandpapa would approve of, the icy practicality of an Einzbern.

She wanted to help. But she also wanted, well, to have what she wanted. It was a little hard to ignore the plan that had sprung to mind would be both.

But first, she did need some tools. Because she had more than one plan in mind, in hopes at least one of them was the right thing. And Shirou, bless his silly soul, couldn't know about this one or he would try to stop her, or worse, help.

She stepped outside the manor, ignoring the tingling of the exceedingly barbaric bounded field Rin's ancestors had probably cobbled together out of fishing wire and rusty cans, and found a tree. She pressed a palm against it, willing a piece of her soul into the living wood, and let out a deep breath as it traveled down, through the root system, through the interconnected web of life, to home...

Milady?

Sella, good. I-

WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?!

Ilya fell back with a squeak, knocked out of her channeling by the sheer force of the homunculus's anger. That was new. Sella wasn't supposed to care about things. Quickly, before the link faded, she pressed her palm to the wood again, and thought, What was that?!

That was...unseemly anger, milady, Sella replied. And if you wish to kill me in punishment, I accept my fate. But you vanished! For days, without word! And of course you are superior to Leysritt and myself in all ways, and your judgment on the progress of the War should be trusted, but you are the last hope of the family. More, you are our mistress. Having no knowledge of where you are, if you were even alive...

Ilya winced. I'm sorry.

... Did you just...apologize? Sella asked.

You say that like I've never apologized to you!

... You... Well, milady, I am not saying you have never apologized, but I cannot...exactly remember it ever happening. You are...spirited. To say the least. She paused for a few seconds. I apologize for criticizing you, milady. You may kill me for my insolence, if you wish.

No. No, it's all right. I... Ilya sighed. I have been kind of a brat.

Milady! Please do not critique yourself, you are the shining lady of the Einzbern clan, and above reproach!

Heh. I wish that was true, but I've made a mess of nearly everything I've done of late. You have a right to be angry with me.

Not angry, milady! Not angry! Just… um… disappointed. With my own inability to watch over you. Not with you, of course. You are-

Sella. Come to the estate of the Tohsaka family, and bring the Dress of Heaven. I need it.

The Tohsaka estate, mistress? Have you made an ally with another of the three families? That is certainly auspicious, but at this late juncture it might be difficult to…

The Matou heir has been corrupted by the demon we created for the previous war, and she has taken the Greater Grail for herself. She is in total control of the ritual, and the overseer of the War has joined her. We believe she's planning to open the main container and create a physical form for the dark god. I'll need the Dress because we're critically low on combat power, and I have an idea that may not work. It's my only option, though.

… … … Milady, what have you been doing?!

A long story if ever I heard one, Sella, Ilya thought with a sigh. Long, sad, and with an unhappy ending coming up quickly if we don't manage this just right.

(*)

"So, how do you feel?" Sakura asked, her tone that of a nurse checking on their favorite patient.

Assassin smiled, the expression stretching the paper-thin skin stretched over his skull, pinpricks of golden light now gleaming in otherwise blank eye sockets. "Better. Stronger. Consuming a Servant stabilized us."

"Us?"

"We're two corpses stitched together and animated by witch potions and bleeding chunks of soul. 'Us' seemed the word. If you prefer a singular, I'd go with 'it.'"

"Well, the key thing is that you can speak properly now," Sakura said primly. "I love all my children, but it was so hard to communicate with you. Now that you're feeling better, we can move on to the next project?"

"The birth of Angra Mainyu?"

"Oh, no, it's not going to be 'born' in the sense you're probably thinking of. That's much more complicated and I'll need very specific help to successfully achieve it," Sakura said warmly. "So I need you and dear Kirei to help me get that, while I work on bolstering our defenses further, okay? Because I expect we'll be attacked fairly soon by something quite nasty. Nee-san has such a temper, and Rider, the poor thing, probably thinks she needs to save me. That's fine, taking her power will be another step in the right direction." She sighed. "I wish I could have taken what remained of that other Archer. The power I took from him was more than any other Servant I've ever seen, but there was so much more."

"He's known for causing trouble," Kirei offered mildly, from his position meditating near the side walls of the chamber. "Even knowing how to handle him, he can be hard to predict. Having him against us, even if he isn't at his full power, will be dangerous."

"Oh, yes. Between him and whatever madness Saber has planned, I'm not at all certain what may happen next. But I have faith we'll triumph, because God is on our side, oh priest," Sakura said with a grin. "Or He will be, once He exists. But for now, I'll need you to please find a knife before you and Assassin head out."

Kirei shrugged, and removed a Black Key from the lining of his coat, holding the weapon of a church executioner with practiced grace. "Of course. Dare I ask why, though?"

Sakura's shadow welled up beside her, and from the depths something limp and ragged fell to the floor, wrapped in black cloth. Kirei heard bone crack even from the fairly mild impact, and he blinked. "Is that Caster's corpse?"

"Another meal?" Assassin asked. "We don't see much physical value in this one, though. Don't believe that adding it to our collective form would produce much in the way of improvement."

"Yes to Kirei, no to Assassin. These materials are not for you, but for me; I dragged the power and memories from it, but that doesn't mean the flesh and bone can't be useful in a pinch," Sakura said, pressing aside the robes to reveal a body that had completely desiccated, to the point the exposed tissue looked more like dry leather than skin. "Hold it still, please? I need to cut out its heart, and then you can leave."

Kirei shrugged and smiled, flipping the Black Key around to hand it to her hilt-first. "Well, I will say that you rarely leave me bored. But you have yet to tell us what you need us to do."

Sakura smiled cheerfully as she took the weapon, and said, "Oh, it's wonderful, really. I plan to make a very dear friend."

Kirei arched an eyebrow.

"Don't look at me like that, silly. This is important to our plans, of course, but I also can't deny it's for my own sake too. You see, there's one, just one other girl like me in the whole world, and I really want to talk to her again. We shared the most fascinating discussion once before, and now that I know so much more than I used to, I think we can become even closer," Sakura said, beginning to cut into the corpse with more enthusiasm than skill. As a surgeon, Kirei felt a little annoyed at how blunt she was being, but the skin parted like paper and the bones broke like dried twigs, so it wasn't like she needed a professional's skill. "But more pragmatically speaking, grandfather was right about wanting to control her. She's very powerful, in a very unique way. We can do great things together, once she's here to help. So please pick her up for me? And try not to hurt anyone else, unless you see a chance to kill Rider and preserve her remains for me. Making her a part of me would be wonderful."

She plunged her hand into the open chest cavity, making a slightly disgusted face at the slimy sensation within, before pulling out a shriveled black thing half the size a human heart should have been. She sighed. "My word, making a wand is a nasty business, isn't it? Well, what are you two waiting for, then? Go, go. I need some privacy to work on the construction, so do head off. Please get soap while you're out."

(*)

Shirou wasn't nervous, which even he realized was odd.

He had come to the conclusion some time ago that his relationship with Ilya was odd. This was because, well, he was odd, and so was she. Whatever their connection was going to end up being, it clearly wasn't going to be normal. Normalcy was for normal people, and both Shirou and Ilya were broken. It just seemed that they might be broken in such a way that they happened to fit together, and he couldn't help but be drawn to that. When she was in the room, things never seemed as bad as they were, whether it was because she cheered him up or just distracted him by being a little terror. He could be angry at Ilya, he could be annoyed, he could want to crawl under a rock and die in sheer embarrassment, but he had never once felt sad while she was near him. The crushing despair of the Holy Grail War retreated from her like shadows from moonlight. Like she was such an emotional force of nature she wouldn't allow certain feelings to exist in the same spot she inhabited.

(He kept that observation to himself. He wasn't good with women, but he had the sneaking suspicion Ilya wouldn't appreciate being compared to a force of nature. It was the rare girl who enjoyed being considered 'hurricane-esque.')

But odd relationship or no, he knew he should be nervous right now. Ilya had invited him to meet alone, in her room, after dark. And he was walking there. And that didn't seem like the sort of thing that should inspire a kind of gentle calmness in him, it really didn't. Shirou knew himself too well for that. But for some reason, he couldn't bring himself to feel anything else. This wasn't wrong, or intimidating, or anything it should have been. It was just 'what happened next.'

Maybe Archer had been a good influence on him. Or a bad one. He wouldn't be sure until he found out what Ilya really wanted, because he knew it wouldn't be anything normal. And that was normal, for her.

He knocked on the door, and tried not to smile when Ilya opened it, looking petulant and embarrassed as she said, "You're late. That's rude."

"I'm not late. You're just saying I am because you want to be in control of the situation, and embarrassing me would help with that," he said, unable to hide a warm smile at this point. Pretending to be stoic had not lasted long.

"I… grrrrr, you turned into a jerk all of a sudden," Ilya muttered, arms crossed. "I liked it better when you overreacted to everything. Now you're all… cool, and stuff. It's annoying. Stop it and be embarrassed so I don't have to be."

He knelt down to look her in the eye and put a hand on her shoulder, before saying, very calmly, "I love you too, Ilya."

The girl turned so red he had to struggle not to laugh. Her face had gone practically the same shade as her eyes, and the contrast with her white hair just made the whole thing look completely, totally absurd. Like someone had made a human out of red velvet cake, complete with frosting.

(What? He was a chef, he was allowed to notice that.)

"Oh! That! You! I! Stop it! I can say stuff like that, but you have to! That is! Babbling! You should! Be!" Ilya said. This wasn't actually a sentence, but Shirou decided to let her have the moment. She coughed a few times, before closing her eyes and nodding with what she probably hoped was smugness. "Well. I mean to say… yes. Of course you do. I knew it was only a matter of time after I bared my heart to you as a maiden that you would admit the feeling was mutual. I'm charming."

"You are. Probably not for the reasons you think you are, but."

"And now that we're married…"

"It doesn't work like that."

"… we can move ahead with what I actually wanted to talk to you about," Ilya said, smirking in triumph. She was still blushing furiously, and from the look in her eyes Shirou suspected she wasn't actually listening to him anymore. "Which is to say, my amazing battle plan. For us. To win. And also be together forever."

He did chuckle a little at that one. "Okay. You seem happy with this idea, so I'll listen to it. Please tell me what happens next?"

"It's not funny! Be more embarrassed! You're… you're not supposed to be cool. This is weird," Ilya murmured. "Also sexy. Which just makes it worse."

"What?"

"Nothing! I'm not nervous! Make a contract with me!" Ilya shrieked. Shirou actually winced a little bit, her voice hit such a high pitch.

"Ilya, try to calm down."

"I am calm! You're the one who isn't calm!" she continued to shriek. Shirou silently hoped none of the windows would break, it would really make Tohsaka angry. Again.

"Ilya. Why don't you explain to me what you mean," Shirou said gently. "I'm a little confused."

She coughed lightly, gathering her ladylike dignity as she was wont to do (in her own mind) and said, with much less screaming, "Well. Um. You may have thrown me slightly off my game."

"I didn't notice at all," Shirou said very earnestly, because he knew that not agreeing would end poorly.

"Of course you didn't, I'm a lady. And. Um. I love you. Also."

"I know."

"Shut up. The point is that I didn't… well, it was nice of you to say," she said with a pout, her eyes glittering with rage. "It made me very happy. You jerk."

"I could tell," Shirou said agreeably.

"I… yes! Anyway. I wanted to say. That you're a terrible magus," Ilya said, nodding proudly. Shirou wasn't sure what she was proud of, but he suspected he wasn't really supposed to. "You were cheating, admit it. Absorbing information and tactics from Archer, because he was you. Or, kind of you. I don't know how it works for sure."

"I'm not sure what he was, honestly," Shirou admitted. "But it was… I definitely wasn't fighting by myself. Just being near him made all the fighting easier. It made things clearer, made fighting more natural, made me move faster…"

"And now you don't have it anymore, so things are going to be harder on you. I don't know for sure, since this whole thing is a bit new to everyone, but among other things your magic circuits are new. Untrained. You aren't good at this. Archer gave you an efficiency I don't think you could get on your own," Ilya said. "We need to fix that."

Shirou blinked. "Oh. You have a logical point."

"Of course I… no. No. A lady doesn't engage on these things," Ilya said. "My point is, you are probably going to have a marked drop in efficiency on your magecraft, because you're an amateur. The most amateurish. Basically running on instinct, and now your instincts are going to be all… dull and Archerless."

"… Thank you. For, um, saying… all of that."

"You're welcome! But my thought on the matter is pretty simple, don't worry," Ilya squealed. "We don't exactly have a lot of time to teach you to properly control your powers. Soooo, rather than force you into battle without your best weapon, why don't we just give you enough mana to use them? It's a great plan!"

"It… actually is," Shirou admitted. "I confess, I wasn't sure what you wanted to talk about after Tohsaka threw a tantrum about it. I'm happy to see it actually was important."

"Great! Take off your pants."

And suddenly, that somber, collected attitude that had been filling him since Archer's fall vanished. It vanished really hard.

"What?!"

"I thought you were on-board with this, Shirou. It's our plan!" Ilya said, her grin looking a little maniacal at this point. She was still blushing. She was really, really blushing. She didn't appear to notice. "We need to forge a contract, right? So let's, you know. Forge it. The easiest way is, erm, contact. If you get the meaning. So. We have time, and we have a bed, and, I mean, you're… you're so…" she sighed blissfully. "I love you. I do. And now we're going to be together. I know I shouldn't be happy, but the timing of it all is just so perfect."

"Elaborate, please?!"

"Oh, uh, like I said. A contract. I'm going to make you my familiar, so you can share my mana pool," Ilya said gleefully. "You see? I have enough power to command all the Servants in the War, if I want. I can give you a supply to draw on that's more than you could ever use! And it will be a permanent connection, you see, so we never have to be apart, and that's… that's great."

Shirou blinked. "Ilya."

"Yessssss?"

"Did you intentionally not tell me the full depths of what you were asking until I agreed to it?"

"… Ummmm. No."

Shirou narrowed his eyes.

"Okay, yes! But I didn't think you'd agree to it if I just came out and said it. I was gonna, like… work up to it slowly. With dignity, and all. But then you were all… you. And I got flustered."

"Ilya," he said, putting a hand on her shoulder. "I want you to be honest with me, please. Always. I know you mean well, but you haven't always told me everything that needs to be said. So I'm going to ask you some questions, and you're going to say the whole truth. All right?"

"Oh, um. Okay. Does this mean you're going to-"

"Ilya. I'm asking."

"Fine."

"Is this legitimately the best idea you can think of? You can't help me in any other way?" Shirou asked.

She coughed. "Well. There are other ways. Temporary contracts can be made. I don't have to make you my familiar. I can just loan you a bit of my power, I've done it before when you were exhausted. It's not as useful; a one-time charge giving you a larger mana reserve than you could manage on your own. But it can run out, and a permanent contract will let you draw on my power as much as you want! I mean, as much as your body can handle. But you seem pretty durable, so…"

"I see," Shirou said. "All right. That makes sense. Now, my next question. Is… what you suggested… really the only way to do this? Or just the one you want most right now?"

Ilya blinked. Then she blinked again. She blinked a few more times. Shirou almost considered counting how many times she did it, just to measure how much thought she was putting into her answer, because it was clearly a lot. He hoped he wasn't breaking her mind.

"Um," she finally said, "it isn't like I don't want to. And there's nothing wrong with it. I mean, we're a couple now, right?"

"Are we?"

"You said so."

"I didn't, actually."

"Close. Enough. Jerk."

He chuckled. "Yes, okay. We're not exactly going about things normally, but I can't argue too much with that statement. But you said you'd answer me honestly, and you didn't. Not the whole answer."

She coughed again. Shirou got the distinct impression she was doing it on purpose to delay her answer. "Well. All right, no, it's not… necessary. But, erm… well. I want to."

"I see."

"… … Say something more than that," Ilya said, a hint of pleading in her tone. "I know I should have… I mean, I should always tell you all the truth, I know you prefer that. But I know what I look like, too. And… I mean. Looking at Rin, or even Saber, I'm not like that."

"You think you're not beautiful?"

"I think I'm not 'adult,'" Ilya said with a dispirited sigh. "And it doesn't really matter to me, honestly. I know what I am on the inside and I know what I want. But it matters to other people. You got all weird earlier about us dating, and all."

"We were not dating."

"We were so! We held hands and went all over the city, and we even kissed once when you were unconscious!" Ilya snapped.

"What."

"My point is that I know I'm pretty. The prettiest, really!" she said, a combination of anger and fear in her tone. "But you're… I know I'm not… I know I don't look right for a girl you're supposed to love, okay?! So I wanted to nudge things along a little bit! And not just for me, dummy, for you too, because you're going to be a big dumb hero and you might die, Shirou! You might! And then we'll… we'll never have done anything because you were too noble and awkward, and you got yourself killed before you could be brave about things with me, and I don't want that. So I tried to push a little, is that a crime?!"

"Technically, some of the things you've done to me in the past might be crimes, if we're-"

"Rhetorical question, Shirou! Oh, you are insufferable! You're the worst! You're a monster, attacking a lady's fair maiden heart! You're… you're… I love you a whole lot, but I hate you!" she said, with all the dignity of an angry kitten.

He leaned forward, and for the first time (at least of his own will) he kissed her. She let out a confused little squeak, and for a second he thought she was going to slap him, but instead gave a groan of frustration mixed with something more primal as she threw her arms around his neck and melted into the embrace. He stroked her hair gently as she pressed against him, a hungriness in her actions that he met with firm, gentle, acceptance, feeling her mouth move against him, the warmth of her, breathing deep the scent of flowers in her hair. Something warm rose in him, a hunger to match hers, and he was not as hesitant to admit it as he thought he would be… before pushing her back softly to break the kiss anyway, and pulling her in to a hug.

"D…dummy," she muttered, her breath warm against his neck. "You shouldn't surprise me like that. It's only okay when I do it."

He lightly kissed her ear, and said, "Ilya. I'm not going to rush into anything. I'm not going to do anything we might regret later. And I'm not going to push for anything just because it's the pragmatic thing to do."

"Then… you don't want to…?"

"I do," he admitted, and shivered slightly with the words, because they were a bit scary to consider. "But not because of a ritual, and not because we're rushing to do something out of fear. Because we're going to win, Ilya. I believe that. I'm going to save Sakura, and I'm going to protect you from anything that tries to hurt you. All right?"

He felt her actually get a little warmer against his neck as she nuzzled closer, and wondered just exactly how much one girl could blush. "You're such a dummy. But I believe you anyway, so I guess I must be a pretty big dummy too."

"So we're perfect for each other," he said with a small smile. "And that's good, because I'm not leaving."

"So…?"

"Yes, Ilya, I'll make a contract with you," he said gently, stroking her hair. "Because whatever might happen next, I'm going to be by your side. I swear it."

He felt something warm and wet against his skin where her face was pressed, and closed his eyes so he wouldn't embarrass her by seeing her cry accidentally. "D-dummy… you're so… you always say just the wrong thing. You're the worst. The w-worst…" she said, and he could hear traces of both a giggle and a sob beneath her voice, as if she couldn't decide if she was happy or sad anymore. "I… I… okay. We'll do this. The boring way, even. But… since y-you just ruined everything for me here, you have to… you have to hold me. For a little while longer."

He smiled, and didn't say a word. He didn't really have to.

(*)

Gilgamesh looked at a small glass container full of Rin's blood and blinked. "You expect me to drink this?"

"Yup. Forge a contract."

"We can just swear an oath on your remaining Command Seals, you realize?"

"We could. But Kirei is the administrator of the War, and he's your 'master' too, right? I don't trust just the Command Seals to bind you to me over him. Drink the blood and become my stupid Servant already. We'll swear on the Command Seal afterwards, as the standard. I want this pact as deep as possible in case that snake tries to turn you against me somehow."

"Hmph! I would never debase myself to serve another in any event, were I not in dire straits," Gilgamesh said. "Allowing you to talk down to me like a common peon is humiliating enough, the mere thought of obeying one who actually tried to assassinate me is beyond the pale! I would never obey his twisted whims, even were he to compel me with a thousand of those Seals."

"You say that. But I've learned not to trust people. So stop whining and drink the blood already."

"I am the King of Kings, the lord of Uruk and the World Beyond, and you are little more than an insect in my garden."

"So?"

"So I'm not drinking your blood! If you insist on a connection deeper than the Command Seals, can't we just rut instead? That works as well."

"Like Hell."

"I promise I wouldn't enjoy it. You truly aren't appealing to me in the slightest, with your dark hair like burned meat and no dignity or elegance to speak of in your barbaric demeanor."

Rin clenched and unclenched her hand from the grip of her dagger. "Oh. I have an idea. How about I saw your head off and just pour it down? Would that be easier for you, your majesty? Because it would certainly be more fun for me."

He sighed. "You are impossibly insolent. If I was older, I would have already killed you for opposing my royal decrees."

"And if I was smarter, I'd have never joined the Holy Grail War. So we both have regrets," Rin snapped. "Now I'm your Master, so you do what I say and drink the stupid blood!"

"I am not here to follow your orders, harlot! What do you think a 'Servant' is?!"

"Someone who serves!"

What? Not every Contract forged could be an emotional affair of kisses and cuddles.

(*)

Shirou thought this was probably a strange thing to find off-putting, but he hadn't been expecting the Tohsaka manor to have a doorbell. It seemed… weirdly normal, for this house of magic. And yet, the bell rang through the house, and Ilya sighed. "I believe that's for me. I guess that means I have to move."

Shirou smiled and tousled her hair affectionately, prompting a half-annoyed, half-pleased little purring sound. "It's almost dinner time anyway."

"Don't wanna eat. Wanna snuggle. You're warm and I'm not in the mood to be sensible," the bell rang again. "And really don't wanna deal with business, ugh, but Sella has no off-switch when it comes to these things."

"Sella?"

"Oh, I invited my maid to come over. I needed something from home," Ilya said. "Don't worry, it isn't to turn you into a doll."

"… … I… what?"

"I learned to be emotionally healthy!" Ilya said cheerfully. "Let's go say 'hi' to Sella, she should get to know you for when you move in with us."

"… What."

"You say 'what' a lot," Ilya said. "Come on, come on!"

Shirou sighed as the tiny little white missile of affection dragged him along behind her, because at this point he really supposed he should have been used to this sort of thing. "Why are we even answering the door? This is Tohsaka's house."

"Yes, but who wouldn't prefer to open a door and see me there instead of her?" Ilya asked. "I'm much better than her. In general."

"… Well, I suppose she's busy, since she doesn't seem to be rushing to the door. Maybe taking a new Servant is harder than I thought?" Shirou said, looking around for Rin and trying to avoid answering Ilya's questions.

"It is if you're incompetent. And as my Familiar, you aren't allowed to defend her in an argument anymore. I'm your master now!"

"Yes, I can, and no, you aren't. We're partners."

"… No fun at all," Ilya muttered, opening the door. "Sella, you took longer to get here than I-"

And then the attack began, the most dangerous person in Fuyuki striking with sudden, brutal efficiency that broke Shirou's defenses instantly.

"Shirooooooooooooou!" screamed a brunette, yellow, and green sobbing thing, rolling over Ilya like a truck and clamping on to Shirou.

"F-Fuji-nee?!" Shirou squawked in terror.

"W-what?" Ilya asked.

"Idiot! Big dumb useless idiot!" Taiga sobbed, clamped on to Shirou like a vise. "I hate you! I hate you! You scared the life out of me you big dumb idiot, how could you do that!"

"W-what are… did you…?" Shirou asked. In the doorway, a woman in a very oddly designed maid uniform, a headdress covering her hair and an expression of carefully detached disdain on her face helped Ilya up.

"I apologize, milady. I encountered this… woman… at the gates as I was waiting for you to let me through the bounded field on the estate," the maid said to Ilya. "She… she walked through it. I do not know how. I do not think she does either."

Taiga, because of course it was Taiga, pushed herself back from Shirou, wiping tears from her eyes, and took a deep breath. "You… God, your house burned down. The whole neighborhood, everyone… and… and you didn't call or… you didn't say anything! I didn't know where you were! Had to find out from the news that your whole neighborhood was… was…you… you…!"

Shirou winced. "Fuji-nee, I'm so sorry, but everything has been happening so fast, and…"

She stepped forward as he was mid-sentence and punched him in the gut.

"What?!" Ilya squeaked, running over to check on Shirou as he fell to his knees, coughing.

"I let you get out of school for reasons you never fully explained! I did this because we're family! And I let you have your space because you're a growing boy! And I'm a mature motherly figure!" Taiga screamed. "And then this happened and you don't call me?!"

"I… I… forgot?" Shirou squeaked.

"I thought you were dead, you little jerk!" Taiga shrieked. "Do you have any idea what that's like?! You're… you're family and I thought you were dead! Kiritsugu would never forgive me if something happened to you, and I didn't know! I couldn't know! You are so dumb!"

"And so loud," A voice drawled, the off-puttingly young King of All stepping into the room, rubbing his ears. "I know peasants must find enthusiasm in their tiny lives, but please stop. I just drank a surprising amount of wizard blood and I'm in a foul mood."

Taiga blinked, looking from Gilgamesh, to Shirou, to Ilya hanging off him. "I… I… wait. Why are you hanging out in Tohsaka's house with a bunch of children? I'm still angry. But I'm also confused, now."

"Yeah, it's a long… wait. How did you find me here? I never told anyone I was going to this house, and I didn't leave any notes or anything."

Taiga blinked. "Huh. How did I find you here?"

From behind her, Sella coughed. "Um. Milady. I have… brought the Dress as you requested, if you wish to adjourn somewhere private to prepare. Unless you are enjoying this… I believe it is referred to as 'improvisational comedy' in cultural parlance?"

Ilya said pretty much the only thing that she could right that moment.

"What?!"

(*)

Kirei smiled slightly, watching Assassin move through the bounded field from behind, his body contorting at impossible angles to avoid magical tripwires, his blade snapping out so quickly it could not be seen to cleave dormant curses before they could be activated. "It has been some time since I have seen one of your Class at work. It remains quite impressive, particularly considering you are closer to a golem than a Servant."

"We are a canvas of flesh that has the knowledge of these spirits inscribed on it. Hassan-i-Sabbah killed many in his long life, and mages numbered among them. His blood guides our hands to the best methods of destroying their security measures without being detected," Assassin said conversationally, stepping close to the rear yard fountain and shifting the crystal adorning it to deactivate another layer of security. "Adding Archer's intellect only made it easier. He understood much of magecraft, and now so do we."

"A formidable combination," Kirei said, stepping along carefully behind Assassin as layer after layer of security was brought down. "I question why I was even needed?"

"As a gift. Milady knows you enjoy pain. There will be pain inflicted," Assassin said with a shrug, falling to all fours before raising his sword arm slightly, shifting his longsword forward through an oddly specific piece of empty air. Something briefly gleamed red before flaring out of existence. "The kidnapping of a loved one, leaving her friends and family bereft. The murder of witnesses, should any arise."

"The betrayal of an old friend," Kirei said, smiling slightly at the thought. Rin Tohsaka was, in many ways, like a little sister to him. He had done much to raise her, and while she did not like him, she did trust him. It would be intensely amusing to see how she'd reacted to having that trust shattered, he had to admit.

Assassin inched the final few steps to the rear door, and placed a hand upon the knob. No alarm sounded, no spell lashed out at him.

Kirei's smile widened. "Now then. If I were the Holy Grail, where would I be…?"