Chapter 49: Reflection and Mitigation

I do not own Fate/Stay Night and stuffs.

o. o. o.

Despite being a heroic spirit, Assassin stumbled as the world around him twisted the moment he stabbed himself with the "maybe" dagger inside the package that had been smuggled into the temple.

Blinking once, he looked around. No longer was he trapped inside a burning building. No longer did he feel like he was being roasted alive.

… No longer did he feel Caster's influence.

BOOM!

He turned around to see a titanic pillar of fire reach up into the air about a kilometer away. The power it contained made it hard to look at, and he could feel the heat all the way from where he was.

He glanced at the twisted and mangled box in his hand, the grip of its contents molded by the cardboard, and the tip of something sharp poking out of the end that he had stuck himself with just moments before.

Another moment had him looking down at the sigil at his feet. It was one of the markers that Rider had used to set up Bloodfort Andromeda. However, he spied a faint hint of foreign prana resonating within the intricate patterns.

Shirou's instructions didn't go into detail about what he was doing. All it mentioned was that he was supposed to get trapped by their Caster, and that he should "use the box" when her prana began to spike.

The ambiguity of the contents of the box was needed in order to get around the Witch's orders. It was most likely Rule Breaker, but he wasn't certain, and because of that uncertainty he had obtained his freedom.

The increase in power was the perfect mask and cover for him to use "maybe Rule Breaker" to free himself from the Witch's control just as the Princess attacked his location and teleported him outside of Rider's bounded field. The Princess must have adjusted this point while disrupting the Noble Phantasm over the past few days.

He had little doubt that if Rider did use the field later on, the modified sigil would be the group's easy way out of the trap with little to no effort.

It was all a ruse to keep Caster from panicking and lure her into a false sense of security.

"… Not bad." Short, simple, and easy to implement with the resources at hand. A few too many extra steps for his tastes, but it worked. He approved.

Rolling his shoulders and neck to let the cool winter air get to some of the more toasty parts of his body, Assassin allowed himself a few moments to enjoy his newfound freedom.

And then he moved.

He avoided the rooftops and stuck to the alleyways that he had trapped himself, knowing that the Witch would focus her spells and attention on the areas that he didn't rig. Of course, many of the places that he did set up were purposely shoddy, just enough to fulfill his duties so his Master wouldn't bother paying attention to them when the time came.

It was the reason why Shirou's group had managed to get to the mountain so easily without encountering any surprises outside of his initial attack, and even then, he had done so to warn them that they were about to step on enemy territory.

He was an Assassin, but even he scoffed at the idea of successfully pulling off an attack at that range with an Archer in the vicinity.

The fact that Shirou was the one that dealt with his opening move instead of another Servant on the other hand filled him with mixed emotions. Fortunately, killing off his emotions was a practice he was intimately familiar with.

Just as he reached the mountain, a cacophony on one of the buildings to his side caught his attention. Normally he would have ignored it, but considering the fact that it was fueled by Caster's power, he thought better than to ignore it.

His eyes widened momentarily as he saw a body fly off the rooftop and strayed into the open air like a rag doll.

He was a Servant with the ability to speed up his time, but even so, he felt the world come to an impossibly slow crawl as he watched his son's path, as though he was not in control over his own body.

For the briefest of moments, he had considered abandoning his task and his cover to save Shirou, only for the young man to beat him to the punch, somehow using Gilgamesh's chains to tether himself to another building and crash into a store on the ground level, mangling his arm in the process.

"You don't have time to worry about him."

In an instant, Assassin had turned with Contender in hand to confront whoever had managed to sneak up on him.

Five meters away stood a young man in a church garb, lacking an arm.

The Dead Apostle Ancestor. Merem Solomon.

Of all the biggest curve balls that he had been thrown since being summoned in this war, the person in front of him was by far the biggest. The monster's presence here made absolutely made no sense. The fact that he was on Shirou's side even less so.

Still, he had proven himself to be unusually useful. He was probably the only person that noticed, but if it weren't for Solomon's rats cleaning the area while everyone was focused on Saber, the Witch would have obtained some of the blood Shirou spilled after the last failed attempt on the Mountain.

Blood spilled when he had shot out his son's heart.

She had not been pleased when her post battle search of the area later that night had turned fruitless.

"I'll make sure Caster doesn't find him. Don't forget what you're supposed to do. Hurry," the immortal urged. Yet despite his words, his azure eyes showed neither urgency, nor panic. Rather, there seemed to be more amusement than anything.

Assassin's gun didn't waver, holding its aim for several agonizing moments that may or may not ruin everything with his stalling.

Allowing his annoyance to show, the killer clicked his tongue and gave Merem a look that guaranteed violence or words in the future before he vanished once more with Presence Concealment.

He completely ignored Saber and Lancer duking it out in the charred forest on the other side of the stairway. Neither of them interested him in the slightest, and the two were clearly more occupied with one another than anything else at the moment.

The fact that he had not only made it all the way up to the gates of the Temple, but was halfway to Caster's Workshop sickened him, if only because it made him wonder just how a person that performed so poorly could have managed to push everyone this far in the first place.

No. She probably had probably only prepared for unskilled rats and battering rams to assault her compound and acted thus.

Normally he wouldn't have been able to get through the Temple Grounds undetected so easily, but normally he wouldn't have been around to see them set up and be integrated into the system in the first place.

He still had to take care not to trip any traps or spells, and it wasn't as if he was taking the direct route through the grounds to get to the building. Still, his progress so far had been almost laughably easy.

There were several minor gaps in the system that he was exploiting that only an Assassin class Servant, even one as weak as himself, could fully utilize to keep himself hidden. Tiny pockets in the system he had made in meaningless places. Near monuments and decorative foliage around the compound, that would render himself undetectable even to Caster so long as she was not actively looking for him in particular.

It also meant that he couldn't do anything too reckless, lest his cover be compromised, but that much was obvious. He was a professional. If he couldn't be patient under pressure, he would have been killed long before making it to the Fourth Grail War, let alone now.

He spied Caster materialize on top of the main temple in the compound, frantically and constantly checking and updating her bounded fields to maximize her combat abilities, and yet she never noticed the literal traitor in her midst just a few dozen meters away from her.

Why would she? As far as she knew, he was dead.

For a moment, he considered taking a shot at her while she was distracted, but thought better of it. For some reason, the Witch had abnormal luck when it came to surviving sneak attacks. He wouldn't doubt it if it was a trait she developed after being betrayed too many times in life. Odds are she'd survive if he tried anything now. Plus, they needed the other Caster here to deal with the Magus turned pseudo Lesser Grail as soon as the one here was finished off.

So he stayed in place, and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

The longer the lull, the deeper in the twisted serenity he delved. Anticipation and stress fading away into oblivion as the task at hand and the final steps needed coming to the front of his mind.

It didn't matter if he was little more than a wraith now that he had no Master. It didn't matter if the world was at risk. It didn't matter if he was finally going to save his daughter and son. It didn't matter if the Grail was a lie.

It didn't matter. It didn't matter. It didn't matter. It didn't matter. It didn't matter. It didn't matter. It didn't matter. It didn't matter. It didn't matter. It didn't matter. It didn't matter. It didn't matter. It didn't matter. It didn't matter. It didn't matter. It didn't-

His eyes snapped up as something broke him out of his mantra, his gaze turned to the Temple Gates to see the odd sight of Shirou and Sh-Archer walking through, and getting assaulted by the Witch upon entry.

He blinked as he saw the younger of the two disregard her absurdly overcharged attack of pure Mana with Gae Dearg as though he had expected it.

His first thought was that his son was clearly overdependent on the weapon, and that sooner or later it was going to get him in trouble one day.

His second was that Avalon really was disgustingly useful. Considering that he had just recently saw Shirou get launched hard off a building and crashed into a store. There was no way that he'd go through all of that with only some minor wounds.

The third was that his son was an idiot with a death wish.

It was less of a thought and more of a reaffirmation than anything.

Judging from the look that Archer gave his younger counterpart, he was of a similar mindset.

Not that he could blame either one of them. He was the one that raised them in the first place.

Regardless of what he thought though, the fact of the matter was that Caster's full attention was now on the pair. Her magic was on the pair.

And with that, he moved. Not to the fight, but to the place that he would be needed the most.

He ignored the banter, the brief moment of silence, and the cataclysmic explosions that rocked the world behind him in his quick, and stealthy rush towards Caster's Workshop.

Again, getting in was easy. Caster had integrated him into the bounded field security system, confident that the Command Seals, her magic, and her orders she had used on him would keep him in line. The loopholes she had unknowingly left leaving him with as many options as he did shackles.

Like the explosives he had put under the building for example. True, Shirou had gotten the Matou girl to set up some more later on, but at that point, the only purpose it had served was to hand the trigger to another person. It was almost… cute.

Not that anyone would use said explosives. Not unless they wanted to blow up the entire mountain and everyone on it.

With minimal effort, he slipped into the compound undetected and navigated the halls until he finally made it into the heart of the building where the bulk of Caster's work was being conducted, and where Marjatta Edelfelt was being held.

The amount of power radiating through the air, let alone the building was suffocating. Whether it was due to the nature of the Witch's magic, or how she obtained the power was up in the air, but he pushed his discomfort to the side.

Neither the research nor the trapped Master interested him. He would have killed the girl in a heartbeat if he thought that it would resolve the issue here with minimal consequences.

Instead, he turned his attention to the inscribed circle on the ground near one of the corners of the room. It resembled the countless formalcraft circles that he had used and seen during his lifetime. However, the intricate letters and shapes it possessed were of a nature that he'd never be able to comprehend or understand. It was less due to their complexity, and more simply because their very nature inhibited most from being able to grasp their significance.

Despite all that, the purpose of the circle was very simple.

It was the only place inside this Mana saturated building that Caster could teleport safely if she wanted to enter or leave the building.

No doubt the other Caster had figured out as much when going through Sakura Matou's memories after the last failed assault.

Assassin moved himself so that the circle was between him and the majority of the room. The blind spot for anyone that would potentially teleport inside, especially in a desperate attempt to run away from an enemy and stage one last Hail Mary before their defeat.

He allowed himself to smirk. His role was not as an executioner, the secret weapon, the key to victory, or anything grandiose like that.

He was merely a final assurance in case the target managed to escape. A preventative measure to cut off victory from being snatched away. Nothing more. Nothing less.

He was no different than EMIYA. The irony was not lost on him.

The world around him seemed to twist, contort, and lurch, as the flow of power around him changed almost instantly. He had to take a moment to steady himself since he wasn't ready for such a massive distortion.

At first, he thought that Caster might be dead, but a brief glance at Marjatta's hand showed that she still had a Command Seal, and thus her Servant was still alive. So it had to be something else then. Either some strategy of Shirou's, or the Witch was doing something truly outrageous that he was not privy to. He hoped it was the former.

Not failing his expectations, not even a minute after the world shifted on itself, the circle in front of him radiated with power, twisting the air and mana in it into an amalgamation that produced the Witch of Betrayal herself on her knees with her back to him.

Littered in cuts, burns and arrows. Missing two fingers on her left hand. Bleeding enough that her clothes were nearly drenched in her vital fluids. He spied eyes wide with panic and hysteria in the brief moments in her erratic movements enough to see them, and a mouth that was spewing endless meaningless gibberish as she crawled to her master.

The one responsible for so many problems never looked so pathetic. He would have been disgusted by the sight and the ease of what he was going to do, but he had killed warlords, magi, and corrupt individuals of power in far more compromising positions when he was alive.

Taking out his Contender, he didn't marvel at the state of his target. The arrows, burns, and cuts that littered her body. The fact that she was crawling on all fours to Marjatta. The aimless rambling of a woman that had lost her hold on reality. Her inability to detect the person behind her, or the gun that was slowly turning to her direction.

Click click.

BANG!

All he cared about was making sure that he didn't need to take another shot.

Just like old times.

o. o. o.

"Caster! Hurry! Get into the building!" Rin shouted, rushing to the workshop alongside her temporary Servant. "Break in there if you have to!"

"I'd advise against that. Knowing that fox, she probably tied the security bounded fields to the ones stabilizing the absurd levels of prana she has stored in there." Archer frowned, still unleashing salvos of arrows at Rider to keep her away from everyone else, save for Caster's very ornery dragon. He wasn't actively trying to hit her… but then again, he wasn't trying to miss either. "One wrong move and we all explode."

"It does sound like something she'd do," the Princess muttered as she got into position and began to tap into the near limitless wells that she had access to in the Temple. Corrupted and tainted as it was, power was power, and she felt damn charged right now.

Before she could utter a single mystical word to unweave her counterpart's defenses though, she heard something loud from deep inside the building… and then felt as the mysteries inside of it begin undoing themselves.

"What was that?" Archer frowned, also noticing the change. He didn't miss the fact that Rider seemed to flinch for the briefest of moments as well, causing her to be lightly grazed by his attacks.

"The mysteries around the building are falling apart," Caster muttered as she analyzed the workshop in realtime. "It's as if the strings keeping it together were snapped at a critical juncture. The only explanation I can think of that would cause this is…"

"The spellcaster is dead," Rin finished her sentence.

"Archer! Stop!" Rider shouted, still weaving erratically between flying shafts of arrows. "I don't feel my connection to Caster!"

To his credit, the Servant in red did stop attacking after a few dozen more arrows, just to be safe.

"Heh. He made it after all." Several dozen meters away from the others, in the same place he had been since the Princess was summoned, Shirou chuckled, leaning heavily on the copy of Gae Dearg that Archer had made earlier. "Had me worried for a moment."

"Shirou…" Rin started slowly, finding a new focus for her steadily building fear, frustration, and anxiety. "I thought you were done with hiding secrets from us."

"It's open." Waving a hand, Caster seemingly making the entrance to the building appear out of thin air. It was clear that she was ignoring Rin's growing irritation. She clearly didn't do anything to inform the child that she likely knew what had happened and was partially responsible for the turn of events. "I'm going in. We can't waste any time. Archer, come. I might need help. Rider, we cannot trust you yet. If you get too close to the boy or my Master, the Colchian dragon will strike you down."

As if to make her point made, the ground trembled as the summon took what appeared to be one or two steps needed to place itself between the Servant and the Masters. Despite said orders though, it appeared to want nothing more than to tear the Gorgon apart regardless.

Rider looked just as pleased with the arrangement, but she didn't argue against it. Time was of the essence, and there was a chance that her recently departed Master had left a few unsavory memento's in case things turned out as they have.

"And just when it was about to get interesting." EMIYA sighed to himself, disappointed that he was likely going to miss Rin tear into his helpless younger counterpart. Still, stopping a massive mana bomb from going off in his face took priority. With a brief, unreadable look at the two human teens and Rider, Archer turned around and followed Caster into the building.

"It was just a final gambit. A precautionary measure." Shirou smiled feebly as his best friend and arguably worst nightmare approached him with a rising temper. "Remember that side job I was working with Caster on? The one that we had to keep secret to work?"

"Yes. And now that it apparently has worked, there's no need to keep it a secret. So talk. Now." Clearly, Rin wasn't in the mood to talk in circles.

Letting out a mixed sigh and chuckle, he winced in pain. He had used Square Accel at the last part during the fight, and as much as he played off his earlier injuries, he apparently didn't heal completely from them. That or he rushed his spell by accident and made the backlash worse than expected. The ribs that Rider had broken in conjunction with his smashed cheek bone, the wounds on his arms from using Enkidu, and his exhaustion had come back with a vengeance. He could barely keep himself standing right now. Moving was an impossibility.

"Long story short? Smuggled a copy of Rule Breaker and instructions into the temple. Texted Assassin to find them. Caster fighting Assassin was a cover to free him without anyone knowing better. Then he snuck into the workshop to finish her off just in case she managed to get away after we took control over the Temple." Shirou grimaced. Talking hurt an absurd amount right now.

Rider held back a dark chuckle of amusement. She had an idea how the dagger was snuck in, but even so, she was more satisfied in the fact that the Witch had been right in her suspicions all along and still failed to foil the boy's actions. To think that the key to Caster's defeat was delivered by that woman would give her pleasant thoughts for quite some time.

Rin's eyes widened in proportion to her mouth dropping agape. "I. You… THAT was the hidden plan that you two were working on the entire time?"

"More or less." He breathed out, hitching at the end. He had accidentally coughed up some blood and something more solid while talking. His lungs were probably damaged from remembering Rider more or less kneeing him in half.

Despite being in near hysterics, Rin did notice his disposition and his inability to move. "Shirou? Are you ok? You look horrible."

"I'll live. On a side note, using time magic on yourself after barely recovering from being beaten to a pulp isn't a pleasant experience." He wheezed. His head was getting foggy and his sight more so. With every passing second, the boost he had gotten from drinking Lancer's blood earlier was ebbing away, diverting straight to recovering his exhausted body.

A bitter laugh escaped Rin's mouth. Wonderful. Shirou was slipping into a punch-drunk state again. The fact that his sense of humor showed up now of all times either meant that they really were done and they had won… or he was so completely out of it that he was borderline delirious now. Or both. She hoped it was the former.

Either way, at this point, there was nothing else she could do now. "Any other words of wisdom you have for me? Oh master Assassin?"

Shirou remained quiet for a few moments. "Legs are a turnoff for me for the foreseeable future. Blame Rider."

Rider's poker face was impeccable.

The faint blush on her cheeks was not.

If that was how it was going to be, then swords were now her turnoff, for now at least.

… Wait.

Rin rolled her eyes. There was no doubt about it. One way or another, the fighting was done for the night. Either they won, or they were going to blow up within the next minute, tops. "No. You have no one to blame but yourself for that. You're the one that fought her in the first place. Idiot. I'm not even going to ask what you were thinking. Your answer would probably just make me want to hit you."

Rider nodded shallowly in agreement.

Without waiting for position, she crossed what little distance there was between them and to his side to support his body. The fact that he didn't complain or dissuade her from helping him was probably the biggest sign that he was in worse shape than he let on.

Heavy.

Rin almost dropped him when he let his body sag, almost putting the entirety of his weight in her hands.

She didn't realize it until now, but Shirou was heavy. Far heavier than she was. He was tall and his muscles were hard, yet not massive like tumors. He was nothing like when they were kids, when she was experimenting on him on and off for fun and research.

And yet he couldn't even keep himself standing now.

"Shirou, you're beat, but I can't do all the work myself." Rin grimaced. She wouldn't bring her thoughts to light. Not now. She had no right to complain after what they had just gone through. "It's going to take some effort to get you to the main temple. I'm pretty sure that the infirmary is there…"

"No." He cut her off, his head sagging next to hers. "The stairs."

"The stairs?" She all but squeaked, paling at the mere thought of lugging his body down the mountain. "I know that we're close, but I'm not going to kill both of us to get you down those things."

He snorted in amusement, then winced in pain as his ribs stabbed his insides. "Idiot. I just want to sit at the top and wait for everyone. The closer I am to Saber, the faster I heal."

"Oh. Right. Of course. I knew that." Rin tried to laugh off her mistake.

"Mhm." Shirou sighed. He briefly turned his head as far as it could go so he could look at Rider barely visible from the other side of Caster's Dragon. "Rider? Are you ok?"

"I am well. Thank you for asking. How is your head?" Maybe it was the fact that his mind was a melting pot of agony and fading adrenaline, but Shirou was pretty sure he heard Rider being miffed and petulant in her answer. Odd.

"… You have got to be kidding me. Another one?" Rin muttered under her breath, looking at Rider in disbelief.

"Huh? What are you talking about?"

Rin gave him a dirty and slightly betrayed look before looking back at Rider again and sighing deeply. "You're hopeless. Truly, never has there been anyone as hopelessly stupid as you in the annals of all of humanity."

Shirou blinked in further confusion. It hurt to think now, and trying to figure out where Rin's mind went sometimes gave him headaches even when he was perfectly fine.

And why was Rider giving him the same look that Rin was?

"Haa. At least she's good looking. I have to give you points for that."

And now he was certain that it was in his best interest to change the topic lest he get dumped in a hole he would never get out of. "Rider? Are you going to be good waiting for Sakura? You don't look good and you are low on Prana."

Indeed, Rider was covered in cuts, burns and bruises from the night's activities. The swords he used, Natalia, were not Noble Phantasms, but were still exceptional for combating spiritual existences like Servants, and would not heal anytime soon. The tattered state of her already revealing dress would have been considered extremely erotic to the point that she'd be arrested for public indecency if it weren't for the injuries that came with it.

Her almost annoyed gaze softened slightly at his inquiry. "I will manage, if there is no more fighting. I do have Independent Action, albeit it is of a low rank. So long as nothing happened to Sakura and she comes straight here, there should be no problems. You should be more concerned with yourself, Shirou. I did kick you in the head quite hard."

"I've been told it's the hardest part of my body. Thanks for holding back on me." He chuckled faintly, knowing that the quiet Servant was mocking him in her own way to lighten the situation. With a grunt of pain, he lifted the hand that had Breaker Gorgon still wrapped around his wrist like a bracelet, even though it was still halfway shattered from recreating his injuries from earlier. "I think this is yours."

With a faint smirk, Rider dismissed the bounded field in the form of purple fabric, almost instantly reforming it into the blindfold that she was normally seen with. "Thanks."

As one, the teens and even the dragon, sighed in relief as the weight of Rider's eyes was lifted. Thanks to Caster's spells earlier, they had not been at risk of turning to stone; however, the sheer influence of her gaze, intentional or not, was impossible to disregard completely.

No one noticed that the skin on his right hand began to turn scaled and metallic. Shirou didn't seem to register that half the teeth in his mouth became sharp either. He was too numb from exhaustion to process such information.

"What a gentleman. Holding onto a woman's blindfold like that," Rin snarked. Inside though, she couldn't get her head around the fact that he had managed to deal with two Noble Phantasms to the face and still come out of this whole mess on top, let alone alive.

"Don't be jealous cause you don't have one." Shirou's mouth ran ahead of his mind as he let his arm drop, his hand flexing slowly. Every time it closed, a common and nameless sword appeared in hand. Every time it opened, the blade was gone. It felt good. Like getting blood flowing through a sleeping limb.

Rin stumbling due to his comment and sending shocks through his broken body, did not feel good.

"Ngh?!"

"Ok. I can handle you being a punch-drunk idiot, but you're clearly brain damaged if you're willingly spouting off innuendos like that. Rider might have actually given you brain damage." Rin looked at him was a genuinely alarmed look. "I'll just put you under for a bit so you can recover and-"

"No." The immediate and hard response he uttered was not of an addled teen, but that of the person that had just led everyone into a life or death battle with the world on the line.

Rin flinched at the instant change in his personality, but immediately sought the reason for it in the first place. "You still have something to do? The way you are now? Shirou, you can barely talk, let alone move."

"Good thing I don't need to move then." The look he gave her was final. "… Once I get to the stairs at least."

She shot him a dirty glare that lasted for a few seconds before relending with a deep sigh. "Fine. Fine. I get it. Trying to talk you out of doing something stupid is more difficult than dealing with this whole situation. You're so unreasonable when you want something, you know that?"

"Can't imagine why." He tried very hard to not look at Rin as he said those words.

"Don't make me drop you."

"Yes."

Despite it being a short distance in hindsight, Rin felt exhausted by the time she had finally managed to drag Shirou to the temple gate. She would have reinforced herself to make it easier for herself, but after supporting Caster and Archer for the entire night, and using Zelretch a couple of times full blast on top of that, her circuits were feeling a bit strained. It was best not to push her luck while she was ahead. Unlike some people, she didn't have an artifact that granted her absurd healing abilities inside of her.

She couldn't help but hum in interest once she finally managed to get to the entrance. Inside the grounds was Aeaea, the island of the Goddess Circe that resided somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea that separated the bulk of Africa and Europe. Endless plains and animals, and a dragon, marred only with the existence of the Temple itself and the corrupted power that the Witch had accumulated.

Outside the gate though, was the Fuyuki skyline. City buildings with the bay and ocean in the distance. She could even feel the cold winter air of Japan blow in her face and mix with the more humid and temperate climate of the Mediterranean as she made the last few steps.

She had barely had time to take notice of the clear disparity between the two environments earlier when she had summoned the Princess, but now that she had time to think, it was quite the impressive piece of thaumaturgy.

"Looks like someone's had some fun without us." Approaching the portal from the other side was Lancer and Saber. Judging from the deep slash across the former's chest, it was clear who the victor of their fight was.

"I'm more than happy to be miserable for the rest of the night to compensate. Aren't you two supposed to be fighting to the death?" Rin shifted her body so that she had a better grip on Shirou and didn't lose her balance.

"Funny thing about Ath n'Gabla and death matches. There's nothing that says we can't take breaks if we want, for as long as we want, so long as we intend to continue it later. The curse only makes it so that we can't run away from one another, and anyone that does see us can't even think about fighting or interfering directly in our match. The witch using a command seal on me earlier was pretty much the most she could do to us." Lancer gave her a tired, yet incredibly content smirk. "And if something happens in the middle of said break, well, more for us. Geass are rather open-ended deals if you know how to work them right."

"Preaching to the choir." Shirou matched Lancer's cocky smirk with a halfhearted one of his own.

"Brat, when it comes to Geass curses, I might as well be the Pope in this era. Do you know how many of the things I was tagged with when I was alive?"

"Boys, be quiet. The adults are talking." Rin groaned before eying Lancer's wound skeptically. She didn't know how he could stand moving in such a state, Servant or not. "… Wait, if you can take a break whenever you wanted, why didn't you just do that from the start?"

Lancer looked at Rin as if she had said something in a different language. "Huh? Why would I do that?"

The silence and accusing glares that everyone gave Lancer was damning.

"Oi. Saber. Don't you dare join them on this too. You were as into it as I was."

"Unlike you, I do not indulge myself the thrill of meaningless battle in times of strife." Saber deflected the accusation professionally, but it didn't quite convince anyone there. If the looks she got were any indication.

Rin decided to change the topic of conversation before Lancer made them more disappointed in him. "Rider is one thing, but you look dead on your feet. How much longer will you last like that without a Master? You don't have Independent Action."

The Irishman glanced at the girl, regarding her with some interest. "You're Archer's Master… eh. Battle Continuation's good enough to keep me around for a bit, so long as my heart and head are in one piece. The wound was worse earlier, but Servants heal fast so long as we have the power. The worst of it was dealt with before the bitch's power was cut off. So long as I don't do anything excessive, I should be able to hold on for a few more minutes if I want to. The mana here is disgusting, but it'll keep me going. Beggars can't be choosers. If it takes my real Master longer to arrive, well, I'll just leave things to you guys." Lancer shrugged, as if saying that his impending death was no big deal.

"The Witch of Betrayal is dead, I take it." Saber warily looked inside the gates to see the unique state of the grounds.

"That's what we think. She escaped into her Workshop before we could finish her off, but supposedly this idiot pulled another fast one on everyone with Caster's help and made it so Assassin was waiting for her inside just in case she did escape." Rin gave Shirou a dirty look.

"Ha! Hahaha! I knew it! I knew that mute bastard would pull one over on her before this whole thing ended! Practically everyone was expecting it, but could never tell how or when! Especially the old hag, and he still got her! Haha tsss!" Lancer burst out laughing in genuine amusement and spiteful glee, only to grimace as his agitated wounds.

"And you say I'm careless." Shirou gave Rin an amused look before focusing slightly. He opened and closed his free hand once, and then opened it again, allowing the dagger that had just materialized in it to fall to the ground. "There. Something to stab each other with when you start fighting again."

Everyone rolled their eyes at the worst example of subtlety they had seen in quite some time.

"Kid, you're a real class act. There's no mistaking that old drunk bastard's hand in you." Lancer shook his head as he approached the pair and reached down to pick up the copy of Rule Breaker Shirou had just made. With a casual brush of his thumb against the tip of the blade, he grunted slightly as if relieved of an annoying burden, feeling the hold of Saber's curse, along with some of the Witch's enchantments, leave him. "Not normally the type to leave a death match open ended like this, but I'm not one for halfhearted fights either."

Saber didn't seem insulted by his comment. "If you are so eager for a battle later, then I am certain that the Master of Berserker can arrange you something if you ask."

"Don't tempt me. I might just do it." Without a second thought, the Servant tossed Rule Breaker over his shoulder like trash, much to Rin's shock and Shirou's amusement.

"Shirou, are you well? Caster didn't manage to do anything to you, did she?" Saber turned her full attention to her Master.

"Just tired," he placated her, shifting his weight to give Rin some help in moving him. He could feel Avalon working at an extremely fast pace. Most of his injuries from earlier were already healed from the proximity of his Servant, but the aches and exhaustion that plagued him were still running rampant. "Turns out the strain of time thaumaturgy doesn't mix well with recently healed wounds."

"Took on Rider head on, then got blasted off a rooftop. Not too familiar with that branch of mysteries myself, but I can't find it in myself to disagree with you there." Lancer smirked. "Must hurt something fierce."

Everyone briefly gave the Servant with a slash across his chest a dry look before promptly ignoring him.

"Archer and Caster are inside the Workshop, diffusing the Witch's setup so that hopefully we don't blow up. Assassin should be there too. Rider's behind the dragon since we don't know what spells or commands she might be still under." Rin summed up the situation for them, before pausing and looking at Lancer. "Wait. Lancer, you could also…"

Lancer cut her off with a casual wave. "Calm down kid. I just used that dagger, remember? Plus, the hag couldn't risk putting anything too heavy on me that might make me act out or die early or else I wouldn't be able to do my job blocking everyone from entering the Temple."

"Berserker and the girls should be coming soon as well." Saber looked back at the city below. She could see several large bright lights coming for them, as well as a titanic source of power that could not be mistaken for anything else but the Bastard of Zeus.

"What about my Master and the Vampire?" Lancer asked, his stance still easy going, but his eyes developing a slight glint to them.

"We're fine. Thank you for your concern."

Everyone save for Shirou literally jumped in alarm as they turned back to see Merem, the King of Rats, Kuzuki, and an unconscious Bazett just a few meters behind the Servants.

While Shirou didn't jump in alarm, having been somewhat used to Merem's antics, he did grimace as Rin's jumping sent a large jolt through his body.

"I hope I'm not interrupting anything or coming too soon." Merem smiled innocently as though he didn't just alarm everyone, resulting in Gae Bolg and Excalibur being withdrawn and pointed in his direction on pure reflex. "I thought it was safe to show myself again after seeing the relaxed atmosphere."

"Is the situation resolved?" The teacher's eyes narrowed, looking inside the Temple grounds. If he was surprised by how different everything was inside the Gate, he hid it impossibly well.

"It was relaxed until you got here," Rin grumbled. "At the very least, if Caster can't fix her counterpart's mess and we all explode, I'll die knowing you're coming with us."

"That is a rather comforting consolation. Not many can claim, even posthumously, to be a part of an Apostle Ancestor's demise," Merem agreed with her completely, completely killing Rin's building irritation.

"Give it up, Rin. You're not going to win against him." Shirou knew a lost fight when he saw one. "How's Bazett-nee-san?"

"Unconscious." Merem's Left Arm carried the exhausted and abused woman in a bridal carry. Instead of the ratty cloak from earlier, she was covered in the mythical beast's holy shawl. "She will need some time to fully recover from her time under Caster."

"So the odds of her waking up and being my Master in time for me to not keel over is non-existent," Lancer surmised, shaking his head in disappointment as if finding out that he had just lost a meaningless bet. "Hah. Well isn't that just my luck all over again."

"You are correct, Cu Chulainn. However we may be able to do with a work around." The fake priest smiled wryly. "Girls?"

With a twist of faint light and space, Bazett's legs disappeared and two small girls replaced them, standing to either side of the man.

"We're a part of Mama," the slightly older of the two shyly spoke up, her auburn hair visible even in the dull light of the night.

"Making a contract with us is the same as making one with her, Uncle Cu. We can do the ritual," the smaller one concluded, her blonde hair reminding everyone of a tree in the prime of Fall.

"Oh. Right. The Banshees. I forgot about them," Rin grumbled, almost disappointed in seeing them.

"They're, cute," Shirou blandly stated, seeing them for the first time. He had heard about them, and was… accustomed, to Merem's limbs, but the girls were different. He could feel their genuine innocence and inhuman nature even in his weak state.

Somewhere, in the deep recesses of his rattled mind, Shirou made a mental note to make absolutely sure that Illya was never left alone with them for any duration of time. The potential consequences of letting such a scenario come to pass were, terrifying.

"Heh. Well aren't you two little angels? And here I thought letting a Vampire bleed me dry was a bad idea." Lancer chuckled lightly before pausing as he noticed something. "Oi. Don't tell me we're already too late. You're crying already."

Indeed. The two girls were tearing up and sniffling like the children they were.

It wasn't because they were sad though. They were Banshees. They cried for another reason entirely.

"N-no. It's not you yet, Uncle." The small one lifted a hand and pointed to Saber. "It's her."

"She's dying." The old one nodded, looking at her in pity, as if knowing exactly why they were reacting the way they were. "You're always dying. You're wrong. Not supposed to be here. Not alive, but not dead either. You're not like Uncle Cu or the scary lady. You're just… dying."

"Hooh? Is that so?" Merem looked at Saber curiously, making a note of the fact that the Servant had clamped down on her emotions viciously in a way that told everyone that she knew exactly what the girls were talking about. Judging from the look in Shirou's eyes, he did too.

Lancer seemed to notice the sensitivity of the topic as well. "Haah. If it's not one thing, it's another with you two. Seriously, can either of you have a single conversation without doing something that messes with our heads? Screw it. I've had enough surprises for one day. If I'm going to die soon, I want to die without questioning everything around me."

"Lancer." Saber looked at him with an unreadable expression as he walked down, took Bazett from the King of Rats, hoisted her over his shoulder like a bag of dead weight, and then traveled up the stairs again with the girls in tow.

"Shut up. Don't ruin a good victory with whatever else you've gotten yourself stuck in. Come on, kids. We gotta get all this done and over with. When mommy wakes up, she's gonna have the mother of all hangovers, and what we're going to tell her after that isn't going to make things better."

"R-right." The two girls nervously nodded before rushing past everyone without another word. No one missed how the pair nearly stumbled and broke out in hysterics as they passed Saber in particular.

They were followed in quick succession by the ever quiet Kuzuki.

"Sensei." Rin blinked in surprise.

"I'm going to check on the Priests in the temple," he evenly stated, not once breaking his stride. "Is there anything in particular I should be aware of?"

"If I'm right, they should still be in the residential building. Give the Dragon its personal space on your way there and you should be good," Shirou answered. Caster probably hypnotized or drugged them before the sun fell.

Whether or not they were still alive at this point though was up in the air.

"Dragon." The word did give the man some pause as he entered the bounded field and saw the beast in person.

For about three seconds. After that, he seemingly lost interest and continued on his way.

"He's quite an interesting fellow. Not one for conversation, but still interesting," Merem commented as he approached Shirou, Rin and Saber. "Are you well, Shirou? You look rather under the weather."

"Rushed time magic and recently healed wounds don't mix," the teen blandly stated for what felt like the hundredth time that night. With Saber so close to him now, he could muster enough energy to move on his own, albeit slowly. Feeling his bones realign and fix themselves at a fast pace was an interesting, and incredibly uncomfortable and alien-like sensation.

"I'll take your word for it." The vampire watched as the boy slowly stumbled away from Rin's support to the stairs and sat himself on the apex with a heavy sigh as if he was an old man. Looking at the city, he noted that the rest of the Masters and Berserker would be there within the next minute or two.

"Hey. Saber. Can you do me a favor?" Shirou glanced at his Servant with a weak smile. "Can you make sure that nobody leaves the Temple for now?"

The King of Knights looked at her Master in confusion for a few moments before blinking in realization as to what he was referring to and giving him a faint smile. "Ah. I see. So that's how it is. Certainly."

"Shirou. What's that about?" Rin probed, watching him as he loosened the shroud around his face, revealing that half of it had once more warped into a fanged, scaled state.

"Just… taking care of a few loose ends. Don't worry. It's not important this time." He sighed, not bothering to look to know that Saber had taken her position on the other side of the gate like a sentinel. Her back was to him, her hands resting on her invisible sword as its tip was dug slightly into the ground.

"Mhm. And while we're on it, why did those Banshee kids react that way to Saber?" Rin pressed, crossing her arms and giving him her usual annoyed glare whenever he did something apparently oblivious again.

"I am also curious. The girls only react to the mortally dying and very recently dead," Merem added his two cents, looking at Saber with new interest.

"You'll have to ask Saber. It's not my secret." He winced as he fished through his pockets. Both his arms were more or less fully healed, but that didn't mean that the cramps and ghost pains from earlier were gone.

"That's a first." Rin's skepticism was not missed by anyone.

"Today's full of surprises." With a grunt, Shirou took out his cell phone, a device that was incredibly out of place in a war involving magic and vampires, but useful all the same.

"Hooh?" Judging from the sound Merem made, Rin guessed that she wasn't going to be pleased with what was going to happen next, but kept her silence.

After a few failed attempts due to his shaking hands, the correct number was dialed. Instead of putting it to his head, Shirou let it rest on his legs and put it to speaker, probably because he didn't have the energy to hold it up for long.

It rang twice before the other side picked up.

"Report."

The cold tone of Lorelei Barthomelloi was unmistakable.

Shirou blinked once in surprise, but kept his cool. The fact that the woman answered the call in person meant any number of things. Most of them were not good for him. "Target's been addressed."

"Casualties? Complications?"

"None. Roughed up, but not dead. Our Caster is currently tending to the enemy's workshop. There's no confirmation that she is or will be successful yet. There's a chance that the mountain can still go up, but it's out of my hands now," Shirou honestly stated, glancing at Rin briefly.

She shook her head. While she was Caster's temporary Master, there was no way she was going to risk contacting her via mental link while the Servant was working on something so dangerous and delicate.

"None." One could practically hear the Queen tasting the word as if trying to determine if it appealed to her or not. "What of the enemy combatants."

"Alive and cooperating." He breathed out slowly. His head was swimming. The town below him was nothing more than bright lights on a black canvas that refused to stay still.

The only thing that seemed to be static was the moon.

"Good. How soon can I expect you to arrive to report in person?" That was the closest thing to her asking about his condition as she would get.

Rin's breath hitched. She didn't know how Shirou had pulled it off earlier, but she was pretty sure that he would get pinned as a Dead Apostle the second he stepped onto Clocktower grounds now. Going there was a death sentence to him. Or worse.

This time he paused. Whether it was on purpose or not was anyone's guess. He shot Merem a look through the corner of his eyes. "Two weeks, at least."

"Two weeks." She wasn't happy about that.

"I just fought two Servants. In person. I can't speak for you, but you don't strike me as the sort of person that would willingly parade a half dead dog in front of your peers," he dryly stated, brokering no arguments. "The only reason why I'm calling you now instead of passing out is because Merem would do it in my stead in a heartbeat given the opportunity."

He'd be good by morning thanks to Avalon, but she didn't need to know that. It was better that way.

"It's true." The accused had no shame, speaking loud enough to be heard on the phone.

"… Solomon." The woman's one word sentence was a statement, not a greeting.

"You should have seen it. This event truly was a grand spectacle," the immortal continued, as if talking about a movie he just saw. "Young Shirou is without question an individual of worth equal to that of the Servants here in his own way. I doubt that anyone in the Association would have managed to achieve what he did so efficiently. You have quite the pet dog. A bit roughed up at the moment, but still an immaculate specimen."

The Vampire's words held more worth than what was at face value. While it did sound like praise, Merem Solomon was in fact acknowledging and recognizing Shirou, that the boy was someone that a Dead Apostle Ancestor should take note of.

Someone that a Dead Apostle Ancestor should be wary of. Not as "the Master of Servant Saber", but as "the Second Magus Killer" and "The Queen's Silver Dog".

"If you pet me, I will stab you." Shirou didn't intend to say that out loud, but in his tired state, it was getting harder to keep his thoughts quiet. He knew what Merem was doing, and had no intention of stopping him, but that didn't give the Vampire the excuse to do whatever he wanted.

He pretended to ignore Rin literally facepalm behind him. He also easily ignored the mutterings of "doomed" and "we're dead" escaping her lips as well.

"… You disappoint me. I would have assumed that since you went through all the effort to minimize casualties, you'd also manage to deal with that annoyance as well." That was the closest thing to sulking Shirou had ever heard his boss sound. The idea of bringing it up never crossed his mind. If Merem's words had any impact on her, he had yet to determine how.

"Sorry, but I'm fresh out of unreasonable miracles," Shirou dryly retorted. Normally he wouldn't take this tone with her, but normally his head wasn't spinning to the point that he couldn't see straight.

"It wouldn't work on me regardless. I specialize in those if you recall." Merem threw in his two cents, looking down the mountainside. "Ah. Lady Barthomelloi. It appears that we will be joined by the Masters of Edelfelt, Matou, and Einsbern soon. Do you wish to continue when they arrive?"

He frowned and looked down at the base of the mountain, trying to blink the spinning world away. Were the girls here already? Shouldn't the ground be shaking with the beat of Berserker's footsteps and the hooves of flaming oxen? He genuinely couldn't tell.

"… Lord El Melloi's trial is tomorrow afternoon. Not in two weeks." The Queen's statement was not a decision or an ultimatum. Merely a fact. The sudden change in topic though was a clear indication that she was calling their conversation to a close.

"I know. I have… I have, something setup at home. For long distance formal, meetings. Not something standard, but acceptable." He was fumbling over his words now. The warmth and the smoke from the fires below were making it impossible to think straight in his current state. "The old man knows what I'm talking about. I'll be presentable enough by then."

"For his sake, you should be." The line went quiet immediately afterwards.

"That went better than expected."

"Merem, please. Not now." Shirou let his body sag like a puppet with its strings cut, leaning so far forward he almost lost his balance. "You don't see me jumping in your conversations with Narbareck."

"Because you're not an idiot." The ever gentle smile on the Vampire's face dropped instantly at his boss' name. "We both know that in many ways she's worse to deal with than Barthomelloi once she has her interest in someone."

It was another thing that the two had bonded over the past few years. One woman was fanatical about killing Vampires. The other was enraptured with killing. Period.

Both were their respective bosses.

"I don't know. I'm pretty sure I can relate, what with current events and all."

"No. That's just your malformed luck with women in general."

"Finally someone else acknowledges it." Rin threw her hands up in the air behind them.

"Shirou!" The shout came from further down the mountain, along with a faint but noticeable trembling in the earth.

"So they are coming after all." He wasn't sure if Merem had been lying earlier about the others arriving soon, but it was nice that he was correct. With some effort, he turned back to the entrance of the Temple again. "Saber. Did…"

"He tried." Her response held the barest hint of smug satisfaction in it. So much so that he wouldn't have been able to catch it if he didn't know her as well as he did. It was if she enjoyed looking down on someone for once. "I only saw him for a moment. He figured out what I was doing rather quickly and vanished soon after. He knows a doomed prospect when he sees one."

"We managed to stop a potential Armageddon, and that's what makes you happy in the end," Shirou deadpanned.

"I assure you, I am merely making the most of the task you have given me."

Even in his beaten state, Shirou managed to convey the mental equivalent of the term "bullshit" rather adequately to his Servant. Oddly enough, that only seemed to make her more pleased with herself.

"Oooi!" Arriving far quicker than he had thought, Illya, Sakura, Luvia, and Berserker cleared the final stretch of stairs within but a few moments before stopping a short distance away. This time, no one could miss the earth quaking beneath them from Berserker and the Bulls' every movement.

"Shirou! Are you okwaaaah?!" Sakura got off the monstrous beast first, leaping off of it as fast as she could. As a result, she was also the first to realize just how cramped her legs were riding the thing constantly for the entirety of the fight, collapsing onto her backside the moment she touched the ground.

Rin was having a considerable amount of trouble laughing at the show.

"Ow. Ow ow ow." Illya winced, struggling to just get off of her ride. It made the sight even more absurd when one took into account just how absolutely tiny the albino was in comparison to the hulking beast that she was on top of. On top of it, she was already well over four times her standing height. "Ngh. Berserker? A little help please?"

Luvia on the other hand, kept her silence while taking her time getting down. She was clearly also in discomfort, but also appeared to be more used to such pains. She didn't bother to pay attention to her mount and the other ones she came with meandering inside the temple to what was essentially their home for a good rest. The creatures clearly didn't care at all about what had just happened or what had been at stake. It was an almost envious thing to have for the others there. "Is it done?"

"The Witch is dead. The Princess is trying to make sure we don't blow up. And Shirou's been put through a meat grinder. Again." Rin gave them all the short version.

"What did he do this time?" Illya sighed, clearly not eager to find out the answer to her question.

"He fought Rider. Then Caster. Then fell off a building. Then fought Caster, again." Rin listed off his actions almost whimsically, ignoring the dead look she was garnering from him.

"He WHAT?!" All three girls shouted in disbelief.

"He's sitting right here and would like everyone to keep it down," Shirou spoke up for the first time, wincing at the three yells at once. Apparently the concussion he had gotten earlier was coming back with a vengeance. "He has also just had to talk to Barthomelloi and was already chewed out, so no more is needed, thank you."

The three girls paused in their panicking to take in his exhausted and beaten appearance in detail.

Even if he appeared to be alive and in one piece, Shirou was nothing short of a mess right now. His clothes were littered in cuts, burns, and debris. His front and arms in particular had several stains that ranged from bile to bodily fluids. The Shroud of Martin was barely hanging in place over his face, so much so that they could spy a portion of the left side of his head reflecting the fires below with a metallic sheen.

Most of all though, he was exhausted. His body was hunched over. His voice was weak. His eyes were dull. There was absolutely no energy left in him to the point that he should be unconscious now.

"Shirou…" Sakura was the first to break their stunned trance, breaking through the pain of her Charliehorsed legs to approach him.

"Sakura. Rider's inside waiting for you." He cut her off with a gentle smile that barely made it to his eyes. "Caster's dead so… wait. Do you have your Command Seals back?"

"I can assist with that issue." Merem stepped up, lifting his right arm so that his long sleeves fell back from gravity. Along with the markings that adorned his limbs were now a long chain of familiar designs that all the Master's there recognized. "As the current moderator for the Grail War, all unused Command Seals from defeated Masters go to me as per the system dictates. With Caster's death, the seals that she had stolen are no exception. So long as you agree to accept your responsibilities as a Master once more, I will return your Command Seals to you as a reward for your actions. Of course, the rest of you will be accommodated for your efforts as well."

His declaration had the girls flatfooted, not expecting him to be so forthcoming and generous.

"Go." Shirou looked at Sakura with tired, kind eyes, manifesting and giving her a copy of Rule Breaker with some effort. "Just in case Caster left anything to deal with. I'm not going anywhere. Rider needs you."

Sakura took the Noble Phantasm with some trepidation, her eyes never straying from his. A small smile played on her lips. "You're impossible. You know that?"

"So I've been told."

Nodding in resignation, she limped past him with Merem in tow into the Temple Grounds, barely acknowledging Saber as she passed.

"I'm going to check on Caster and my sister. If… if things don't end well, I should be with her in the end." Luvia moved quickly after the pair.

Shirou and Rin barely heard her whisper "Thank you" as she passed.

"You're terrible, Onii-chan." Illya pouted as Berserker lowered her gently to the ground, an action that simply didn't match the giant's image. "We just got here and you're already pushing her away like that. You don't even let us get a chance to congratulate you or say "well done" or-"

"Illya."

"Me too?!" She looked aghast. "Why?! What did I do?! What could you possibly need to do that takes higher priority than your adorable and innocent sister that just wants to praise you for not dying!?"

"Adorable and innocent?" Rin echoed, just as bewildered as Illya, albeit for completely different reasons.

Shirou just laughed at his sister's antics, ignoring the small wave of pure murder that accompanied Berserker's growl. "Onee-chan. In the temple, near the back of the property. There's a small graveyard. I think, there's something you should see there."

Illya's childish persona dropped almost instantly to one of worry and skepticism. "Shirou. What are you talking about? Why would I want to go there when you're barely able to-?"

"Please." He cut her off gently. "It's important. There might, there might not be another chance."

The two stared into one another's eyes, as if holding another conversation in complete silence. Confused crimson and exhausted silver.

"Fine. I'll do it, but only because I don't feel like beating up the weak and defenseless." She huffed, sticking her nose up in the air as she walked by. Or at least, tried to. She was still bowlegged from riding Caster's Ox, and it severely impaired her ability to look intimidating. "Don't look for me if Caster screws things up and we die away from one another."

"Hai. Hai." He waved her off with an amused smile. "I'll make some waffles tomorrow as an apology."

"Waffles?" Rin was completely lost.

Illya's cheeks reddened in embarrassment. Thankfully, she had walked far ahead of everyone enough so that all they saw was her back. "Come on, Berserker!"

"▄▄▄." The Demigod growled briefly before following her. To anyone that was not slightly used to his presence by now, the monster's response would have sent chills down their spine and worry for their safety. For those that were slightly used to his slight nuances by now, they recognized his growl as the rough equivalent of "as you wish".

"You spoil them, you know that?" Merem watched the small girl leave with an unreadable expression. Apparently he saw fit to return after giving Sakura her Command Seals, giving her and Rider some privacy. "I'm surprised that she didn't put up a bigger child is cruel enough to have no qualms beating the weak and helpless if she desired."

He pretended to ignore the underhanded insult. "She is also impatient enough to not bother trying to squeeze water from a rock. She knows it's easier to just go with what I ask."

"Ah. You have a point. Your head certainly is thick enough for that analogy."

"Shirou," Saber called from the other side of the gates. "Do you truly believe that he is in the cemetery?"

"Who knows?" He honestly didn't. He was running on autopilot. Thinking was too much of a pain right now. Acting on assumptions and half assed guesses was all he could do. "Probably not. But… they're both here now."

"… I see." Saber seemed to understand exactly what he was getting at as she refrained from asking any more questions, returning to her vigil until asked to do otherwise.

"Shirou, what are you, never mind. I don't even care anymore. Either we die tonight in a giant explosion or not. I'm going to be pissed if my last moments were spent wondering what the hell you're being so ambiguous about." Rin sighed, sitting next to him exhausted. "You really are a pain to keep up with, you know that?"

"Now you know how I feel most of the time urk?!" Shirou's muttering was interrupted by a quick elbow to the ribs. "Oi!"

"Don't you dare compare what I do to the crap that you pull." She gave him a dirty look.

The Second Magus Killer sulked like a child, grumbling under his breath. "Why? Either way, I'm the one that gets hurt in the end. Gah!?"

Merem chuckled at their exchange, watching the pair while leaning against the gate pillars with an amused look on his face. He didn't so much as flinch as Rin turned her attention to him. "What? From what I understand, he's completely right."

"Not. Now."

"Fine, fine." He waved his right hand lazily as if shooing away an insect. He turned his gaze to the city below, burning in the aftermath of the chaotic war, yet at the same time in other parts, slumbering from the cool winter weather. Had there been enough clouds in the sky, he was certain that it would be snowing by now.

And just beyond the city, was the port, the sea… and a small dot in the distance.

He'd keep quiet for now. Shirou deserved that much at least.

Shirou breathed out slowly, calming himself down from their brief exchange. Fires and war aside, it really was a nice night.

The cool air to his front mixing with the warm air behind him.

The view of the fires below was ironically very soothing despite the fact that it was probably all chaos in the city right now. The crimson light below dancing just enough to give its surroundings shape and form, yet was not enough to illuminate the world in its entirety. It didn't help that he was partially to blame for them.

The moon up above, near full, and not blocked by clouds for the moment. A peaceful ivory light that shone down like a smaller, less intense sun.

And here he was. Up on the hill (mountain), looking down at his land (Fuyuki). The war was done. They were done.

Everything was just… done.

▌▌▌▌.█▌▌██.

"Ah, so that's, that's how it is. I really am, an idiot."

It was for the briefest of moments. Something about the world had flickered. A slight tweak had been made before correcting itself, a change seemingly so small and inconsequential that it had managed to make itself real despite the impossibility of its passing in the first place, barely squeezing through the rules to be seen if just for an instant.

Everyone there had felt it, but its scant existence made it all but impossible to determine. Rin had stiffened in alarm, looking around to see if there was an enemy or trap. Saber had reacted the same way.

Merem though, had instead focused all of his attention to Shirou Emiya, who was now on the cusp of unconsciousness with a peaceful smile on his face.

o. o. o.

"So, this is what graveyards are like in Japan." Illya looked around casually at the clustered stone tablets as she walked through the area. It had taken her a few minutes to find the place, it had been a bit further back than she had thought, but it had been enough time to cool her head.

She didn't like it.

She wasn't particularly fond of graveyards in the first place. She wasn't a necromancer. But, she especially didn't like this version either. The way the markers were right next to one another made them feel… impersonal to her. The magus in her could respect the practicality of it all, saving space and land and all that, but the part of her that wasn't cold hearted found it distasteful.

Death shouldn't feel so, cramped. Not for the deceased, nor for the ones that come to visit. It was a depressing enough topic for most as it was. No need to make it feel even more uncomfortable.

She knew what she was looking for. She had managed to reason it out just before finding the place. Thankfully, the grounds were pretty small, so it didn't take her long to find it.

"This is it." Her voice was impartial as she stopped in front of a marker. She couldn't read Japanese, but she could feel the traces of a thaumaturgic ritual nearby, and more charms and spells on this tomb in particular that were falling apart.

It was a simple stone tablet that was slightly different in color and shape than the ones to either side. No guns. No special designs. No major protections. Just a rock with some etchings on it that she couldn't read.

It left a bitter taste in her mouth. Realizing that all that wasted hate and anger in the end was for this meaningless thing in front of her. Another thing to hold a grudge against her grandfather about, wasting her time and mind over something so petty.

And yet, here were the remains of someone that had saved humanity. Under a generic carved rock, sitting between two other near identical ones that represented people that were nowhere near as significant. As if he was no different.

It made her want to laugh and scream in absolute disgust. Just more proof that there truly was no justice in this world.

"So, this is where you were buried, Papa?"

"▄▄▄."

Berserker growled faintly, materializing to her side but focusing completely on the individual at the end of the row of graves that had not been there moments earlier.

She didn't do anything to urge or stop her Servant. She didn't even look at the newcomer to acknowledge that he was there.

Assassin did much the same. He simply stood in place, not making a sound.

"Shirou told me. He told me everything." She spoke to the rock instead of the Servant within spitting distance. "… No. Not everything. There wasn't time for that much yet, but he told me enough. I read the rest through your notes. How, how you abandoned me and Mama, but didn't. About the last war. About the grail. About how it… how Avenger spoke to you through Mama. How you tried to get me back. About Shirou, Archer, and… too many things. It was like you were trying to talk my head off in your notes."

It was a poor attempt at humor, and everyone knew it.

"Shirou is. An idiot. He's like a retarded puppy that's only good at a few things. He's adorable, but he keeps on getting into trouble. I know I asked you for a brother or sister when I was little, but couldn't you have gotten someone less annoying or accident prone?"

This time, Assassin did laugh. It was a single, stifled chuckle, but in the quiet graveyard, it reached all ears like one of Berserker's roars. He saw Irisviel in those words, in the way he was being admonished. There was no hiding the affection when she talked about her brother. It was a terrible lie and they both knew it. She absolutely adored Shirou, faults and all.

At least he did that right with her.

"You probably didn't know this, but he killed an Apostle Ancestor a couple of years ago, a weak one but an Ancestor regardless. I don't know the whole story, but it caught Barthomelloi's attention, and now he's the "Queen's Silver Dog", and the "Second Magus Killer". I'm not that well connected when it comes to big events that happen in the world, but even I heard of it quickly. Grandfather was on edge for months and... I guess my increased training for the war then makes more sense in hindsight."

Assassin's brief show of amusement was gone.

"I probably don't need to tell you, but I don't think Shirou cares much for the work, position, or the names. You can tell when he talks that he considers it all more annoying than an honor or something to be proud of. I think he got that from you. He's not cut out for high society and the magus life."

That much was a given. Shirou cared about others in general far too much to be considered one of those people.

She shifted uncomfortably, something that caught Assassin's attention.

"I… I don't think I can take care of him. Not the way you want me to," she admitted tepidly.

What?

"Shirou, he's in more trouble now than what your notes showed or could have predicted. He has his Reality Marble, which was going to be a pain in itself to hide. But, but he was bitten during the Apostle event. He wasn't turned, only a tiny bit of blood got into him, but he isn't, completely human anymore. They think it has something to do with Saber's scabbard being in him along with the amount of blood that got in him. Merem Solomon, the Vampire from the Church, says that he's something different. Not a Dead Apostle, but a Living Apostle, whatever that entails. But, I don't think he's telling us the whole story. That guy is impossible to read, but I can tell he's not saying something important."

Inside his coat, Assassin's hand gripped onto his Thompson Contender tightly.

"I heard it was easy to hide before, almost impossible to detect. Not even Barthomelloi knows after years of ordering him around. But, the war has pushed Shirou's body to the limit. Made it react and change in ways no one has expected from the strain. The wounds he got from Gilgamesh, the way he instinctively reacts when he's critically low on prana, he's going to get caught sooner or later. But… Shirou acts as if it's not a big deal. He acts as if his problems are just another chore to deal with. His competence is scary, almost inhuman, but I don't think he can get out of this without help…"

Her shoulders were shaking, fists balled up, and head bowed down. "I don't think I can help him. I don't trust those girls. Shirou and the war have pushed everyone to the limit. Outside of the Matou heir, I can't tell who is working with him out of necessity and who genuinely want to help. But even then, they all can help out in loads of more ways that I can't."

Her hands were shaking now as she lifted them up in front of her face. Her crimson eyes taking them in as if inspecting something she despised.

"I'm just a homunculus. I studied and prepared for Heaven's Feel and the War. I don't know anything special about Dead Apostles. Sella and Leys are gone. The Einzberns will abandon me after the war since I don't want to fight anymore so I don't have money. I don't have any influence at the Clocktower either. Most Magi would rather cut me open than listen to what I have to say. All I have is Berserker, but even I know that I can't destroy everything that gets in my way. Sooner or later, someone's going to get through everything we put up and hurt us. And when that does happen, I can tell that Shirou would let himself get killed in an instant if it means I would get to live. But this time, I really will be the only one left."

Her entire body was shivering. She held herself close, but she didn't look at anyone. She just hunched over, tears now falling down her face.

"I, I don't want that. I don't want to be alone again. I'm sorry! I'm sorry I thought you left us! I'm sorry I believed Grandfather! I'm sorry I tried to kill Shriou! I'm sorry I'm so weak! I'm sorry, but I, I need help! I need help Papa! I can't do this by myself! I can't!"

"… Illya."

His voice was barely more than a whisper, nowhere near as loud as her loud confession that was more to herself than anyone else. But she heard it all the same, and its impact was like a kick to the stomach, stopping her breathing instantly.

"▄▄▄."

Assassin had halved the distance between them while she wasn't looking, but did not come any closer. Whether it was due to his own fears or because of Berserker looking more than ready to tear him to pieces was anyone's guess.

His cloak and hood were no longer obstructing his face. It was remarkable just how young, and yet how aged he looked now. At a first glance, he appeared to be only a few years older than Shirou. However, the age of life was written all over his eyes and face, giving him a war torn and exhausted look that she had only read about in books, but never could perfectly imagine until seeing it firsthand.

He looked absolutely terrified and confused, as if just speaking and revealing himself, acknowledging his daughter was breaking a holy rule that would cause the whole world to come crashing down on him in moments.

His voice though, his voice was that of an old man that had broken down far too long ago.

"Never," he rasped out, as if he was unused to speaking at all. "Never apologize. Not to me."

Father and daughter stared at one another, disturbed and unsure of so many things. Both were capable of walking into a War and murdering without a second of hesitation, and yet they were petrified by the mere thoughts and words of the other.

Both were incredibly stubborn and head strong. But only one was a Servant.

"Papa!" Illya broke the unspoken rules first, running at her father full tilt with tears in her eyes, colliding into his body in a full tackle hug, not at all caring about the risks he might pose or the fact that she really might have hurt herself doing so.

Kiritsugu could have avoided it. Even if he didn't have a Master and was far weaker than the norm, he was still a Servant. His body performed multitudes more efficiently than a normal human's and was just as sturdy. He was more than capable of mass genocide if he wanted.

And yet he almost collapsed when the small girl that barely came to his chest collided with him.

"Papa! Papa!" Illya didn't seem to notice or care about such trivial facts as she buried her face into Assassin's stomach. She didn't care that she was getting dirt and ash in her face and hair. She didn't care that he smelled funny. She didn't care that her legs hurt from moving them so much while they were cramped. She just didn't care.

Kiritsugu, her father was in her arms. He didn't abandon her. She was loved.

Assassin was much the same way, dropping to one knee almost instantly and supporting the crying girl, completely missing the fact that he was starting to cry as well. His arms shook as they slowly circled around her tiny body, a body that she should have had when he had left ten years ago. A body that he had failed to protect.

This… he didn't deserve this. This shouldn't be happening. Of all the worlds and possibilities, of all the precautions and plans… of all the things he's done. He didn't deserve this.

But, he couldn't stop it. He couldn't do it to Illya. Not this time.

He didn't know when, but at some point he had broken down into a sobbing mess too. He didn't say anything. All he was aware of was that he was bawling uncontrollably like a child, holding Illya in a tight hug and burying his face into her shoulder.

Neither one of them noticed that Berserker had vanished. The near perpetual aura of danger that hovered around Illya for months on end was surprisingly muted for the first time since its arrival.

o. o. o.

"Target identified."

"Status?"

A brief silence. "Sitting on the top of the temple stairway with the Master of Archer. Appears to be sleeping or unconscious."

"What of the Servants?"

"They have all entered the Temple grounds at their own pace. Probability of resolution to tonight's activities are high."

"Casualties?"

"No Maser or Servant counts confirmed. The Target and enemy Caster both had a few close calls in the city, but nothing final. Impossible to verify events inside the Temple without compromising ourselves."

"Understood. Target's combat potential?"

"Significantly notable. Lord Solomon was right to keep tabs on him, but his methods and approach still make little reason."

"Do you believe he is a potential threat?"

"Yes."

"Do you have a shot?"

"Negative. Lord Solomon is keeping close proximity, and…?"

"And?"

"… There's a rat. I'm compromised."

"I see. Fall back for debriefing."

"Understood."

o. o. o.

Omake: If FFD Shirou was in Chaldea:

His face was impassive as he stared at EMIYA.

EMIYA was just as stern, save for the fact that there were a few sweatdrops running down his face, and his eyes were focused on Shirou's finger.

A finger that was hovering right over the burn button.

"Don't."

The finger twitched.

"Don't you dare."

Another twitch.

"So help me if you-"

Push.

"DAMN ITTTT!"

Shirou stared blankly at the mana prisms that he had just received in place of the Counter Guardian. Slowly, a faint and satisfied smirk etched its way into existence.

"I love this place."

The residents of Chaldea slowly stepped away from the pleased Apostle Ancestor as he started another summoning ritual.

o. o. o.

Shirou stared blankly at his new Archer.

"Hooh? What a turn of events. To think that you would be the one to summon me, Emiya-kun."

Standing in front of him, with an imperial, yet relaxed demeanor, was Rin in clothing that he had never seen, and yet, she was a Servant.

"So, you're the goddess Ishtar."

"Correct."

"But to be summoned, you chose a human as a host, and it just so happened that the one that you had the highest compatibility with…"

"Was the one you know as Rin Tohsaka. I do not believe what is so difficult to comprehend about such a base establishment, boy. Although, given your mediocrity in most fields of the world, it should not be what are you doing?"

During Ishtar's explanation, Shirou had moved to the summoning platform, completely ignoring her, and literally punched the device to activate.

"Wah?! Wait! I'm still in the platform you idiot!" The Goddess frantically and inelegantly leapt from where she was just as the device was turned on. "Shirou! What's the big idea?!"

The teen, whose left eye had been twitching nonstop, didn't say a word as he turned to the ritual expectantly, as if knowing exactly who was going to come next. Which was impossible. Unless one had an artifact that tied exactly to the Spirit or-

"Hahaha! For you to summon me like… WHAT INFIDELITY IS THIS?!" Gilgamesh roared as he came into being, his crimson eyes focused on the very shocked and confused Ishtar, who was currently opening and closing her mouth quietly like a fish out of water.

Somewhere in the background, someone was shouting about what had just happened and how this was impossible because Gil wasn't on rate up.

Shirou stepped between them, not at all confused or worried that he was in between two Servants, and pointed at Ishtar accusingly while still facing Gilgamesh. "To be summoned, that one inhabited the body of a human with the highest compatibility to her. Said human, happens to be someone I have known and grown up with since childhood. One that I know incredibly intimately."

The room was dead silent.

"We are going to the cafeteria. We are going to talk. And we are going to get very, VERY drunk." Shirou concluded. "Possibly in that order."

"And why would I even consider such activities with a mongrel like you?" Gilgamesh's eyes narrowed dangerously.

"Because when it comes to this one, there are some things that simply can't be brought up in conversation with the ones you genuinely like."

"Hey! What's that supposed to mean?!"

"…"

"…"

"If there is nothing here that meets my standards, I will kill you."

"That shouldn't be too hard to pull off once we get loaded." Shirou walked to the exit of the room with Gilgamesh behind him.

"You dare believe that a lowborn like you can hold your own against myself?"

"Please. When was the last time you drank heavily? Guys like you stick to sipping all day like babes at social events. I doubt you even remember how to get proper plastered, let alone what it was like."

"Insolence! How dare you question my unequaled alcohol tolerance!?"

That day, multiple miracles took place. Two top tier Servants were summoned in quick succession. Chaldea did not perish. And most incredibly of all, Gilgamesh and Shirou got along, or at the very least, developed a strong tolerance of one another.

The entire time, Rin/Ishtar was trying to figure out just what exactly had happened.

o. o. o.

A/N:

Thanks again Wayfarer for betaing.

Ok. Before actual news, I have to get this off of my chest.

STAR WARS THE LAST JEDI IS NOT AS GOOD AS EVERYONE MAKES IT OUT TO BE. IT IS A PASSIBLE MOVIE, BUT CLEARLY OVERHYPED AND NOT WORTH THE ACCLAIM THAT IT IS GETTING.

I feel better now.

I tried to get this out in time for xmas, but events took place that stalled it coming out a little bit. Sorry for the late gift guys.

So… I'm going to be honest with you guys. I'm sorry, but I'm not fully back to working on FFD yet. I still need to work on one more chapter for Take Two Round Two. I can't in good conscience turn away from it in its current place. As a result, the next FFD, and subsequent chapters aren't going to come out until February.

A lot has happened in the past year. I worked 60 hour weeks for half a year, 6 day weeks. I actually burned out and had to take a siesta from writing for a while. It delayed me for a bit and threw off my writing schedule, which in turn brought us to where we are now.

Oh, and my laptop died, which set me back a couple of weeks while I tried to get a new one.

Also, FGO. I whaled hard for Waver and Shishou. Everything else was just me being a filthy casual and buying some quartz once in a while. My master name is Scab. I would send out my friend code, but I'm maxed out in that department, so, yeah. Sorry guys.

Grinding for Guda Guda and the xmas event though. *Shudders*

And Xenoblade Chronicles 2. The game is just a fcking time sink.

As for xmas news, I think my uncle beat us all forever.

I got a good amount of cash, but him? He got a chainsaw.

No. I'm not joking. He got a fcking chainsaw.

And for future reference, my family (for the most part) is pretty white collar. Teachers, accountants, engineers, and the like.

That's like, the holy grail (no pun intended) gift of all men everywhere after we have given up on getting a muscle car for the holidays.

Seriously, it is literally impossible for a man to resist the urge to high five a comrade and pat him on the back the moment he tells you he got a chainsaw for xmas. It's a physical impossibility.

Back to talking about the story.

I'm going to be perfectly honest, I do not have as… solid, of a grasp on where this part of FFD is going as I did during the war itself. That doesn't mean I have no idea where the story is going, I do have certain events that are going to happen. But, well, things tend to get a bit messy when involving more characters in tense situations. That and, as many people have reminded me, I haven't worked on FFD in a while.

Still, it should be good practice, pushing past the war itself. Not many decent fsn fics do that so it's good territory to break outside of the standard mold.

That, and I still have a few twists that I haven't used quite yet.

Tbh, the whole Nasuverse is too messed up to have a clusterfck like the Grail War resolve without more people from the outside looking in and causing more problems. It's part of the reason why I liked the Heaven's Feel true ending better than the others in the visual novel. It felt the most… realistic. A real conclusion instead of the fairy tale-ish ones that the other endings were where everything is all well and good and all the problems are dealt with. The whole game was pretty damn dark at times, and yet most of the endings were… it just didn't match up to me.

Ok. Enough of that.

So, I'll work on TTRT's chapter, then get back to FFD. Shouldn't be too terrible now that my schedule has freed itself up again. Sorry for the wait guys, but I did manage to get you all a chapter, albeit a small one, before the year was up.

And, that's about it for now. Thanks everyone for being so bloody patient with me. I'll try to make it up in the upcoming year.

MERRY CHRISTMAS AND ALL THOSE OTHER HOLIDAYS AND STUFF! MAY YOU BE BLESSED BY SANTA ALTER AND HER MINISKIRT!

SO REVIEW! WORSHIP THE LOG! DURING THE FGO XMAS EVENT I MANAGED TO GET THROUGH 26 LOTTERY BOXES AND I STILL REGRET THAT I DIDN'T GRIND MORE! AND REVIEW AGAIN! I'M BACK BITCHES!