Dedicated to orthoflame livejournal, who provided the original prompt for this fic, "the end of the day."
Rating: PG-13 for gruesome offscreen demise.
Notes: Heaven's Feel/Hollow Ataraxia continuity. Tsutsuji means "azalea," and Yuriko means "lily."
She didn't feel fear, not really. But Rin knew worry, and she knew concern. She'd seen what evil – real, true Evil – looked like, and had even stared in the face. A couple times, or three, or four. By her count, actually, she had already saved the world five times over.
Which was why, unfortunately, Rin could recognize the early warning signs that indicated that the world was about to need saving again.
"She stole the grimoire, for one thing," Rin said, absent-mindedly bouncing her niece Tsutsuji on her knee as she recounted the grisly details. Tsutsuji was all of six months old and didn't understand Rin's words; that was the only reason that Rin dared to speak of these things in front of her.
"Which grimoire?" Sakura asked, pouring Rin's tea. "Surely not the one that--"
"Yes. That one."
Sakura made a face. She had never cared for the one of Rin's two most important grimoires that happened to be bound in human skin and that was written in ink blended with dragon's blood. But she had nevertheless helped Rin craft the many, many protective curses that had once bound said grimoire. "How did she get past the--?"
"I don't know. I don't know. Shirou said that your curse worked just fine, Abelinda's skin boiled almost instantly, but then she… got better. From what Shirou could see. And then…" She trailed off, unsure how to finish. Shirou hadn't exactly been coherent when she'd found him. Fortunately, the reason that he was currently hospitalized had not so much to do with magic as it did with the fact that Abeldinda's weapon of choice had been an iron pipe, and that her wielding of said iron pipe had resulted in an enormous crack in Shirou's skull.
Bad, but not life-threatening. Nobody died of that sort of injury anymore. Not in the year 2036, at least.
Sakura had opened a box of sakuramochi and was carefully unwrapping each piece, one by one, and arranging them on a plate. "The only reason she would have hit Shirou with a pipe instead of killing him with a curse is if Abelinda couldn't have unleashed a curse," she said. Her eyes were cold and hard. Her fingers deftly unwrapped mochi after mochi as she spoke. "She managed to take the grimoire, but surviving its curses must have drained her of everything she had. That's why she couldn't use magic against Shirou--"
"Idiot Shirou," Rin hissed, then quickly caught herself, realizing that the tone of her voice had caused Tsutsuji's eyes to grow wide and terrified. She forced her face to soften, and her voice to stay cheerful. But her words were still grim. "He shouldn't have gone alone. He should have called me for help before confronting Abelinda. He deserves to be in a hospital, if he could be taken out by a mere lead pipe."
Sakura regarded Rin coolly. "This isn't Shirou's fault," she said. "Abelinda is your apprentice."
"Was." But Rin hung her head, properly ashamed and chagrinned. Sakura was perhaps the one and only person in all of existence who was capable of shaming Rin like that. Rin cuddled Tsutsuji in her lap and said, "I'm worried. Sakura, I'm… I'm really worried about this one. I've never had a student do something like this…"
Sakura placed her hand gently on Rin's shoulder. "Well…" she trailed off, as if unsure about what to say next. Then she looked down at Rin and said quietly, "Maybe it's not your fault, either. This was inevitable."
"Oh come on. Don't you ever watch movies? Or read books? All great magicians have to have at least one apprentice who turns evil. It's practically obligatory."
Despite herself, Rin managed a small chuckle. After all of these decades, her sister still managed to surprise her. "This isn't the time for joking," she said, suppressing her grin.
"I'll joke whenever I please. I was evil once too, remember?"
"Yes, but you got over it."
"No. I didn't get over it. But I got better." She took Tsutsuji from Rin's lap, kissed the top of the baby's head, and then held her daughter close to her breast. "I should be at the hospital. Shirou is going to need protection. Especially if Abelinda tries to come after him again." She looked down at Rin. "Tsutsuji needs you to stay here and protect her."
"No, you should stay here. I can go--"
"Sorry, but he's my husband." Sakura wagged her finger at Rin. "I get dibs on the obligatory tragic bedside watch."
"It's not tragic if he's already recovering."
"You have to call Rhea." Sakura handed Tsutsuji over to Rin. She pointed to the sakuramochi that she had arranged in the table. "They're her favorite." She reached for her purse.
"Don't go unarmed--"
"I'm not stupid," Sakura said, flashing the blade of her enchanted dagger before she plunged it back into the palm of her hand. There would be metal detectors at the hospital, the most sophisticated that modern technology could create; but at the end of the day, they still wouldn't be able to find the dagger that Sakura had hid within her body. And they still wouldn't be able to find any weapon that Abelinda or her associates brought through the hospital doors, either.
At the end of the day, there was still magic, and it was powerful, and it was dangerous.
"I have my comm with me. I'll ward Shirou's room as best as I can. I'll be back," Sakura said, leaning over to kiss the top of Tsutsuji's head again. Then she was gone.
Rin shifted the child in her lap, then reached for the video comm unit beside the table. Rhea's number was the second of the speed-dial options. The first speed-dial button, of course, belonged to Yuriko's number. Rin tried not to let her fingers shake as she dialed, tried not to betray her nervousness to the child in her arms. Sakura was powerful – far more powerful than Rin or anyone had once thought – and she was capable of taking care of herself and an incapacitated Shirou. Rin hoped.
The problem was, Rin wasn't exactly sure how much her wayward apprentice was capable of.
Abelinda had been Rin's third apprentice. Rin had received her teaching license from the Mage's Association nearly twenty years ago, and had found that she'd loved the work. It was Sakura who had convinced her to into teaching, and although Rin still liked to dabble in experimental magic on the side, she'd quickly found that taking on apprentices was a job well-suited to her bossy, demanding, but not entirely uncaring nature. "It's because you have a sense of humor," Sakura had told Rin once. "You need that, working with young magicians."
Rin had survived her fair share of magical explosions and unplanned transmutations over the twenty long years that she'd been teaching. She knew exactly how valuable her sense of humor was.
Rin whispered a silent prayer in her mind, giving thanks for the fact that Sakura's older daughter, Yuriko, was still safe in her boarding school in London. Only fourteen years old, and Yuriko already had enough of her own burdens to deal with – what with the Kaleidostick choosing her as its new mistress, being charged with forming her own team of five magical girls, and getting tangled up in some sort of mess that involved a handsome masked thief who may or may not have been evil. Rin knew that Sakura constantly thought about Yuriko, even if she didn't show it, even if she was normally too busy taking care of Tsutsuji to fret over the danger that her other daughter always seemed to land in. But Rin also knew that Sakura would not want Yuriko to know about the current situation with Abelinda, not well after it was resolved, at least. Yuriko was headstrong and stupid and would inevitably make a foolish decision the moment that she heard that her father had been attacked. That was exactly why Rin knew that, for the time being, not contacting Yuriko was the best course of action. The girl needed, for her own good, to be kept in the dark.
That was why Sakura had told Rin to contact Rhea, not Yuriko.
"Come on, Rhea, please pick up," Rin mumbled under her breath as she bounced Tsutsuji on her knee and listened to the comm ringing. "Please, please pick up." It wasn't a magic spell, but it might as well have been.
The call was answered almost immediately. Rin realized, as soon as she saw Rhea's face on the vidscreen, what time it must have been in Thessaloniki. "Let me guess," Rhea said, brushing a strand of her long, tangled, lilac-colored hair behind her ear. "This is a dire emergency?"
"And it's my fault."
"Well, that's not a surprise." Rhea groped for her glasses until she found them, then slipped them onto her face. Her eyes were slightly puffy from sleep, but that was already fading. "Is Sakura--?"
"She's fine," Rin said quickly. "She's with Shirou. He's a little bit less than fine, but he'll get over it. Tsutsuji is fine, too." She waved one of the baby's chubby hands at the vidscreen. "And Yuriko is fine, she probably hasn't even heard about any of this yet. But my apprentice just went all Dark Side on me, and she made off with my grimoire. The one written in blood. Not the other one."
Rhea nodded curtly. There was no trace of sleep left on her face anymore. She was tense, alert, and ready for action. She may have changed her name years ago and retired to a relatively quiet life as a history professor, but she was still the Rider that Sakura had brought back into the world all those years ago. She was still a warrior, and she was still a loyal friend. "What do you need me to do?"
"The dragon blood in the grimoire," Rin said, clutching Tsutsuji a bit too tightly as she spoke. "I was hoping that one of your beasty friends could track its scent…"
"A dragon could easily track its scent, yes." Rhea sounded slightly smug.
Rin froze. "You have a dragon?"
"It's a long story. Remember that sabbatical I took last semester? Well… It's a long story."
"You'd better tell me later," Rin said. "But we need you up here right away. Sakura left mochi…"
"I figured. All right. Open a portal for me, and do it fast. I can't very well take a dragon on a shuttle with me."
"How big a portal?" Rin asked, strapping Tsutsuji down in her high chair and already trying to remember where she'd left her best chalk. "I mean, for a dragon…"
"Oh well, she's just a little thing yet. Only five meters long."
Rin's mind was racing. She would have to open the portal in the basement of Sakura's home, where the space was warped to be larger than it should be. But after that, she wasn't sure what to do. The authorities on Mare Serenatis were aware that there were magic-users in the city, but Rin still didn't think they would take too kindly to a dragon flying around inside the domes. Rin's magic would be able to take her and Rhea outside the domes, if the need arose, but she wasn't sure if she could protect a dragon from the vacuum of space—
Tsutsuji. What was she going to do with Tsutsuji?!
"I hope you like dragons," Rin said, picking up the grinning, drooling baby in her arms – why had she tried to strap her down in the high chair again? – and turning to the vidscreen one last time. "I'll start the portal now. It should be ready in fifteen minutes. Wait for the glow on your end."
"Thank you." With a click, the call was ended. The vidscreen was dark.
Rin clutched Tsutsuji to her chest and hurried down into the basement of Sakura's home. The dimensional warping down there was even deeper than in the lab in Rin's own apartment, where she still concocted her magical experiments and occasionally taught lessons to her students. The basement in Sakura's home was large, as large as its mistress wanted it to be, and it was a space that hummed with power. Rin sat down in the center of an area that still – for the moment – looked like a rec room, with bookshelves lined against one wall, and an old television screen and a couch at her back. She settled Tsutsuji in her lap, took a deep breath, then calmed her thoughts, silently tapping into the power of the place. And its power was great – that was why Sakura and Shirou had chosen to build their home beneath the domes of the moon, after all. The lunar landscape was deeply saturated with magical energies.
The rec room was expanding. The bookshelves, the couch, and the television were sliding farther and farther away. The carpet beneath Rin was gone, then, and only smooth, cool moonstone remained. Tsutsuji squealed with delight, laughing as she witnessed the transformation around her. Any other child might have been frightened, Rin thought, but not Tsutsuji. Tsutsuji's mother had enchanted this space, after all, and Tsutsuji was already able to recognize the aura of her mother's magic, just as surely as she recognized her mother's face and her mother's touch.
Now how can I summon my chalk--?
She needn't have worried. Sakura had left her chalks neatly stored in the dimensional pockets of the basement, of course. An array of long, lovely sticks in every color of the rainbow were suddenly displayed at Rin's feet.
"Typical Sakura," Rin muttered, standing up quickly. She placed Tsutsuji on the floor, then quickly drew a chalk circle around the child. Tsutsuji immediately attempted to crawl out of the circle, but instantly found herself surrounded by invisible, bouncing, humming walls. She laughed again, unafraid, and began amusing herself by poking at her invisible prison, grinning and drooling, fascinated by the music that the walls made.
"That ought to keep you safe enough," Rin said, satisfied. Then she turned and took five large steps away from Tsutsuji – as far as she dared – and began her work with the chalks, drawing the right circles and symbols on the ground.
Please let this be large enough, please let this be far enough from the baby. Please let this be large enough, please let this be far enough away from the baby. Please--
The words were spilling from Rin's lips before she gave herself time to hesitate. It was over too quickly – the mana in the moon-dug basement, after all, was great. Far greater than Rin was used to manipulating on Earth.
"Oh," said Rin, as the blinding light of summoning faded, and she suddenly found herself face-to-face with an enormous, scaly head and a pair of dark, ancient eyes. "A dragon."
It was a bright midday on the moon when the dragon was first seen soaring beneath the domes.
"So this student of yours," Rhea said, as Rin clutched at her waist. "You know, if she's still on the moon, she's going to spot us right away, right?"
"If we can't pick up her scent, I'm hoping she'll spot us. Better that she go after us than Sakura or Shirou." Or Tsutsuji, Rin added silently. She had left the child in the care of Beni, her second apprentice who had had the presence of mind to teleport to the moon as soon as Rin had summoned her. Rin had also sent her first apprentice to London, to watch over Yuriko, just in case. Powerful mages though they may be, Rin was still not above tapping either of her previous two apprentices for babysitting duty.
The dragon suddenly shuddered from head to toe. "She has the scent," Rhea said, leaning in close to the dragon's scaly back as it veered sharply toward the sun. "And it's close."
Rin glanced down at the lunar city speeding below them, and saw – oh, great – a police car parked on a curb, its occupant quickly scrambling out the driver's-side door to gawk up at the sky. Rin gave him a quick, reassuring wave. She hoped that the gesture was sufficient to communicate what she needed to say to him - It's under control, nothing to see here, the dragon will be gone as soon as possible, I promise. But the dragon was moving fast, and Rin only had time for the briefest wave before the officer had already fallen far behind them. Rin turned her attention back to the dragon, then, and felt her heart sink in her chest when she realized where they were headed. "Oh, no."
The city hospital was looming in front of them. And looming was the right word. The building had been transformed into a dark, sinister nightmare, every wall and window crawling with—
"Are those tentacles?!" Rin gasped, properly scandalized.
The dragon circled around the hospital roof, hesitant to approach the evil place any closer. "Amazing, Tohsaka," Rhea said. "That apprentice of yours must be into some really interesting--"
"Oh I so do not want to hear that from you, Miss Leather-and-Chains Bondage Princess."
Rhea sniffed contemptuously as she gazed down at the be-tentacled hospital. "Rank amateur," she said. "Who summons a tentacle creature in the middle of broad daylight? No sense of the dramatic."
There were screams coming from the hospital windows. "I have to get down there," Rin said, leaping off the back of the dragon and quickly uttering the spell that allowed her to float gracefully down to the surface of the roof. She stepped around a wayward slimy tentacle – it seemed neither aware of nor inclined to react to her presence – and started to make her way to the roof access doors.
Rin had only taken three steps toward the doors, however, when they suddenly burst open.
Sakura came running out, dragging Shirou by the hand behind her. "Rin!" Shirou and Sakura screamed at the same time. "What are you doing here?!" Shirou shouted, while at the same instant, Sakura managed to scream, "Run!"
But Rin didn't run. She stood her ground. "Sakura, take my hand!"
She did, cold sweaty grip grasping for Rin's hand; an instant later, the tentacles came, but Rin was ready for them. Or more accurately, the dragon was. A burst of fiery breath, and the tentacles were no more. Rin breathed a sigh of relief, and slowly let down the fireproof shield spell that she had surrounded herself, Sakura, and Shirou with.
"Oh great," Shirou said. "You brought a dragon." He squinted up at the dragon's rider. "Hello, Rider."
"Emiya! Good to see that your skull is less caved-in than I'd been led to believe it would be," Rhea said. "And I'm not 'Rider' anymore. That's not even a person's name, you know."
"Save the banter," Rin muttered under her breath, focusing her concentration on the menacing aura still pouring out of the roof access doors. "She's here."
"Rin," Sakura said, gripping Rin's hand tightly. "She took my dagger."
"She was able to undo the enchantment and rip it right out of me." Sakura was managing to sound awfully calm as she related this information, but Rin could feel her hand trembling. "S-she had a sword at Shirou's throat and she told me to give up all of my weapons, and I tried to hide the dagger from her, but… Oh. Where did you leave Tsutsuji?!"
"Beni doesn't stand a chance against Abelinda!"
"That's why we're going to take her out here, and now. Before she has a chance to go after Tsutsuji." She turned to Shirou. "Your brains aren't leaking out of your ears or anything, are they?"
"Then what are you waiting for?! Trace that dagger! And a decent sword if you would, please. Excalibur would be nice."
"Excalibur won't help you."
Every eye turned to the access doors at once. Abelinda stood, open grimoire in one hand and blood-dripping sword in the other, framed by the writhing tentacles that she had summoned. She bared her lips, revealing her newly-sharpened teeth in a sinister snarl. Her formerly elfin-blonde hair had darkened to an oddly blood-like red color; it writhed around her head, looking almost as alien as the tentacles around her, crackling with the energy of her stored-up mana.
Abelinda turned her wild gaze toward the dragon perched on the edge of the rooftop. "You brought a dragon. Nice." Her eyes, sharp and dark and blazing with the light of insanity, then turned back to Rin. Rin could see the challenge in those eyes, and the sheer craziness behind the challenge. "Well?" Abelinda said. "Here I am, Professor. There are four of you, plus one dragon. And only one of me. Make your move."
Rin gripped Sakura's hand tightly, but shook her head. "No. No, Abelinda. I don't want to fight you. I need to talk to you."
"I figured you would," Abelinda said, managing to sound both bored and smug at the same time, despite the increasingly alien hiss building in her voice. The witch's eyes flickered from Shirou, to Sakura, to Rhea in turn. Rin could see exactly what her former apprentice was thinking: that Shirou would rather forgive than kill. That Sakura and Rhea had walked the dark path before, and were not about to let another innocent soul stray down that path. That Rin, despite all of her stern coldness, was, deep down inside, just as much of a bleeding heart as her sister. Abelinda had been counting on all of those weaknesses, and now, she was going to exploit them to the fullest.
Rin had been counting on Abelinda counting on those weaknesses, though.
."Forgive me, Professor," Abelinda hissed, her tongue flickering against her sharp teeth. "But I have no reason to talk to you anymore. I have new teachers now. And I've promised them the blood of a certain pair of magician sisters."
Rin turned her head, quickly met Sakura's eyes, then turned back toward the witch. "…Blood?" she asked, carefully. "Blood? Not 'death'?"
Abelinda did not falter. "Good catch, Professor. See, my new masters are honest, and they will not let me speak lies." She flicked her tongue at Rin again; it seemed even more slender and forked now than it had been a moment ago. "In truth, all I need is a small amount of blood from the both of you. In reality, however, there's no reason for me not to kill you both."
"What do you need the blood for?" Sakura asked, softly, demurely. Much more softly and demurely than Rin knew that she was feeling.
"For my new pets, of course," Abelinda said, stroking a nearby tentacle affectionately. "This is just one of them. I have more, lots more. My new masters showed them to me. They all belong to me, all I have to do is open a big enough portal to bring them into this world."
Rin knew that if she risked another glance at Sakura, she would see her sister rolling her eyes, then she would helplessly crack up, and then it would all be over. Abelinda would kill them for laughing at her. Abelinda had always been prickly like that. "Listen," she said, trying to talk down her student, trying to stall for time. "Listen to me, Abelinda. Whatever your new 'masters' may have promised you, they don't--"
"And you think I'm the cliché one?" Abelinda snapped, impatiently. "Let's hurry up and get this over with. I'll make you a proposition, Professor: Bleed a little bit for me, and I won't kill the tracer."
"Shirou!" Sakura screamed, but it was too late. Tracing Sakura's dagger had taken up all of his concentration; he hadn't even noticed the tentacles approaching him until it was too late.
"Oh, for the love of--" Rin turned away so that she wouldn't have to watch Shirou yelling and being bound by slimy tentacles. Really, she felt sorry for the poor guy. This was the second time that Abelinda had utterly bested him. It was downright embarrassing.
Rin felt more than saw the dragon shifting its weight, preparing to strike. "Stop," she said, holding out her hand to the dragon. Rhea stroked the creature's neck and quickly calmed it, then met Rin's gaze with a silent inquiry in her eyes. Rin shook her head. She didn't want Rhea to make another move. The other woman would just have to watch from the sidelines, for the time being.
Rin had already figured out the solution to her problems.
"Hurry up and bleed," Abelinda hissed, "or I'll snap the tracer's neck." The tentacles circling Shirou's neck tightened threateningly; he choked and gasped.
"All right, all right," Rin said quickly, grabbing Sakura's hand and squeezing it tightly, sending her sister a silent signal, before Sakura could protest. "Fine, we'll give you our blood. Where's your portal?"
"Right here." Abelinda held out the open grimoire. An appropriately elaborate portal design was written across two blank pages - written in blood. Rin did not want to know where the blood had come from.
Oh, of course, Rin thought. Of course Abelinda was summoning her creatures through the grimoire. That made sense. The damn thing was saturated with dark mana; it wouldn't take much at all to turn the book into a portal itself. Rin cursed herself for not considering that possibility more thoroughly, and not planning against it.
"Don't!" Rhea called out, right on cue. Shirou struggled against the tentacles binding him and tried to gasp out a similar warning. Rin smiled inwardly, even while keeping her facial expression grim. The two of them were playing their roles beautifully.
"Know this," Sakura said, surrendering her open palm to Abelinda. "My sister and I, our blood is a contract. Whatever you summon through that portal – whether it be your 'masters' or your 'pets' or some other manner of evil – it will not harm us. It will not harm our beloved ones. And it will not harm our blood relatives. Our blood will both open your portal and seal that contract within it."
Abelinda glowered at Sakura. Her teeth were getting longer, sharper. Rin could see her canines protruding over her lower lip now. "Fine," Abelinda hissed. "Make your bargain with the devils. It will be voided the moment that either of you raise a hand against my masters."
Rin held out her hand, too, holding it over the open grimoire and the portal drawn in its pages. "So… Abelinda… a little help?"
Abelinda stared at her blankly.
"Some cutting, please," Sakura said, a bit impatiently. "You took my dagger, remember?"
"Oh. Right." Abelinda balanced the open grimoire a bit awkwardly on one hand as she produced Sakura's dagger in the other. "This will sting," she said, attempting to sound menacing, even as the grimoire wobbled in her one hand. She lashed out with the dagger, slashing both Sakura and Rin's palms as quick as a snake.
Neither sister flinched, and neither sister winced. Slowly, they turned over their hands. Blood dripped down into the open pages of the grimoire.
The blinding flash of light and accompanying burst of energy was quite a bit stronger than Rin had braced herself for. She was thrown across the roof, but thankfully landed on a suitably squishy bed of writhing tentacles. The breath was knocked out of her, but only for a moment. She scrambled back to her feet, glancing quickly around the rooftop, trying to get her bearings.
Rin saw Rhea holding a limp and dazed Sakura, struggling to hoist her onto the back of the rearing and obviously panicked dragon; she saw Shirou, having somehow managed to free himself from the tentacles and now running across the roof toward Sakura; and she saw Abelinda. Her former student had thrown her head back and was screaming, her arms straight out and rigid, her hands melted and melding into the grimoire that she was holding; her blood-red hair was standing on end, her body was shuddering with excess mana, and the tentacles all around her were writhing and twisting in ways that made Rin feel vaguely nauseous just to look at.
Rin turned away from Abelinda, and stumbled her way across the rooftop, across the writhing tentacles, toward Sakura and Rhea. There was nothing more for her to see. It was over. The way that the tentacles were shuddering, Rin could tell that they were in their death throes. The dragon, too, seemed to have sensed what was happening to the tentacles. No longer rearing or keening, it was now standing calmly on the edge of the roof, watching Rin with its dark, ancient eyes.
"Shirou! Rin!" Sakura reached for them both at the same time. "Oh God, she's--"
"I know. Don't look." Rin could smell burning flesh; she could hear Abelinda's bloody, gurgling screams. She closed her eyes, and rested her head against the cool, scaly neck of Rhea's dragon. The dragon spread its wings, then folded them down over the humans gathered around it, shielding them from the sight in the center of the rooftop.
"You knew this would happen?" Shirou asked Rin, not without a bite of accusation in his voice.
"I knew." Rin opened her eyes, and turned toward him. Thankfully, the dragon's wing was blocking the view behind him. "The type of portal that Abelinda was describing, a portal between worlds, it's… It's too much. It's normally too much for an accomplished mage on Earth to manage, let alone on the lunar surface." She turned away from Shirou's angry gaze. "It's because this is the moon. There's too much mana here, too much magic. If anybody who was a portal neophyte tried to pull of a spell like that on the surface of the moon, of course they would be killed."
"You could have warned her," Shirou snapped. "You could have told her this would happen." He was steadily raising his voice as he spoke, not just out of anger, but in order to be heard over Abelinda's dying screams.
"Shirou, we tried to talk to her," Sakura said, softly, but firmly. "You heard us. She wasn't going to listen. And… she was going to kill you." Sakura wrapped her arms around him. "I'm sorry. Oh, Shirou, I'm so sorry."
Shirou returned her embrace, holding her close, but said nothing.
"Look down," Rhea suddenly said.
Rin looked down at her feet, and saw the tentacles shrinking, shriveling to dust. She could still smell the stench of a messy death, but the screaming had stopped. Mentally steeling herself, Rin took a deep breath, drinking in the sweetness of the dragon's scent, then stepped out around the dragon's wing. In the center of the hospital rooftop, in the center of a pile of ash and bone, sat her grimoire. It was open, but turned over, resting face-down in the ash. A pair of red handprints had been seared into its leather covers.
Rin walked over toward the book, ignoring the tentacles dissolving around her feet, and bent down to pick it up. She turned it over in her hands, carefully avoiding holding the covers where Abelinda's handprints remained. The book was still open to the pages upon which the portal had been drawn; but the portal was still nothing more than blood smeared on paper. It wasn't open. It wasn't even close to being open.
"And you will never open," Rin told the portal in the book. She bent down for a moment, dipping her hand in the human ash at her feet. Then she straightened up, adjusted her grip on the grimoire, and slapped her hand across both pages, ruining the carefully-drawn magical runes with inelegant smears of black and gray ash.
Rin turned around, and saw them standing on the edge of the roof, watching her. Her sister, her brother-in-law, her dear friend, and a dragon.
Rin suddenly felt a dizzying moment of déjà vu, momentarily overwhelmed by the exhausting sensation of having won a terrible battle, and remembering, inevitably, all of the battles that had come before. She stared at the edge of the rooftop and wondered, silently, at how much they had all changed. Years ago, who could have predicted that quiet, haunted Sakura would become the powerful and confident mage that she was today? That Rider would take a new name and a new life, becoming a teacher of all things, and rejoining the human society that had once shunned her? That Shirou would be a proud and happy father, not the tragic and broken warrior that they had all met during the Holy Grail war? That any of them would be living on the honest-to-God moon, of all places?
Rin glanced down at the ash and bones at her feet, and thought, What about me?
Have I changed?
Maybe she hadn't changed. Maybe she was still the same Rin who made all of the hard decisions, the same Rin who viewed the world with a cold-eyed practicality, the same Rin who was willing to justify any means by the end. She was still the same Rin who had once considered killing Shirou. She was still the same Rin who had once turned away from her sister even as she had begun to suspect what Grandpa Matou was doing to her. The Rin who had just tricked a young and stupid and incredibly dangerous witch into killing herself, that was still the same Rin from all of those years ago.
At the end of the day, she still hadn't changed. Maybe she couldn't change.
"No. Don't think that."
With a start, Rin realized that Sakura was now standing right in front of her, her bloody hand resting on the open pages of the grimoire. "You have changed. The Rin that I knew three decades years ago was not a teacher. But you? You are."
Rin glanced down at the pages of the grimoire, unable to meet her sister's eyes. She and Sakura had grown closer as adults than they had ever been as children; she should have known that Sakura could read her thoughts as if they were an open book. Sometimes – but not always – she could do the same for her sister. "Tell me, then," Rin mumbled, "what kind of a teacher kills her own student?"
"You didn't kill her. She brought that upon herself."
"…But I failed her."
Sakura reached out, and touched Rin's face. "If we're going to repeat this conversation," she said, "could we at least do it somewhere else?"
Rin glanced down at the ground, at the bones, at the ash covering the hospital roof, at the withered remains of tentacles strewn everywhere. "You're right," she said. "Let's get out of here." If Sakura could read Rin, then right now Rin was reading Sakura loud and clear. Sakura was anxious to get home, anxious to hold Tsutsuji in her arms, anxious to get in touch with Yuriko and make sure that she was still safe, and anxious to tend to Shirou's injuries.
At least Sakura had a plan of action. Rin wasn't sure exactly what she was going to do next. She didn't know how to move on. She didn't know how to deal with everything that had—
Sakura squeezed Rin's wrist, then, and Rin smiled at her wanly. At least she wasn't alone. There was that to be thankful for. She had a sister, and a family. Rin would never have to face her burdens alone again.
She and Sakura walked back toward the dragon, hand in hand.