Gathering (VI)

Once upon a time, there was a prison, and in that prison there was a single inmate.

The number of crimes and sins that had seen him locked in that place, stripped of all human rights, were too many for anyone to count, even by the prisoner himself. Sealed away, without any hope of escape, he could only look a the endless blue sky outside and the splending world sprawling underneath it through a small opening.

It was a beautiful sight and the only merciful company he had.

What had he done to deserve this?

Caren awoke to the darkness of an unfamiliar room and to the sound of soft rain outside. She had fallen asleep on a makeshift bed of mouldy cardboards, inside of an abandoned-looking warehouse in the middle of nowhere.

She should have been cold, shivering, but instead she felt rather warm. A black coat had been cast over her sleeping form. Its owner, her Servant, was sitting not too far away from her, looking through the broken window for their pursuers.

There was very little light coming from outside, which made even more difficult to discern any memorable feature of the Heroic Spirit. She had an impression of strong arms and broad shoulders, and that was already hard enough to put together.

Even now that she was looking straight at him, it was like trying to figure out the shape of a cloud of smoke as it drifted away.

"Have you rested well enough, Master?" he asked without looking at her.

"It will have to do," she replied, throwing her legs off her bedding. "Where are we anyway?"

"A few hours travel from the border between Georgia and Kazakhstan."

"Were we followed?" she asked.

"I haven't seen any trace of pursuers ever since we left Russia." he told her. "I think we've gotten them off our tail, and I don't think they'll be able to pick it up again as long as we stay off the beaten path."

"At this rate, it will take weeks to reach Japan." she sighed.

"I could get you there faster, but I'll have to carve a bloody path for you, Master. It's your call." he said casually as if discussing the weather.

"You don't care either way, do you?"

"People will die either way. You won't know how many could have been saved, should you have chosen the other path, until the last body has hit the ground. Perhaps even not then."

"Are you trying to convince me not worry about them?"

"I wouldn't dream of it. You are the foolish sort who tries to save everyone, but my energy is rather limited. I'd rather not waste it in pointless endeavors, such as trying to change your mind."

Caren huffed, but did not challenge his opinion of her. She wasn't trying to save everyone, but rather bring salvation to all. The problem was that he would not see any difference in that. To him they were both futile.

He was the incarnation of damnation after all.

The Lord, it seemed, had a peculiar sense of humor sending her a devil to do His bidding. Or perhaps this was a trial for her, to test her faith. It didn't matter. Everything was the Lord's will. If He wanted her to bring the devil to heel, she'd bring the devil to heel.

However, this devil did not challenge or mock her. He was polite and reasonable. In fact, except his rampant nihilism, he was perfectly pleasant to be around. Then again, he wouldn't be much of a tempting devil if he wasn't attractive.

And he was attractive to Caren. Not physically, but emotionally. He was shrouded with such thick malice that even an ordinary human would be able feel it. However, Caren sympathetic ability picked out something else from that black ocean.

A deep, gut-wrenching sadness that would have Caren hug his head into her bosom trying to soothe him.

Of course, she wouldn't do such a thing. Giving in to the devil's temptation was the apex of foolishness. Also, strangely enough, she was quite sure he'd protest against it.

He was such a mysterious devil...

"We should probably get going then." Caren said, after the silence had stretched uncomfortably.

The Servant nodded and disappeared into spirit form, but even so Caren could still feel him through the link they shared. That connection was the only thing that preserved her from the curse that befell everybody else back at the Burial Agency and put her into this situation.

She looked outside, to the line of trees that concealed this place from view. Dawn was just a couple of hours away, and with it the relic she had been given would restore its mana. Until then, she really hoped she wouldn't need the help of her Servant or else she would be in dire straits.

Being a Master without being a Magus was certainly quite bothersome, but there was nothing she could do about it until they arrived in Japan. They simply had to bear with it and pray that the Lord would protect them.

"Taah!" Satsuki shouted, as she charged Shirou with a roundhouse kick to the head. Rather than ducking, Shirou grabbed her ankle and twisted, forcing Satsuki off the ground and spinning her along her own axis.

Far from being perturbed by this, Satsuki dropped her other foot at Shirou's head once her position allowed her to. Shirou had to let go of her, lest she'd smashed him on the ground.

Satsuki landed on her feet and followed through with a series of quick jabs that Shirou deflected with his forearms, opening her guard and going for the kill with an elbow strike to the chest.

However, Satsuki was familiar enough with his fighting style and was waiting exactly for that moment. She crouched and went for a leg sweep that got Shirou while still extended with his elbow. The position inevitably meant that he would topple forward, if not for the palm strike that Satsuki delivered to his diaphragm.

All air left his lungs as he flew backward, hitting the ground hard. His training allowed him to recover almost immediately, but almost was not enough.

Satsuki's pinned him down with her weight, straddling his waist with her legs and pushing his shoulders down with the vampiric strength of her slender arms.

That was a clean point for her, however, it didn't look like she had any intention of getting off him. In fact, she was keeping him down and baring her fangs at him

"Sa...tsuki?" he asked tentatively between gasps of breath.

"Why?" she asked. "Why did you save me? You knew from the start what being immortal means. It won't ever end well."

"What… what brought this up?" he asked, but he quickly came to a conclusion on his own. "Ah, of course. Rider."

"Answer me!" Satsuki demanded, pushing him harder. "The outcome was already decided. Why did you protect me?"

"Because you were worth protecting, Satsuki." he replied without missing a beat. "Whatever happens in the future, that's then. Yes, I knew that one day you could lose yourself and become a monster, but even if that outcome were one-hundred percent guaranteed, that still doesn't change the you are worth saving."


"Degradation of the soul just means that you'll leave behind pieces of who you are today and become someone else, but who you'll become depends on the choices you'll make in the process. However, I think that among all the people who became Dead Apostles for one reason or another, you are the less likely to become someone bad."

"How can you be so sure of that?"

"Because you don't want to. If other vampires have managed to coexist with humanity for centuries, then so can you. I won't say it'll be easy. I'm pretty sure it won't and I have no clue what kind ordeals the passing of the centuries will put you through, but there's only one person who decides who you'll be after them, and that's you."

"It… it can't be that simple."

"It won't be easy, I'll give you that, but yeah, I think it's pretty simple." he said softly.

Satsuki pulled back, removing her weight from him and sitting on the floor with her knees pulled against her chest.

"I'm scared." she admitted.

What was he supposed to say to that? There was plenty of reasons for her to be scared. In fact, he thought it was a good thing. The more she feared becoming a monster, the less likely she'd become one.

Of course, he couldn't tell her that and thus he had no words of comfort to give. Instead he just sat there with her, squeezing her shoulder a little in reassurance. It was all that he could do for her at this point.

However, he was feeling a little guilty. He had lied to her, after all.

A lie of omission, if anything, but a lie all the same. While he firmly believed every single word he had said, that wasn't the first reason why he had saved her, but telling her that wouldn't help anyone either, so that too he kept for himself.

Above them, on the other side of roof of the dojo, Rider laid silently listening to their conversation

Both Master and Servants were aware of each other, and so was Satsuki. Whatever the Servant would make of his words, Shirou didn't know. It was entirely up to her.

The rest of the night was spent mostly quietly. Satsuki returned to her room and didn't come out the next morning. Shirou knew better than to insist she'd come to school, so after a hearty breakfast he left on his own, with Rider following suit in astral form.

When they arrived at the school, however, Shirou was treated to a pleasant surprise. Shinji was standing just outside the gate, wearing his school uniform and tapping his foot impatiently.

"What?" he asked when he saw Shirou staring at him.

"Nothing. Waiting for Sakura, I presume?"

"Of course," he grunted, "she better not have forgotten my bag, or she'll get an earful."

"You told her you'd be coming back to school, right?" he asked cautiously.

Shinji just glared at him, but he didn't get to say a word that his attention was drawn to a point behind Shirou's back.

"There you are, Sakura! Were you thinking of making me wait much longer?"

"Go... good morning, oniisan." Sakura said with a thin smile on her face. "Sorry for making you wait."

"Yeah, whatever. Make sure to be on time, tomorrow."

Shirou would have asked, but he pretty much figured the situation from this exchange. Shinji had decided to return to school, but not at home. As for the actual reasons why his wayward friend had decided to listen to his counsel, he wouldn't hazard guessing.

Still, while he was happy to see the two sibling reunited, he would keep an eye out for Zouken. Just in case the old magus had some surprise in store for him through them. Any magus other than Shirou would have tried to do exactly that, since he was close to them, but that possibility didn't even cross his mind.

As long as Zouken kept himself out of the War, Shirou was more than willing to let him be. Actually, the most sensible thing would be hunting down the old codger and make sure he couldn't interfere, but according to Medea he was downright impossible to track.

His presence was literally all over the map.

Being able to throw a mage from the Age of Gods for a loop said a lot about how crafty Zouken actually was.

It was hardly surprising. Matou Zouken had been around even before the previous war, maybe as far back as the third installment. He certainly had more than enough time to stockpile on life-saving cards, and knew the lay of the land better than even Shirou.

Going after him would be a waste of time and resources, neither of which they could afford to waste. So, Shirou put Matou Zouken out of his mind for the time being and went about his business as usual.

It wasn't that Shinji didn't return home because he feared his loathsome grandfather. In the first place, if Zouken wanted him dead, he'd be dead no matter how far he ran.

Shinji lived because Zouken thought him unworthy of even the small effort it would take to end him. Zouken thought him so useless that Shinji wouldn't be a threat even through backfiring incompetence.

That was why Shinji had not returned home, because he didn't want to face his own lack of worth.

But Sakura had sought him out through Emiya. She, whom he treated at best with nothing but utmost contempt, and downright abuse at worst, had wanted him back.

It didn't make any sense to him.

It had him questioning what he truly knew about her, and by extension of himself. Of course, he didn't really think things through so deeply, it was just that in the past few days he couldn't get his meeting with Emiya out of his head.

So he returned to school, hoping to find confirmation of long held beliefs, however dark, and that the nagging feeling of having overlooked something crucial his entire life would finally leave him.

He would have no such luck.

Slowly but inexorably, time advanced in a cycle of nearly identical days, until the routine was abruptly brought to an end by Caster herself.

"The sixth Servant has been summoned," she said once they had gathered at the dinner table,

"Are you absolutely certain?" Shirou asked. "Where you able to track them?"

"I immediately sent my familiars to scout the area, but I only found the remnants of the ritual. The summoner was smart enough to leave right away. It doesn't take a Caster-class Servant to feel the surge of Mana of that magnitude."

"So there's not chance of finding them, is there?"

"I can try, but without a catalyst of some sort I won't be able to unless I attempt when the Servant is manifested physically. Anyway, with six Servants now summoned, it's just a matter of time before conflicts breaks out. It will be much easier to find them, then."

"We'll have to act fast when that happens," Shirou replied. "We can't have any Servant dying on us."

"At least we have three Servants in our camp. There's a good chance our alliance will be targeted first, and we can come to each other's aid relatively quickly."

"Let's hope they'll listen to what we have to say and believe us."

"Not without a fight, they won't. Only when you have them at your mercy, removing all need for deception would anyone be willing to trust an enemy. Worst case scenario, the failsafe is ready. The Grail won't be able to manifest as long as my seals are in place."

"That's great but let's hope it doesn't get to that. It's just a stop gag measure in the end."

"True, but at least we have that safety net. All that we've got to do now is keep vigilant."

"So...," said Satsuki once the others had finished talking, "I guess that's my cue to leave, isn't it?"

"Yes. I'm sorry, but it's for the best." Shirou sighed. "You don't want to be here with this thing going down. A normal human doesn't need to fear being specifically targeted, but you have the mana to support a Servant, and that makes you a possible threat."

"No, no," Satsuki replied, waving her hands in front of her. "You don't need to explain it again. I knew this day was coming and I've had more than enough time to prepare. Besides... I really miss my family. I'm glad that I can finally see them again."

"I'll help you pack your things after dinner," Caster offered, showing unusual sympathy. "That way you'll be able to leave early tomorrow morning."

Satsuki nodded in gratitude. She was genuinely smiling. Although going back to Misaki meant leaving behind Shirou's protection, she now knew how to survive in the Moonlit World. She was still afraid, but not so much that it detracted her from the eagerness of going back to the life she had been forced to abandon.

Of course, everyone knew that such an arrangement was also temporary, simply because she no longer truly belonged with them. Of course no one dared bringing it up. If there was one thing that everyone around that table had learned, it was that good things had to be appreciated immediately, because they would not last forever.

That evening, Satsuki offered to do the dishes for the last time and no one tried to tell her otherwise. Rin and Saber were informed about the latest summoning over the phone and they agreed to meet the next morning to see Satsuki off.

Rider did not go out that night. At that point going out for fun was a luxury they could no longer afford. Strangely enough, the Servant didn't look upset over it as Shirou thought she would. Rider seemed to be thinking about other things entirely.

Then again, despite acting as his invisible bodyguard, they had barely exchanged more than a few words ever since she eavesdropped on his conversation with Satsuki. Shirou didn't know what to make of it and it wasn't like he could ask.

She was fairly hard to approach as a person, unless she wanted to be approached.

Thus, everyone spent the night indoors under the protection of Caster's legendary Boundary Fields.

It was about time to turn in for the night when Shirou heard a knock on the door of his room. The outline of the shadow on the rice paper door revealed who the visitor was without needing to ask.

"Come on in, Rider," he said.

The door slid open and the Servant of the Mount walked in, wearing her full battle outfit, blindfold included. He almost never saw her like that after he became her Master. She looked ready for battle at any moment.

"Can I help you with anything?"

"Master… are you sure about letting the vampire leave?" she asked. "There is no guarantee that you'll be able to track her again once she's gone. If you'd rather not do the deed yourself, you only have to ask."

Shirou blinked, frowned, scowled and then relaxed, sighing amusedly as he smiled at the woman.

"You really are a good person, aren't you, Rider?"

Even though her facial expression did not change, Shirou could feel the confusion radiating from the Servant in front of him. Rider's emotional cues were usually pretty lowkey, which suited her, but somehow made her look cute and a bit lost.

"I have offered to kill someone on your behalf, therefore I am a good person," she said with a hint of mocking. "How did you come to such a wild conclusion, Master?"

"You think that Satsuki will end up like you." he said, matter of factly.

"Yes," she admitted, somewhat reluctantly. "I still fail to see your point."

"You've gotten so used to think of yourself as a monster, Rider, that you don't even realize what you're doing anymore." he sighed.

"Enlighten me, then." she said, still soft spoken but this time with an undertone of challenge as well.

"You are worried about her." he explained. "You are worried that she'll end up destroying something precious, and you are worrying about the people she might hurt. None of those should be of any relevance to you, yet here you are, wondering if we should do something to prevent all that suffering. Moreover, even though you are that compassionate, you offered to be the one who dirties her hands to perform a necessary evil. You are willing to kill your own heart to spare someone else."

"That's not... I have not... You are mistaken," she settled to say.

"Then, please give me your version of the events," he said.

"I... I don't..." Rider tried to say, falling silent after a moment in which words failed her. The silence stretched awkwardly while the normally aloof Servant appeared to be extremely uncomfortable.

"See? You are a good person. You and Satsuki aren't that different after all. She'll do just fine, and so will you. I'm sure."

"Do not speak as if you understood a thing about me." she hissed with her fist clenched, hair whipping about as if caught in an nonexistent wind. "I am the Gorgon, Medusa. Killer of men and devourer of heroes."

"Yes," Shirou agreed. Although surprised by her sudden enmity, he did not back away. "You certainly are all that and more, but that doesn't make what I said about any less true. One day, Satsuki could lose all reason and do great harm to many, just like you did However... a monster is not just someone who hurts someone else, but something who finds joy in doing so. You wouldn't be so hurt if you truly were a monster, Medusa."

Rider's shoulders who had tensed during their conversation relaxed, and her twisting hair fell limp.

A moment later, Shirou found himself lifted from the ground and slammed against a wall, held up by the slender yet powerful hand around his throat.

"I could snap your neck with just a flick of my wrist before you could get a word out of your mouth," she said with a deceptively calm and seductive voice that almost made one want she did exactly that. "I could rip your throat out before Caster could do anything to save you."

"You... won't." Shirou choked out.

"Do you think I care if I disappear? Do you think I care if Caster kill me? Do you think I care one bit about the Grail?"

"Not... that. You won't... kill me... because you are... a good person."

The grip around Shirou's neck tightened further, making it impossible for him to breathe. Yet, his expression betrayed no hint of fear or panic. Rider squeezed a bit more, but when even that failed to elicit any reaction she just dropped him.

"Your foolishness will be your undoing one day." Rider said, turning around and leaving the room without looking back.

Shirou coughed and recovered his breath, sparing just a glance for the space that Rider had just vacated.

'People really oughta be more honest about their feelings.' he thought as he massaged his neck. Next he would have to talk Medea out of killing Medusa. There was no way he could hide the bruises around his neck.

He wasn't looking forward to having that conversation.

Rider stomped back to her room and closed herself in with an annoyed huff.

In truth, she had not stopped to consider her own motives. Previously, she had manipulated the vampire exclusively to figure out her Master's personality, nothing more.

At no point she had stopped to ask herself about the repercussions of letting Satsuki leave, not until the topic of her actual departure came up at dinner.

She had simply felt that it was not a good thing, and acted accordingly following her instincts. The act of killing had become so casual to her that she didn't really think much of doing it, despite what her Master said about it.

However, a lack of reasons was not itself a motive to do anything.

What had compelled her to make such an offer? She stood to gain nothing and she should have cared even less. Monsters did not care about a thing and certainly not about the fate of people.

Except, apparently, she did.

Could it also be then, that despite everything she had done, despite the people - sisters - she had harmed, that she was not actually a monster? She couldn't be convinced of such a thing so easily.

As usual the most difficult person to forgive was none other than oneself.

Rider did not understand herself anymore, and she understood her own emotions even less.

What was that strange warmth that burned gently within the dull resignation that her heart had been for time immemorial.

What was it?

The night passed without any murder being committed within the Emiya household, although it took plenty of work on Shirou's part to keep Medea from delivering retribution of any sort on Rider.

He wasn't actually sure she wouldn't still try something later, but he managed to make her promise that she wouldn't do anything irreversible.

It was so that they found themselves sitting all together at the living room table for breakfast one last time. Even Tohsaka and Saber had joined, since they were coming to to see her off anyway.

"So… you're going back to Misaki after this?" the Second Owner asked.

"Yes, my family lives there and so does that person from the Church that's going to be my handler."

"I see. Well, you're pretty lucky, all things considered. Another person in your position wouldn't have survived more than a few days at best. Not only that, but you can go back to your ordinary life, most of the time. That's something."

"I know. I never thought I'd be so glad to see my home again. All this gave me a new appreciation for the boring life I used to have."

"Indeed," Saber concurred. "Peaceful days are to be cherished. Do make sure you enjoy your time without conflict as much as you can."

"I will!" Satsuki agreed cheerfully

The well wishing of everyone around her pushed the mood toward the better side of bittersweet.

After breakfast, a nondescript car arrived in front of the house to take Satsuki to Misaki.

All of her belongings fit nicely in a single small suitcase, so even though she was leaving for good, it almost looked like she was just stepping out briefly.

The entire group saw her out all the way to the car.

"I wish you well, Satsuki," Caster said, brushing away a strand of hair from her face. "You have been a decent enough student. Don't forget anything I taught you, alright?"

"I won't! Thank you, Caster-san," Satsuki replied, bowing in gratitude. "You too, Tohsaka-san. Thank you for letting me stay here until now."

"Hm. Don't mention it. I mean that literally. Don't ever bring it up with anyone," the magus said with a stern face. She never tried to bond with the vampire, but she couldn't say she hated her either. Still, it wouldn't look good on her resume that she had knowingly allowed a Dead Apostle to reside on her territory.

"Alright, Satsuki," Shirou started saying, "don't forget what we talked about, okay? Only you get to decide who you are. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes, so don't be too hard on yourself when that happens."

"I know. I'll try my best."

"Good. And remember there's always a place for you here. If you ever need help, you know where to find me."

"I should probably tell you that I should deal with my problems myself, but that would only make you offer to help even harder," Satsuki sighed.

"I'm glad we've got that squared out." Shirou laughed. "But seriously… one should look for help when in need of it. It's that simple. Otherwise, you might end up regretting it."

"Yeah… regrets are not good," Satsuki agreed. "I don't want to have any more them. So… I'm sorry, Caster-san."

"Huh?" Caster frowned. "What are you apologizing aboooOOOH-?"

She hadn't yet finished that question, that Satsuki grabbed ahold of Shirou's face with both hands and squarely planted her lips on his.

The teenage redhead went stiff as a board from the shock, arms straight against his sides, eyes bulging out of their sockets and the hair on the back of his head standing up for a number of overlapping reasons.

There were at least two other people showing similar symptoms of shock, which froze them into position and unable to react in any way.

The kiss, if one could call such a forceful smashing of lips together that way, lasted barely more than a couple of seconds, before Satsuki broke it off.

"There! I wanted to do that for a while now. No regrets, right?"

"Ri...ght?" Shirou parroted, before toppling backward and crashing loudly on the ground.

Satsuki laughed and jumped into the car before anyone had a chance to recover.

"Floor it, if you want to live!" she said to the driver.

Being a member of the Church, the driver had enough experience in the Moonlit World to trust his instincts and do just that without asking why, and they were telling him to get the hell out of dodge right that instant.

"Bye, everyone! Thank you for everything!" Satsuki shouted from the lowered car window, waving her hand. "I'll see you again one day."

"Why, you thieving little…. hrrr!" Medea growled once she recovered her wits. She took a deep breath and allowed herself to calm down. "I'll let you get away with it, this time!" She shouted after her.

The car disappear behind a corner of the street. The last thing they saw of Yumizuka Satsuki was a bright smile with just the slightest shadow of melancholy upon it.

It was a good last image of her to have.

After the car had disappeared, Caster turned to Shirou, who was laying on the ground with eyes wide open, seemingly catatonic. She let out another sigh, this time a lot more amused.

"Whatever shall I do with you Master?" she asked rhetorically. "Saber, would you mind helping carrying him inside? I don't think he'll recover any time soon."

"Of course," the Servant of the Sword replied, picking up Shirou by his shirt and lifting him up with one hand as if he weighed nothing.

"I knew she wasn't one to be trusted," muttered Tohsaka after the departing vampire.

One by one, they all went back inside the house, until only Rider was left standing outside. Her unblinking eyes started in the direction the Dead Apostle had left.

Her square pupils could not see a future for the neonate monster. Tragedy would always await them until death found them.

It was their destiny. Their inevitable fate.

And Emiya Shirou was a fool if he thought that anything he said or did could change that.

The greatest fool of all.


AN: And with this, Satsuki is gone. At least for the foresseable future, she won't be a part of this story anymore. She might make a comeback later, but her current role is complete. I know that many would have wanted her to become a permanent part of the roster, but if 100% of the female cast up orbiting around Shirou it would become extremely boring. People come, people go. I think this is how it should be.

I hope you enjoyed her and the way I portraied her, but yeah, she's gone.

Now, don't just go anywhere. I have another chapter lined up for you this month. It's a double whammy!