Author's Note: I'M ALIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIVEEEEEEEEEEEE! See more at the bottom.
Shirou dreamt of a lonely girl who lived in a large palace within a vast and growing empire.
Her father was a weak and aging man, while her mother was manipulative and power-hungry. The girl's mother, driven by her lust for power, had plans for the young girl. She needed a son for her future, so a son she would have, whether the girl wanted it or not.
The mother would eventually marry the elderly emperor after the mysterious death of her husband. Soon, the new Empress made sure that her young "son" would be made heir.
As she grew, the girl who was now heir to the greatest empire in the world was told by all how special and wonderful "he" was. The girl believed all of it and soon came to view herself as the foremost expert at... everything. When it came to strength, she rivaled Hercules; when it came to chariots, she could out-race Apollo; and when it came to battle, Mars would meet his match.
But what the girl truly loved was art. Theater, music, frescos, pottery, painting, poetry - all things that involved creativity and freedom; things her mother had denied from her for so long. Even though the Empress and her supporting nobles discouraged these actions, it only made the girl try harder. The heir would not quit until the whole world knew what a magnificent artist she was.
And so the girl decided that a demonstration of her skill was in order. She would forge a sword so magnificent, Vulcan himself would applaud her skill, while the Emperor and her mother would weep at its beauty.
Sadly, it did not go as planned.
Shirou awoke with a gasp, a sudden throbbing pain pulling him from his peaceful slumber.
He put his hand to his aching chest and was shocked to discover he was covered in bandages. And in a flash, it all came back to him; the ambush, being impaled and somehow not dying, his sister...
The teen's groggy thoughts came to an abrupt halt as he remembered the words of Tohsaka and the priest moderating the Grail War. Though he had been skeptical of the kill or be killed mentality behind this conflict, nearly being murdered by a girl who couldn't have been older than twelve proved him wrong.
Could he do it though? Could he fight, and if need be, kill his little sister?
When he spoke to Kotomine, the priest cryptically said that wishing to be a savior may as well have been wishing for people to be in danger. The look in the man's empty eyes spoke of a long lasting misery and darkness. They were so similar to the eyes his father had. Did fighting in the previous Grail War do that to them?
If Shirou really wanted to be a hero and stop this foolish conflict between mages, he may wind up with eyes like theirs.
Lancer knocked lightly on her Master's bedroom door. Since their escape from Saber and Archer last night, the girl hadn't said a thing.
Arthuria knew she was being punished for failing to protect Ilya from Saber's trap. Not that she could blame the girl. Unleashing Excalibur of all things in a populated area? Lancer regretted it almost as soon as it was done, but that Saber's mere existence seemed to anger and insult her. Then, to top everything off, her mighty blade hadn't even been enough to defeat her lookalike.
It was no wonder that Ilya was too angry to talk to her. But, like any good knight, Lancer would find a way to return to her Master's good graces.
After waiting for what felt like hours, the blonde knight slowly opened the door to Ilya's room.
Her Master was sitting in a large armchair by the fire, a distant look in her eye.
"Sella and Lystrit think you should eat something," the Servant said hesitantly. It wasn't exactly true, seeing as the homunculi maids who maintained the castle were too worried about retribution to say anything against the girl they called their master, but Lancer knew there were worried all the same.
The white haired girl said nothing in response. She simply narrowed her eyes and turned away from the blonde Servant.
Lancer suppressed a sigh. She was fine with being punished for her failings the previous night, but she would not be ignored by two Masters in a row.
"Perhaps we should discuss battle plans for the other Servants," she continued.
Still no response from the tiny girl.
"Please, Master," Arthuria pressed on, "just tell me what is wrong so that I may fix it." She put her hand firmly on the girl's slim shoulder, hoping to get a response from her Master. With a forceful tug, she turned the girl towards her.
Staring back at her were a pair of red eyes full of confusion, doubt, and perhaps even fear. They were eyes Arthuria knew well, as they were so similar to her own eyes during her brief moments of solitude during her tenure as King of the Britons.
Now it all made sense. Ilya was not angry at her Servant - she was plagued by doubts. Doubts likely caused by the words of her adopted brother. Dedicating one's whole existence to revenge against someone who turned out to be undeserving of it was likely quite the shock for the little homunculus.
After an agonizingly long moment, Lancer decided that she needed to say something to brighten Ilya's mood. She knew herself to be ill-suited to care for children, but her words had once rallied a nation behind her, surely she could at least try her hand at cheering up a confused and lonely girl.
"Did you know I had a step-brother as well?" she asked the little homunculus after gathering her thoughts.
"Yes," Ilya responded quietly, slowly. "Sir Kay, one of the first Knights of the Round Table. Grandpa made sure I knew as much of your legend as possible."
Lancer nodded, glad that Ilya was finally saying something.
"Kay was a good man," the Servant continued. "Even after he learned I was adopted by Sir Ector, he treated me like blood. We bickered and fought, often sparred with each other, but we loved each other nonetheless."
Ilya didn't respond. Clearly, this story was getting a little close to home for the girl - which was exactly what the Servant wanted.
"Even though I was always a better swordsman than him, Kay always felt the need to try protecting me," she continued.
It was true. Even after abandoning her gender to become the king the people needed, Kay still felt the need to protect his little sister. It was why he became Camelot's chief court guard and made sure that only the worthiest of knights could ever even get near the king.
"Well I don't need protecting," Ilya responded petulantly.
"Neither did I," Lancer said with an almost wry grin.
Ilya looked unsure now. Perhaps it was best if she try easing the girl into things. Her step-brother was in all likelihood not as evil as Ilya thought him to be. The fact that he survived an attack from Rhongowennan was proof enough.
"But you see," the blonde said with a nostalgic smile, "that's the wonderful thing about big brothers. They don't think they're doing their job if they're not protecting their little sisters."
Ilya nodded slightly, still lost in her own thoughts. "Thanks, Lancer," she mumbled.
Saber frowned as she contemplated the incredibly difficult task she currently found herself confronted with.
Though her Master was still unconscious, the stirring in his sleep indicated he'd be awake soon. And likely quite hungry.
Unfortunately, Archer's Master had somehow managed to drive away that strange Tiger-like woman when she came to check on her ward's health. And the purple haired maiden was nowhere to be seen after a brief and awkward exchange at the front of the house. Rin's departure after breakfast to investigate the dangerous bounded field at their school had left the Servant as the only occupant of her Master's large home.
Which ultimately meant that Saber would have to be the one to prepare food for her injured Master.
While the Servant knew herself to be the greatest artist in the history of the world, she would be arrogant to call herself the greatest of chefs. Truthfully, in her time, Saber had her every whim catered to when it came to most domestic activities. After all, it was unfitting for someone of her status to do servant work. But considering that's what she now was (in a way at least) it couldn't hurt to at least try.
Perhaps that cooked rice dish Shirou had given her on the first night would be sufficient. It seemed a simple enough principle...
The still groggy Shirou was pulled from his gloomy thoughts by the sound of his smoke detector going off.
The teen sprinted into the kitchen to see his Servant frantically trying to put out a fire that had somehow engulfed his stove top. Saber turned to him, the sink's small hose attachment trying and failing to extinguish the blaze.
"Good morning, Praetor," the tiny blonde said with a friendly smile. "I believe your breakfast should be ready soon."
"M-my kitchen..." Shirou wailed in a combination of horror mixed with an encroaching feeling of absolute despair.
Acting fast, Shirou sprinted around his Servant to open a cabinet door and remove the small fire extinguisher he kept there for emergencies and let loose a deluge of white foam. The fire was out, but whatever Saber had been attempting to cook in his sanctuary of cooking was destroyed.
With a sigh, the redhead turned to his Servant. "Thanks for trying Saber, but next time, do what Taiga does when I'm too sick to cook; use the microwave."
There was the briefest flash of embarrassment across her features before the Servant nodded, her vivid green eyes not meeting his. "I was trying to do you a kindness," she grumbled quietly.
"I know," the magus responded as nicely as he could. "That's why I'm not angry. Just hungry," he added with a chuckle.
"Good," Saber said with renewed energy. "Tell me, Praetor, how healed are your injuries?"
Shirou flexed his arms, rolled his shoulders and gingerly poked at his ribs. Aside from a few sharp jolts of pain in his chest he felt well enough to move for what he hoped was an extended period of time, so long as he didn't exert himself.
"Well, I can move at least," Shirou said with something of an embarrassed chuckle.
It seemed that every time there was a fight, he was the designated punching bag. How the hell was he supposed to become a Hero of Justice if he had to rely on others to do the fighting for him? Sure he was pretty strong for his age, he'd trained himself for years with physically taxing odd-jobs to build up his muscles. He was also pretty good at archery, having once been the ace of his high school's team before leaving due to a shoulder injury.
But what good had any of that done him? His father had spent his dying words warning Shirou about the Grail War happening, and he was still the most useless person in the conflict. He was a third-rate magus at best. His father's illness prevented him from ever giving Shirou proper training in magecraft. All he could do with any reliability was use Reinforcement magic to strengthen and repair various objects.
"That's good to hear," the blonde grinned. "Truly, your healing magic is impressive. I've never seen anything like it before."
"Well, you see, that's the thing, neither have I..." Shirou trailed off awkwardly. How the hell had he healed himself anyway? Last time a Servant skewered him, Rin had healed him before he bled out using her most powerful magic gem. Clearly, that wasn't an option this time.
Sensing her Master's confusion, Saber cocked an eyebrow. "Oh?" she asked, her voice growing more stern. "Does that mean you don't normally recover from deadly wounds that are cause by flinging yourself into danger?"
"No," the teen answered weakly.
"Then pray tell, why did you get so close to the Einzbern Master?"
"Because I thought she was a normal little girl who was in danger," Shirou answered in a defiant tone. "I can't just stand by and let someone innocent get dragged into this crazy war. What kind of person would I be if I just stood aside when I know I can do something?
Strangely, Saber smiled softly when he said this. "You'd be a far too ordinary man to be my Master. You truly have the heart of a hero."
Shirou blushed slightly. It wasn't everyday a legendary hero gave you a compliment.
"However, that does not mean you have the skills of a hero," Saber continued, dragging Shirou's uplifted spirits back down to earth. "You are a weak and easy target as long as you wish to put yourself at such risk. I suggest we fix that."
The tiny blonde grinned broadly, her large crimson sword appearing in her hand. "Tell me, Praetor, what do you know of swordsmanship?"
Shirou was taken aback. "Are you saying what I think you're saying?" he asked hesitantly.
"Of course," Saber said with a theatrical gesture of her arm. "The world will always be in need of heroes, and not everyone is as naturally gifted as I. It is only fair that I use my many skills to instruct you as how to best defend yourself. What do you say?"
Shirou stood there in stunned silence for a moment. He'd been contemplating asking for Saber to train him since the previous night, but he hadn't quite worked out how to bridge the potentially awkward topic. After all, Rin had said that Masters were supposed to let their Servants do the fighting for them, but if that was the case, then why were Rin and that Bazett woman so good at fighting? There was no way Shirou would let himself remain useless.
"I accept," he answered with a smile and a respectful bow towards the girl who was about to become his sensei.
"Good," she said with her head held high. "The training shall begin as soon as we finish breakfast."
'Oh right... that,' Shirou thought with a despairing glance towards his partially destroyed kitchen. "I'll figure something out," he said with an awkward grin.
Archer followed Rin down the high school hallway, invisible to all but her.
For once, the Counter Guardian was at something of a loss as to what to do. While the memories of his old life had indeed been scattered and hazy when Rin first summoned him, most of them were back, and razor sharp. While at first, his knowledge of the coming events gave him a great feeling of advantage, these drastic changes of the Servant roster potentially invalidated all his knowledge of coming events.
"Archer," Rin's voice rang out in his head through their link. "We still don't know which enemy Master is responsible for the Bounded Field, so be on guard for anything suspicious."
The bowman could only shake his head in resignation when his Master wasn't looking. She knew that the Matou family was one of the founders of the Grail War, so it really shouldn't be too hard for an alleged genius like Rin to figure out which classmates of hers were the likely culprits.
Of course, the obviousness of it all was likely too much for the girl to bear knowing. The idea that not only was her estranged sister her opponent, but was also willing to kill hundreds of children to make her Servant stronger? Definitely not something a normal person would want weighing on their mind.
While it wasn't healthy for Rin to be so obviously lying to herself, Archer had never been a paragon of mental health either, so he had no right to lecture her. Of course, he also knew for a fact that Sakura Matou was not responsible for this mess... at least she wasn't in his timeline. For all he knew, this new Grail War with its swapped classes and bizarre Saber-doppleganger could have made Sakura into Rider's Master this time around.
In fact, as if the universe had sensed his thoughts, the actual culprit emerged from the stairwell as Rin approached.
"Morning Tohsaka," Shinji Matou said with a look that was more of a leer than a genuine smile.
Rin just kept her eyes forward and walked past the blue-haired teen. He stopped and turned around, looking quite livid for her ignoring him. However, after a second, his rage abated and Shinji continued on to his morning class.
"If we don't know who we're dealing with, we should try drawing them out," Archer said, still invisibly trailing his Master. "Perhaps destroying some more of their precious sigils during your lunch break will get their attention."
"As much as I'd like to do that, I'd feel better if Emiya was here," Rin thought at her Servant, unaware that, in a way, he was. "He's quite good at sensing them, despite his mediocrity as a magus."
"I still say we're better off without that idiot," Archer grumbled. Truthfully, he simply hated working with the boy he had once been. He only served as a reminder of all the mistakes Archer had made in his life. All for pursuing the foolish dream of being a hero.
"If I agreed with you, would I have wasted all that effort covering for him this morning?" she shot back.
Archer went silent, not wanting to argue with her at the moment. It was true that Rin had somehow managed to convince both Sakura and Taiga that Shirou had become severely ill last night and should not be seen until after school. While he suspected that more than a little hypnosis had been used on the loud-mouthed teacher, Archer wasn't quite sure what Rin had done to convince Sakura. The entire conversation with the purple haired girl was a haze to the tanned Servant. He had been too busy watching Sakura to listen to what the brunette was saying.
In his past life, Archer had always thought Sakura Matou to be a sweet and kind girl with a tough home life due to her brother's abusive treatment of her. He always thought that was the reason why her eyes were in a near-permanent state of dull sadness. When he was growing up, he had always assumed that they were like his father's - the eyes of someone who had experienced great pain, but kept marching forward to no matter what.
Of course, it wasn't until later on that Archer learned just how wrong he was.
When a spirit is summoned to act as a Counter Guardian to defend humanity's existence in any and all possible realities and dimensions from a dangerous threat, one rarely can remember the whole experience. It is generally a long blur of bloodshed and screams of agony. But Archer would always remember his first summoning, for it was in his own version of earth, shortly after he had finally been killed.
The world was engulfed by a terrible, all-consuming shadow. There was destruction as far as the eye could see, but very little blood spilled upon the ground, for the mysterious threat simply absorbed and consumed anything it wanted to kill, rather than leave behind a mess. After fighting his way towards the epicenter of the thing's power, his body acting as a glorified puppet for the will of humanity, the Counter Guardian EMIYA finally learned what had become of his childhood friend.
Sakura Matou was a monster. There was no other way to describe it. Her eyes were just as empty and lifeless as the fake priest's. But while Kotomine may have thrived from the suffering of others, he had never come this close to destroying everything. But the white haired woman shrouded in darkness was more than capable of destroying everything if she so felt it. And so EMIYA did what the magic force controlling him put him there to do. He slaughtered the girl who had cared for him more for than almost anyone else.
And that was the day the hero without a legend learned how truly hopeless his dream had been.
Though the Sakura of this world was nowhere near that state now, Archer knew it could only be a matter of time before she became a threat to Rin, Ilya, and everyone else. If it came to it, he knew he would kill Sakura again.
Only a fool would think he could save everyone.
Shirou collapsed to the ground, battered and bruised, but he couldn't be happier.
Saber was a truly brutal instructor, but he went in there assuming that would be the case. She came at him with speed and strength greater than any human could ever have. The only thing that had managed to protect him in the least was wooden practice sword he'd strengthened with his Reinforcement magic.
While he normally had to focus incredibly hard just to get his magic circuits to activate so he could perform the most basic magecraft, this time he found himself Reinforcing the bokken with relative ease. Perhaps it was that the adrenaline rush of fighting helped him focus?
Well it didn't really matter how he did it, but he did it. Shirou had successfully blocked an attack from a warrior who was strong enough use light poles as an impromptu weapon. Of course the fact that Saber shattered his sword to pieces on the third strike did dampen his mood a bit, but still, progress was progress.
"You are a surprisingly apt swordsman, Praetor," Saber said, hoisting the teen to his feet. "With any luck you may someday be able to fight someone reasonably good."
"Thanks," the redhead said flatly.
"Oh no need to thank me," the blonde said happily, either ignoring his sarcasm or simply not getting it. "Now we just need to make sure you always have access to a sword and you should be able to defend yourself until I come swooping in to rescue you."
Shirou rolled his eyes as he picked up a new sword and took a battle stance. Pulling a sword on his attackers would be nice, but he couldn't just pull a weapon out of thin air. That would be insane.
"Are you insane?!" Bazett Fraga McRemitz shouted at her Servant in frustration.
Berserker just growled in frustration, as he usually did when his answers would be longer than a few brief words. Frankly, it was a miracle that her Servant had any speech capabilities at all, considering that previous Berserkers had been silent rage-monsters 24/7 rather than just in the heat of battle.
But it was still disappointing for the young irishwoman to meet her childhood hero, Cú Chulainn in such bad circumstances. She'd been hoping to meet and get to know her hero before saving him from his tragic legend and giving him another shot at life. Instead, she found herself partnered with a half-crazed warrior who was more like a mad dog than a noble Hound of Ulster.
"Why can't I?" Berserker finally managed to ask, his voice hoarse and raspy, rather than the smooth baritone she'd always pictured when she was a teenager.
"I'm not letting you out of the hotel before nightfall," Bazett said sternly, hands on her hips. "We can go looking for a fight then."
"Gotta find Lancer," the Irish hero said eagerly, his hands beginning to twitch in a desperation to act.
Last time he'd started doing that, Berserker punched his way through six of the hotel's bedrooms. There was no way Bazett was letting that happen again. Better to just try keeping the blue-haired warrior busy for a bit longer until nightfall.
"Why do you want to fight Lancer?" she asked, despite already knowing the likely answer.
The previous night, she and Berserker had been on patrol of the town, looking for an opponent to fight and satisfy her Servant's constant battle lust. While they weren't lucky enough to find anyone, they did bear witness to a truly amazing beam of golden light that briefly filled the night sky. The fact that nobody immediately rushed to investigate told Bazett that there was likely a Bounded Field in the area to prevent the intervention of the non-magical community.
They arrived to find a shredded street and several broken and shattered lights, as well as more than a few trees that had been reduced to splinters. A Servant and Master were far ahead of them, fleeing the scene, but neither Bazett nor Berserker were able to catch the identify the Servant, only catching a quick glance of a silvery spear that gleamed in the moonlight. Though the Servant got away, it wasn't particularly hard to guess the warrior's class for the War.
Ever since then, Berserker had been looking forward to a fight with another one of the knightly Servant classes. Though it probably had a lot to do with Cú Chulainn being well suited to the Lancer class himself.
Bazett herself probably would have preferred it if she had summoned him as Lancer. He'd probably be much more charming that way...
Forcing herself to focus more on the present and less on her childhood crush on a mythological character, Bazett silenced her Servant's growling.
"Well if you want to fight Lancer, I'll find you Lancer," she said sternly. "But until then, you'll remain in your spiritual form and Don't. Smash. Anything."
Berserker flashed a positively predatory smile before disappearing in a silvery-blue mist.
This was certainly going to be an eventful night for them indeed.
Sunset at the high school was always a beautiful sight to behold as the world became a beautiful shade of orange. Some particularly eager young couples staying after school were occasionally known to sneak up to the roof and watch the sunset; the girls coming for the romantic view and atmosphere and the guys coming for the girls.
The current occupants on the roof in the fading sunlight may have been a male and female, but the Servant Rider would kill anyone foolish enough to even suggest that she was a willing associate to the sick and pathetic worm known as Shinji Matou.
The tall and imposing lavender-haired woman rose from her kneeling position as she reapplied the magic circle to activate her Bloodfort Bounded Field. In just another day or two it would be solid enough to activate and absorb the life energy of the school, giving Rider more than enough power to compensate for the pitiful amount of mana she was receiving from her current Master.
If she was still fully contracted to Sakura, Rider would have enough energy to fight at her full strength and be close enough to the girl to keep a better eye on her.
Ever since being summoned, Rider had felt the quiet girl to be a kindred spirit, a broken being at risk of falling into the darkness within her heart. The more she saw the disturbing horrors at the Matou house, the more Rider knew it to be true. In her past life, Rider had suffered the cruelties of the gods and felt scorn from the sisters that she loved before finally becoming a very literal monster. Sakura's torment may not have been caused by a needlessly spiteful divine being, but Zouken's horrid worms may have been even worse.
But as long as Shinji had the book in his hand that gave him control over her, Rider would never be able to give Sakura the protection she needed.
"Hurry up!" Shinji hissed from his position behind her. "This should've been done hours ago. We need to get home before nightfall."
"Afraid to fight, Master?" Rider asked in a disrespectful tone. "I thought you were so eager to prove yourself in this War."
"Be quiet!" the teen shrieked. "I'm no coward. I'm just making sure my pathetic excuse of a Servant has enough power to actually win."
"And you're doing it by killing a bunch of innocent children who can't fight back. Courageous indeed," a man's voice echoed from behind them, followed by the distinctive sound of metal hitting bone.
Shinji fell to the ground, howling in pain and clutching at the bloody stump where his wrist had once been. His severed hand lay on the concrete floor of the school roof in a pool of fresh blood.
Behind the screaming teen was a slim man in a purple samurai-like garb. He wiped the blood from his long sword with a detached look.
Rider charged at him, likely Servant Assassin, striking at him with the large, dagger-like chains that served as her melee weapons. He dodged and parried all her attacks, but they had served their purpose - getting her between Assassin and her idiot Master.
Assassin raised an eyebrow in confusion as he took a battle stance. "How odd," he said musingly. "My Master assured me that cutting off the Master's hand like that would sever a Master and Servant's contract."
"Our contract doesn't work that way," Rider said calmly as she sized up her enemy. "Assassin I presume?"
The samurai smiled and bowed slightly. "I am Sasaki Kojiro and my Master has ordered me to stop your Bounded Field."
Rider tensed as she readjusted her grip on her weapons. While she'd love to simply let Shinji bleed out and die, Sakura seemed to honestly feel sorry for her pathetic excuse of an older brother. She'd have to either defeat Assassin in mere moments, or flee with her injured Master to get him treated.
With grim acceptance, Rider lowered her stance and leapt forward to strike at her new opponent.
Author's Note: So yeah... I'm incredibly sorry for the impossibly long wait for this chapter. In the past 8 months, my life went absolutely nuts. I had my final semester of college, graduated from college, worked on a few different film projects, got an intense summer job, wrote a script or two, and dealt with a few family crises. But I was determined to get this newest chapter out in time for my story's 1st anniversary!
I still can't believe that this story I wrote on more or less a whim, has become so popular! Thanks a million all you wonderful people. Your patience and kind words have been a blessing. It makes me think that I might actually be a decent writer after all =)
Hopefully my next update will be a lot easier now that this very dialogue heavy chapter is over.