By: James D. Fawkes
Chapter VII: The Dream Fades Before Dawn — Part One
— o.0.O.O.0.o —
Her body was tired and ached, and her heart was heavy with the pain of the terrible sin she had just committed, but still she continued on. She forced herself through the town hall, carried on only by the promise she had given, the oath she had taken, and the wish that beat within her chest.
She finally made it to the center of the hall, the place where the Holy Grail would form and grant her wish, the place where Irisviel had been transformed.
"You're late, Saber."
Standing before the stage, before the golden cup of the Grail, was that figure in armor made of gold.
"How could you keep me waiting while you played with that rabid mutt of yours?"
"What an expression," Archer chuckled, "like a starving dog."
There was no trace of any injury, no mark that his last battle had been decided by anything more than a single blow. It was as though Archer had defeated his foe without any effort, as though he had not wasted even one drop of energy to defeat a foe that could be considered amongst the greatest of heroes.
Archer, despite having come from a fight mere moments ago, was in perfect condition. Saber, wounded and exhausted, was not.
She didn't care.
"You…Get out of the way!" she growled. "The Grail…is mine!"
She made to attack, lifted her sword and prepared to charge, but she made it no further than a single step before a sword flew through the air and slammed into her leg. She stumbled to her knees and gritted her teeth to keep from groaning.
Floating in the air behind Archer were dozens of Noble Phantasms, each more majestic than the last.
"Saber…" An expression akin to joy and satisfaction smiled across his face. "Even crawling on the ground and delusional, you're still beautiful."
The utter calm in his voice, as though he were not standing before an enemy who could attack at any moment, unnerved her.
"An omnipotent Grail that grants wishes? Why fixate on such a thing when a woman like you is already a rare miracle?" He spread out his arms. "Lay down your sword and become my wife!"
Her heart thudded to a stop — not out of nervousness or of joy, but out of surprise and disbelief at the ridiculousness spouting from his mouth.
"Abandon your foolish ideals and vows!" he went on grandiosely. "From now on, seek only me, and be mine alone. As I, King of all the world, have admitted your worth, I shall give you all the pleasure there is to feel in this world."
The surprise gave way to anger and outrage, and it boiled up inside of her like a poison.
"You're going to steal the Grail away from me…for such nonsense?!"
A second Noble Phantasm shot through the air and she just barely deflected it, but the force behind the blow sent her flying backwards.
Archer's expression had soured. "I was not asking your opinion," he said. "I was informing you of my decision! So, let's hear your response!"
"I refuse!" she howled furiously. "I would never —"
Another Noble Phantasm struck her in her already injured leg and a sort of amusement crossed Archer face. "You're too embarrassed to accept? It's fine. I'll forgive you no matter how many times you get it wrong. Only after you experience suffering can you feel the joy I'm able to give you."
More Noble Phantasms appeared in the air behind him, and for a moment, Saber considered the possibility that the only way for her to win would be to use Excalibur while he wasn't expecting it, but she realized immediately that using Excalibur would also destroy the Grail.
That was when she saw her Master, the man who had actually made a contract with her, standing in the balcony above the Grail. She saw him, silhouetted like a ghost, a phantom specter, as he lifted his right hand to show the Command Seals that marked it.
The signs of his Mastership glowed.
She pulled free the sword that had been embedded in her leg and stood. She could win. She could do it. Such was the power of the Command Seal that even in such a disadvantageous position, she could win if the right order was given.
"Ho?" Archer crowed. "Then you've finally made your decision?"
By the power of this Command Seal, his voice echoed in her head, Emiya Kiritsugu commands you…
She could win. She could take the Grail. She didn't care what order he gave, she would follow it if it meant victory.
Use your Noble Phantasm and destroy the Holy Grail.
The surprise halted her for a moment, so much so that she could not stop Invisible Air from releasing and revealing the golden form of her sword.
She resisted as best as she possibly could, as her class afforded her enough Magic Resistance to fight the order, but still, her hands rose shakily against her will.
"Why, Kiritsugu?! You, of all people…!"
Archer seemed at last to notice Kiritsugu's presence, and with a snarl, the golden hero turned, his Noble Phantasms with him, to glare at Saber's Master.
"Curse you!" he growled. "Are you trying to interfere with my wedding ceremony, you mongrel?"
"By the power of my third Command Seal," Kiritsugu said stonily, "I order you, Saber."
But it was no use. Kiritsugu was unfazed by her desperate plea.
"Destroy the Grail."
The world vanished in gold.
Shirou jerked up and slammed his back against the chair he was bound to. His eyes snapped open, but the world around him was bleary and unfocused, and he took in a sharp breath as though he had never breathed before.
— StEeL Is mY BOdY aNd FIre iS My BlOOd —
The world cleared. The haze that had obscured his vision was driven away like shadows before the light of the sun.
No, he realized after a moment, he wasn't in that town hall. He'd had another dream of the Fourth War, when Saber had been summoned by his father. So then, if he wasn't in that town hall…where was he?
The place around him was ornate and extravagant, and it looked more like a castle that you heard about in fairy tales than a mansion like Rin's or Shinji's. The plush carpet, the finely-engraved walls, the polished furniture, the high-canopied bed with golden silk sheets — it was all too good to be something as simple as a mansion, and too high quality to belong to anyone but the best of the best.
Yes, the memories were coming back. He'd been here before. This was the Einzbern Castle, and he'd been kidnapped by Ilya.
She was early, his mind protested. Sure, he would've met her around the same time either way, but she wasn't supposed to try kidnapping him for another four days or so, right? That was part of the reason why she'd caught him off guard enough to actually do it, he was sure. That park hadn't been important yet, so he hadn't remembered that she was going to kidnap him from it until it was too late. He should've had another four days before Ilya actually tried to kidnap him.
What could possibly have changed? What could possibly have happened that Ilya would kidnap him four days early? Fighting Rider and Shinji early shouldn't have made a difference, nor the fact that they hadn't confronted Assassin up at the Temple. There was nothing he'd done over the past few days that should have made Ilya kidnap him early.
Now that he thought about it, he had done something different. The first time, during that first night when she had confronted him and Rin and Saber, he'd thrown himself in front of a blow meant for Saber and he'd been seriously injured by it. This time, he'd used Caliburn, a Noble Phantasm-level weapon, against Heracles during that first night, and he'd taken three of Heracles' lives.
Could it really be that simple? Could something like that really have given Ilya enough reason to kidnap him so much sooner?
It seemed ridiculous.
And yet…what other explanation was there?
Either way, should he really be worried about that right now?
"Get your head in the game, Shirou," he told himself. "You need to get out of here!"
He pulled against the ropes that bound his arms, but they refused to give. He couldn't say exactly what they were made of — they looked like normal ropes — but they were definitely stronger than normal ropes should be.
The doorknob turned and panic shot through Shirou. Immediately, he let his arms go slack, and barely a moment after his muscles had relaxed, Ilya walked through the door.
"Oh!" she said as her eyes landed on him. "You're finally awake! How are you feeling?"
If he hadn't already been on the receiving end of Ilya's conflicting personas, the change from the cold girl who had kidnapped him would have been unnerving.
She blinked and tilted her head curiously.
"That's odd," she mused. "You don't seem very energetic, Onii-chan. Aren't you able to move yet? You should at least be capable of talking."
"I'm fine," he said sourly. "But if you were expecting me to be excited about being captured, you're way off the mark."
"Don't be like that," she said. "I did you a favor, you know. Prisoners are supposed to be kept in the dungeon, but I decided to make an exception for you."
"The fact that it's gilded doesn't make a cage any less a cage," he shot back.
Ilya leaned forward, rested her hands on his thighs, and pressed her face uncomfortably close to his. "I'll kill all the other Masters, but not you. You're special. You're mine, Onii-chan. Where I keep you is really up to me, and you don't get a say in it at all. This castle is several hours outside the city protected by a powerful Bounded Field. No one is coming to your rescue, so there won't be anyone to interfere. There's no Saber here to fight for you and no Rin to get in the way."
He hated the fact that she could be right. He hated the little worm of doubt that had slithered into his thoughts and told him that things were far different, that Rin could very well decide to leave him to die. Most of all, he hated the fact that Saber would come for him anyway, and that she'd be killed when she did.
And it would be all his fault.
"You should just give in," she went on. "Just give up and serve me, Shirou, and I'll protect you forever. If you give up and become my servant, you can stay here forever and you won't have to worry about anything ever again."
"Don't be ridiculous," he said immediately. "No matter what you say, I can't give up just because you say so. I didn't come all this far just to…!"
He hadn't gone through all of that pain and suffering, all the planning and plotting and steeling his heart just to surrender in this place at this time. If he gave up, then Kotomine would win and Saber would be killed. If he gave up, then this girl in front of him would die, too. If he gave up, then the world itself could be destroyed by the taint of the Grail made flesh.
Giving up wasn't even an option.
If he gave up, what kind of hero would he be?
Ilya smiled cruelly. "Even if you don't want to admit it, you've already lost. Saber will disappear soon, and even if she doesn't, she'll easily be killed in the condition she's in. So I'll ask you one last time, Shirou: Be mine."
Shirou looked her in the eyes. He looked her square in the eyes fearlessly, even though he knew what those eyes could do.
"No," he told her firmly.
"So you're going to betray me, too."
She backed away immediately. The sweetness and innocence that had rolled off of her in waves disappeared and was replaced with a cool apathy.
"Fine," she said indifferently. "I've let you guys off until now, but not anymore." Her voice filled with murderous intent. "Wait here. It shouldn't take me too long."
She was going after Saber and Rin.
"This is between you and me!" he tried. "It doesn't have anything to do with anyone else!"
"Exactly," she said brightly. "That's why I'm going to kill Rin and Saber. Without them in the way, you'll have no reason to refuse me. And if you still do, then I'll just kill you, too."
She smiled cruelly again. "I don't have any use for a toy that doesn't want to play."
With a childish giggle ill-befitting the gravity of her threat, Ilya turned around and left. The door clicked shut behind her.
He needed to get out of there. He couldn't count on Rin and Archer, not for this, not with so much having gone differently. If he wanted to escape, it would have to be on his own power with his own strength.
But the ropes were bound snugly — not too tight, but nowhere near loose enough for him to twist free. The only way to get out would be to either hurt himself wiggling free, which could take hours, or snapping the ropes entirely, and for the second, he'd need to be stronger than he was now.
That meant reinforcing his muscles.
"All right, then," he muttered to himself. The switch inside of him flicked on and Prana flooded through his Magic Circuits. "Trace…On."
From there, it took little effort to give himself the required strength. When he pulled against the ropes again, they snapped like so much twine. He may as well have been bound in dental floss. There was a crunch, and he realized with a sort of surprised numbness that he had also snapped the wooden beams that supported the back of the chair.
Guess he didn't know his own strength.
Without anything to hold him down, he stood and rubbed at the marks on his wrists the ropes had made.
"It's a good thing she didn't use something stronger, like steel wire," Shirou mused. "Otherwise, I'd never have gotten free."
Or worse, he would have cut his own hands off trying to break his bonds.
Either way, he should stop standing around. He needed to get moving.
He made for the door and reached out for the knob, but paused when he heard footsteps and indistinct voices coming from the other side. He couldn't make out who it was, not without trying something dangerous and unpracticed, like reinforcing his ears, but he could guess. It was either Ilya and one of her maids or Saber and Rin, but no matter who it actually was, it was better to be safe and prepared than sorry.
He turned the lights off and stepped back to hide just beyond the far side of the door. He pressed a hand close to the patch of cloth on his belt, where Caliburn was hidden, and turned his Circuits on.
The door was thrown open and Shirou was halfway through the motion of drawing Caliburn when he realized that the intruder was blond and wearing a white blouse and blue skirt.
He blinked. "Saber."
She turned to look at him and blinked back. "Shirou."
"You're alright." Her eyes narrowed. "Shirou, what are you doing here?"
He felt a blush rise up in his cheeks and awkwardly scratched at the back of his head. "Um, well…Ilya kidnapped me."
Saber frowned. "You shouldn't have left the house alone. None of this would have happened —"
"I left to get a breath of fresh air," Shirou interrupted. "I didn't mean to be gone long or anything, but Ilya caught me off guard."
"That's not the point! Shirou, you—"
"You're in much better shape than I expected you to be, Shirou." Rin appeared from behind Saber, arms crossed and looking at him disinterestedly. Archer stepped up beside her. "So, am I to take this as a sign that you didn't really need our help after all?"
"That's what I've been trying to tell you, Rin," Archer said condescendingly. "You should've left him be to begin with. Emiya Shirou is the kind of man to cause trouble for the people around him and survive. We would have been better off leaving him to die — it would've saved us the trouble later."
Shirou couldn't say he was surprised. He'd long gotten used to Archer's caustic remarks, even if some of them got on his nerves. From the beginning, even the first time through, there'd been a sense that the two of them couldn't possibly get along.
Shirou did appreciate that Archer had sacrificed himself, though. While they'd never be best friends, nor on particularly good terms, that kind of selflessness and heroism was something of which Shirou could approve.
"So you guys came after all," he said. He studiously ignored Archer's comment. "I have to admit, I was kind of afraid Ilya was right and you'd just leave me here."
I was actually kind of hoping for it, too, he didn't say aloud. Yes, this could be a perfect opportunity to solve his problem with Archer, but not if it was going to risk Saber and Rin in the process.
"They came because I asked for their assistance," Saber told him. "When I awoke to find you missing and Rin didn't know where you had gone, I had to assume that you'd been abducted, and the only Master who showed such a keen interest in you was Ilyasviel."
"We didn't come just because she asked," Rin added. "We're basically partners, so I couldn't very well leave you to die." Her arms fell to her sides. "But we really shouldn't be standing here chatting. Have you forgotten the situation? Ilyasviel could return here at any moment, so we should retreat before she gets back."
A very good point.
"You're right," he acknowledged.
"Of course I am," Rin said with her usual smugness. "Anyway, we'll talk about everything else later. I prepared as best as I could once I knew this was the Einzbern base, but it's much more convenient if we don't have to fight them at all. With Saber in the state she's in and Archer still healing from his wounds, we wouldn't stand a chance if we fought Berserker."
Saber's brow crinkled. "You promised not to talk about that," she said, but her voice lacked the usual heat he associated with her anger.
So Saber hadn't recovered at all. That was stupid. He'd never thought she'd be any better when she woke up, so why should he be surprised that her condition hadn't changed?
Maybe it was the dream — seeing Saber tired but still strong in that final fight with Gilgamesh had probably distracted him from the fact that her energy was dangerously low.
Rin huffed. "Well, I'm breaking it. It's not like we could hide it from him for very long, so there was no point in trying to keep it a secret."
"It doesn't matter anyway, because I already knew," Shirou said. "I'd probably say something here about how you should've kept her from coming in that sort of state…but I know Saber too well to think you could have stopped her anyway."
Saber blinked at him and opened her mouth to say something, but nothing came out and she shut it again.
"Well, she was the only one who knew where you were." Rin shrugged. "Really, even if we could have convinced her to stay, we needed her to find you in the first place."
"And now that we've patched that all up, we should probably think about leaving," Archer interrupted. "We are, after all, in another Master's base. We don't have the time to explain everything."
"You're right, Archer," she admitted grudgingly. "Ilyasviel could be back at any moment. We'll have to finish this conversation at another time. Alright, Shirou?"
"Sure," he said. He wanted to get out, too. He'd learned his lesson — a single small change could mean a big, important change if he wasn't careful, so he couldn't rely on his knowledge of what had happened the first time to always be accurate. That meant that if they stood there talking long enough, a relatively minor change, they could all be cornered by Ilya in that tiny hallway, a pretty big change. "But before that…"
He looked over to Saber, who looked as though nothing was wrong. Servants could be pretty amazing like that — so exhausted that they could barely stand, and yet seem as strong as they ever were.
"Saber," he began, "can you move all right on your own?"
She gave him a small smile and pressed her right hand to her chest, fingers splayed over the cotton of her blouse.
"Please have faith in your Servant, Master," she said.
— o.0.O.O.0.o —
The hallways were just as Shirou remembered them — just as long, just as majestic, and just as winding and snaking. It was a small comfort that Rin, at least, seemed to know the way out, because Shirou couldn't, for the life of him, remember the path they had taken the first time through.
That was probably because he had been distracted by the museum-like walls filled with priceless masterpieces that looked like they belonged to a head of state or a king rather than something as simple as a Magus.
But then, the Einzbern were one of those really old, really important Magus families, weren't they? Like the Tousaka? And those guys at that place in London, the Clock Tower?
"Stop gawking!" Rin's voice called back. "I will leave you behind if you don't keep up, you know!"
Shirou nearly stumbled. How had she known he was distracted by the décor?
Even with his knowledge of the future, she still managed to make him feel like a complete novice.
"Just keep going!" she shouted.
He said nothing and simply forced himself to focus on the flair of her skirt as she ran — dangerous territory, perhaps, because if he wasn't careful then he could wind up having thoughts that he really shouldn't, but it was better to be distracted by the girl in front of him than by the halls around him.
He tried his best to ignore Saber's labored breathing behind him. He knew, he had learned long ago, that the one thing he could not do was step on her pride, and to ask her if she needed help was to do just that.
So he kept running. He forced himself to see only the flair of Rin's skirt and hear only the beating of their feet on the floor, and he promised himself, if Saber fell, then he wouldn't accept any excuses. He'd just pick her up and carry her.
At length, they reached the entrance hall. Rin and Saber were panting from the exertion and Shirou was not too proud to admit that he was breathing hard, too, but Archer, who winced every now and again, didn't look even slightly winded. Shirou had a moment to think that being a Servant was cheating, then told himself to stop being so childish and stupid.
"Alright, then," Rin said. "This should be it. We leave through here, escape into the forest under the cover of darkness, and find our way to the main road. By the time Ilyasviel comes back and finds out you're not here, we should be long gone."
She started down the stairs. Shirou, Saber, and Archer followed behind her and kept in step as she marched towards the large, double-door entrance. For a moment, Shirou thought they would make it, that they would walk out the entrance without Ilya being any the wiser.
For a moment, it seemed like they would.
"Oh, you're leaving already? That's too bad. I thought you would stay."
And then a horrible voice echoed across the entrance hall.
Shirou turned with the others, even though he already knew what he would find. He turned, even though he already knew that Ilya was standing at the top of the stairs with Berserker, as still as a statue, beside her. He turned and saw her terrible, terrible smile.
So then…it really was hopeless from the very beginning.
"Ilya…sviel," Rin whispered behind him.
"Good evening," Ilya said with a dark little smile. "Now I don't have to go looking for you, Rin. Thank you." She cocked her head to the side and placed her hands on her hips. "What's the matter? I'm giving you plenty of time to come up with some last words. It's so much more fun if I get to hear you say something before you die."
Rin took a step forward.
"Alright, fine," she said. Shirou could immediately hear the false bravado in her voice. "Then let me ask you something. How was it that I couldn't sense your return to the castle? Was it because…you never actually left?"
"Yup," Ilya said with sadistic cheer. "That's right! I never really went anywhere. I was just having fun watching you guys run around making fools of yourselves!"
"Then…the person you sent out your front door was nothing more than a fake!"
"Yup." Ilya giggled. "After all, I'm the master of this house. I have to be here to attend to my guests when they show up on my doorstep."
A black blur launched itself over the staircase and landed at the bottom — Heracles growled and stood slowly. Power radiated off of him in waves, and through the knowledge of how to beat the monster in front of him, through the memories of defeating the black monster, Shirou felt an inkling of the sense of impending doom that had rooted him to the spot the last time.
"Are you done, or was there something else?"
Shirou's hand drifted towards the swath of cloth that hid Caliburn.
"Don't bother," Archer mumbled to him scornfully. "Someone like you couldn't even begin to hope to defeat a monster like that."
Shirou bit off a retort and let his hand drop. He hadn't yet decided how to solve this problem, but he would definitely prefer if they could leave without anyone getting hurt.
"Guess not. Well, we should probably get started then," Ilya smiled cruelly. She lifted her right hand in a mock vow. "And I promise you…I won't let anyone leave here alive."
Berserker howled, but didn't charge, and it seemed that Ilya was waiting for one of them to make a move before she ordered her Servant into action. Shirou thought it was a rather useless gesture — the only way any of them was leaving would be to have someone stay behind and stall Berserker, and the only way that worked was if the person staying behind was a Servant.
Shirou already knew how that would go.
"Archer, listen," Rin muttered lowly. It wouldn't carry across the hall, but everyone in their little group could hear her. "I know you're injured, but it doesn't have to be for long. Stall him while we escape."
"That's absurd!" Saber said lowly. "Have you lost your mind, Rin? Archer wouldn't be a match for Berserker at full strength, let alone in his injured state!"
Shirou's fists clenched. "If he stays behind, you know he won't be coming back, don't you, Tousaka?"
It had to be said. Maybe Rin really did hold out hopes that they could all escape if Archer stayed behind to stall Berserker for a little while before following, but Shirou knew from experience. If they left him behind, then Archer wouldn't be coming back.
Shirou was a bit ashamed to admit that it would solve some of his problems, but the cold hard truth of it was that if Archer stayed behind, then Shirou didn't have to worry about him anymore and Rin would have no option but to teach him the ritual needed to help Saber. He hated that the only option was to sacrifice someone, but it would work out so much neater if he did.
There was a moment of pause, and Shirou could imagine Rin chewing uncertainly on her lower lip, but didn't dare to take his eyes off Berserker.
"You keep him busy for a little bit," Rin said finally. "Nothing fancy. Just dance with him for a little while."
An amused huff came from Archer.
"That's the wisest course of action," he said solemnly. "If you can escape first, then it shouldn't be difficult for me to follow behind you. After all, Independent Action is the Archer Class's specialty."
Archer stepped forward to stand across from Berserker. Up at the top of the stairs, Ilya giggled.
"Wow," she smiled, "how cute of you, Rin! You really think that some no-name Servant like yours stands even the smallest chance against my Heracles?"
Rin said nothing.
"By the way, Rin, let me clarify something here," Archer began in his cool voice. "Buying time is fine and everything, and it's certainly within my power to do that, but it's perfectly alright if I just kill that thing instead, right?"
He looked over his shoulder with a cocky smirk, and Shirou remembered that same look from the first time — bravado, nothing more. Archer was perfectly aware that he had just been ordered to die.
For a moment, it seemed like Rin didn't know what to say.
"It's fine," she confirmed with her usual smugness. "Archer, if you want to kill that thing, then feel free, go right ahead."
"I see. Then I'll try not to disappoint you."
Ilya scowled. "You must think you're funny or something! Fine! Berserker, I'm getting tired of looking at his ugly face! Tear him to pieces!"
Berserker threw back his head and howled. Shirou thought for one wild moment of sticking behind to help Archer kill Berserker and reached for Caliburn, but Rin's hand grabbed his and pulled him away.
"Now's our chance!" she said. "Let's go!"
There wasn't any time to deny her.
"Go, Emiya Shirou," Archer called over his shoulder, as though he knew Shirou's thoughts. "Now is not the day for you to die."
— o.0.O.O.0.o —
The castle, which was just as impressive on the outside as it was on the inside, vanished behind them once they made it into the forest. Shirou was a little thankful that winter never got especially cold in Fuyuki — the leaves would help to hide them when Ilya and Berserker came charging after them, which would make it easier for Shirou to get a surprise blow in and finish Berserker off without endangering either of the two girls running beside him.
"This way!" Rin shouted. "The main road is a three hour run from here, and once we make it that far, we're essentially home free!"
She ran on ahead, but Shirou didn't follow as quickly. Saber was out of breath just a few short steps behind him, and he knew that she wouldn't be able to keep up running for three hours — her energy was dangerously low as it was, so running for that long was completely out of the question.
But he couldn't tell Rin that. Rin had to come to that conclusion on her own, or else she wouldn't accept it.
The moment Saber fell, he was going to pick her up and carry her.
Berserker howled in the distance, but Shirou couldn't see Rin wincing, so he figured that Archer must not be in any real danger just yet.
He could imagine it, though. He didn't know much about Archer's fighting style, but he had seen enough for his mind to imagine Archer and Berserker trading attacks. He could hear the clang of their swords as they exchanged blows, see the flash of their blades — the twin swords, Kanshou and Bakuya, and Berserker's roughly-chiseled slab of marble.
Behind him, a very real explosion of light tore through the roof of the mansion and bathed the forest in a soft white glow.
"Just keep going!" Rin called out. Shirou could hear her voice wobble, but didn't comment — he didn't think he would've had the strength necessary to order Saber behind if their positions were reversed.
They hurried on again. The forest had become an endless blob of gray-green-brown that seemed to extend on forever, and Shirou wondered how long they had been running for, how long they would have to keep running.
He wondered, too, at what sort of Noble Phantasm Archer had. Shirou had never seen it himself, and the only time it might have been unleashed properly was the very same situation that was occurring now — the fight against Heracles. He found he couldn't imagine what sort of weapon Archer would wield — Archer, who used swords as though he was a Saber.
Was it something like Excalibur? Was it more like Gilgamesh's Gate of Babylon? Or was it some sort of bow-and-arrow combination?
Ahead of him, Rin stumbled and gripped at her right hand, the hand with her Command Seals. Shirou knew what it meant — Archer was dying.
"Rin," Saber began softly. "Archer, is he…?"
"Not yet," Rin said as she continued on. Something wet hit Shirou in the cheek. "He's still putting up a fight."
She stumbled to a stop, and Shirou and Saber stopped just behind her. She was staring at her Command Seal and biting her lip, and though he couldn't see her face, her whole posture screamed of indecision.
"Maybe I should…" she whispered.
The red of her Command Seal glowed brighter. She shook her head.
"Let's go," she declared firmly. She started running again. Shirou and Saber started after her and they were beginning to pick up their original pace. If they continued on like that, Shirou thought that they might just make it out of the forest without needing to stop, and he wasn't sure how he felt about that.
Behind him, Saber tripped and fell.
Shirou skidded to a halt and turned around. On the ground, Saber panted, and her legs shook visibly as she tried to stand back up. Shirou didn't give her the chance. He knelt down beside her and slung one arm under her knees and the other over her shoulders and picked her up as though she were weightless.
Her face flushed red.
"Shirou!" she cried. "Put me down this instant! I cannot accept something like this, not even from my Master!"
"I'm not going to let you go on like that," Shirou told her. He made sure that his tone left no room for argument. He'd already promised himself that he wouldn't accept any excuse she offered. "If you try to run in the kind of condition you're in, then you'll only slow us down. It's better if I carry you so we can keep up with Rin."
He started forward again and Saber didn't say anything. He thought that she was probably a bit ashamed and that his argument had gotten through to her. Besides, they really did need to catch up with Rin. It didn't do anyone any good if they fell behind at a time like this.
When they caught up to her again, Rin was standing still and staring down at her hand again. Her Command Seals blazed red against the pale skin of her hand, and her other hand was clenching and unclenching. The indecision that he had seen in her earlier had returned a hundredfold, and her entire body thrummed with it.
"I'm going to do it," she was whispering to herself. "It's been long enough, right? I can do it."
"Tousaka?" he asked hesitantly. "Something wrong?"
Her shoulders squared. She didn't seem to have heard him, but the indecision that had been plaguing her was gone. She lifted her hand.
"By the power of this third Command Seal —"
An inkling of what she planned entered Shirou's mind.
"What're you doing, Tousaka?!"
"— Archer, come forth!"
There was a flash of light that left Shirou blind for a moment, and when it cleared, Archer stood in front of Rin, beaten, battered, and broken, with an expression on his face that Shirou imagined was on his own, too. Against all sense and reason, Rin had just saved Archer.
Shirou couldn't believe it. After all of it, after everything that had just happened, Rin used her last Command Seal to save Archer?
It was mind boggling. Rin was more an expert at the whole Master-Servant thing than Shirou could ever hope to be, so surely she knew, just as he did, that there wasn't any point in saving Archer without a Master to supply him Prana and heal his wounds. What could she hope to do? Without a set of Command Seals, her connection to Archer was lost, so even if she saved him, all she had done was prolong Archer's inevitable death.
It would've been much swifter and more merciful to let him die in battle against Berserker. That way, he wouldn't have to waste away, slowly withering as his Mana dwindled down to nothing. It was worse than what Saber was going through — Saber, at least, had a Master, and as long as she had a Master, there were methods of restoring her lost Mana. Archer didn't.
A long moment later, Archer seemed to regain himself.
"Are you insane?!" he howled at Rin. "You actually summoned me back with your last Command Seal — have you lost all sense?! Do you realize what you've done?!"
"I realize that I just saved you!" Rin shouted back. "Maybe it wasn't my best idea ever and maybe I didn't plan it out all that well, but I just saved you! The least you could do is thank me!"
"Thank you?!" Archer demanded incredulously. "In all likelihood, you just blew everything! As long as I was fighting Berserker, then even if I died, I could have stalled him long enough for you to escape the forest, but without me there, there isn't anything to stop Ilyasviel and her monster from chasing after us as we speak!"
"Rin," Saber tried breathlessly. Shirou blinked and looked down, and when he realized why Saber sounded like she was on her deathbed, he couldn't believe he'd been distracted enough not to notice that Saber's condition had deteriorated so quickly. How had he not noticed the feverish sweat on her forehead and the shallow rise and fall of her chest? How couldn't he have noticed how she trembled and shook like a leaf?
Saber using Excalibur against Rider, Saber collapsing and low on Mana, himself being kidnapped by Ilya, Archer being injured going into his fight with Berserker, Rin summoning Archer from that very same fight and saving his life, Saber about to fade away…
Nothing was going the way he'd wanted it, Shirou lamented. Why was everything falling apart around him?
Rin glanced at them and grimaced, then faced Archer again.
"Then we had better hide and prepare our counterattack, hadn't we?" she said more calmly than Shirou thought her able. She snapped her arm out and pointed into the foliage, and Shirou followed the direction of her finger to find the ruins they had used the last time. It was too impossible to be coincidence. Rin must have been leading them towards those ruins the entire time, just in case. She was a forward thinker like that.
"You saw this on our way in, right?" Rin asked rhetorically. "We should be able to escape notice if we stay the night there. We can get Saber back into shape for tomorrow morning, and then we'll face Ilyasviel and Berserker."
Archer looked at her and gave a long sigh.
"You're impossible," he told her. "You know that, right?"
— o.0.O.O.0.o —
"It's not much, but it could be much worse."
Rin kicked at a piece of the debris that littered the floor of the ruined building. As before, the ground floor was completely covered in moss, vines, and other wild plant life, so the second floor was the only feasible place to stay, and of the available rooms, the one Rin had picked out was the best.
Exactly as last time.
"If you had just gone on ahead instead of worrying about me, then you could have already made it back to town by now," Archer put in.
Well, not exactly the same as last time.
"Well, at least it's clean," Rin said pragmatically. "I suppose someone must've been staying here recently, and that's why this place is in such good condition. Either way, if Ilyasviel is chasing after us right now, then it'll be some time before she gets here, and if we're lucky, then we might be able to hold out here until morning."
"And if you had simply left me behind, you could be in the comfort and safety of your own home," Archer said.
Rin's eyebrow twitched.
"Well, what's done is done, either way," she said. She busied herself with fixing the dusty bed, but her hands shook — a combination, Shirou figured, of her nerves about Archer's fight and the desire to hit Archer himself for his remarks. "More importantly, we have to solve the problem of our weakness — Shirou, set Saber down here."
She patted the bed with her right hand and moved out of the way.
Shirou stepped carefully over the debris and gently set Saber down on the bed, trying to ignore the heat that radiated from her feverish body and the puffs of her shallow breathing in his ear.
"Shirou…" she whispered.
"All right, then," Rin said firmly. She seemed like she was preparing herself for something. "Archer, I'd like to ask you to wait in the other room —"
"No need," Archer interrupted as he moved towards the door. Though he didn't limp, he left droplets of blood behind with every step. He was still wounded. "I have a pretty good idea of what comes next. I'll be back when you're finished."
"Good," Rin said. She turned to look at Shirou. "Shirou, do you know how to make a pass?"
"Somewhat," he said. "I mean, it was in those books you gave me, but I didn't get far enough to cover all of it. Just that, um, it involves —" he blushed — "a Tantric ritual…"
In Shirou's head, the dots connected together and all the pieces of the puzzle slipped into place.
"Wait, you don't mean —"
"That's exactly what I mean," Rin said with a straight face. There was only the faintest hint of red in her cheeks. "Shirou, we're going to use a Tantric ritual to exchange Prana between you and Saber. It won't fix that fractured bond of yours, but it'll give her something to work with so that she's not running on empty tomorrow morning."
Shirou's brain threatened to dribble out of his ears.
"But, but, but!" a little voice in the back of his head protested. "Last time, we just transplanted a few Magic Circuits!"
In a distant sort of way, Shirou figured that if he had said that aloud, Rin would tell him how horrible a Magus he was that he considered a tantric ritual more invasive than having some of his Magic Circuits ripped away.
"B-but," he started to protest.
"Shirou," Rin declared bluntly, "the only way to save Saber is to sleep with her."
It sounded like the punchline to a bad joke.
"That's, ah, I mean," he tried. "Th-there must be some other way, right? A-and besides, Saber would never agree to —"
"Shirou," Saber's voice stopped him cold. He turned to her, but the moment he met her eyes, she looked away and her face flushed an even brighter red. "I-I don't mind."
Shirou's brain froze. For a single moment, everything he was stilled to a halt as his mind processed the information that his ears had just been given.
Rin was suggesting a tantric ritual to supply Saber with the Prana she needed, a ritual of the sort that he was sure someone like Saber would never agree to, and Saber had just told him that she was perfectly okay with doing it.
Which meant…Which meant…
The decision was taken out of his hands when Rin marched up to him, grabbed him by the back of his head, and pressed her lips against his. Any thoughts that might have remained in his brain were reduced to mush, and a moment later — too soon, not soon enough — she pulled away.
"We don't have time for your indecision," she said breathlessly. She reached down and grasped his hand. "At this very moment, Ilyasviel could be hunting for us relentlessly. We need to do this now."
The rest of it happened in a blur — he could vaguely remember Rin stripping down, stripping Saber down, and then stripping him down, and the strangled erotic moments that followed. What stood out clearest was Saber — her body pressed against his, he skin flush against him, her body coiled tightly beneath him in the throes of a passion that seemed wholly inappropriate with the situation that awaited them when they returned to the real world.
He was ashamed, very slightly ashamed, that he had forgotten entirely about Berserker.
After it was all over and the moment of lightheadedness passed, Shirou opened his eyes to find that Saber's arms were wrapped tight around his chest. His left arm was curled upwards and his hand was cupping her right shoulder gently. His right arm was folded beneath him and his hand was next to his head. He was lying atop her, with her chest flattened against his and their legs intertwined.
At some point, Rin had dressed herself and gone over to nestle against the wall to sleep, and Saber was lying next to him in the bed, naked as the day she was born, with a small contented smile on her face.
"Shirou…" she whispered his name breathily.
It was too much.
He'd held himself back from the beginning, waiting for her, waiting to love the woman of his dreams until he had earned her love again, and lying there, beside her, having just had sex with her…He couldn't stop himself.
Before he knew it, he had positioned himself over top of her again, and she was gripping his arms and smiling like she had just been given the world. He kissed her then and there, enjoyed the gentle feel of her kissing back, and rolled his hips when everything aligned.
For the second time that night, he made love to her, properly this time. And when it was all said and done, when Saber clenched her hands on his biceps and softly cried his name as he joined her in rapture, Shirou fell back to the bed beside her and fell asleep with a smile on his face.
He wasn't sure whether or not he had dreamed it, but her voice whispered "I love you" in his ear.
He woke up again much later, and his heart was beating wildly against his ribs as though he had just had a nightmare.
The tall form of Archer hovered menacingly over him, staring down with cold, steel gray eyes. For an instant, Shirou groped wildly for his sword, for Caliburn, but even if the belt containing the sword had been present, he could not have retrieved it for the weight on his right arm.
Lying contentedly next to him, with her full weight atop his arm and her head nestled into his shoulder, was Saber.
He was defenseless.
"I should kill you, right here and now," Archer said frostily. "And yet…"
He lifted his arm, the one that Berserker must have broken, and it shook with effort. "And yet, something stops me. A curiosity, perhaps. You're stronger than you're supposed to be. The things you've done should be far beyond the person known as Emiya Shirou. The abilities you've shown, the power you've wielded…You must have entered a contract."
The arm fell.
"I'll let you live for now," Archer said with a grave importance. "I won't kill you just yet, not until I know what entity you contracted to gain the powers you have currently. I'll wait and see if it's Alaya, and if it's not, then I'll be done with it, and if it is, then I'll do whatever I must to sever that contract before I put you down."
He turned around and started walking way. "You're living on borrowed time, Emiya Shirou," he declared as he vanished. "And soon enough, I'll come to collect."
— o.0.O.O.0.o —
To be continued
Disclaimer: I don't own Fate/Stay Night.
Those of you screaming at me about deviating from canon, this one's aimed at you.
Part Two comes next.
There's an important poll in my profile about what the name of Shirou's sword will be. For reference, please look at the Revenant Ultimate Guide in the FSN forum. The poll is posted on there, too.
Striving for Utopia…
James Daniel Godric Alan Fawkes
James Daniel Godric Alan Fawkes(Signature best viewed in Wendy Medium font style)