A/N: Whoo boy, this is going to be a long one.
Hi guys! I'm deluding myself into thinking I have a fanbase, and one that's happy to see me since I haven't updated PS for like a year. Okay, I have no excuses except that I found out how lame a plot it had. Most of the comments told me how much I messed up, so the truth demoralized me. I kind of shoveled it under my proverbial bed and forgot about it while I worked on this. I honestly don't know what is going to happen to it, but I do know that I want to do some kind of HP/FSN cross because mine was one of the first that showed up on , I believe. I hope I can pull it off, even though past experience says otherwise.
Which brings me to this. This was actually started in January this year, right after Fury of the Damned, but it went through writer's hell after I rediscovered the Xbox and all its lovely games. It's been a long time since then, almost nine months. My friend told me the amount of symbolism was absurd, both in the story itself and the amount of time and effort it took to write. I agree with him, though he screwed around quite a bit by inserting random bits of drivel into my google doc. Something to do with Tigger.
So, I have to apologize for the quality of this fic. The plot literally fell together in ways I never expected, so there may be some mood whiplash. There are gratuitous amounts of character cameos who have absolutely no reason to be there, though I hope their presence is at least entertaining. It may be somewhat piecemeal because of the long period of time it was written over, but I'm rather proud of individual bits within it. I tried some new things to tune up my rusty writing style. Feedback is welcomed, constructive feedback even more so. I'd love to improve.
One last thing: halfway through the story I originally wrote a flashback, but it extended so long it took up a third of the story and was rather jarring, according to my beta. He advised I take it out, so I did. It'll be included as a second chapter if you want to read it; it fits in well with the theme but is probably best read separately. It's quite clear where it should have been, and I'll detail it even more in the second chapter. You might even switch chapters at that spot and come back when you're done; up to you.
Hope you enjoy!
The blow caught him in the stomach, knocking him backwards. He nearly retched up his breakfast, but turned the backwards fall into a roll. His sword dropped from his hand, clattering against the floor before it vanished.
Red eyes narrowed as the fiend moved to pursue, but then widened again in shock as steel blades tore through unholy flesh. A snarl of pain vibrated the ground.
A hand closed around his shoulder and with no time to trace a weapon he lashed out blindly, without turning his head. A familiar voice yelped in response.
"Whoah! I'm on your side!"
Another hand slid underneath his arm and with a grunt pulled him to his feet. He shook free of the limbs and turned around, fixing the pink-haired woman with a flat stare.
"You - why are you here?"
A roar distracted him, and he spun, hands opening in preparation for tracing, but the anger in that roar wasn't directed at him. The fiend flailed around wildly, lurching about in a desperate attempt to dislodge the small girl now crouched on its back. Clinging on tenaciously, she drove the blades projecting from her fists into fiendish flesh again and again
"You brought her too, huh." The surprise had dropped from his voice; he shouldn't have been shocked in the first place.
"She wouldn't stay out." Boots thumped against the stone as his companion stepped up beside him. Blue eyes twinkled. "She was getting a little stir-crazy, you know. It wasn't nice of you to leave without telling her."
"This isn't her fight. Or yours." He glared at her. He'd been told his stare was intimidating, and for the first time he willed it to be so. Cerulean eyes met gold and locked, not budging. No luck, then.
He broke the stare, cursing the smirk that appeared at the corner of her mouth.
"And they called me naive."
Nearby, part of the stonework that made up the tower exploded outwards, showering the area with rocks. One particularly large specimen struck the mammoth fiend in the head, and it fell to its knees. The girl on its back seized the opportunity and flipped off. As she fell past its head, one hand lashed out, light catching the metal blades, and bisected the monster's head neatly lengthwise.
The body teetered, then slammed face-down into the stonework with a crunch. Its killer landed lightly on her feet, claws extended and with a feral look on her young face.
Another fiend crawled out of the hole in the stonework, a massive creature both humanoid and insectoid at once. Massive pincers snapped menacingly at the ends of arms as thick as tree trunks. Burning red eyes glared from behind a mask of thick chitin.
This one would be more of a challenge. Shirou could feel it.
A blur caught his eye.
Too late. The girl flung herself forward, light flashing from her claws. With a speed belying its size, the fiend smashed one crab-like pincer into her as she closed for the killing blow. The force of the strike knocked her backwards, sending the small girl flying off the tower.
Prana surged through his hand and an axe appeared, golden and green, tassels dangling from its haft. Two Reinforcement-powered steps brought him right into range of the fiend, and the axe blade smashed against chitin. Instead of connecting and biting into the carapace, the weapon grated against it, sparks flying from the contact.
There was no time to grieve - the prehensile tail that until now had lain dormant on the stone shot forwards and Shirou had to slip aside, disengaging from his enemy. The insect fiend's pincer was there to meet him, and only a quick parry with the axe saved him from bisection. Metal clanged loudly against chitin, and the fiend chittered, as if irritated. The pincer snapped again and again, thwarted from slicing him into pieces only by the enchanted steel of the axe head.
Then pink flashed, and the sound of metal ringing against carapace again filled the air. This time, it wasn't him.
Utena leaped easily into the air, avoiding a preternaturally quick swipe of the pointed tail. She swung twice before she landed, the steel of her sword glancing off the carapace without penetrating. She shifted to dodge a hammer-blow from the remaining pincer before sliding inside the creature's guard and slashing repeatedly at the hard shell. The pressure on Shirou's axe lessened.
With a groan of effort, he pushed, digging his feet firmly into the ground and grinding the shining blade against the enclosing pincer. The fiend shrieked, high-pitched and unintelligible. He gritted his teeth and dug the blade in more, feeling chitin give against the edge. It wasn't enough. He needed more room, space to swing, but the pincer wasn't giving him that room. If he let up, he'd be chopped in half.
A white blur leaped onto the creature's back, and pink hair fluttered in the air as Utena slammed the tip of her saber down. Shirou caught a glimpse of light flashing off the sword, and then the fiend staggered back like a drunkard. The sudden movement threw the pink-haired girl off its back, and it rounded on her with one claw raised.
Shirou grunted again and flexed his arms. The pincer fell back, releasing him, as the fiend swung at Utena, who flipped out of the way in an impossibly-casual manner.
The axe wasn't going to work here; it lacked the punch to break the carapace and its special ability as a Noble Phantasm probably wouldn't work on a fiend, who didn't know fear. Something more direct was required. He let go of the axe, which disappeared in a brief flash of light. Once again, the tracing process began. Prana poured itself out of his body and into his hand, waiting to be molded into anything he could visualize.
The first step: judging the concept of creation. The weapon he wanted was a beautiful weapon, but only in its complete lethality. It wasn't ornamented and the only concession to art was its unique shape. It was made only for war, and that was important in its creation.
The second step: hypothesizing the basic structure. He'd only seen the weapon once, but it was enough. The shape of the blade, though interesting, wasn't particularly complicated. It was made to be a simple weapon, and not even its power as a Noble Phantasm would change that.
The third step: duplicating the composition material. Like most of the legendary blades of the day, the weapon was pattern-welded in the Damascus style. As the weapon of a prophet's greatest warrior, only the very best steel forged in the hottest furnace would suffice.
The fourth step: imitating the skill of its making. The greatest smiths of the then-nascent Muslim empire had labored night and day over this particular weapon. The amount of effort and care placed into the blade was enormous; with the potential for greatness created it was no wonder the blade would become legendary.
The fifth step: sympathizing with the experience of its growth. With every blow the sword struck, it cleaved through armor, flesh, and bone. Nothing stopped it, save at one point the attentions of an archangel.
The sixth step: reproducing the accumulated years. More than a hundred decades have passed since its forging. It has been wielded in many conflicts, often by those who didn't know what exactly they were holding. Though surpassed in power by Excalibur or Durandal, it had seen far more use than those worthy weapons. It was a truly venerable blade.
The seventh step: excelling every manufacturing process. To possess its true power, the weapon had to be perfect, an exact copy of its illustrious parent.
The perfect blade appeared in his hand, but then again, he never doubted that it wouldn't. He was average at a lot of things, but Projection was a physical representation of who he was; if he was to excel at anything it would be this.
His first strike lopped off the fiend's right pincer. He spun, dodging a clumsy swipe from the remaining limb, and swept out the scimitar in an arc that caught the afternoon light. Chitin split under the blow and the fiend chittered in agony. Once again the spiked tail shot outwards, aiming to gut him through the chest. He turned the scimitar so that its edge met the attacking limb, bisecting it lengthwise as lethal steel parted unnatural armor with ease.
This time Shirou didn't retreat; he stepped forward as the tail fell uselessly to the stone underfoot. He slammed a foot into the brute's midsection, and the force of the blow doubled his opponent over. For a second the fiend bowed its head, like a penitent kneeling before the altar...or a condemned man waiting to be beheaded.
He struck downwards with all his might. The blade once wielded by Ali ibn Abi Talib scythed downwards and took the fiend's head from its shoulders in one stroke. There was no blood; none of the fiends bled. Whether it was because of their half-demonic nature or because the magus creating them had somehow bypassed the necessary organic systems, he didn't know.
The stone beneath his feet shook again, as Utena vaulted to his side in a cartwheel that would have made most men drool.
"What do we do now?" She sheathed her saber.
"I am going to go find the magus." Shirou matched her unamused stare with his own. "Look, I'm not being chauvinist! Your saber - which I don't know how you got, by the way - isn't effective against them." The girl-prince opened her mouth, but Shirou cut her off. "You're not equipped to deal with any more fiends."
Utena folded her arms, face setting, and Shirou's stomach sank. "Why don't you just give me one of yours?"
He stalled. There had to be a way to keep her out of the fiends' way; she was good but not in their league. The estimates provided by the Church had been extremely vague; there could be anywhere from fifteen to one hundred fiends. Hell, it was possible Genesis was manufacturing them even as they spoke. Utena was good, but she was all raw potential; speed, strength, and grace without the skill to make her a truly formidable combatant. A fiend would kill her, and it went without saying he wasn't going to allow that.
And yet she was as stubborn as he was. Whatever had happened to her at the school she never talked about had hardened her, but she was still incredibly courageous and a woman of action. With that personality, she probably wasn't terribly inclined to see him fight a bunch of monsters without chipping in. If he didn't give her a weapon to keep her alive, she'd charge straight into the fiends and get herself shredded.
He squared his shoulders and prepared to argue, but the stones beneath his feet shook, and a second later thunder rumbled as the entire tower trembled. Utena nearly fell, but caught herself and planted her feet.
"Things are heating up," she observed, "what do you think it means?"
"More of them are probably escaping." Shirou felt his stomach sink. He'd been hoping to stop Genesis before the magus-turned-scientist could release his creations, but he'd underestimated the strength of each individual fiend. He was going to have to pull deeper from his armory than he had intended.
The advent of the fiends also made it clear that he couldn't leave Utena without protection. He'd be too busy trying to keep himself alive to protect her.
Shirou sighed. Mana blasted through his left hand, and within moments another scimitar appeared, identical to the first.
Utena whistled appreciatively as he handed it to her, sliding the saber back into its sheath. "That's a nice sword." She took an experimental test swing, and Shirou had to duck under the blow. "Whoops!"
The redhead sighed. "Its name is Zulfqiar. Putting it simply, it's a force multiplier. The harder you swing it, the more damage it does. Watch yourself, it might throw you off if you strike too hard."
Utena nodded, but he wasn't quite sure she understood. The pink-haired girl was a natural fighter, blessed with surprising fitness and natural coordination. She didn't measure her attacks or weigh her balance; she just moved instinctively. He would have to hope that instinct would keep her alive.
"Don't die, Tenjou-san."
He expected a flippant remark, but instead the girl nodded, face setting.
"Don't worry about it. I've still got someone to find."
What could Shirou say to that? He smiled slightly.
"Okay then. Let's go."
And together, the two heroes leaped down into the hole.
He was falling.
Pink hair flared out as Utena fell past him, slashing at something he couldn't see. Laura followed soon after, long blades extending from her knuckles as she twisted and cut. Rin was next, her skirt flapping quite indecently around her as gemstones flew from her fingers, sparkling briefly before detonating into showers of vivid color. She gave him a quick smile before plummeting into the darkness below him.
More and more people began to fall past him. He recognized Tohno Shiki as the bespectacled man flipped below him, swinging his knife wildly, but not the red-eyed, pale-haired woman who followed him, or the matching red-headed twins who came after her. He did see Ciel as the enforcer fired her massive gun into the darkness, but a second man with glasses and a wooden stick that shot flame failed to ring any bells.
Then suddenly Gilgamesh was next to him, somehow managing to look perfectly composed despite not having a place to stand. The King of Heroes stared at him for two long seconds, then suddenly smiled and gave him a thumbs up. One gold-plated hand reached out and ruffled his hair, which didn't actually bother him too much until he remembered that first of all, the ruler of Uruk would never have done such a thing, and second, he was dead.
Then Shirou woke up.
The first thing he saw was a blue sky, which didn't bother him much until he remembered he had been in the middle of a tower, and so he shouldn't be seeing the sky right now. There definitely hadn't been rock under his back, so something had happened.
He sat up, feeling something rustle underneath him, and looked around. A sea of green met his eyes, waving gently in the occasional breeze. In the distance he could see mountains, the granite-grey of their peaks rising majestically above the plains. Trees rose up in a forest to his left, and off to his right was an indistinct blob of blue that might be a lake, and near that were some grey blocks that he couldn't quite make out, even when he Reinforced his eyes.
This definitely wasn't the tower anymore. He was somewhere else, which both did and didn't surprise him. There had been nothing to suggest that Genesis' tower was situated on a time-space nexus, but stranger things had happened to Shirou before. Like somehow getting involved in a mysterious war with a legendary hero-king who should have been male but wasn't.
He stood up, his armor rustling and tapping against itself. It was time to face the facts. If he really had been catapulted back in time or sent to an alternate reality, there wasn't much he could do about it. Aozaki Aoko had refused to reveal any of the properties of the Fifth Magic, which had something to do with temporal manipulation, but had stated definitely that she had no idea how to reverse a temporal phenomenon on that kind of scale. In her own words, "Sure, I could do time travel - if I'm rested up, at full capacity, and incredibly lucky - but I wouldn't have any idea how to get back, and even if I did the probability of returning to my present is ridiculously low. Time isn't linear and logical like that, and even the most precise calculations taking into account every minor detail -which is impossible, by the way - will fail. It's not something you want to mess around with, Emiya-kun."
She had also noted that alternate realities, while easier to reach than the distant past, were incredibly ubiquitous, and that it wasn't possible to reach any single one from any other. There was an intricate system of channels that led from each reality to the next, which was the only real way to travel between them. To make matters worse, there was no real way to tell which reality was the one you were looking for until you reached it. For that reason Aoko stuck to one particular stretch of the 'multi-verse', as she liked to call it, so that she wouldn't get lost.
Shirou sighed. He wasn't very materialistic and he could always get a job working with his hands, depending on the technology level of the world or time he'd been warped into. It wasn't leaving the world itself that bothered him, but the people he was leaving behind.
Rin, Sakura, Ilya and Taiga were the first to come up, of course. Rin's amused smirk and occasional temper tantrums were a staple of everyday life, and Sakura's gentle smile and soft voice were more familiar to him than his own. Ilya and Taiga's loud, tempestuous antics were irritating and comforting at the same time, a constant in a life that didn't have too many.
Of course, it might be too early for melancholy. He still didn't know what had happened, and so there might still be a way back. At any rate, nothing was being accomplished here.
As a starting point, the lake was probably a good destination; his throat was dry. After that, he'd head towards those squat grey blocks and see if he could make his way from there.
It was a long walk to the lake.
Shirou was alert for danger, as always, but so far there was nothing to suggest it. The only movement came from the occasional gopher burrowing into the dirt, or a rabbit dashing across his path. Sometimes he saw the brown blur of a hawk gliding through the otherwise unbroken blue of the sky.
Despite these bursts of life the land around him carried a sense of peace and a feeling of serenity that not even the shrines and temples back in Fuyuki could match. The air was heavier here, carrying a sense of age. Gradually, Shirou's open hands relaxed as he walked, hanging empty at his sides. The atmosphere of the place carried a promise of endurance, that it would always remain this way no matter how long it existed. Permanence, solidity...it appealed to him.
Once, the dream was all that had mattered to him. He'd sacrificed everything for it, even chosen it over the girl he loved. Though it had been the only choice available to him, he wouldn't have changed it even if the Grail had not been debased into a sick shadow of itself. He'd already asked her to be untrue to herself; how could he compound the insult by doing so himself? Ideals had been a part of them both, and they'd fallen in love because of who they were and what they held dear. To abandon that, even a little, was like abandoning her.
He'd never considered that maybe he could have the life others took for granted; maybe opening his own shop, settling down, maybe getting married -
Where had that thought come from?
Shirou shook his head resolutely and continued his march. He'd come too far on his chosen path to turn now. His ideals were everything to him, and as for living the simple life there was only one woman he would have married.
The air of this place was affecting him strangely. He briefly considered the possibility of a subversive mental attack, then disregarded it. Caution was healthy, but paranoia was not, and the effect of this kind of attack was questionable. The memories and feelings dredged up by such a tactic were ineffective at best.
Which begged the question again: where was he?
He realized with a start that his walk had carried him far closer to the grey blocks than he'd expected. At this range, they were no longer indistinct rectangles but now proud fortresses, castles made of grey stone and proud, up-thrusting battlements. The castles all had moats, long meandering ditches dug deep in the dirt and winding around the constructs of stone and mortar like serpents.
The time travel theory was starting to seem more likely; there were certainly castles that still existed in Europe but they were dull, feeble relics of a time long past. These fortresses looked strong and vigorous, with a sense of pride the ruins he'd seen had lacked. Out of a whim, he picked the westernmost and continued towards it. As he closed on the structure, he noticed suddenly that he was not alone.
Two men stood on either side of the gate, one a massive man with broad shoulders and a huge chest and the other whip-thin with a wiry body. The big man wore a suit of metal plate that completely encased his body and a visored helmet that concealed his face; his smaller compatriot eschewed plate for a tabard woven of emerald cloth, under which Shirou could see the glimpse of mail rings, and the helmet for a blocky great helm that eschewed the visor for a pair of eye slits.
Both these men were armed; the taller man had a sword sheathed at his waist, while the shorter one bore a long axe in both hands. They moved slightly as he approached; wary but not yet hostile.
"Who goes there?" The first knight asked mildly, and Shirou's trained eye caught the hand that dropped unobtrusively to hang near his sword. The man spoke English, which Shirou was surprised to discover he understood perfectly. Odd, he never finished his English lessons and wasn't fluent at all.
"I'm Emiya Shirou," he began, and stopped, shocked. He only knew a few words of English, of which those that introduced himself were a majority, but they came out with no accent, as smooth as if he had been born speaking the dialect.
"Emi...ya?" the knight rolled the unfamiliar sounds around his tongue. "A strange name you carry, as well as a strange predicament you bring." The words came out muffled by his visor. "You are not one of our fellowship. You should not be here."
"I had realized that," Shirou said dryly, "I don't particularly want to be here either."
The words dropped away into an awkward silence. Both knights stared at him, and even though their faces were concealed by their full-face helmets Shirou could feel the intensity of their gazes. He returned the hidden stares calmly.
Then, the first knight took off his helmet, revealing a strong, clean-shaven face, with high cheekbones and a regal cast to his features. Chagrin was clear in his expression, and he smiled ruefully at Shirou, dropping his free hand from the sword hilt.
"My apologies, good sir. I spoke out of turn. Though your appearance is disconcerting, we should not have reacted the way we did." He glanced meaningfully at his companion, who planted the haft of his axe on the ground. "You are of course welcome to our hospitality here, goodman Syrowe."
Shirou considered it, though the situation didn't really require a depth of thought. He had no idea where he was and how he got there. The knight had said he shouldn't be here, though whether that meant as an extra-dimensional exile or as a general area-restricted type of thing he wasn't sure. However, he had been offered hospitality, so that probably ruled out the latter. At any rate, there was no reason not to take the knights up on their offer.
And that was another thing. Knights, actual honest-to-god knights! Granted, the Church still maintained knightly orders but most of those equipped themselves more along modern-day lines. Riesbyfe Stridberg, for example, dressed more like a member of a bizarrely-somber marching band than a Teutonic Knight, and the holy shield Gamaliel certainly wasn't anything like the traditional swords and axes wielded by her spiritual ancestors. The time travel theory looked more and more plausible now.
At any rate, he could think this over in the castle where, presumably, he would have something to eat. He nodded gently.
"I'd be delighted to, sir - ?" He realized he hadn't gotten the knight's name, and paused inquisitively.
"Oh! Forgive me, goodman Syrowe." Shirou winced again at the butchering of his name. "My name is Sir Calogrenant," the knight bowed again, this time more deeply, and gestured at his comrade, "and this is Sir Caradoc." The knight in green said nothing but inclined his head.
"Pleased to meet you, sirs." Shirou smiled slightly as the words flowed naturally from his lips. Whatever this place was, it seemed to lessen the communication barrier; his exact intent was expressed as clearly as it could be through the words of a language he didn't know well at all. At the very least, it saved him the time of trying to make himself understood while men in metal plate waved sharp implements at him threateningly.
"Follow me, goodman Syrowe." A groan issued between the two knights, as the massive portcullis began to rise. "The king and his counselors will want to see you, and perhaps we can work out a solution to this dilemma."
The doors slammed open, and Sir Calogrenant strode purposely into the hall. Shirou followed at a more sedate pace, keeping a keen eye on his surroundings. It was a big room, walled off with stone and almost cavernous in its scope. The ceiling stretched high above him, farther than he would have expected for a castle. Maybe his estimates were incorrect...but no, he was rarely wrong when it came to matters of perception.
This entire area...world, possibly...was off. Too many discrepancies that couldn't be easily explained. And then there was the matter of the knights, and also his sudden proficiency in English...no, no reason to get into that. It was going to hurt his head.
One thing that made sense, though: the tables were long and sturdy, with matching wooden benches instead of chairs. Whether or not that was historically accurate, it was certainly more convenient and efficient than making individual chairs. This route probably saved a lot of reconstruction from drunken bar brawls. A great many men sat astride the benches, having some kind of afternoon repast. They ate heartily, clinked mugs together, and even engaged in the occasional arm-wrestling match, with no particular concern for any food nearby.
Something with an uncanny resemblance to mud landed noisily on the ground next to Shirou's foot and he stepped away in reflex, casting the stuff a wary glance. Sir Calogrenant laughed heartily at his discomfort.
"My apologies, goodman Syrowe. My fellows are...boisterous," here Shirou watched as a slim, shy-looking youth accepted a challenge from a heavily-bearded man twice his size and then promptly slammed the bigger man's hand down to the table, "but they are all men of great valor and character; they would not be allowed into our brotherhood otherwise."
Shirou smiled slightly. "I don't doubt it."
The knight gestured, and continued down the long hall, returning the greetings of the various men at the table. Shirou followed him. Many of them gave him curious looks, and he responded with polite nods and smiles, giving nothing away.
The end of the hall sported another table, but unlike its compatriots this one was a flat circle instead of a long rectangle. Individual chairs were set around the massive table. All were empty, save one in which a bored-looking man slouched. He held a naked blade in one hand, running it along a whetstone with patient scraping motions.
Sir Calogrenant approached the table, and the man looked up. Watchful hazel eyes took in the knight, then focused behind him on Shirou.
"Calogrenant," he greeted the other knight, giving his sword one last scrape before laying it down on the table before him. He leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms. "Who is your friend?"
Calogrenant's face settled into a calm mask, but Shirou noticed his cheek twitch. "Sir Kay. We have an unexpected guest. I wanted to inform the king about him."
The man named Sir Kay narrowed his eyes. "The king is currently indisposed; you may inform me instead." The entire time his gaze did not leave Shirou's face.
Sir Calogrenant shrugged. "There is very little to tell, truly. He is not of the brotherhood, yet he is present. It should not be possible."
"Then why not consult the wizard?" Sir Kay waved a hand carelessly. "Surely matters of magic should be presented to those who enjoy those things, and not worthy of the attention of the king?" He picked up an apple resting on his plate and bit into it, discarding it after only a few bites.
This time Shirou was sure he saw Calogrenant's jaw clench. "The Lord Wizard comes and goes as he will and the Lady Priestess is always at the king's side. I had hoped to find them here and not trouble you with such an insignificant matter." His words came with icy politeness.
Kay smirked. "If this is so insignificant a matter, it can wait until the king returns from her sojourn. I would of course not presume to take on airs by assuming kingly responsibilities while our rightful monarch is absent." One hand flapped dismissively. "As of course this is not of pressing urgency I believe we can wait for Her Majesty's judgment instead of bothering her with something so trivial."
"And how long is the king to be occupied?" Calogrenant inquired, his face giving away nothing but his voice clearly strained. Kay shrugged, a smirk tilting his mouth upwards.
"I've no idea." He turned his attention back to the apple on his plate, picking it up again and crunching into it noisily. Shirou glanced at his guide, then back at the eating knight, but Kay showed no sign of engaging in any further conversation. Calogrenant seemed to pick up on this as well; the knight bowed stiffly, his still-helmeted head dipping slightly less than was appropriate, and strode away. With one last glance at the busily-occupied Kay, Shirou followed.
"I must offer my sincere apologies, goodman Syrowe." Calogrenant explained five minutes later, when both of them were seated at one of the long tables. "Sir Kay is the king's seneschal and rules in her stead. His decisions are as the king's." The knight had taken off his helmet, revealing a proud, high-boned face topped with short brown hair. "Hopefully she will not be absent for too long; your predicament should be attended to as soon as possible."
Shirou nodded, crossing his arms idly. The hall was winding down; most of the inhabitants had left the hall, and servants were now busy cleaning up the detritus left by their presence. Kay still lounged at the higher table, making acidic comments at any unfortunate servant whose duties took them past him. The faker frowned. It was a point of his to avoid judging anyone on first impressions, yet Sir Kay seemed to be going out of his way to make a bad one.
Calogrenant noticed the direction of his gaze and sighed. "I am sorry for your treatment. Sir Kay can be...difficult at times. He is...prickly and temperamental, but he is the foster brother of our lord and they are very close. I do not know why he chooses to act as he does, but he must have a good reason for it."
One look at the knight's face told Shirou he wasn't convinced of his own words, but he kept his peace. There was something else he wanted to ask.
"Speaking of your lord," he began, "is -"
He tried to find a way to phrase his question politely. Calogrenant looked blankly at him.
"Does-" after a few minutes of verbal flailing, he just stopped. A blunt question seemed the only way to get it across. He took a deep breath.
"Is your lord a woman?"
Calogrenant's blank stare turned knowing. "Oh! Yes, our sovereign king and lord happens to be of the gentler persuasion." He puffed his chest out in pride.
That was not the reaction Shirou had been expecting. He blinked. Calogrenant noticed, and gave a wry smile.
"Yes, it must be strange to see a knight who is proud of serving under a woman." The bigger man looked contemplative for a moment. "To be honest, we did not know of her identity for quite some time; we all believed her to be a man."
Shirou raised an eyebrow, and in response Calogrenant colored. "Well, yes," the knight admitted, "there is that, but you must understand that extenuating circumstances were involved."
Shirou let it drop. Pursuing it would only make Calogrenant uncomfortable, and there was no need to antagonize his host. He would meet this lady king soon enough. What would she be like? It was a given that she would be strong and assertive, in order to maintain her hold over so many fractious warriors. It was quite probable that she would be a great fighter as well; men naturally held the advantage in that field but it was possible for a woman to excel.
He smirked to himself at the understatement. How many badass women did he know? Rin was a genius magus and quite the master of Chinese martial arts, Utena knew her way around a sword, and Laura was incredible speed, deadly skill, and metal claws wrapped up in a five-foot package. Ayako was no slouch with a bow, Aoko commanded magic that did nothing but explode, and that Ryougi woman was...very scary, to say the least. Add them to the legends of Boudicca, Joan of Arc, and Tomyris and this warrior queen was very much possible.
But she wasn't a queen, was she?
"Sir Calogrenant," Shirou began, and the knight straightened up, looking at him inquiringly, "why call your lord a king? If she's a woman, why not call her a queen?"
Calogrenant fidgeted uncomfortably. "We already have a queen." His tone brooked no disagreement.
Shirou frowned, irritated with himself. If he was going to ask pointless questions he should probably pick his subjects more carefully. "My apologies." The knight nodded his head stiffly, all traces of amity gone, and turned away. Shirou cursed silently; he'd antagonized the only friendly face he was likely to get, and he still didn't understand how.
Then something pounded upon the gates, firmly and forcefully. Immediately Sir Calogrenant leaped to his feet. For a moment Shirou thought they were under attack, but the joyful expression on the big knight's face soon proved otherwise.
"Open the gate!" Calogrenant thundered. Immediately, six of the knights still present rushed to the gates, pulling them open with all their strength. The doors opened quickly, to Shirou's amazement; they should have needed at least twelve men to open, judging by their size. His respect for these fighting men went up.
The tap of boots against stone drew his attention; Sir Kay moved quickly down from the head of the table, eagerness plain on his face. It transformed his sharp features from the sour countenance he had been wearing, and he looked almost boyish.
Sunlight streamed in through the open doors as every knight in the hall swarmed towards them. Shirou rose from the bench and followed behind them, curious to catch a glimpse of the new arrivals.
Two knights walked through the doors first, both clad in full plate armor and with visored helmets masking their faces. They wore swords at their belts and carried the distinctive heater shields in their left hands. Long cloaks of ermine and velvet trailed from their shoulder pauldrons, and they marched straight into the mass of knights, shouldering them aside gently and making room for the rest of their party.
The man who followed them was taller than both of them, and his own armor was not merely silver but enameled white. He went unhelmeted, and his face was deeply tanned. Unruly black hair spilled down the sides of his face and his eyes were the color of coal, dark and piercing with the kind of gaze that could freeze a man in his tracks. Despite that, the gentle smile on his lips dispelled any appearance of cruelty and distance.
Beside him walked a vision of beauty, a woman whose every step was one of dainty grace. Her bearing was noble and her posture straight, with tresses a bright crimson falling down past her shoulders. Her eyes were sea-green, green so mixed and intertwined with blue it was almost turquoise, and they blazed with passion and joy so brightly it was easy to see why the man beside her was smiling.
Beaming, Calogrenant rushed over to them and knelt, his big frame settling heavily onto the ground. Laughing, the white knight hauled him up by his shoulders and the two embraced, slapping each other's backs. When they were done, Calogrenant bowed deeply to the woman, who took his head in her hands and stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheeks. The obvious affection evident in the interactions made Shirou smile.
And then the last three individuals walked through the gate.
With a clatter of iron, every single man in the room fell to his knees and bowed his head, Calogrenant doing so for the second time in as many minutes. Even the white knight knelt, and the woman curtseyed. Shirou blinked as the sea of grey and silver suddenly dropped to the ground.
"Please, get up. You need not kneel to me."
The voice was soft and husky, but it had a musical lilt to it that gave life to the words it spoke. It was not overtly feminine nor particularly distinctive. It could have belonged to anyone, and yet Shirou sat spellbound because he knew that voice. His attention shifted to the speaker.
She stood between the opened gates, resplendent in her gleaming silver armor and the blue of her dress glowing in the rays of the afternoon sun. Her hair was done up in the familiar style, bangs framing a face like porcelain. Those green eyes, as bright as he remembered them but this time filled with emotions she had never expressed back then. Her beauty had been that of a statue, cold and austere and lacking in warmth. Now, the mouth that had so often been set into a hard line was softened, curving into a half smile that spoke of joy and vigor. Her countenance was no longer hard and bleak.
And Shirou felt himself fall in love with her all over again.
He rose from the bench, mouth working nervelessly, and stepped towards her, heedless of the kneeling knights around him. She turned at the sound of his footsteps, eyes narrowing and a gauntleted hand going to the sword slung on her back. He saw no acknowledgement in those eyes and for one horrible moment his heart fell.
Then the light of recognition flared in the green orbs and her half-smile became a true one. Her hand dropped from the sword hilt and she ran towards him, boots clicking quickly against the stone. He sprang towards her, opening his arms, and they met in the middle of the hall. He wrapped his arms around her, breathed in the scent of her hair, and felt her hands go to his neck.
And for a long moment, their lips met.
A shocked silence fell over the assembled knights. The white knight was concealing a smile behind one gauntlet, while his companion stared at the unfolding tableau with wide eyes. Calogrenant's mouth gaped open like a fish. Shirou, of course, noticed none of this.
Eventually, they broke apart, breathing hard. She smiled up at him, green eyes alight with joyful surprise.
He felt an answering grin split his face. "Hi, Saber. Long time no see."
The following minutes were a blur, until Shirou found himself seated at the high table, with the clamor and bustle of the knights returning. Strangely enough, or perhaps not so strangely, Saber's arrival had preceded a general trend; more and more armored knights seemed to enter through the gates than before. Or perhaps this was because darkness was falling and those same worthy knights didn't want to spend the night outside. Shirou couldn't really bring himself to care.
"Shirou? Are you still with us?"
The teasing tone to her voice (something he had rarely heard before) pulled him out of his stupor and he looked up to see her smiling at him.
"Yeah, sorry." He grinned sheepishly. "You were saying?"
"There are some people I would like to introduce you to." She gestured to the man in white armor, who stepped forward. "This is my oldest friend, and one of my best knights." Something like thoughtfulness took hold of her green eyes. "Oh, but that in itself has likely revealed his name to you, has it not?"
That was new. The Saber he had known never had time for conversational frivolities and rhetorical questions. She had made herself into a tool with one purpose: to win the Holy Grail War and acquire her wish. Nor did she have many tones of voice; there was really only the cold, no-nonsense mode of conversation. Not that he missed any of that, if he was perfectly honest. There was a playful way to her words that was quite endearing.
"Probably," he shrugged, smiling, and stood up. "But since it's impolite to assume things, let's pretend I don't know."
Saber nodded. "Very well then. Emiya Shirou, this is Sir Lancelot du Lac, Knight of the Lake and master of Joyous Gard."
The white knight bowed deeply, a singularly graceful motion that betrayed an ease of motion not common even in seasoned fighters. "A pleasure to meet you, goodman Emiya."
"Uh, it's just Shirou, if you don't mind," Shirou replied, suddenly feeling awkward. "I think you're the one who deserves a title, Sir Lancelot."
Lancelot smiled. "Perhaps, perhaps not. I would argue the point," he cast an affectionate glance at Saber, "but my liege lord would not hear of it." He offered his hand, which Shirou shook, finding the legendary knight's grip to be strong, but not bone-crushingly so. Right then it suddenly occurred to him that he was shaking the hand of a legend. He probably should be more affected by this.
"Yeah," Shirou was surprised to feel himself smirk, "she doesn't like to hear a lot of things."
Saber's glare was full of mock anger. "You should watch your tongue, Shirou. Were I not so fond of you I would make you eat your disrespectful words."
Shirou's eyes widened slightly. Saber, acknowledging affection? Being sarcastic? Something had changed. Her entire demeanor was different. His Servant had never been so open...but then again, maybe that was the point. Here, she wasn't a Servant anymore.
"Shirou? Are you well?"
He smiled at her obvious concern. "Yeah, I'm fine. It's...um, good to see you again, Sa- I mean Arturia."
Her answering smile made his heart jump a little. "I feel the same."
Lancelot looked between them with interest, but said nothing. Saber - Arturia turned, and the red-haired beauty Shirou had seen earlier stepped forward. She was even more breathtaking close up; her features were the classical embodiment of aesthetic perfection. It was as if she had stepped out of a painting.
Having been introduced to her companion, Shirou was already certain he knew her identity, and it was confirmed when Saber spoke up once more.
"This is Guinevere, princess of Cameliard and daughter of my ally King Leodegrance. Gwen, this is Emiya Shirou, a very good friend of mine."
"And more than that, if that display in the hall was anything to go by." Guinevere's voice was no less stunning than her appearance, a gentle whisper as smooth as silk and as soft as a summer breeze. "Really, Arturia. Even if you hadn't kissed the man in full view of your knights, the stories you tell about him reveal everything. You're not very good at hiding your feelings, dear."
Arturia flushed, stammering incoherently as bright red stained her cheeks. Guinevere serenely ignored her, turning instead to address Shirou. "Pay her no mind, goodman Shirou." Shirou noticed that, unlike Calogrenant's vocal stumbling, the princess pronounced his name perfectly, as had Lancelot earlier. "It is quite the opportunity to meet you."
"And you, Guinevere." Lancelot stiffened slightly, and Shirou cursed to himself. "I'm sorry - princess Guinevere." He'd allowed himself to get hypnotized by the melodious current of her voice; it was nothing like he'd ever heard before.
The princess offered him a weary smile, wry yet understanding. "It is alright. I appear to have that effect upon many people. A pity neither Meleagant nor Valerin were as polite as you."
Lancelot's eyes flashed at the mention of the names. "Blackhearts and yellow-livered curs the both of them. They overstepped their bounds."
Arturia sighed, sitting down at the table, which was apparently a signal for the others to sit as well. "They both met their ends, Lance: Meleagant at your sword and Valerin at Sir Toshiro's. I would rather not speak of them; they are long-dead and not missed."
"Of course, my lord." Lancelot agreed. "I should not taint your day of happiness with such remembrances."
The once-and-future king gave her knight a grateful nod. "Thank you, Lance." She turned again, fixing Shirou with her bright green eyes. "But there is an order of business to attend to." Arturia hesitated.
"Shirou...as happy as I am to see you here, how is it that you came to be here? It should not be possible for you to exist in this realm."
Shirou frowned. "Yeah, Sir Calogrenant said something about that too, but he didn't elaborate." He shrugged. "I don't know. One moment I was fighting hybrid monsters and the next I woke up in a meadow."
Arturia regarded him with such an intense stare he began to feel uncomfortable. Not that he had any objections to being looked at, especially by her, but the gaze she currently had fixed upon him was vaguely similar to the look she tended to give Gilgamesh when he was spouting off his nonsense. He shifted awkwardly in his seat.
Lancelot saved him. "Perhaps you should let him explain, milord. Your stare, as effective as it is in unnerving your foes, is not the best tool for this situation."
Guinevere laughed, the sound like a harp. "He's not a Roman ambassador, Arturia." She favored Shirou with a wink. "He's much more pleasant since he isn't demanding tribute, allegiance, your beard, or some other such nonsense."
Roman? Shirou cocked an eyebrow. From what tales of King Arthur he had made himself read, the monarch had supposedly existed in the early Middle Ages. This clashed rather badly with established history, which claimed the Britons had been eliminated by their Saxon enemies long before then. Adding to the mess was the tendency for history itself to be rather confused when Heroic Spirits were involved.
"You fought Romans, S- Arturia?"
Arturia's blush had subsided, and she nodded. "Yes. His name was Lucius Tiberius. He styled himself Emperor not only of Rome but of Gaul and even Britain. He demanded that I pay tribute to him and acknowledge him as my liege lord. I refused, of course, but at the time I was quite busy establishing my claim over the rebels who would usurp my throne. Once I had subdued Lot, Nanters, Carados and the others, I had the time to repay his threats and arrogant proclamations."
As she talked, Arturia grew more animated, hands moving quickly in short, sharp gestures. She'd taken off her gauntlets, and so Shirou could see her limbs move with a dainty grace that belied both her speed and power. He smiled slightly to see her so excited.
Guinevere was watching the girl-turned-king as well, and there was a fond light in her sea-green eyes. Lancelot's face was sterner and more martial, as to be expected, but the same quality could be found in his darker gaze if Shirou looked hard enough.
"...After I subdued the bandits and raiders who preyed on Britain's coasts, I took my armies and sailed to Gaul. There I encountered the Roman Legions, but under a rebellious commander named Flollo who was resisting his emperor. He knew he could not defeat my army, so he retreated into Paris. My scouts told me he was attempting to gather more forces. Instead of giving him the time, my army besieged the town..."
"...the Romans were relocated and my armies marched onward to vanquish the Roman Emperor," Arturia concluded. "It requires its own story, but I think that is enough for this repast."
"You know," Shirou said slowly, "back during the war, you called me out for wanting to save everyone."
Arturia nodded, but he could detect a chastened air about her. She knew where this was going.
"You, King Arthur," the faker said with great dignity, "are a hypocrite."
Guinevere threw her head back and laughed, the clear, high tone ringing through the chamber. Lancelot only smiled, but his eyes sparkled with mirth.
"I had thought this already well-established," remarked the white knight, "Our most gracious lord has a very good head when telling others what not to do, but fails tremendously in following her own advice."
Arturia turned red again, and seeing this Shirou headed off the oncoming explosion. "It's fine, it's fine. I would be just as big of a hypocrite if I was actually mad at you about this."
And he wasn't. Leaving aside the fact that Arturia would have to do a lot to get him genuinely angry, he had come to terms with the world and its refusal to countenance his ideals. That didn't mean he wouldn't stop trying to protect as many as he could, but he now understood why everyone around him thought he was either naive or insane. He smiled gently at Arturia, hoping to convey these sentiments that way instead of through imperfect, stumbling words. In return he received another smile so uninhibited he could honestly not remember seeing during the days of the Grail War. Though Guinevere said nothing and Lancelot chose to take a discreet sip of ale, he had the feeling they hadn't missed it.
"Very well," Arturia nodded, "but I still wish to know how and why you are here, Shirou." She cast a scathing glance at Lancelot, who only smiled. "Lance may have diverted me once, but no more."
Shirou shrugged. "I don't know what to tell you. And by the way, mind telling me where here is, anyway?"
"Avalon." his three companions all responded simultaneously. They glanced at each other in mild surprise, then Lancelot took up the thread of conversation.
"You know, of course, of the contracts the Grail makes with those it deems worthy?" Shirou nodded. "My lord's contract was different than, for example, mine. Instead of making it with the Grail she made it with the World itself, and instead of being placed on the Throne of Heroes, she was instead offered the chance to compete for the Grail indefinitely. If she won, she would then become one of the Counter-Guardians to help the world stave off chaos." His words were neutral, but his tone definitely conveyed disapproval.
For a moment Shirou's mind betrayed him by conjuring up an image of Arturia wearing both Archer's ubiquitous red cloak and black armor, and his characteristic smirk. In order to stop himself from laughing, he asked the first question he could think of.
"So you weren't a complete Heroic Spirit?" Arturia nodded. "Is that why you couldn't go into spirit form even when the others could." Arturia nodded again, red coloring her cheeks. "So...that wasn't my fault?" Again Arturia nodded, blushing. Guinevere chuckled.
Arturia shook her head as if to clear it and returned to the story. "After I realized that you were indeed correct and there was no reason to rewrite the past, I let go of my wish and returned to my body. The World had somehow frozen time at the exact point before I would have died of my wounds."
How did that even work, Shirou wondered. That specific point in history was frozen, so nothing could happen after that...but time flowed still, so obviously the Grail could correct for that. Still, that meant she could be summoned multiple times to any point in time because she was outside of it...
He decided to stop thinking about it before his brain broke.
"When I decided I no longer wanted the Grail, the terms of the contract were broken. I was finally allowed to die."
Shirou shivered just at the thought of her death. She noticed and put a hand gently over his own, removing it after a moment.
"Merlin had given me a prophecy, a long time ago," she continued. "He said that, long after I had laid down the burden of kingship, I would have a chance at happiness with someone. He said that in order for me to have this chance, I would have to wait forever. To fulfill that prophecy, the other person would have to search forever." She sniffed. "To be honest, I never did believe him."
"Avalon is the idea of the world that I fought for when I was alive, so that when I finally died I ended up here." She smiled again. "It is...most pleasant to be with my warriors and yet be free of responsibilities here."
"So... this is your version of Valhalla... your heaven." Shirou replied. It was incredible, then. He hadn't just jumped realities, then; he'd crossed over into a land created solely from ideals and hopes, a world that could never exist in the reality that he called home. It was his old Servant's fondest wish.
"It's good that you're here. I don't know anyone who deserves it more."
Arturia's cheeks flamed spectacularly, the returned reddish color contrasting sharply against her pale skin.
"Aye," Lancelot murmured, and the blonde knight shot him a dirty glare even as the blush climbed higher.
"But how are you here, Shirou?" Guinevere mused. "This is a plane for the spirits of the deceased, and from what I gather you are not yet deceased."
"I can explain that."
Guinevere stiffened noticeably, while Lancelot's face took on a neutral cast. Shirou looked up and saw two new individuals approaching their table.
The first thing he noticed about the woman who stood before them was, naturally, her eyes. They were exactly the same shade as Arturia's, but filled with a depth of understanding and sorrow that even the British king's could not match. Long black hair trailed down her shoulders and her back, spilling over the simple black dress she wore.
"Morgana," Arturia smiled warmly, standing up from her seat. Lancelot and Guinevere rose dutifully, as did Shirou half a second later, though neither of them looked pleased.
"Sister," the other woman replied, mirroring her smile. They embraced, and Arturia turned to Shirou.
"Shirou, this is my sister Morgana."
"A pleasure," Morgana inclined her head. Shirou bowed in response, and as he did he felt the surge of mana within the newcomer's body.
Morgana pivoted to address the other two. "Guinevere, Lancelot. It is heartening to see you both well."
Lancelot tilted his head, barely noticeably, and Guinevere smiled tightly. Arturia looked between the three, a frown lurking on her lips. Tension crackled in the air, and then Shirou decided it was best to intervene.
"What were you saying, mi'lady?"
Morgana fixed him with a gentle gaze. "It is just Morgana now, if you please. And yes, Shirou," like the others she pronounced his name perfectly, leading Shirou to wonder how often Arturia had talked about him, "I know why you are here, though it is somewhat bizarre."
The faker shrugged. "I've had plenty of that ever since I was six years old."
Morgana sat down gracefully on a nearby chair, neatly pulling out her skirts as she did so. Her companion, an armored knight wearing a full-visored helmet, remained standing.
"You know that Avalon exists outside of time and space, like the Holy Grail. The passing of eternity means nothing here. There was no beginning, and there will be no end." She smirked, a rather striking expression on her equally-stunning face. "I have been watching you ever since Arturia arrived here in Avalon, but since time does not exist I cannot tell you how long in terms that would make sense."
Shirou raised an eyebrow. "The sun's been moving along the sky since I got here. That means you have days, don't you?"
Morgana laughed, an elegant thing. "And what do they mean? Avalon is a construction of my sister's making; the days only pass because she is used to them doing so. They mean absolutely nothing."
A sinking feeling settled in the faker's chest. "So...I could pull a Rip van Winkle?" Morgan cocked an eyebrow. "I'll come back decades later than the point I came from," he amended.
The enchantress let out a breath, eyes darkening and face taking on a grim cast. "Ah, yes. As Avalon resides outside the stream of time, it is not affected by time's passing. You are now outside time; should you step back into it you will do so at the moment you left it."
"Great, so how do I get back?" Shirou stood, brushing off his hands.
To his surprise, the enchantress scowled. "Are you so eager to leave our company?" Sarcasm dripped from her voice. "Find you our presence trying?"
His long experience with women warning him of a pitfall, Shirou backpedaled. "Of course not!" he hedged, "but I still have things to do." His weak excuse apparently did not satisfy the sorceress, who looked down at him with something approaching anger.
"Was he always this monumentally stupid?" Morgana demanded of Arturia, ignoring him. The British king said nothing, not meeting her gaze. The enchantress snapped her gaze back up, fixing Shirou with a cold stare.
"Must I elucidate even more for you? If you leave here," Morgana enunciated, as if talking to a small child, "you will never see us again. Do I have to continue?" She sniffed in derision. "Of course I do. You spent a week convincing my sister you were quite in love with her, somehow persuading her to let go of the goal that defined her life, and now that you are finally reunited with her you are just going to return to your foolish, unenlightened crusade?" Her voice had risen to the level of a shout. "You are a liar, Emiya Shirou. You are a hollow shell of a human being, obsessed with the wishes of a dying man. You hold no true hopes or goals for yourself beyond pursuing a fallacy and refusing to reconsider that perhaps your purpose is futile." Morgan lifted her chin, and though he towered over the seated sorceress Shirou suddenly felt tiny. The true meaning of what she had said, under all the haranguing, struck him.
"I...can't come back here?"
Morgan lifted her chin haughtily. "By all rights you should not be here now, but the prophecy has been fulfilled. When Merlin told me of this even I considered it unlikely, but it has become truth. She has waited, and now you have come."
Shirou cast a glance at Arturia, who still refused to look up at him. This was what she wanted, wasn't it? A utopia where she no longer had to bear the terrible responsibility of kingship, surrounded by her loyal warriors, and now with her lover at her side. She had waited for him, and now he was here. And now he had to consider the question, did he want to leave? Avalon represented his ideals as much as hers. No one died here; life and joy were the mainstays of this paradise. Here no one fought or died, and everyone could seek their happy ending. Here there was no need for a hero to make sure those happy endings would happen.
Did he even want to be a hero anymore? It was a hard and thankless life, putting his life and usually his friends' in danger to save people who as often cursed him as thanked him. His same friends had often urged him to abandon his path; Rin simply told him it was stupid, Ilya wanted him to spend more time with her, Sakura disliked how frequently he came home bleeding, and Shiki constantly yelled at him for "having to take time off from humanizing Ryougi and save your sorry ass," Honestly, he had never liked being a hero once he had become one. It was always pain and fear, desperation that he might not save those people and a burning determination that he had to, no matter the cost.
Being a hero may have been his dream, but once he achieved it it was never something he looked forward to.
Avalon was seductive. It called to him, and what it represented was oh-so-tempting. Peace, someplace to escape his burdens, and the company of the woman he loved most.
For the first time in his life, Shirou had no idea what to do.
"Might I add my thoughts?" Lancelot's gentle voice pulled him back to the present. "Everyone here has known each other since the days of the Table Round. We know each other well, perhaps too well. A new face would be most welcomed, and as Arturia's beloved the knights would treat you with the utmost respect."
"Lance," Guinevere chided, and the knight scratched his head in embarrassment. She turned her brilliant eyes on Shirou. "We cannot tell you what you want, Shirou, and even if we could we would not. A person's fate is theirs to choose." She paused, grimacing. "It may seem an empty platitude, but follow your heart. Listen to it, and it will tell you what you must do."
"Whichever choice you make, it will not be easy," Morgana put in, and he saw that her eyes had softened, though her tone had not. "You stand at a crossroads, and there is no turning back. You had best consider this choice wisely."
"But not now, I think," Arturia suddenly cut in for the first time, locking eyes with Shirou. "It is about time for our evening repast, and I do not wish for you to worry away your time here. Put it aside, for now."
Lancelot grinned abruptly. "I have just the tale to lighten your mood; let me tell you of the malicious dwarf who sought to steal the under-clothes of every man and woman in Camelot..."
Shirou was still chuckling long after supper had ended and the various knights had adjourned to their quarters. Normally, Lancelot had explained, warriors slept in the hall, but Avalon defied the normal rules and each knight had his own set of rooms. Arturia's subconscious was apparently considerate like that.
When he asked where he would sleep, Morgana had given him an evil look and opened her mouth before Guinevere hastily intervened and said, "Arturia will show you." Which had led him here, to this spacious room that was apparently Arturia's.
"This is a nice room." The bed alone was the biggest he had ever seen, though having lived in a country where futons were more the preferred furniture for sleeping, perhaps his experience was limited. Lengths of cloth analogous to curtains hung around the bed, seemingly intended for privacy, though why privacy would be needed for the bed only was ambiguous. There were really only two activities conducted on a bed, one required no privacy and the other was too noisy for curtains to really conceal.
"I am glad you like it." Arturia's smile was the brightest it had been since Morgana had brought up the issue of leaving. Shirou chose tactfully not to broach it right now.
"So...where do I sleep?"
Arturia laughed, startling him. He still wasn't quite used to this more emotional version of his former Servant, but that wasn't to say he didn't like it.
"On this bed, Shirou. I am certain it is large enough for both of us."
"Well, yeah," he fumbled, wondering why he was so awkward. This was Saber, for gods' sake. Not only had they slept together in a futon, they had slept together in a crumbling old church while a semidivine killing machine hunted for them, "but is it proper?"
Arturia radiated amusement. "Proper is what I say it is, Shirou, and what I say now is for my former Master to cease prattling and join me in bed." She suited actions to words by leaping nimbly onto the massive bed and pulling herself underneath the comforter.
Shirou gave a mental shrug and then a physical one to get out of his red cloak. The crimson cloth fluttered to the ground without much of an effort. His armor took more effort, but after a few minutes he was dressed only in the cloth tunic and pants he wore under it. With that done, he lingered awkwardly near the side of the bed.
"You act as if we had never done this before." Arturia's soft voice reached his ears as she looked at him. "If my memories do not betray me, we shared the same futon, which is much smaller than this bed."
"At your insistence," he grumbled half-heartedly. "I didn't want you to do it."
"Are you saying you do not want to share this bed with me?" Arturia's eyes went wide with mock surprise. "You find me displeasing to the eye, perhaps?"
"No," he admitted, and decided to get it over with. He slipped under the covers, flailing around for a moment. The bed was so big. He was drowning in its softness, and for a bed of a centuries-old type it was very comfortable.
Arms closed around him from behind, nudging him in the right direction. He turned into the embrace, coming nose-to-nose with Arturia. Her lips quirked at him and he smiled back, pulling her tight into the crevice of his own arms.
It finally hit him; he was in bed with his lover, the subject of countless dreams both innocuous and erotic. She was tangible and warm beside him, without the specter of the Holy Grail War hanging over them to cast its black shadow.
He didn't intend to kiss her, at least not at first. He glimpsed a flash of green as her eyes widened, then felt the tiny moan she released against his lips. One small hand laid itself across his cheek while the other gripped the back of his neck.
Shirou wondered, for a fleeting moment, whether or not he could even consider leaving now, but then Arturia was tugging at his shirt and thought stopped all together.
The sunlight shining through the glass window woke him up.
Normally, he would be out of bed as soon as the sun rose, checking with the agents who provided him information to see if there was a crisis he had to avert. There was always something to do, whether it was to Reinforce the support girders of an earthquake-stricken skyscraper or defend a town from a horde of undead.
Today, he just lay in the bed and watched the world wake up.
A slight stirring within his armcage made him look down. Arturia slept pressed to his chest, her breaths wisping against his bare skin. She looked even more like a young girl than she normally did, the cares of conscious life absent from her countenance. As he watched she mumbled something and shifted position against him, trailing fingers across his back. He smiled and relaxed into the bed, letting his eyes droop shut again.
When next he awoke, she wasn't there. Panic gripped him immediately, and he willed Kanshou and Bakuya into his hands, leaping out of the bed with swords posed.
He turned at the exclamation to see Arturia by the window, fully dressed and gaping at him.
"Saber! You're...alright," he trailed off, feeling heat bloom in his cheeks. His former Servant frowned.
"Yes, I am unharmed. Are you feeling well, Shirou?" She went to him immediately, laying a hand on his forehead. "You do not appear to be feverish."
"No, no, I'm fine," he chuckled nervously, moving to scratch the back of his head. Finding that both swords were still in his hands, he banished them with an irritated look.
"Do you always rise so...forcefully?" Arturia inquired dryly, eyes lingering below. Shirou looked down and flushed again. Rather than replying, he chose instead to redress himself in his clothes. Arturia's eyes followed him as he donned each piece of his armor, and as he pulled the red cloak over his back she stepped forward to take his hand.
"Shirou...we must talk."
His stomach sank. Damnit, he hadn't wanted to talk about this right now.
"What about it?"
Arturia was silent for a long moment, simply looking at him. The tension in his stomach grew into a tight knot. Just as he was beginning to think she had forgotten what to say, she opened her mouth.
"I believe you should go."
That was definitely not what he expected to hear. "What?"
Arturia lifted her chin in a move that would have been haughty any other time, but her eyes shimmered wetly.
"You will not - cannot - be happy here. Come." With that, she took him by the hand and pulled him out of the room. Shirou let her, mind whirling rapidly. He had no idea what was happening, but he was pretty sure it wasn't anything good.
They were approaching the main hall when Shirou pulled his hand out of her grip.
"Saber, tell me what's going on." He locked eyes with her, as if he could see into her mind. He couldn't be happy in Avalon? When she was here, happier than he had ever seen her? "What do you mean I should go?"
Saber smoothed her hands along her tunic without breaking the stare, then took a long breath.
"Shirou, I know you. You cannot live in this world, because you will always be thinking of yours, where innocents are hurt and killed every day. You have made yourself into an tool, an instrument of justice; in Avalon, you will not be able to fulfill your desire. You told me it was your dream, to become a hero, but Avalon needs no heroes."
"You're part of my dream, too." Shirou told her quietly. He saw the mist in her eyes grow more pronounced, then she shook her head sharply.
"I do not think you can put me before your dream. You thrive on ideals, Shirou, and you have ever since Kiritsugu adopted you." Her voice trembled. Instinctively, he stepped forward to hold her but she backed away.
"Your world, and your calling, needs you far more than I do." She tried to smile, a horrible, broken mockery of the radiant expression he'd seen only yesterday. "I do not begrudge you for it, I too had to attend to my duty above all others."
Clarity hit him like a punch to the guts.
"This isn't about duty," he hissed, trying to ignore the ice seeping into his stomach. "I love you, Arturia. If this is the only chance that I'll ever get to see you again, then world be damned." With a brief flash of surprise, he realized that he meant every word he said. They'd both given up so much for a world that needed more; if he had to choose he would let the world take care of itself for once.
"Morgana said I needed to make a choice." He smiled at her, trying to convey his utter sincerity. "I've made it. I'm staying with you."
Arturia bit her lip, then shook her head again sharply.
"I cannot let you make this choice." She gripped his hand again, and with more strength than a pale slip of a girl had a right to possess dragged him towards the doors to the main hall.
"It's my choice to make!" he growled, trying to pull free, but Arturia's grip was implacable. She reached the doors and pushed one open, bringing them both into the main hall. This early in the morning only a few people were present, taking their morning repast.
"Sister," Arturia called, and the sorceress rose elegantly from her seat, "I require your aid."
Morgana drifted over to them with an ethereal grace. "You have made your choice, then." Her eyes were unreadable.
"He has," Arturia lifted her chin in that same, proud manner. Shirou gritted his teeth.
"Yes, I have," he declared, voice ringing. "I'd prefer to stay here."
A flash of surprise crossed Morgana's features. "So you do," she exhaled. "Then that settles the matter. I assume he will be staying in your chambers, so there is no need to tell the seneschal to prepare another room-"
"No!" Arturia snapped angrily, and Morgana swiveled to look at her, startled. "Emiya Shirou will not be staying any longer. Complete the ceremony to return him to his world." She'd caught the attention of the entire room, who stared at her with looks of shock and bemusement.
"What if I don't want to return?" Shirou yelled back at her. Someone muttered in disapproval, but he was too angry to care.
"It is not a matter of what you want!" Arturia's words came out unevenly, stumbling out of her mouth. "It is a matter of what is good for you!"
"Being here is good for me!" The hero roared back at her. "You always told me my approach to life was stupid and suicidal, right?! Here I can fix that! I love you!" He focused on his anger, stoking its flames, trying to ignore the icy dagger reaching for his heart.
"Love is not enough!" Arturia cried back. "You are who you are, Shirou, and nothing can change that. If I kept you here, preventing you from fulfilling your calling, you would never be happy!"
"Just because you put your damned duty over love doesn't mean everyone will!" he raged, desperation sharpening his voice with malice. "What about your knight and your queen?!"
Arturia's head jerked back as if she'd been slapped. Shirou flinched as well, remorse welling up inside him and dousing his wrath.
"Arturia, I'm sorry..." he reached out to her. "Please, let me stay."
He hesitated, searching for the right words.
"Arturia, I..." he sucked in a breath, "I did want to save everyone I could, to make sure everyone had a happy ending. And I did my best to carry out Kiritsugu's dream. But that was before I met you."
The once and future king sniffed haughtily. "You are still carrying it out, are you not? It is still your dreams, everything you have ever wished for."
"Not anymore," Shirou said firmly. "I've made my choice-" he raised a hand before Arturia could protest, "and yes, I can make one! I'm not leaving you again." He placed that hand on her shoulder. "I turned to my ideals because they reminded me of you. But I don't need that reminder anymore."
The king did not meet his eyes, nor did she speak. The silence stretched on, a bleak, oppressive thing that weighed heavily on Shirou's shoulders and constricted his breath.
"Please," he murmured, when he could take no more. "Please."
Something like a whimper came out of Arturia's mouth, then she closed her eyes and shook her head again, this time much more savagely. A twist of her body dislodged Shirou's grip.
"I cannot trust your word on this, Shirou."
His stomach plummeted.
"Sir Calogrenant, Sir Caradoc!" Both knights stood up immediately, Calogrenant hastily wiping his face with the back of one hand. "You escorted Emiya Shirou here, you may escort him back."
No one moved. Arturia scowled. "Well?"
"Your Majesty," Lancelot said hesitantly from behind her, "it seems to me you might wish to delay a decision on such an important matter. Perhaps take a day to reflect on the situation?"
"I have done all the reflecting I need," Arturia's words were clipped, her tone curt. "What I wish for is to have my orders followed."
In the hush that fell, Calogrenant and Caradoc exchanged glances. The helmeted knight nodded slowly, and then strode purposely towards Shirou. Reluctantly, Calogrenant followed, one hand going to the sword at his belt.
"Please come quietly, Goodman Syrowe," the bigger knight requested. "This needs not be unpleasant."
"It already is," Shirou snarled. Light flashed, a hot blue flare, and twin blades appeared in his hands. Kanshou, black as night and Bakuya, purest white, gleamed together. "I don't want to do this!"
As soon as the blades appeared, the knights separated. Caradoc began pacing left while Calogrenant circled right. The smaller knight held his massive axe in both hands, hefting it carefully, while his companion kept one hand on his blade.
"Arturia," Shirou's attention was drawn by a quiet voice, "please reconsider."
Saber's gaze was like iron. "I will not."
"Why?" Shirou cried, then jerked to the right as Caradoc's axe swung for his arm. Kanshou darted for the blade, deflecting it with a clang. The knight was unable to dodge Bakuya's riposte, but his chainmail shirt prevented the white sword from doing anymore than sliding against the metal links.
A flash of metal caught his eye and he pivoted. Strong arms closed around him, trapping him in a bear hug. He grunted in pain and tried to move, but his arms were pinioned against his sides.
"Forgive me, goodman Syrowe." Calogrenant growled, increasing the pressure. "This will be over soon."
"Yes, it will," Shirou hissed in reply. Prana rushed through his circuits, heating his body. He slammed his forehead into the bridge of Calogrenant's nose, silently thankful that the knight was unhelmeted. Cartilage crunched and Calogrenant staggered back, loosening his hold. Shirou twisted free and sent the knight tumbling with a solid kick to the chest, then spun quickly to deflect an overhead blow from Caradoc. Both swords grated against the axe haft as Caradoc pushed down, trying to draw him into a contest of strength. Shirou was only too happy to oblige.
Prana flowed into his arms and he leaned forward. Caradoc's boots slid against the stone floor as he struggled against the sudden surge of strength. Shirou turned his wrist, keeping Kanshou against the axe while Bakuya slid free and stabbed forward, sliding into the weak joint of the knight's armpit. Caradoc grunted, the first sound Shirou had heard him make, and fell backwards, arterial blood spurting from the wound. Without pausing, Shirou turned and launched himself at Calogrenant, still off-balance. The knight deflected Kanshou with his right hand and Bakuya with his left, but Shirou turned both blades in opposite directions. Calogrenant cried out as the scimitars crossed and pierced his arms at the elbows. Shirou slid both blades free quickly and stepped away.
Drops of blood spattered the floor.
All the remaining knights in the room drew their weapons in one surge of sound.
"Shirou!" Arturia stepped forward, flames blazing in her eyes. The cold, distant look was gone; the knight had replaced the king. "Stop immediately!"
"No!" Shirou screamed back. "I'm not leaving!"
Behind him, in the vague direction Caradoc had fallen, there was a sudden gasp, but no one paid it any mind.
"You have gone too far!" Arturia stormed. She wore no weapon, but she stood as if that didn't matter. "You defy my wishes and injure my sworn men-"
"I didn't want to!" Shirou thundered. "But I'm not losing you. Never again!"
Arturia slumped suddenly. "You never had any choice in the matter, Shirou."
"Why do you keep talking about choices?" The faker screamed.
"Because who my sister is, what she represents, never allowed her to make a true choice." Morgana stepped in between them, hands held out at her sides. Shirou recognized the inherent tension in her posture as that of a magus preparing herself for evocations. "Sir Ector did perhaps too good of a job raising her; she would never place herself above her duty and her ideals."
Shirou winced, and Morgana gifted him with a sarcastic smile.
"She feels that you are much the same way; that you cannot be anything other than what you were made by your life." The sorceress tucked a lock of raven hair behind her ear. "That you are too inflexible and too stubborn to give up your irrational and illogical ideas to ever be happy here. I am inclined to agree with her."
He felt his lips draw back over his teeth in a snarl. "Shut up! You don't know me!"
"One does not need to 'know you' to understand that you do not belong here," Morgana's tone was colder than a glacier. "You are a close-minded, pig-headed individual, too proud to admit you are wrong and too selfish to realize you do more harm than good." A wave of a hand encompassed Caradoc, lying supine on the stone. "You have just killed this man."
Shirou's blood ran cold.
Arturia turned pale, and without a word ran to the fallen knight's side.
Morgana folded her arms. "As I expected. You took his life for your own selfish purposes, despite your hypocritical ideals and your moronic protestations." Her lips curled in cruel amusement. "Why does a man who seeks to 'save everyone' carry weapons that only maim and kill?"
"That's my origin!" Shirou snapped back. "I can't help it, it's just-"
"How you are," Morgana interrupted. "Indeed. How appropriate." Green eyes, so like her sister's, blazed. "A sword is unique among weapons, as you well know." She began to pace. "A bow or a spear can be used for hunting, an axe to gather firewood. A staff may serve as a crutch, and a club as a tool to discipline uncouth ruffians. But a sword...it is not of a suitable length for hunting, nor can it be repurposed to hew down trees. It was made by men to kill men, and that is the only thing it can do."
It was too much to take in. He hadn't meant to kill Caradoc, only to incapacitate him. The strike had gone into the armpit, true, but the blow shouldn't have severed more than one artery. It wasn't supposed to be fatal. He'd practiced that strike so many times. It had to have worked. It had to. A man was dying, and this arrogant sorceress was lecturing him.
"Shut up!" he barked, making to rush for the fallen knight. He was no doctor, but he'd picked up a few things over the years. His path was blocked, though, by Morgana casually stepping in his way, as if he didn't have a few inches and a couple dozen pounds on her.
"That is exactly what I speak of," she said. "You deny what contradicts your silly mindset because you have spent your entire life locked into it because of the dreams of a dying man. You cannot change, because you will not change."
"How do you know that?" Shirou shifted, but she moved with him. Something told him it would be beyond stupid to try to barge past her. "People change!"
Morgana tilted her head. "But you are not a person. You have forged yourself into an instrument, an ideal, much like my sister. Perhaps it is why she grew close to you; gods above and below know that you have few other redeeming qualities."
"Enough with the lectures! Get out of my way-"
"So that you can do what?" Morgana folded her arms, remaining infuriatingly calm. "A sword cannot heal the harm it has caused."
"Stop talking in metaphors!"
"Why? They are the only way to describe you. Tell me, how does it feel to be a tool of death? That you have perverted the ideal you hold so dear?"
"We are what we make ourselves." A touch of sadness entered the sorceress' husky voice. "My sister made herself a king, I made myself a witch, and you made yourself a destroyer. Perhaps it is a coincidence that we three regret everything we have done."
"I don't-" The denial came out reflexively, and he cut it off mid-sentence. Morgana's eyes narrowed.
"Then if you do not regret, my sister and I are right."
Arturia rose silently from beside Caradoc's body, and Shirou immediately tensed. The king's features were immobile, every bit as cold and untouchable as they had been in the workshop, so long ago.
"Emiya Shirou," Never before had his own name caused him so much dread, "you have committed murder most foul. You have shattered the peace of my sanctuary and slain one of my loyal knights."
"No - I didn't mean to-" His words stuttered as they left his mouth.
Arturia continued inexorably, her voice mechanical and precise. "As much as it pains me to do this, you are exiled from Avalon forever. You have devoted yourself to an ideal that makes you unsuitable to live here."
On an unspoken cue, Lancelot and a helmeted knight Shirou hadn't seen before stepped forward. The faker lifted both his blades reflexively, but neither knight drew his own weapon, or even slowed their pace. They split, and each grabbed one of his arms in gauntleted hands. Shirou struggled, but their combined strength overmatched his.
Lancelot twisted the arm gripped in his gauntlets, and Kanshou clattered to the ground. The other knight opted for a more brutal approach, slamming Shirou's outstretched arm across his knee. Bakuya joined its sister blade on the floor.
Arturia looked at him, and he pushed fruitlessly at his assailants. His efforts were rewarded by a kick to the back of his knee, and he crashed to the tiles.
"Damnit, stop! Let me go!"
Guinevere stood nearby, her beautiful face set into grim lines. Morgana's heels clicked as she paced around him. In the back, Calogrenant clutched his arms as his fellow knights bound his wounds, his face pale.
Caradoc's body lay limp upon the floor.
Her tunic rustling, Arturia knelt so that their faces were level. He met her gaze squarely, eyes pleading with her. She closed her own, then shook her head slightly. Emerald spheres stared back at him, cloudy with tears but resolute.
"I do this for your own good, just as much as to punish you," she whispered, the words audible only to them. "You could never be happy here. In Avalon there is no need for a hero."
She caressed his cheek once, fingers ghosting lightly against the skin. Then she stood and turned away.
"Sister," Morgana looked up. "Banish him."
The sorceress curtsied. "Of course." She nodded curtly to Lancelot and the helmed knight, who dragged Shirou to his feet. They forced him forward, step by step. He dug in his heels, but that proved of little use against the smooth tiles.
Knights rushed to the gates and pulled them open. This time the star-studded velvet of the night sky greeted them instead of the light of the afternoon day. The knights pulled him out of the castle, and the gates creaked as they were shut once more.
Shirou's mind spun wildly. He couldn't let this happen. He needed to get back inside, to somehow convince Arturia that he was worth it. How, he didn't know, but he couldn't leave her again. He would give up anything and everything to be with her. First, though, he needed to escape.
Prana molded itself to his command, and a long knife appeared in his right hand. Before the helmeted knight could react, he reversed the weapon and plunged it into the mailed links at the knight's elbow. Metal screeched and parted; the knight grunted in pain and released him.
Lancelot reacted viciously, thundering one fist into Shirou's face. The world spun, stars flashed before his eyes, and he stumbled back. The white knight had kept a grip on his arm and followed up by yanking Shirou forward to smash a fist into his gut. Shirou thrust with the knife, a weak blow easily turned aside by Lancelot's plate. The faker received as a reward another punch to the gut, from which he collapsed to the dirt.
A hand closed around his throat. Lifting him like he weighed nothing, Lancelot strode forward to where Morgana stood, the sorceress muttering something under her breath as she gestured in the air.
"It will not be much longer, sir knight." The sorceress said without looking at Lancelot. "The spell is simple and will be finished soon."
"I wish for this business to be over," Lancelot said quietly.
"It will be, have no fear of that." Morgana responded absently.
"What will it do to the queen?" The knight asked. "She loved him."
"Perhaps," Morgana swept her arms through the air. The darkness on the ground began to congeal, as if forming something solid. "but she does not know how to traverse the tangled pathways of love. She clings to her duty though it means naught now."
"You should not have killed Caradoc, Emiya Shirou." Lancelot told the faker hanging in his grasp sadly.
"I didn't mean to!" Shirou choked out. "It was an accident."
Morgana scoffed. "If one cuts oneself with a sword by mischance it makes the wound no less real."
"SHUT UP!" Shirou screamed, his patience rent to shreds. "I AM NOT A SWORD!"
"Believe that all you wish." Morgana hummed underneath her breath, and at that the shadows stopped swirling. "It is done, sir knight. If you will?"
Lancelot nodded grimly, and without preamble or pomp tossed Shirou into the hole. The faker screamed as he felt himself falling into nothingness. He grasped at anything, trying to stop his fall. He called for prana but it refused to manifest. He tried to see, but there was nothing around him but blackness.
The fiend screamed as it died, but Utena hadn't done anything. She looked down at the scimitar clutched in one hand, then back at the writhing, bleeding creature.
"Did I miss anything?"
A man stepped through the wreckage of the tower. He was dressed in a light blue jacket and matching pants, with long white bandages trailing from around his eyes. A long knife was in his hand, stained with the green blood of the fiend. He blinked as he saw Utena and stopped.
"Who are you?"
Utena stared at him. "Who are you?" she shot back.
Blue-grey eyes narrowed. "I asked you first."
"I was here first!" Utena riposted.
The man sighed. "If you insist. Tohno Shiki, at your most reluctant service." He eyed the rubble around where they stood. "Wow, Shirou must have done a number on this place. I guess I shouldn't be surprised. He's not exactly subtle."
"You know Shirou?" Utena asked, surprised. The man - Tohno - nodded.
"He's the reason I'm here. I was originally supposed to come with him here, but I...well," he coughed, suddenly looking embarrassed, "I got distracted."
Utena blinked, then blinked again, because now Tohno was no longer alone. A woman stood next to him, arms crossed over an expensive-looking red jacket. Underneath that she wore a kimono the color of the sky. A katana was slung over her shoulder, secured by a strap.
"Did you find him yet?" The woman sounded bored.
"No," Tohno scowled, "the bastard's probably buried under a pile of rocks as hard as his head. Trust him to be difficult."
His companion inspected her nails. "It takes one to know one."
"Stop talking nonsense."
"I'll stop that when you stop being a block-headed idiot."
"You - forget it. I don't even know why you're here. You said you had better things to do."
"I did, but Mana started yelling at me that I'm not supposed to leave my 'true love' to go on an 'epic battle' alone." The woman actually made air quotes with her fingers.
"Don't ask me."
"Why not? She's your daughter."
"Yours now too."
"We're not married."
"I'm not her father."
"Too bad. You're living in my house, you're father to my daughter."
Utena tried not to snicker. Tohno threw his hands up in disgust. "I should have stayed with Akiha."
The woman snorted. "Because having her tearing you apart when the blood rage took her is so much better than not having to pay rent."
"Sometimes I think it is. And what do you mean, not pay rent? You gouge like, ten million yen out of me each month."
"Five million. Get your numbers straight."
Some of the rubble nearby shifted, and Laura emerged looking none the worse for wear after being thrown off of a ten-story tower. She prowled quietly to Utena's side, eyes trained warily on the newcomers.
Tohno raised an eyebrow. "Friend of yours?"
Utena nodded. "I'll introduce mine if you introduce yours."
Tohno gestured at his companion. "This is Ryougi Shiki, former heir to the Ryougi family and now aimless layabout living off the family fortune after her family bit the dust."
Utena arched an eyebrow, mirroring Tohno's earlier gesture. "Shiki? But isn't your name-"
"Yes," both Shikis said in perfect unison.
"Okay." Utena let it go. "This is Laura." She gestured at the little mutant, who made no move to acknowledge the introduction. "We're friends of Shirou. And speaking of him, shouldn't we be looking for him?"
"Oh yeah." Despite the revelation, Tohno made no move. "He'll be fine. He always is."
"Really?" Utena asked.
"Yeah. I once pulled the dumbass out of an erupting volcano after a Dead Apostle pushed him inside. Man, was he pissed off..."
He came to under a pile of rocks. For a moment, he wasn't sure what had happened. The last thing he remembered was a glint of white, and then falling for a long time...
"Avalon has no need for a hero."
Then he remembered.
He screamed and beat his fists against the rocks. They crumbled beneath his punches. He kicked out and writhed, slamming his body against the stones that imprisoned him. Prana flowed into his body as he pummeled granite, shattering the bonds that held the rocks together. He surged upwards in one motion and cast off the confining stones.
He stood in the ruins of what had once been a great tower. Corpses littered the area around him, all twisted, mis-happen creatures save one, a red-haired human. Genesis would never again threaten the world with his twisted schemes.
Shirou cared nothing about that. He raised his eyes to the sky and screamed. His throat was raw and dusty; it felt like knives were ripping apart his vocal cords. He didn't care. His lament continued, a raw denial in the face of stubborn, unyielding reality. Finally, when his voice was spent, he dropped to his knees and stared uncomprehendingly at the destruction before him.
His ideals were gone, exposed for the fragile lies and fallacies they were. The woman he loved had cast him out because of those same ideals, deeming him a weapon instead of a person, one too dangerous to allow in her paradise. He caused only carnage, killing instead of saving. He had nothing to live for.
For what felt like an eternity he knelt there, empty eyes gazing blankly at nothing.
You forsake your existence.
The voice came from nowhere, deep and commanding.
Your life means nothing to you.
What will you do now?
Nothing. I have nothing to live for.
Then give yourself to me.
I will give you a purpose.
Who is this?
...What are you offering?
I will give you power, more power than you have ever had. In return, when you die you will serve me as my guardian. You will preserve humanity and protect it from the catastrophes that threaten to erase man from existence.
It is hard. It is thankless and bleak. You will gain nothing, and lose nothing. You will fight an eternal war without ever seeing its conclusion.
Then it is done.
The harrowing scream had cut right through another argument between the two Shikis, this one about whether or not someone named 'Mikiya', who was apparently dead now, looked and acted like Tohno. Ryougi had firmly insisted he had, while Tohno had equally vehemently denied it. Utena was on the verge of threatening them both with her sword when the scream rendered everyone silent.
Laura was already dashing towards the source of the sound, and the others followed quickly. With everyone moving at top speed, they reached their target soon enough.
The man stood within a circle of ruin. A tattered red cloak flapped about his shoulders, exposing battered black armor and tanned, dark skin. Upon seeing this, Utena breathed a sigh of relief.
Tohno stepped forward. "Oi, Emiya! You okay?"
The man turned, and Utena gasped. Hair previously the color of blood was now white as bone. The golden eyes that had so often sparkled with mild humor and life had become a lifeless grey.
For a moment, no one spoke. Tohno was the first one to bridge the awkward gap.
"Spirits, Emiya. What happened to you?"
Those dark eyes locked onto Tohno's own, and the shorter man flinched slightly. Immediately Ryougi was at his side, flowing there with a liquid grace that seemed inhuman. She stared hard at Emiya, her own eyes promising death at one wrong move. At any other time, Utena would have been disturbed.
A deadly silence settled over the five people, before the man spoke.
Utena frowned. "Well, of course you did. You were on the top of the tower."
Emiya shook his head. "Not that. But it doesn't matter. Nothing does, anymore."
Without a word he moved forward. Both Shikis tensed, knives leaping into their hands, but Emiya swept past them before they could move.
"Hey!" Utena called to the fast-moving flash of red. "Where are you going?"
The man in red paused.
"I don't know. I don't care."
"Why don't we go back to your house?" The pink-haired prince yelled at his retreating back. "I don't know what happened to you, but I think you need to talk about it-"
Suddenly the man in red was in front of her, close enough that a breeze swept a lock of pink hair into his chin.
"You're right. You don't know. And you can't fix it. Nothing can."
For the second time, he was gone in a whirl of a red cape.
Tohno moved to stand beside her, his posture still tense.
"What happened to him?" he asked, but Utena could tell the question wasn't directed at her.
"I don't know," she murmured.
"He fell," Ryougi contributed. With the disappearance of the man in red she had reverted to her normal state of boredom.
Tohno whistled. "Must have been some fall."
"He is broken."
Utena turned to look at Laura, who fixed her with unwavering brown eyes. "What?"
"He is broken," the small girl repeated patiently. "He has lost something very dear to him. It has shattered him."
"How do you know that?" Utena queried, but Laura was already slipping away in the same direction Shirou had vanished. The older girl turned to the two Shikis.
"We'll catch up with him, try to figure out what happened." She offered, knowing instinctively that it would be for naught. "Maybe we can help him."
"You can't," Ryougi said disinterestedly. "He finally realized how stupid he's been for his entire life. From now on he'll be more brutal, violent, unforgiving." The kimono-clad woman lifted her gaze to where the man in red had been a moment ago. "It should be interesting."
Tohno shook his head. "We'll be heading back, then," he told Utena. "Keep an eye on him for me; I want to know if I have to bail the son of a bitch out of another jam." He left in a hurry, Ryougi ghosting behind him.
Utena was left alone, in the settling dust of a great structure now broken beyond repair. It would never rise again, never cast its proud shadow over miles and miles of land. She could not help wondering if it was a metaphor, and an ominous one. It did not bode well for her own future.
She too aspired to great things, to be the prince had met in her childhood. She too wished to challenge fate, to impose herself upon the landscape of time despite impossible obstacles. Was this what happened to those who wanted to change the world? Did their struggles leave them lying in the dust, shattered and ruined for the folly of wanting what was denied them?
After a long silence, Utena followed the others.