As usual, Tohsaka Rin stirred awake with great reluctance. Fuyuki's Second Owner was many things, but an early bird was not one of them.
Still, the act of waking up in recent days had a turn for the better.
When she opened her eyes, she was not treated to the sight of her empty bedroom, but rather to that of a golden mane of hair framing an indescribably charming face with stupendous green eyes.
"Good morning, Rin," Saber greeted with her face half-buried in her pillow, just a few inches from Rin's.
Even though it wasn't a new sight anymore, it never failed to make Rin's heart skip a beat.
"Good Morning, Saber," she replied warmly. "Slept well?"
"Very," the Servant confirmed as she pulled herself up. Her long hair fell on her shoulders and her pale legs became exposed up to her thighs before she threw them off the bed, casing her nightgown to slide down along her smooth skin and conceal them once more.
And just like that, Rin was wide awake.
"What is on the agenda for today?" Saber asked, unaware of Master's state of mind.
"Uh. We should visit Emiya in the afternoon. Other than that, we've got plenty of free time since it's Sunday. I was thinking of spending the morning in my Workshop. What did you plan on doing?"
"Reading, I think," Saber replied. "I'm still taken aback by the availability of reading material in this age. Back then, books were a rare commodity."
As she said so, she slid her nightgown off her shoulders.
Rin, who as getting off the bed herself, froze mid-motion.
"Yeah, I imagine," she said evenly. 'This is getting ridiculous,' she told herself as she shook her head. "I'll take a bath first if you don't mind, then I'll get started on breakfast while you take yours."
"That's perfectly fine, but we could just bathe together," Saber proposed.
"Ah, no. I'd rather kick back and relax a bit on my own. Getting the right mindset before work, you know?"
"I understand," Saber agreed. "Do take your time, Rin. I'll do some practice in the back garden in the meantime."
"Yeah, that sounds like a good idea. I'll see you later then."
"Later, Rin. Have a good time."
Rin submerged herself into the warm water up to her neck, letting out a sigh of pleasure.
The previous few weeks had been one revelation after another. As if the Grail going ballistic wasn't enough to give to give her something to think about, now she had also figured that she was into girls. Also, into girls.
As a Magus, she had never put much stock in having an actual meaningful relationship. When it came down to choosing a partner, the things she would have had to consider where things like lineage and genetic disposition for Circuits. The person's character was entirely inconsequential so long as it wasn't so bad to create issues. Her personal preferences were irrelevant.
However, she had hoped to find someone who met the criteria whom she would also like personally, but the chances had always been slim.
This latest reveal about her sexuality threw another curveball at her. How was she supposed to do with her growing attraction to her Servant, both as a person and as a Magus?
The answer was nothing. Nothing at all.
She would just have to swallow it down and pretend those feeling didn't exist at all.
It wouldn't be the first time and certainly not the last.
Shirou's morning started as usual.
He got up at 4:30 and started up on breakfast. He wouldn't get to cook properly until later but a few things needed to marinate a little while. Afterwards he put on his workout clothes and checked up on Medea before leaving the house.
The Witch was sleeping quietly in her room and Shirou let her just like that. He briefly caught a glimpse of Satsuki in the corridors as he was heading back to her room. The sun was not a threat to her, but she'd rather not hang around under it more than it was necessary.
Chances were that she wouldn't be coming out again until the evening since it wasn't a school day. Since everyone in the house would be fine without him for a while, he went out of his usual jog.
The air was cold and sharp against his face, carrying the faintest hint of flowery scents. A remembrance of winter and a promise of summer. Maybe it was some sort of distorted irony that while the seasons were heading toward life teeming days, a deadly threat was slowly looming over the city and the world at large.
Shirou had many things on his mind at the time. The Grail War, the advancement of his Magecraft, the volatile relationship with Tohsaka,Satsuki's circumstances and his budding cooperation with the Church.
There were too many things to worry about and too little time. He had already been given a forewarning that a Dead Apostle was being tracked down somewhere in China and that his services would be required again soon.
At least he had managed to complete Tohsaka's and Satsuki's Mystic Codes, which put his worries to rest a little bit. Now under the tutelage of Medea he was creating all manner of tools that could aid him in different circumstances.
The speed at which they were spewing out Mystic Codes would have most modern Magi foaming at the mouth in envy. It was yet another twist of irony that the Magus less interested in advancing Magecraft could produce in days what took other Magi decades to accomplish.
If that bit of information ever came to light he'd have a Sealing Designation slapped on him so fast he'd be spinning on himself for a year. Fortunately, only Medea was aware how deep his ability ran and despite her moniker he knew he could trust her.
However, just as he was thinking this, he perceived the unmistakable feeling of being observed from afar.
This sensation didn't let up in the slightest as he run at fast speed through the streets of the residential area. However, he didn't discern any presence, just the faint awareness that he was being spied upon.
Deciding that it would be better to gather information about this observer, Shirou turned toward the direction of the Memorial Park, an empty area where there would be no witnesses and no bystanders should the situation escalate into open conflict.
Not that he thought anyone would be dumb enough to start anything during the day. Still, he readied himself to call upon Medea, if needed.
Currently, other than Tohsaka no one should know of his status as a Master, but there were other forces that could have taken notice of him other than the competitors for the Grail. The Church had its own factions and while their relationship was cordial he was still a heretic to them. He could not outright exclude that someone with a bone to pick with Magi and Dead Apostles would target him independently.
The Clock Tower wasn't out of the picture either, although Waver Velvet had told him that the matter of the Archibald had been dealt with, there was no absolute guarantee that his identity as the son of Kiritsugu hadn't been leaked to others.
He wasn't a hundred percent safe and likely he would never be. The threat of reprisal for both his actions and that of his father would always loom over him. He was aware of it from the beginning though, so he had no complaints.
Eventually he reached the park, the barren land soaked in malice and void of all life apart from a few stubborn trees that just refused to die completely. Their skeletal look only added to the place's haunted appearance. It was the perfect place to spring a trap.
Pretending to be unaware of being followed, Shirou kept doing his workout routine of pushups and other basic exercises.
After a while, he felt the pressure from his observer fade until it vanished completely. Rather than relaxing he felt even more guarded. It was entirely possible that it was an attempt to lull him into a sense of false security and ambush him with his guard lowered.
Shirou kept up his mask of obliviousness and went about his business like nothing was amiss. Once he was done, he jogged back home but he never felt something out of place again. It looked like he was really being left off the hook for the time being. Still, he would have to speak about it with Medea and Satsuki.
Half an hour later, a little over an hour after he had left, Shirou was once more at the gate of his house. He let himself in and immediately headed to the bathroom. He needed to clean up before preparing breakfast for good.
He slipped inside the antechamber and locked the door behind him. He pulled his sweaty shirt off and unceremoniously threw into the hamper next to the sink.
Standing in front of the mirror he examined his physique. This was not an act of vanity but merely an examination for abnormalities. There was nothing amiss of course. He was in top physical shape and the only thing that stood out was the scar across his stomach he had received the night he contracted Medea.
There was another one cutting diagonally across his back. Chances were that he wouldn't be going to the pool anymore. At least not where he risked meeting someone he knew and caused unwanted questions to be made. He didn't mind. It had been a small sacrifice and certainly nothing to be concerned about.
Having decided that he peeled off his shorts and his underwear, sending them after his dirty shirt.
Stark naked, he pulled open the sliding door to the bathing area and stood in front of an equally naked Medea of Colchis, in the process of getting out of the bathtub.
It took both of them an entire second to realize what they were seeing, another second to process it and lastly a third second to react. The two flushed simultaneously to a vivid red before Medea plunged back into the water with a splash and Shirou slammed the door close.
"Shirou! Why are you here?" she asked with only her head peeking out of the water and with her arms crossed over her chest to conceal her breasts.
"I'm sorry! I didn't mean to! The door wasn't locked!"
"I thought you were out!" she objected.
"I just got back," he replied. "I'm sorry."
"No… it was my fault. You shouldn't be apologizing."
Both fell into an uncomfortable silence, unsure what they should say. Eventually, it was Medea who found her words first.
"Well, what happened, happened. It was an honest mistake. Don't beat yourself about it."
"Uhh. Thanks. Look, if you want to erase the memory of what I saw from my mind go ahead and do it," he proposed.
"... what?" Medea asked after a moment of silence.
"I said that if you wanted to erase my memory of the event I'm cool with it."
There was a sound of splashing water, followed by heavy footsteps. The door separating the washing area from the rest of the bathroom was slammed open with enough force to crack the wall. Medea stood there, still completely naked and with water sliding down her body, glaring dagger at the flabbergasted teen Magus.
"Meep!" he yelped shutting his eyes close. His hands were busy covering his junk. "What the hell are you doing?"
"Do you mean to tell me that I'm so unsightly that you'd rather forget about it?" Medea asked, stepping forward threateningly.
"What? Are you crazy?" he asked, eyes flying open at the sheer absurdity of her statement. He immediately slammed them shut again lest they burst out of his skull at the sight.
"It is you who asked me to erase your memory. What else am I supposed to think, uh?"
"Does the concept of propriety escape you?" he asked back. "I'm not supposed to look!"
"But you did, and if you liked what you saw you wouldn't want to forget."
"It's definitely not like that!" he protested.
"Prove it. Look at me."
"I can't do it. I honestly can't."
"Why?" she asked with something akin to resignation or maybe desperation seeping into her voice. Hearing her like that, Shirou couldn't help but answer honestly.
"Because it's difficult enough being next to you every day and still maintain my composure. If I'd open my eyes now, I don't think I could restrain myself any longer."
There. He said it. There never was a time when he thought she was anything short of beautiful, after all. Even when she was angry, threatening fiery retribution, she was extremely alluring. In fact, the only thing that Shirou couldn't stand about Medea were her tears.
Of course, under normal circumstances he would have never admitted something so embarrassing. Blood was rushing to his face even more now, but after hearing the crack in her voice he couldn't bring himself to hold it back.
"Oh… I… Sorry. I'm sorry, Shirou. I… I… forgive me."
He listened as the sound of footsteps and that of towels being shifted, closely followed by the door opening and closing. Only after he heard her getting further away he dared open his eyes.
Alone in the bathroom, he let out an exhausted sigh.
"Great job, jackass," he reprimanded himself.
How was he supposed to fix this mess now?
Medea paced in her room restlessly, pulling her hair with both hands.
Being surprised by Shirou in the bathroom had thrown her for a loop. It had been an embarrassing moment, but nothing that she couldn't handle. However, before she could recover her composure and defuse the situation he said something that hit right at her weak spot.
Embarrassment aside, she didn't mind if Shirou saw her naked, but hearing him say that he'd willing forget about it had been tantamount as dismissing what little confidence she had in her charms and stepping on her pride as a woman as well.
She completely lost her rationale and nagged him about it until he admitted that it was the opposite of what she had thought. His admission had dispelled her fears and cast upon her a sense of elation that lasted until she realized that she had basically forced a confession out of him.
She had completely compromised their relationship. Although she was overjoyed that he found her attractive she realized that her actions erected an insurmountable wall between them.
Shirou was already an extremely reserved person and after being forced to admit his attraction he would be avoiding her like the plague. For a single step forward she had taken she had simultaneously taken two steps back.
How was she supposed to fix this mess now? Only extreme methods came to mind.
After he had bathed, Shirou dried and dressed himself. Enough naked shenanigans for one day.
Since he couldn't seem to find peace of mind with sheer mental discipline he decided that the best thing to do was getting on with his day and pretend that nothing ever happened.
Of course, he knew that it would last only until he saw Medea again, but he decided to take whatever respite he could get. Hence, he went on to prepare breakfast like he was supposed to do from the beginning.
Soon enough delicious smells filled the air and a little bit later it was ready to be served.
Of course, Taiga arrived with impeccable timing.
"Shirou~!" she greeted with her usual cheerfulness. "How is my breakfast coming?"
"I just finished making it. Come take a seat."
"Yay!" his surrogate sister cheered as she took her place at the table. Shirou joined her after he had laid down the plates.
"Aren't Satsuki and Megissa going to join us?" she asked.
"Satsuki is enjoying a day out of the sun and Megissa… she wasn't feeling well. I'll bring them breakfast to their room later."
"Oho?" Taiga's ears twitched. "My instinct tells me you're hiding something from me. I can just smell the scent of a compromising situation. Did you do something bad, Shirou?"
Count on Taiga to have a sharp intuition about useless stuff like that. Of course, Shirou had no intention to answer that question. Instead, he plucked some food from her plate and put it into his mouth.
"Hey! What's the big idea?" she immediately protested.
"There's no food under this roof to feed a mouth that spouts nonsense."
"Weeeh! Shirou is mean," Taiga cried, clutching her plate and taking it off the table to prevent further thefts and proceeded to stuff herself. With her mouth effectively sealed, Shirou enjoyed a quiet meal.
Still, how long could it last?
After Taiga went her way, Shirou prepared two plates of food for the resident girls. Satsuki accepted her share without problems, but Medea didn't answer when he knocked at the door. Knowing better than to push the matter, he just left the plate in front of the door.
"I'll be in the Workshop," he said without expecting an answer from her. He promptly turned around and left. He just needed to be patient. As the days passed the incident from today would become distant and they wouldn't think about it anymore.
Opening the passage to the Workshop, he quickly stepped inside and closed it behind him.
Minutes later, the door to Medea's room opened and the plate was taken inside in the blink of an eye. No further sightings of the witch were reported for the rest of the morning.
Rin pushed the button of Emiya's doorbell for the sixth time. She was starting to think that he had stood them up when she finally heard footsteps getting closer.
"Ah, it's you guys," Caster said as she opened the door, looking a bit under the weather.
"Were you expecting someone else?" she asked, frowning. "What happened to you?"
"Nothing. I was just taking a nap. Please, come inside."
"Thank you," Rin nodded as she stepped past the threshold with Saber in tow. "So, Emiya told me that my Mystic Code is complete. How would you rate his work as his teacher?"
"... He's done a good job. He always gives his best and this time is no exception. With the materials at hand, even I wouldn't have been able to make anything better. You won't be disappointed with the final product."
"Huh. If a Magus of your caliber says so, I guess I can only take it at face value. Still, it's hard to believe that I'm getting a Mystic Code for free. People are willing to pay exorbitant prices even for the simplest ones."
"It is wise of him to do so," Saber observed. "At times like these, trying to make a profit out of our cooperation would work against our greater goal. It is good that he's able to put aside monetary issues and focus on what matters most. I wish I had more allies with this mindset in the past."
"Oh, I'm not complaining," Rin agreed. "Where is he by the way?"
"In the Workshop," she gestured towards the toolshed. "Go ahead. I'll catch up with you after I washed my face."
"Eh?" Rin blinked in disbelief. "Are you saying we should go into the Workshop itself? But-"
"Our types of Magecraft are incompatible, Rin, and you couldn't hope to replicate Shirou's in a lifetime. Even if you did, he wouldn't care. In fact, he'd probably be happy for you. So, knock yourself out and snoop around as much as you want."
Rin sighed. "There should be a limit to how much beyond common sense one can get."
"I don't believe Magi have any right to say something like that, Rin," Saber commented. Her Master gave her a deadpan look, but didn't object.
"Fine, since I have an official invitation I'll just let myself in. Come, Saber."
They traversed the courtyard and stepped into the shed. At first glance, it was only a repository for senseless junk like old furniture and spare parts of all sorts. The only thing in apparent working conditions was a sleek, black motorbike.
At first Rin didn't see where the entrance to the Workshop was supposed to be, until a piece of the floor rose to reveal a staircase going into the darkness.
Rin was stupendously surprised by how completely unthreatened she felt at stepping into another Magus's sancta sanctorum. A place like this was supposed to be guarded against everyone, even close family members. Instead, she was allowed to walk in freely.
Another testament to how unconventional a Magus Emiya Shirou was.
Rin was already halfway down the stair when she noticed that Saber wasn't following her.
"Saber?" she asked, turning around to look at her Servant. Saber was still on top of the stairs, looking around the place with a frown on her face. "What's the matter?"
"No, nothing," she replied, shaking her head. "Let's go."
The Servant quickly joined her Master and they both descended into the darkness.
The first thing they noticed after they passed the Bounded Field was the intense heat, the second was the sound of metal hitting against metal.
They reached the bottom of the stairs and they stood in a vast space, as big as the entire property above ground. At the very end of it, there was a furnace and in front of it was Emiya Shirou, hammering away at something with a shape yet to be determined.
They approached slowly and as they did they took in the many details of the area. There were shelves filled with books against the walls further away from the furnace, while the rest were either occupied by various tools or what they assumed were they products. Weapons, pieces of armor and other assorted artifacts lined the walls in an orderly manner.
Eventually, a few steps away from the furnace they came upon a table where several simple-looking blades rested. It was then that Emiya seemingly became aware of their presence, putting down his tools and turning to face them.
"Tohsaka, Saber," he greeted. "Glad you could make it."
"Impressive setup you've got yourself here, Emiya-kun. I can see that you are fully invested in the trade. I didn't expect it from someone like you."
"Thanks, I guess."
"Did you make all of these?" Saber asked, plucking a sword at random from the table.
"Yes," he confirmed. "How would you rate them?"
Saber took a step back and slowly twirled the sword in her hand. She gave a few tentative swings and then examined its edge with a piercing gaze.
"Is it any good, Saber?" Rin asked.
"This is outstanding craftsmanship," she declared.
"Really?" Rin wondered. "It doesn't look like much to me."
"There are no enchantments about it, but it is exquisitely made. It is excellently balanced and it feels extremely reliable. I would have expected this level of craftsmanship only from the most expert of swordsmiths, masters of their craft. Had I met you in my lifetime, I would have gone to great lengths to acquire your services for my armies."
"Coming from a Heroic Spirit qualified for the Saber Class, these words are the highest form of praise. Thank you."
Shirou bowed in gratitude.
"Huh. Well I suppose that I can expect the same level of quality from the Mystic Code you made for me then," Rin observed with barely restrained cheerfulness. From the beginning, she had reservations about his ability as a Code Maker, even with the tutelage of Caster.
However, seeing that he could produce works worthy of Saber's praise all those reservations were gone.
"I have it right here," he said, opening a wooden box and retrieving a thin, inconspicuous-looking bracelet. He tossed it to her and she caught it mid-air.
"Is this it?" she asked incredulously. "Way to be underwhelming, Emiya."
"Don't be silly, Tohsaka. The bracelet is merely the trigger. Put it on, feed it energy and see what happens."
Rin glanced at him suspiciously, but then she did as he said. It fit just right around her wrist. She then turned on one of her Circuits and directed the resulting Prana to it.
"By the way, don't freak out when it activates."
"What do you m-"
She was cut off as luminous lines shot out of the bracelet and started crawling up her arms. Before she could react, they had reached her shoulder and extended to her torso. From there they spread down to her legs and to her other arms, finally wrapping around her head.
Then, they tightened around her and as they did so, the space between each line darkened, rapidly depriving her of her vision.
"Rin!" she heard Saber call out.
For a moment, she thought it was sort of restraining device and that the entire setup and been nothing more than an elaborate trap. However, she immediately realized that her movement were not being restrained.
The darkness faded immediately and her vision was restored. No, in fact she could see better than she did before. In fact, her field of view was much wider than before. In fact, she realized that it surpassed 180° degrees. She could simultaneously look at her sides.
"Rin, are you alright?"
"Yes… I think."
She looked at her hands and arms. They were clad in a skin-tight red cloth. Then, she looked down at the rest of her body.
"There's a mirror over there," Emiya said, pointing at a full-length mirror resting against the wall a few feet behind her to the left.
Rin marched to it and looked at her own reflection.
What she was now wearing could be loosely referred as biker suit. Her face was hidden under a black helmet sporting a red visor shaped in a way reminiscent of a bird with its wings spread, giving it a threatening look. Except for her arms and shoulders, her entire body was covered in black. Refined gold inserts went down from the collar, passing around and under her breasts in an emphasizing manner, then proceeding down her stomach, drawing the contour of her abdominal muscles, before plunging and disappearing between her legs.
All in all, it wouldn't have been so bad if not for the fact that it was skin-tight. This was not a figure of speech. If not for the thickness of the material itself, something that had the texture of leather but the elasticity of spandex, it might have been the same as being completely naked.
"YOU DAMN PERVERT!"
Her scream shook the entire Workshop echoing several times before finally fading.
"So… you don't like it?" Shirou asked, tilting his head. "Huh."
"I will grant you one opportunity to explain yourself, Emiya. If I'll find it lacking, I'll beat you to a pulp."
The aforementioned pervert sighed.
"You are a practitioner of Kenpo, a martial style that emphasize on flexibility and whip-like motions. I needed to take that into consideration. The alternative was using rigid armor, but that would have compromised your agility. Loose clothing can get stuck into things, worse yet it can be used to grab you. Additionally, it doubles as a biker suit, which means that it can be worn in public without raising too many eyebrows."
"Have you even seen this thing?" Rin shrieked. "There's no way I could go unobserved wearing it."
He scratched his head.
"You can actually wear it underneath your clothes, you know. You just have to activate it before putting them on. The helmet part can be activated separately and the function that switches it with what you're wearing is meant for when you don't have the option of changing into it leisurely."
"... Oh. Why didn't you say so from the start? I would have changed elsewhere."
"I didn't expect you to make such a big deal out of it," he admitted.
"Are you kidding? Have you seen how tight this is? Or was it this you were aiming for, uh?"
"Putting aside the fact that I needed to make sure it fit correctly, Tohsaka... you do realize we have had swim classes together a few times last year, right? This outfit is just a tight as the standard school swimsuit and it covers you way more than that."
Rin couldn't exactly refute that statement. However, making that association didn't help her any as she was currently feeling retroactively embarrassed for those days.
"Lastly, you don't go unnoticed even wearing regular clothes, Miss School Idol. So, forgive me for not putting any thought into that."
"Fine!" she huffed. "I accept that your primary objective wasn't ogling me. Now, what does this thing do?" she asked, trying to divert the conversation from her own faux-pas.
Emiya didn't look like he bought it, but politely avoided to call her out on it. As response, he picked up a sword from the table and walked around it. "I'm going to hit you with this. Saber, please stand aside."
Saber lifted both eyebrows, as if asking if he really expected her to do that.
"Do it, Saber," Rin requested. At this point, he could have killed her a dozen times already and she would have died without even noticing.
Saber acquiesced and stepped away.
"Trace on," he called out. There was a sudden spike of Prana and a moment later he vanished, only for him to reappear right in front of her, blade posed to strike.
Before she could do anything, she was shot backwards at high speed. Her feet skidded on the ground, heavy cracks forming on the stone at her passage.
Eventually, her momentum slowed down and she would herself resting against the wall at the opposite side of the Workshop.
"Rin?" Saber asked worriedly.
"I'm… I'm fine," she answered. "That didn't hurt at all."
"Good," Emiya said, turning off his Circuits. "Ruby Red's defensive power is of the highest degree."
"That's what your Mystic Code is called," he answered. "Caster picked the name, so if have complaints about it, please refer to her."
"How does it work?" Rin asked, looking at the floor. "I see, redirection of force. Clever."
"You catch on quickly as usual," Shirou agreed. "Yes, that's is its primary function. The force of any blow you receive on it is distributed not just to the area it hits, but on the entire surface of your body, thus dividing it proportionally. In addition, it discharges ninety percent of the energy it receives to the ground, if your feet are both touching it. Granted, it doesn't hold a candle to a Servant's power and it doesn't offer any resistance to anything other than physical attacks. Still, even if you were caught near of a battle between Servants you are going to walk out unscathed unless you take a direct hit."
"This… this is actually pretty awesome," Rin decided. "And the helmet widens the range of my vision to that point that I can almost see behind my back without turning completely."
"Indeed. We forged the visor from the jewels you provided. I won't get into details on how we broke them down to a powder and forged them back into a new shape, but it is connected directly to your brain like a single wide eye. The chances for someone to slip behind you while wearing it are next to none."
As he explained, Rin returned to where Shirou and Saber were waiting.
"Okay. I must admit this is first-rate stuff. Um, thank you, Emiya."
"You're welcome," he nodded. "Feel free to remove it now."
"I won't be left naked if I do, right?"
"No," he answered in a deadpan.
"Just making sure."
She willed Ruby Red to turn off and the Mystic Code retracted back to its inactive state, returning her to her previous clothes.
"It's a bit weird, coming back to my ordinary range of vision, but I'm sure I'll get used to it. Now, there the matter of payment."
"Uh? What are you on about?" he asked. "We had already agreed that you wouldn't owe me anything. This is merely preparation for the War."
"So, are you going to demand I return it when the War's over?"
"No, of course you can keep it. Besides, it's custom made for you. No one would be able to use it as effectively."
"I thought so, hence I must at least offer some form of compensation for it."
"That's not necessary, Tohsaka," Emiya objected.
"It is to me," she insisted. "This isn't the first time I owe you, Emiya-kun and frankly I don't like owing anything to anyone. My pride as a Magus won't allow it. So, think about something I could do for you in exchange for this favor you made for me."
"Hmm. There is one thing I meant to ask…"
"I'll warn you. If it's something stupid or perverted, I'll hit you on the head."
"Just what opinion do you have of me exactly?" he grumbled. "It's nothing inappropriate, but it's not you I'd have to ask."
"Hm? So, it's a favor from Saber?"
"If it is something within my power, I would be glad to help returning the favor you granted to my Master," the blond Servant said without missing a beat.
"Well, then. It's simple. I want to fight you."
There was a moment of silence.
"Have you hit your head, Emiya?" Rin asked. Even Saber looked surprised. "I get that you are strong, strong enough to take on Dead Apostles, but a Servant is in a complete different league and the Saber Class is regarded as the strongest of all seven."
"That's precisely the point, Tohsaka. I'm never going to meet someone whose skills with the sword get close to Saber's. This is my single chance to see for myself what the apex of swordsmanship is like. Even if it's the same as an ant taking on an elephant, I wish to pit myself against it. Besides, I'm confident that given an hour I can land a hit on her."
"Oh?" this time, it was Saber who spoke. She had switched from being accommodating to having an overbearing presence. "Those are bold words, Magus."
"You've done it, now, Emiya," Rin said with a smirk. She knew that Saber wouldn't back down from a challenge like that. "I don't think I could convince her to back down from this without using a Command Seal."
"Good," he nodded. "Actually, I've been looking forward to this for a while."
"I hope that Caster has some healing spells in her arsenal, otherwise you're going to be sore for a long time, Emiya-kun."
"It's not like we're going to use actual swords, you know? I'm not that dumb."
He walked to a nearby wall, where two identical blades were placed.
"Here, I made these swords specifically for the occasion. Through Magecraft they have been deprived of the ability to cause any sort of harm. Instead, they'll leave a temporary mark where they hit."
"Hold up. How long have you been planning this?" Rin asked.
Emiya shrugged. "I was thinking about asking for a spar for a while now, so I went ahead and prepared a suitable weapon. You just gave me the permission to ask for it, so there."
"Ah, heck. Why am I even bothering? Alright then. When and where?"
"No time like the present. Let's just go up above in the dojo."
Saying that, he removed his blacksmith apron and the three of them left the Workshop.
As they came up from the stairs, Shirou stumbled upon Medea in the process of descending them.
They momentarily looked at each other embarrassedly before they both looked away.
"Is the demonstration done already?" she ended up asking.
"Yes, Tohsaka doesn't seem to have reservations about the quality of our work."
"None," the other Magus confirmed. "I really struck a good bargain."
"A bargain?" Medea inquired. Then she noticed the training swords Shirou had made previously. "I see, you roped Saber into sparring with you at last."
"Yep. I have been really looking forward to this moment."
"Good for you," Medea nodded. Putting aside the incident from earlier, Shirou crossing blades with Saber was a priceless reward for both, as he could assimilate her skills just by seeing them once. Even if he couldn't replicate them at the same level because of the limits of the human body, it was still the technique of a hero worthy of joining the Throne.
It was by no mean a trivial thing.
"I'd have expected you to dissuade him from it," Tohsaka said.
"More experience is always a boon, Tohsaka and since there is no chance for him to get hurt in this setting, there's no objection to be made."
"His pride can still be wounded," Tohsaka replied.
Medea snorted. "If you could find any pride in him with this method, it would be worth it suffering a wound or two."
Tohsaka merely lifted an eyebrow, but dropped the subject.
The quartet moved to the immaculate dojo and Shirou and Saber took position in front of each other.
"Thank you for indulging me in this, Saber," Shirou said as he bowed the way custom dictated.
"Think nothing of it. It is but a small price to pay for the assistance you've given my Master both now and in the past. Besides, I too am interested in testing the mettle of my allies before stepping on the actual battlefield."
"Very well, then. I won't hold anything back. Trace on!"
Shirou flooded his body with Prana using the pinpoint precision he had developed with years of practice in self-Reinforcement. Even with that, he couldn't hope to match Saber's supernatural physique.
It didn't matter though. In the first place, he didn't intend to prevail with brute force or overwhelming speed.
Seeing how Saber held her position without giving any sign of wanting to initiate the confrontation, Shirou shifted his weight forward and burst forth at the top of his speed.
The wooden floor exploded in a shower of splinters from the sudden push, but the sound it made was immediately drowned out by the two swords clashing together loudly.
"Fast!" Tohsaka said from her place next to the wall. This was the first time she saw him exhibit his ability directly and it was clear that she hadn't expected him to move at such speed.
The extension of Saber's surprise was a mere tilt of her head. Then, she had little chance to say anything else as Shirou barraged her with blows. It clearly wasn't to the point where she needed to worry. She outmatched him physically, but his skill was not as clumsy as she had expected it to be.
Certainly, it was odd. It came through as a mish-mash of different styles. Absolutely crude and inelegant. A far cry from Saber's own style.
Yet, there wasn't an opening Saber could exploit. Of course, any and every attack opened the guard, but not even one of them was the product of a mistake per se. Every move he made flowed into the other smoothly, even if it looked like he was improvising them.
Still, such a rudimentary style wouldn't get close to landing a hit on her in a hundred years, much less in the span of an hour.
Shirou could see this consideration go through Saber's eyes as they crossed blades.
After a minute during which she was limited herself to simply fend off his attacks, Shirou purposefully over-extended a blow and Saber capitalized on it right away.
However, her blade never connected with him, as he twisted his body to avoid it and at the same time changed the direction of his previous blow to hit her at an odd angle. It was Saber who was forced to switch her offense to a defense once more, least it turned to a mutual strike.
After they blade collided she used her superior strength to push herself a few meters away, guard still at the ready. It could have almost looked evenly matched, if not for the fact that Shirou was soaked in sweat from moving at the top of his enhanced speed while Saber's breath wasn't labored in the slightest.
"You are several levels above what I would have expected from you," she eventually said. "Your last move actually forced me to change my offensive. You are a man full of talents."
"How good is that, Saber?" Rin asked from her place next to Caster.
"Good enough that a recruiter wouldn't have thought twice before roping him into the army. You said they call him Archer, but had they called him Saber instead, they would not have been sullying the title. Tell me, Emiya Shirou, does your prowess with the bow match that with the sword?"
"No way," he breathed out, waving a hand in front of his face dismissively.
"What he means to say is that he's currently much better with bow and arrows than he is with blades, though he's closing the gap rapidly," Caster said. "Of course, he would never word it in a way that would constitute as bragging, this idiot."
"What's with the gratuitous insults?" he asked under his breath. "Nevermind her, Saber. Let's get on with it. I have a little less than an hour to land a hit on you."
"Then by all means, try and do so."
For close to an hour, Saber had crossed blades with Caster's Master.
From the start, he exhibited an aptitude that was worthy of praise, but with each passing minute she witnessed his raw technique being rapidly polished into something much more refined. He never had any glaring opening to begin with, but with each blow traded he improved visibly, although he never got to the point where he risked landing a hit on her.
Conversely, she had hit him several times, as the many red lines left by the sword on his clothes proved. Had this been a real battle, he would have died dozen times already, but he progressively made it more difficult for her, even if only just slightly.
Neither Rin nor Caster were probably privy to this as it was apparent to no one other than her and her contender. Strictly speaking, Saber herself had never met someone with such incredible aptitude and had he been born in a different era, there was little doubt he would have made a name for himself.
An outstanding blacksmith, an excellent marksman and by the looks of it a future superlative swordsman. Even if his talent for Magecraft was limited as the other two Magi seemed to believe, he could already be considered an extraordinary existence.
Even her own Master seemed to think so, as she clearly examined him with growing interest.
Circumstances notwithstanding, Saber was glad that Emiya Shirou was not an enemy. He and Caster together would make for a very dangerous combination and while she still considered her odds against them to be in her and Rin's favor, it was simply because Saber's Magic Resistance gave her the upper hand against the Caster Class.
With them as allies instead, Saber couldn't think of a single specific opponent capable of threatening them, except for Gilgamesh, whom Saber confided wouldn't be summoned twice in a row. Especially considering that the descendant of his previous Master had ended up summoning her instead.
And speaking of people summoning the same Servants as their parents, Saber hadn't missed the faded Magic Circle inscribed on the pavement of the tool shed, nor she had mistaken the room for anything other than the place she had briefly seen during her incomplete summoning.
Perhaps he wasn't aware of it, but Emiya Shirou was the person whose voice first reached out to her during the summoning ritual.
That changed nothing between them, of course. Whatever the circumstances, she had spoken her oath to Rin and that was it.
Still, one couldn't help but being curious about the circumstances. From what she had learned of his character and his ideals, she could believe that they were compatible enough for him to summon her naturally, but with the clarity of hindsight the same couldn't be said for Kiritsugu.
So, what had Emiya Shirou inherited from his father that could reach out for her, even on a freak accident? Could a simple ideal, and a latent one in case of Kiritsugu, be enough to reach her twice? Or was she reading too much into it and it was merely her deal with Alaya that consistently put her at the forefront of the Heroes that could be summoned.
There was just no way to know for sure and she didn't dare to ask, simply because she wasn't even supposed to recall being summoned during the previous conflict.
"Five minutes left," Rin announced.
Hearing those words, Shirou stepped back one last time to regain his breath for one last bout.
"Okay," he said after a moment. "I think I got it."
For close to an hour, Shirou had crossed blades with Saber.
Until now, he hadn't seriously considered landing a hit on her. His focus had been in forcing her show more and more for her technique and he let them soak inside him as much as possible.
At last he had the general picture firmly assimilated inside his head he for what he lacked he could make educated guesses. Of course, even if he'd ever manage to assimilate her style completely, the differences between the constitution of Servant and that of a human meant he could never match her using them.
Still, he had the advantage of her not knowing that he had seen through her form.
"Okay," he said after a moment. "I think I got it."
"Oh? Do you still think you can actually win a point against Saber in the time left, Emiya?" Rin asked teasingly. "If so, why don't we make a bet?"
"What kind of bet?" he asked.
"Easy. If you can't hit her, you'll make me a Mystic Code according to my specification."
"Alright. If I win though, I want to train with Saber again."
"Fine by me. Saber?"
"I have no objections. Sparring with an opponent is better that training on my own anyway."
"We've got a deal then," Shirou nodded. "Now, let's finish this."
"Let's," Saber agreed.
With that said, Shirou changed his stance to perfectly mirror Saber's own guard. The Servant frowned, then scowled. Apparently, she had taken his mimicry as a slight insult.
That was fine though. Battles could be fought and won on psychological fronts too.
A little smirk twisted his mouth and it seemed to be enough to provoke Saber into taking the initiative for the first time. Apparently, he had put her in the mood to deal out some punishment.
When she saw Shirou raise his blade one last time into what was obviously her own stance, Saber wondered whether it was on purpose or merely a coincidence.
However, considering his previous words, she quickly discarded the latter option, which admittedly annoyed her more than just a little. Her style was the results of years of restless training and even more years of warfare.
It was not something that could be grasped in under an hour, no matter how talented a swordsman one was. He seemed to understand her thoughts at a glance and he had the gall of smirking in response.
It seemed that regardless of blood relations, those who bore the name of Emiya had a thing for abusing her pride. Well, it seemed that she just had to smack this bad habit out of him quickly.
She came at him fast. Faster than any human had any right to follow, much less react to, enhanced by Magecraft or not.
Her sword came down even faster, but it did not find its mark. He forced her blow to slide against the length of his sword, the same way she would have done had she been facing an opponent who outmatched her as much as she did him.
She pushed forth and continued her offensive, but every time he deflected her.
It was absurd. She was faster than him of several orders of magnitude. By all rights, he should not have been able to react in time to mount a defense, much less one set up to strip the brunt of her raw power.
It was like… he knew which move she would make beforehand.
'Impossible,' she denied silently. There had to be a trick or a gimmick to it. Her skill couldn't be possibly seen through so easily.
She found herself pushing him more and more and he was forced to step back and give her ground. It was only natural considering the difference in raw power. If he held his ground his body would just break. Even if their training sword were bereft of the capacity to do harm, the force she exhibited would still cause his bones to shatter.
There was a reason why he had made a Mystic Code for Rin with the specific purpose of surviving near battle between Servants. However, if she won with brute force it would not be a victory at all. She might as well have been summoned as Berserker. Similarly, winning by tiring him out was the same as admitting that he had surpassed him in skill.
Her pride demanded that she'd prevail fairly. No, to be honest, her pride had little to do with it.
She was having fun. She couldn't recall when was the last time she had crossed her sword with someone and got something akin to enjoyment out of it.
There had always been something on the line, there had always a burden on her shoulders, weighing down her sword.
Not here. Not now.
'I'll show you.'
Her movement became sharper, smoother, more precise than they had ever been. A smile blossomed on her face when at last she spotted the opening she was waiting for.
Her sword swung infallibly… and found only empty air waiting for it.
Only when she overextended her blow she realized what had happened. For the last several exchanges he had led her into a dance against herself. She knew those movements so well that she too had started predicting them, caging herself into a rhythm of her own making.
Then, the opening that she thought was flaw in her own style that she could exploit turned out to be a cleverly laid trap for her to fall into.
The reflection she had been chasing vanished into thin air and in its place, there was a sword coming rapidly at her face.
Instinct took over.
There was a blinding burst of Mana and Shirou was flung away from Saber at breakneck speed, crashing violently into the wall of the dojo. If his body hadn't been reinforced and the wall hadn't been made of wood he would have been turned into a red stain.
Two voices called out at the same time.
From his resting place in the wall, Shirou coughed out a mouthful of blood. A moment later he felt the soothing effect of a healing spell wash over him and the faint hum of protective spells forming around him.
"Fine… I'm fine, Caster."
"You are not fine! What's gotten into you, Saber? Are you trying to kill him for real?"
Saber, now wearing her full combat regalia looked just as shocked as the rest of them.
"I… I…," the Servant stuttered, then bowed immediately. "I apologize!"
"What happened?" Rin asked standing between her Servants and them as if to shield them from her.
"I became too focused and when he slipped past my guard I reacted on instinct. I'm sorry, I swear it was unintentional. Please, consider this duel to be my loss."
"It would have been your loss all the same, Saber."
Rin held up a small compact mirror and opened it to show Saber the reflection of her face.
On her left cheek there was single, thin red line.
Saber let out a long sigh and then dispelled her armor, reverting to her casual clothes. She moved past Rin and quickly approached the place where Shirou was getting back on his feet.
Caster seemed to bristle, like a cat ready to pounce, but Saber stopped right before the first layer of shield spells giving one last deep bow.
"Congratulation on your victory. Please, accept my most heartfelt apologies for my unseemly behavior."
"It's okay," he laughed weakly, "it was an honest accident. No hard feelings."
Seeing that the situation was defused, Caster let down the protective layers. With nothing to impede her advance, Saber took another step forward and held out her hand.
Shirou took it and shook it firmly.
"I look forward to cross blades with you again in the future," he said amicably.
"So do I," Saber replied smoothly, a faint smile pulling at the corners of her mouth. "It's been a long time since I last suffered a loss in a fair fight."
"What kind of monster are you, Emiya?" Rin asked, breaking up the mood.
"That's uncalled for, Rin," Saber chided.
"Yeah. No. There's a limit to what humans can achieve in a short time frame. I am no swordsman, but even I could tell that he copied your style perfectly. It was almost like watching you fight against your own reflection. Was it some sort of spell?"
"Excuse me?" Caster bristled again. "Shirou won fair and square."
"Sword and Sword," Shirou cut in. "Those are my Origin and Element."
"Shirou!" Caster hissed in protest to him divulging such important knowledge.
"Well," Rin said after a long moment. "Well. Huh."
Saber conversely did not say anything. Her own learnings in Magecraft were sufficient for her to understand the extent of such a combination. One could make elaborate explanations but it all boiled down to one thing. Emiya Shirou possessed an innate talent with swords that was probably unmatched in all of history.
That alone would never make him the strongest swordsman to have ever lived. Other people with different and more extraordinary backgrounds would keep that title from him.
However, Shirou would probably be the only one able to master dozens of different styles in an extremely small time. Additionally, it had become apparent that the same talent could be employed to create blades as well.
"It changes nothing," Saber declared. "Everyone is born with their own strengths and weaknesses. I should take offense in having my hard-earned style stolen from me so easily, but it wouldn't have been possible if you hadn't diligently trained yourself to make good use of your gifts. I lost to your perseverance."
"Thanks," Shirou dipped his head. "Because I met you, I managed to get a little stronger. I will use what I learned from you to help even more people."
"Please do so. I have no reservations in entrusting you with it. Besides..."
"I intend to make you exact the price for it every time there's a chance from now on," she said so with a gentle smile.
It was a thing of beauty, really.
Then why? Why did he feel like he was about to be eaten by a ravenous lion?
He would find out in due time.
AN: There we go! Another chapter up and running. It's almost twice the length I decided my chapters should be. Should I consider it a double update and skip next month?
Nah. I wouldn't do that to you guys.
That said, a big thank you to everyone who has left a review and a huge one to all those who chose to support me by making a pledge on my P atreon. If you enjoyed my stories, consider making a pledge over at - p atreon [dotCOM] / neoalfa - . I'd appreciate it a lot.
As usual a huge thank you also goes to my beta, Obiki Doragon, whose help I couldn't do without (don't let it get to your head, dude).
Well, I'm off to write even more stuff.
See ya folks.