As Shirou walked to the gate of the Matou estate he could sense Rider as a constant presence behind him. He felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up: Shinji had assured him that Mitsuri’s condition had nothing to do with Rider, but the Servant still unnerved him. There was something odd about her, not bad necessarily, but different. She was impossible to read. He wondered, not for the first time, if Shinji was in complete control of his Servant’s actions, and whether he knew everything that she did. On a whim, he stopped and turned to her. “Hey, was that thing about Ryuudouji really true?” She stared at him silently as he reddened. “Ah, that’s right, my bad. That was a rather stupid thing to ask of an enemy.”
He turned to go, but froze when he heard her speak. “It is true that a witch lives on that mountain. Be careful if you’re going there. That witch knows everything about men.”
Her voice, low and soft in the calm of the evening, carried with it hints of emotion that he hadn’t expected. He looked back at her in surprise. “Ah, th-thanks for the advice. And – take care of Shinji. That’s the kind of guy he is, so protect him.”
She stared at him once again, this time more confused than hostile. “You are very good-natured.”
He turned to go once more and was just reaching for the gate when he heard her murmur something. He paused, glancing back at her, but she hadn’t moved and for a moment he thought he’d imagined it. “Ah, were you, um, talking to me?” he stuttered. The fact was that he’d been thinking about how mesmerizing her voice sounded, and was wondering if she used it to trap victims; it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility for him to have invented an excuse to hear it again.
She gave a quick glance back at the house then, in a whisper so soft he had to strain to catch each word, she spoke. “Sakura. She cares for you.”
He jumped. “Well, yeah, I mean, I care for her too…”
Rider gave no acknowledgement that he had spoken. “You should help her, keep her away from this house.”
He stared at her. “Why? I’m a master too, being with me won’t keep her safe from the grail war, if that’s what your thinking.”
Rider didn’t answer; she was gazing unhappily at the house, lost in her own thoughts. He stepped back, a bit unnerved. “I- I’ll think about it.”
Walking quickly to the gate before she could stop him, he fled out onto the road, anxious to tell Rin and Saber what Shinji had said. As he turned the corner he noticed that the Servant still had not moved from where she stood.
The next morning he was awakened by delightful smells wafting from the main house. He sat up and sighed with pleasure – he always loved Sakura’s cooking. The girl went to such trouble that at times he felt guilty, but she seemed to enjoy it and the food was so good that he was loathe to stop her. The array of dishes that morning was even more stunning than usual, and he dug in with gusto. Taiga chattered away, with Sakura occasionally saying a few words. As he absentmindedly accepted a second bowl of rice from the girl, he saw something that made him freeze, chopsticks raised. The faint purple tinge of a healing bruise mottled her wrist. He stared at her, noticing for the first time the dark circles beneath her eyes and the unhealthy paleness of her skin. She looked drawn and tired, and though she laughed her eyes did not sparkle like usual. How long had she been like this? Rider’s words echoed through his head – “She cares for you, help her”. Not wanting to appear as though he was staring, he joined the conversation, bantering with Taiga and keeping a close watch on Sakura out of the corner of his eye. She was hurting, that much was clear. He just had to find out why.
It had taken some convincing to get Saber to accompany him back to the Matou estate that night. Only the thought of the enemy ambushing him kept her at his side, and she stared sullenly at his back as she followed him. He knew it was immature and downright dangerous to be snooping around an enemy’s house spying; he passed it off as “reconnaissance”, but it still felt childish, and the glares of the Servant accompanying him didn’t help. They found a clump of bushes to hide in that afforded them a view of Shinji’s study, where they saw the boy pacing back and forth, talking rapidly to Rider while gesticulating imperiously. The Servant stood silently in the corner, listening motionlessly to her master’s ranting. Suddenly the boy paused, and both he and Rider turned to look at the door. Sakura entered shyly, carrying a tray with a teapot and a selection of cookies. She kept her eyes lowered as she walked to the desk and set the tray down. As she did so her elbow jostled a stack of books, and they fell to the floor. She quailed as Shinji began to yell, advancing on her threateningly. Shirou clenched his fist – Shinji had always been a bit overprotective of his possessions. In primary school he’d once been made to stand in the hall after screaming at a girl who had touched his things without permission. There appeared to be no harm done in this case though, so Shirou allowed his focus to switch to Rider. She looked tense, glancing back and forth from Shinji to Sakura. A flash of movement made Shirou look towards the brother and sister once more just in time to see Sakura fall to the ground, landing atop the very books she’d dropped. Shinji stood over her, glowering, and pulled her upright by her blouse. He whispered a few more words through gritted teeth, then spat in her face and threw her down once more. Stalking to the door, he gestured impatiently at Rider. The servant followed him, stepping over Sakura’s sprawled limbs without looking at the girl, and the pair exited.
Shirou inhaled sharply– he hadn’t realized he’d stopped breathing as he’d watched the scene unfold. He noticed for the first time that Saber was holding his arms, keeping him from barging into the manor. He wanted to help Sakura so badly – even now she could be hurt, lying alone on the cold floor of the study. As if she could tell what he was thinking, Saber shook her head. “We can’t risk doing anything now. We’ll need a plan if we want to help her.”
Shirou observed an icy resolve in Saber’s eyes that he hadn’t seen before, and realized that with all the meals his group of friends had shared, the Servant might have grown to care for Sakura. Shirou sighed and Saber relaxed her grip, eyeing him closely. “I won’t do anything stupid, Saber, It’s just –“ he paused, unsure of what to say, how to express what he felt. “I just have to help her somehow. She’s like a sister to me, we’ve grown up together.”
All of us have grown up together, he thought to himself, even Shinji. He had no idea how he was going to free Sakura from her brother’s control, but whatever he did had to happen quickly; he couldn’t stand the thought of Sakura being treated like that, and he cursed himself for remaining ignorant for so long. Turning on his heel, he walked swiftly back through the forest, head spinning with wild thoughts and plans.
They had nearly reached the road when a soft rustling sound came from the branches above them. Saber grabbed his arm, her sword drawn in an instant and her eyes darting around in pursuit of the person who’s made the noise. A figure in black dropped from the trees to stand a few yards ahead on the path: Rider had followed them. “You saw, then? You’ve seen how he treats her?”
Shirou nodded and looked down uncomfortably. “Yes…well… I mean, how?”
He knew he was making no sense, but Rider seemed to understand him anyway. “’How’ is a difficult question. I will do what I can, but I am needed by my master now.”
Shirou stepped towards her, a hint of desperation in his eyes. “Will you come to my house, then? Later tonight? I can’t – we need to figure out how to save her.”
Rider nodded solemnly. “I will come to you when I can. Wait for me.” Without another word she disappeared soundlessly into the trees.
Their meeting that night was short and to the point. Sakura’s rescue would take place the following evening, and would be conducted as surreptitiously as possible. The morning afterwards Shinji would be informed that Sakura had run away. Shirou prayed that the excuse would be enough to keep Shinji from conducting an all out search for his sister, but he knew it was a long shot: the other boy wasn’t likely to take Sakura’s disappearance in stride without at least a few attempts to find her. The three co-conspirators split up around two in the morning, with Rider returning to the Matou estate, Saber patrolling the area for possible enemy activity, and Shirou lying awake on his pallet, feeling anger and betrayal building within him as the scene replayed over and over in his mind. He’d thought he knew Shinji – they’d been friends for so long, and yet the boy had proved tonight that his character was wholly unlike the friend Shirou had grown up with. Their plan had to work, or else they would be forced to fight Shinji, and though he hated the thought of anyone getting killed in the Grail war he knew that he might not be able to control Saber’s actions in battle. He wasn’t even sure he'd want to.
They prepared carefully all the next day and through the evening, planning out the assault on Matou manor. Rider had agreed to let them in through a little used back entrance, and Shirou knew his way to Sakura’s room by heart, having visited so many times when they were children. At eleven o’clock they set out through the forest, favoring stealth over speed. The last thing they needed was for another master and Servant to get involved. They reached the estate with no trouble, and waited for several anxious minutes at the secret door. Rider finally arrived, ushering them up the stairs, and Shirou walked swiftly down the familiar hallways to Sakura’s room. He silently pushed the door open to find Sakura seated at her desk, her head bent over her homework. A wave of nostalgia hit Shirou hard as he remembered their childhood together; Sakura had always been the most studious of the three of them, and despite the age difference she had helped Shirou through several grade-school examinations. She was especially good at mathematics, which also happened to be Shinji’s worst subject, and Shirou had often noticed how much it had irked the other boy to see himself bested by his younger sibling. Shirou shook himself free of the memory and entered the room quietly, walking up behind Sakura and placing a soft hand on her shoulder. She jumped and whirled around, eyes wide and fearful. When she saw who it was she relaxed, her fear replaced by confusion. “Senpai, what are you doing here so late?”
Rather than answer, her took her hand and tugged her to her feet, leading her towards the door. She followed hesitantly, but stopped as they reached it. “Senpai, please, where are we going?”
He turned to look at her. “We’re going away from Shinji. I’m getting you out of here, and I’m going to make sure he doesn’t hurt you again.”
She turned bright red and looked down at the floor. “You – what? But - I mean… it doesn’t really matter, I’m fine, really-“
He shook his head angrily. “You’re not fine, and I know it, so there’s no use pretending. Now come on, Sakura, before he discovers I’m here!”
She looked like she was going to protest more, so he grasped her arm firmly and tugged her out into the hallway. She squeaked in surprise, but made no other protest. They wended their way back down the corridors to the entrance where Rider waited. At the sight of her brother’s Servant Sakura jerked free of his grasp. He expected her to run away, but instead she leapt towards Rider, wrapping her arms tightly around the Servant’s waist. “I knew it. I knew you were behind this.”
Rider ran a soft hand through Sakura’s hair, twisting it in her fingers. “I couldn’t take it any longer, even if you could. Emiya Shirou will take care of you and keep you safe from now on.”
Sakura looked up at her, eyes brimming with unshed tears. “But what about you? When he finds out, he’ll be so angry, and I’m afraid –“
Rider raised a gentle finger to Sakura’s lips, quieting her. “I’ll be fine, so long as you’re safe.”
Sakura’s emotions overwhelmed her and she buried her head in Rider’s chest. “Onee-sama, please be careful – don’t let him hurt you.”
Rider hugged her back, oblivious to her surroundings. “I promise you, Sakura, I’ll be alright: there’s nothing he can do to me.”
She straightened and forced Sakura to loosen her grip. “Go, dearest. Go with Shirou.”
Sakura nodded, tears still streaming down her face, and Shirou took her arm again, leading her swiftly out the door and away from the house. He glanced back once to see Rider still standing in the doorway, gazing sadly after them. He felt a momentary hesitation, but brushed it aside and turned his attention back to Sakura. There were still so many things that could go wrong – after all, Shinji would find out about her disappearance come morning. Shirou could only hope that their plan would work.
Shinji was livid, his face bright red with pent up rage. “She always runs sniveling to you at any chance she gets, don’t try to deny it!”
Shirou shook his head calmly. “I haven’t seen her at all today, but surely that note says where she’d gone.”
He gestured at the crumpled paper in Shinji’s hand and the boy spat on the ground in contempt. “This is obviously a forgery – Sakura would never run away from me, she wouldn’t dare.” He turned to Rider, who was standing meekly behind him. “Rider, search everywhere inside this place, find where she’s hiding.”
Saber bristled at Shinji’s shameless disregard for Shirou’s privacy, but Shirou himself remained calm. “Search all you like, Shinji, she isn’t here.”
The other boy smirked. “We’ll see about that: Rider can find anyone.”
They waited, the seconds ticking slowly by as Shinji became more and more restless. Finally Rider returned, empty-handed. “There is no sign of her. The note must be true: she has not been here at all today.”
Shinji screamed in frustration, lashing out at Rider and hitting her hard across the face. “You worthless piece of trash, unable to even find a teenage girl!”
He struck her again, this time in the stomach, and she doubled over from the force of his blow. Shirou could barely keep himself from yanking Rider back, away from her master. Without warning Shinji shifted targets, leaping towards Shirou with his fists raised. In an instant Saber was between the two boys, her icy blue eyes staring Shinji down as if daring him to come any closer. The boy backed away, unnerved despite himself. “If I find out you had a hand in her disappearance, Emiya, I’ll see to it that Rider tortures you in the most imaginative way possible.”
He spun and left, seemingly forgetting his Servant. She turned to follow him, but Shirou grabbed her arm. “Rider, are you…are you going to be alright?” He could not help but remember the Servant’s assurances to Sakura the night before: she’d obviously been lying when she’d said Shinji couldn’t hurt her.
Rider turned to him, a sad half-smile on her lips. “Take care of her for me – keep her safe and away from this war.”
She easily pulled free of his grasp and followed her master, leaving him staring after her. Saber interrupted his reverie. “Shirou, may I get Sakura now? It is cold outside.”
He nodded, abandoning his train of thought as he watched Saber leap easily onto the roof, retrieving Sakura from the far side of it. They carefully made their way back down, and he was pleased to see the hint of a smile on Sakura’s lips. With luck, she’d never have to worry about her brother’s cruelty again. “You must be hungry – it’s well past breakfast time.”
She nodded shyly. “I’ll make something.”
He shook his head. “It’s alright, you’re probably exhausted. I can cook.”
To his surprise she wrapped her arms around him in a timid hug. “Thank you, senpai, for helping me. I promise you won’t regret it.”
She let go and walked quickly towards the kitchen, calling back softly, “I’ll cook, though. It’ll be better that way.”
Ignoring the slight to his cooking abilities, he smiled as he watched her go. He knew he would never regret helping her; he only wished he could have helped her “Onee-sama” as well. Rider’s fate was out of his hands now, and he could only hope that she would take care of herself, for Sakura’s sake as well as her own. A light voice called to him from the next room. “What would you like, senpai? Breakfast or lunch?” He smelled the distinctive scent of tofu frying and his stomach rumbled audibly. “Both!” he called, and went to join her.