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Battle Continuation

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Lancer knows this Grail War’s going to be fun as soon as he’s summoned: before him, there’s an enemy about to strike.

He spins Gae Bolg in his hand to block the blade, piercing the white fog billowing around him. Nice try!

With one swing, he knocks the attacker away; he hears their boots skidding on the ground for a few feet.

Lancer smiles as the fog slowly recedes, letting his new Master get a good look at him. He’s aware of the Grail dumping information into his head, but he’s more interested in the world he’s been summoned into. He expects a dusty Mage’s study covered in books and scrolls, with a stuffed-and-mounted alligator in the corner for flavor.

Lancer vividly remembers that last detail—it must’ve been from an eccentric previous Master.

But as the fog vanishes, he finds that he’s not in a study at all: he’s standing in a shed, full of overflowing boxes and mechanical parts. Moonlight filters in through the window, illuminating the charming mess. It’s the last place a Servant of any stripe would appear in.

This is all well and good, but…where’s my Master? Lancer hopes he wasn’t summoned on accident—that would be the height of embarrassing. He decides to call out the traditional query anyway.

“I ask you…”

A gasp alerts him to his Master’s location—behind him. Lancer turns on his heel and grins. There, sitting stunned on the floor, is a redheaded young man with eyes like wheat-fields at sunset—not a normal color, even in Lancer’s time. Physically, the kid’s not that much younger than him—which only makes things stranger.

“…Are you worthy to be my Master?” Lancer finishes, ears perked in case the enemy starts attacking again.

The kid stares at him as if he’s seen a ghost; he’s not wrong. Still, time is of the essence, here. Oh, hey, there’re the Command Seals, right on his hand—very convenient.

“It looks like you are,” Lancer says, jerking his chin toward the kid’s hand. “In that case, your Servant, Lancer, is here to help.”

Protocol over with, Lancer turns and dashes after the enemy. Whatever the kid’s saying, it can wait.

The night breeze caresses Lancer’s skin, and he revels as it cools his throat and lungs. Once again, he has packed earth under his feet, blood roaring in his ears.

When Gae Bolg clashes with the enemy’s invisible weapon, sending shivers down his arms, Lancer’s never felt this fine.

Within a few swings and clangs, the enemy’s class is obvious. She’s a Saber—and a beauty, at that. Her blonde hair and silver armor gleam in the moonlight, and her moss-green eyes are bright with determination.

They break apart, with Lancer still guarding the shed where his Master lies, while Saber stands in the center of the yard.

“Lancer,” she says gravely, “I have no quarrel with you. But I have orders I must obey.”

“Were you ordered to kill that kid?” At her gritted teeth, he sighs in understanding. “You’re really in a rough situation; got to admit, I feel bad for you, Saber.”

Saber scoffs. “Because I must murder someone, to avoid drawing attention to the Grail War?”

Lancer leans on Gae Bolg and chuckles at the very idea. “Well, that’s certainly unpleasant—but people like us always encounter orders we hate, right?”

Saber shifts into a defensive stance. “…Then why do you pity me?”

Lancer spins Gae Bolg in a wide circle before sliding into the ideal stance for his Noble Phantasm. “Well, facing me at the outset is a bad idea, in my experience.”

He hears his Master stumble behind him—probably from the red flames wreathing his body and covering Gae Bolg. Lancer bares his teeth, prepares to throw…

…But Saber stills, as if hearing her Master’s call. She sighs and lowers her blade. “Forgive me, Lancer, but our bout will have to wait. I was only meant to observe; my Master has ordered me to retreat.”

“Then he’s a coward,” Lancer says, refusing to move from his stance for fear it’s a trap. The flames reluctantly recede.

Saber almost looks sad before she leaps onto the roof and bounds away.

“Oh, no you don’t,” Lancer snarls, preparing to leap after her—but then someone runs up behind him.

“Hey, where’re you going? She’s backed off!”

He turns and scowls down at his Master, who’s staring at him with a mixture of confusion and anger. “Oh, so you can talk after all,” he says, amused by his Master’s cheeks flushing. “Good. That makes things easier.”

“Look, I don’t understand what’s going on!” Questions burst from his Master like an untamed river. He gestures wildly: “Where did you come from? Where did she come from? And those flames—are you hurt?”

“I’m fine. Ha! Who’d have expected, a Master asking if his Servant’s okay…but as for your questions, that’ll take awhile.”

“Master…?” Now his ears are turning pink, too. “Look—don’t call me that, it sounds weird.”

This night just gets stranger and stranger. “Well, that’s fine. Knowing your name will work, too.” Not that that won’t stop me from calling you “Master” from time to time. Your face is too priceless!

There’s a slight hesitation, as if his Master’s weighing the value of his name. (A wise choice, considering its power.) Then, he stares up at Lancer and says clearly “I’m Emiya Shirou. You can call me Shirou, if you want.”

“Shirou, huh…?” Lancer tastes the name on his tongue, suspecting he’s pronouncing it wrong, but then its bearer doesn’t seem to mind. “Say, that name suits you.”

Shirou looks surprised at that, but not for long. “And you’re…Lancer, right?”

“Yeah.” Lancer turns his attention toward something in the distance. “Oh, hey, we have company again. Two intruders, this time.” He grins and rests his spear across his shoulders. “So, want me to fend them off, Shirou?”

Shirou shakes his head. “It’s not that strange for Fuji-nee—she’s my adoptive aunt—to come around at night, looking for food.”

Disappointment settles like a weight in Lancer’s chest, but he shoos it away with a sigh. “If you say so.”

Shirou’s breath turns to clouds as he moves toward the entrance. “Okay, let’s see who it is.”

---

Much to Lancer’s surprise, that judgment almost wound up being the right one—it turns out that Shirou already got himself killed by Saber tonight, and his rescuer came to check on him. (At least, Lancer can’t think of a reason why another Master would be near here. He got a few hits on Archer before Shirou called him off, though.)

Archer’s Master is pretty, a little older than Shirou. She has the elegant aloofness of being a Mage down, though her twin ponytails ruin the effect a little. Judging by her uniform, she and Shirou go to the same school.

Lancer chuckles as Shirou fumbles his way through introductions, followed by bringing them inside, and making food for his new guests. It seems someone has a lady-love! Well, I can’t blame him. Those’re some nice legs…

Lancer doesn’t bother listening to the young lady explain the Holy Grail War to Shirou; instead he takes the opportunity to explore his Master’s home. It’s not as huge as a castle, that’s for sure, but for someone living alone it’s colossal. Lancer idly wonders if Shirou has servants of one stripe or another to clean: there isn’t a speck of dust in this place.

He has particular fun opening and closing the sliding doors; they hiss and rattle at the slightest tug.

Despite the size, this place’s built for convenience—Lancer gets to the bathroom through four different halls, for example. It’s small, but it’s worth checking out. He gently twists a knob on the porcelain sink and jerks his hand away in shock. Whoa, there’s running water. And it’s hot!

He turns the water off when he hears someone coming. He pokes his head through the open bathroom door. “How goes the lecturing?”

Shirou looks ready to jump out of his skin. He looks ready to hit Lancer until he recognizes him.

“Sorry,” Lancer says, thoughts of accidentally killing his Master filling his head. Wouldn’t be the first time, either…

“I’ve been looking for you,” Shirou grumbles, trying to act like nothing happened. “Tohsaka told me that I should go to the Overseer for answers—and to figure out if I want to be a Master at all.”

“Makes sense.” Lancer leans against the doorframe. “I can guard this place while you’re gone.”

“You should come, too,” Shirou says immediately. “I couldn’t leave a guest alone, that’s rude!”

That’s almost nostalgic. “What, you afraid I’m going to ransack it?”

“Nope. Someone like you wouldn’t do that.”

“True,” Lancer says. He ignores how he can’t turn to spirit form. “Well, let’s get going.”

Shirou looks him over and cocks his head to one side. “…You need a raincoat.”

Of course, it’s a hideous banana-yellow thing that’s too hot and stuffy to be comfortable in. But Lancer knows an order when he hears one, so he shrugs into the raincoat and they leave.

I refuse to wear this again—once, and that’s it!

---

Since they’re traveling on foot, it’s a long trek to the church. Lancer’s not that surprised at how quiet Fuyuki is—it’s useful for the Grail War to have as little civilian casualties as possible. The buildings are interesting—most of them look the same, but there’re little details here and there to show whose house is whose. Not that much different from the stone huts of the peasantry…

“Tohsaka.” Shirou breaks the silence with a calm voice. “I was thinking…you’ve been walking the streets tonight, right? Isn’t that dangerous?”

Lancer snickers and waits for the inevitable tongue-lashing.

“Emiya,” the young lady says with a voice like frozen honey, “does it look like anyone else is out here? And even if there were…have you forgotten already? I’m not just a Master, I’m a Tohsaka, and this town is mine.”

The good news is that Shirou knows a good point when he sees one. He looks somewhere between relieved and exasperated as he says “Sorry if it sounded like I doubted you. It’s just—I didn’t believe you, at first. But now that we’re out here…this really does feel like a battlefield.”

“So,” Lancer sidles into the conversation, “you’d be happy either protecting or fighting alongside this young lady, huh? That’s the spirit!”

Shirou looks thoughtfully into the distance and murmurs “Yeah, that’s about right…”

Lancer stares in surprise as the young lady reels back in shock, looking like she just saw Shirou juggle his eyeballs.

“Did I say something wrong?” Shirou asks, totally oblivious.

Quick as you like, she’s back to her usual calm self. “No,” she says, walking briskly ahead of them. “You just said something ridiculous, that’s all.” She turns and points at Shirou. “Remember—I’m just repaying a debt, since your Lancer could’ve killed us!”

“Okay, okay. Geez…”

Lancer finds this all very amusing, and hopes they’ll screw with each other more. Alas, no such luck: the sullen silence returns like impenetrable smog the rest of the way.

Which means he has plenty of time to complain.

“Gods, this raincoat thing squeaks too! What use is that to a warrior?”

“Sorry,” Shirou says, looking genuinely apologetic over his shoulder. “It’s the best we had.”

Lancer expected his Master to brush off his complaints. He isn’t sure how to react to that, so he doesn’t.

Finally, after climbing a hill so steep Lancer swears it feels like a mountain, they reach the Fuyuki Church. He bristles at the sight—and why wouldn’t he? An upstart religion slaughtered an ancient one to conquer a continent, and Lancer’s kin were part of the casualties. He’d probably catch fire as soon as he walked in. Sure, the place looks peaceful enough, but the only way Shirou will bring him inside is by Command Seal.

“I’ll keep watch out here, Shirou,” Lancer says, keeping his voice as neutral as possible.

“Oh, okay. Thanks, Lancer.” It’s an automatic response. The kid’s eyes flick down to his Command Seals then toward the Church entrance, looking like a shying horse.

But once Shirou closes his eyes for a second before reopening them again, his body looks less tense. Lancer watches as Shirou and the young lady march through the entrance with their heads held high.

Lancer perches in a nearby tree and rests his eyes, always listening for anything strange. (Aside from his damn raincoat.) Nothing of interest happens outside in the interim between their entrance and exit. That’s as rare as summer snow for him, too.

When they come out, Lancer jumps down beside them, his raincoat fluttering like a cape behind him as he lands.

“So, what’s your decision?” he asks Shirou, who looks a little tired out. “You need a break before you answer?”

“Thanks, but I’m fine,” Shirou says. He scowls, looking like he’s stepped in something foul. “I’ll be your Master. But I’m not going to fight unless I have to.”

“Leave that to me,” Lancer says, willfully ignoring what his stupid “Master” actually means. “That’s why I’m here, after all.”

Something like annoyance flares up in Shirou’s eyes, only to disappear again. “…We’ll talk about this later.”

Lancer bares his teeth in a grin. “Oh, we will, huh?”

“Hurry up, you two,” the young lady calls, already walking away. “It’s getting late!”

Lancer and Shirou continue arguing fruitlessly when they catch up to her, and keep at it halfway down the hill. Lancer’s not even listening to Shirou’s complaints (because they’re stupid) or his main point (because it’s really stupid), and he’s sure the kid thinks the same way about him. Sure, he’ll obey orders in the end—but not half-assed ones.

They continue to go around and around in circles, like wolves fighting over the last piece of meat…

…Until another Master pops up like a weed on the incline behind them.

“Good evening,” the new Master says, with a voice like a song.

It’s another girl, though this one’s a child with hair as white as cream and eyes as bright as blood. In Lancer’s time, she’d be called a Changeling child, and dumped in the woods to die. It seems this era is more lenient.

Lancer lets the Masters handle the introductions—he’s much more curious about the mountain made flesh behind the Changeling girl. It stands silently, awaiting orders; it’s covered in such thick shadows Lancer can’t make out its eyes.

This sure as Hell isn’t Caster. It’s got to be Berserker! The thought makes Lancer’s body shiver with bloodlust.

“Are we done talking now?” Berserker’s Master asks, looking and acting her age. Then she hooks her hands behind her back and trills “Time to kill you!”

Took the words from my mouth—

Lancer bends his legs and prepares to spring.

Berserker’s Master barely finishes her order before they begin their clash.

Lancer finally has a use for the raincoat: he tosses the rubbery thing into Berserker's face, and true to its name it lashes out at the offending object. Lancer almost feels bad for Berserker; that blinding yellow can't be good for the eyes up close.

Lancer can't say he's sad to see the coat go. Being ripped to shreds by a Heroic Spirit is almost too good for it. 

Berserker’s slab of rock hits the ground just as Lancer jumps clear of it. Tar and pavement crack under Lancer’s feet, leaving a huge gash of dirt behind.

“Nice! Too bad you missed me.”

He never wants to see Berserker “smile” again.

Lancer gets the impression that if Berserker could talk, he’d be lecturing Lancer about fighting instead of showboating. It’s a battle of practical application versus showing what you’re capable of in front of a captive audience.

It’s Lancer’s kind of fight.

The bad news is Berserker’s fast. It ducks out of Lancer’s first strike once, twice, and the third time Lancer tries it swings a fist out of Lancer’s line of sight.

Lancer knows this because something as gnarled and hard as a tree root crunches into his face. The tendons in his neck creak ominously, but they don’t snap.

“Bastard…!”

Lancer ignores Shirou’s frantic bleating and swings Gae Bolg toward Berserker’s ugly mug. With a sharp squish the tip pierces its rock-like cheek, coating it with blood. Oops. I was aiming for an eye. Well, it’s bleeding, that’s what—

Lancer doesn’t have long to celebrate: The giant grabs Gae Bolg and yanks it free, leaving Lancer dangling in front of its face like tender meat on a spit. He almost expects it to start laughing at him.

Lancer’s not done yet, though. He lashes out with his right leg and kicks. Once-twice-thrice: Berserker’s nose caves in. A punch, and a normal Servant would have a black eye too swollen to see through.

“Wha—no! No fair, no fair, no fair!” It seems Berserker’s Master is a sore loser.

With a triumphant laugh Lancer snatches Gae Bolg away and leaps back to Shirou’s side.

“Lancer, you’re…” Shirou looks at him with wide eyes as bright as the moon above their heads.

“Think that was amazing, kid?” Lancer shifts into position to launch Gae Bolg. Flames the color of blood wreath his body once again. “Watch this.

Berserker’s Master bends her legs, prepared to run. “A Noble Phantasm?! Berserker, get ready!”

“Now, I’ll take your heart.” The muscles in Lancer’s arm coil and bunch, and the flames writhe around his spear. “Gae…Bolg!”

He throws Gae Bolg with perfect accuracy. It arcs through the air like a shooting star, coating the area in crimson.

Berserker doesn’t have time to move. The spear slices through his chest like a hot knife through cheese—then circles back around to finish the job.

It does.

Lancer catches Gae Bolg mid-spin and grimaces at the thick, dark blood coating it from top to bottom. It smells rancid, too.

Berserker’s still standing, but there’s no sign of life.

“…You did it, Lancer,” Shirou mutters behind him, his voice coated in awe.

“Maybe,” he replies, as Berserker’s blood turns to dust. “But in my experience, that’s way too easy.”

As Lancer’s bad luck would have it, he’s proven right: Berserker’s body glows and pulses with a fiendish red light, like its whole body is a giant heart. Then it begins mending itself. Muscle and sinew bubble into being, and skin scuttles over the healing wounds like a cluster of spiders. It’s a wet, raw, and visceral sight.

Lancer’s seen many a monster, and many a battlefield, but this…falls into the “grotesque” category.

But hey, I get to fight a foe worthy of me. That’s something.

Still chuckling, Lancer spins Gae Bolg in his hands and charges forward again. The fight’s even faster than before. Sword and spear clash together, sending sparks flying. Shards of concrete slice through Lancer’s armor, and blood flows from the gashes like wine. Typical.

I hate to admit it, but I don’t think Gae Bolg will work against this guy…there’s got to be something else…

Lancer steps back to think of a plan. He knows there isn’t much time; he’ll have to be quick about it. Okay, so Berserker can heal from killing blows—

As Berserker’s slab of rock swings down, he feels someone rush in front of him.

He tries to grab them. His fingers brush their back—

And Shirou takes a direct hit to the belly.

Everything goes still. Lancer stares in shock as his Master sinks to his knees, gagging on his own blood. He doesn’t need to see the wound—he’s seen plenty of ravens fighting over the meat unspooling onto the road right now. There’s no coming back from this.

But Shirou turns his head to look at Lancer. With his eyes clouded and unfocused with pain, he gives Lancer a smile as bright as the sun.

He mouths Good, you’re safe…and lurches to his feet.

“What the hell…” Lancer’s neck prickles at the sight. “What the hell’re you doing, you fool?!”

Shirou doesn’t understand, of course. He thinks by keeping his hand over his gaping stomach, he can keep himself alive. He’s still smiling, so very proud of himself, that Lancer considers putting him out of his misery.

“…Let’s go, Berserker.”

Lancer lets the two leave.

Slowly, carefully, he picks up Shirou and races away, with the young lady leading the retreat.

Shirou’s blood, hot and sticky, stains Lancer’s hands.

---

When they arrive at Shirou’s house, things grow stranger still: Shirou’s wound knits itself back together with silver threads of Magecraft. It’s obvious he’s still in great pain, but he isn’t at death’s door any longer.

Lancer sits at Shirou’s bedside and stares at the twining threads, following their rhythm with unblinking eyes.

“Um, Lancer?” the young lady asks. He gives her his undivided attention. “As weird as it seems, I think Emiya will be fine after a day’s rest. So I’m going to go check on Archer.”

He shrugs. “Oh, sure, go ahead. We’re not really allies, anyway.”

The young lady nods in cool agreement, but when she looks at Shirou, worry flickers on her face. Then she covers it with a polite bow and leaves.

He refocuses on Shirou, on the twisting, stitching threads.

Dimly, he hears the front door close.

He watches the threads vanish, leaving only pink, unmarred skin behind. Then he watches the rise and fall of Shirou’s back until his eyes can’t stay open any longer.

Perhaps he dreams. Perhaps he simply falls into slumber. Regardless, when he opens his eyes the sky outside is the pale gray of early morning, and Shirou’s still asleep. Fair enough, a human can’t just get up after something like that.

Lancer looks around Shirou’s room thoughtfully; he didn’t have the chance to investigate before. Much to his disappointment, there’s little to comment on—the place is as sparse as a monk’s living quarters. It worries him; he would expect someone of Shirou’s age to have books, old toys kept for nostalgic reasons, perhaps a lady’s favor. Instead, there’s simple furniture and a window. Everything lies low on the ground, per Japanese tradition, and the only thing to truly catch Lancer’s eye is the homework lying unfinished on Shirou’s desk.

“Better get on that,” Lancer mutters, though he knows Shirou can’t hear him.

Shirou’s foot twitches and kicks in his sleep, but his breathing remains even.

Lancer stretches and wanders over to the kitchen to get something to eat. He remembers to wash his hands at the sink; he scowls as the red flecks of dried blood fall from his fingers and melt in the cool water.

It doesn’t take long before he figures out where everything is and has two pans of fried eggs cooking away. Hmm…we’re going to need more eggs after this. Oh, hey, there’re apples too. While he waits for the eggs to turn a crispy brown around the edges, he eats a few apples to tide his growling stomach over. They’re unexpectedly sweet, but they make a satisfying crunch when he bites into them; they remind him of Erin, back when it was called that. And Emain Ablach, that land of everlasting youth and joy one travels to after death.

…Let’s not think about that right now.

He sniffs the air and notices the eggs are ready to be flipped over. He makes a face when two break, but the others turn out fine. Humming softly, he watches the sun rise over the identical rooftops and wonders whether Shirou would prefer tea or coffee.

He hears a grunt behind him and doesn’t bother checking who it is. “Yo. If you reopen your wound, I don’t know if your Magecraft can save you again.” He waves a hand at the kitchen table. “So sit your ass down. You want anything to drink, by the way?”

Shirou actually does as Lancer says, for once—it’s a miracle. “Um…I’d like tea, please.” There’s a sniffing sound. “Oh, the eggs smell delicious.”

Lancer grins at the praise, and at the undercurrent of restlessness in Shirou’s voice. “In your territory, am I? Sorry about that. The plan was to give you breakfast in bed, since you’re injured and all—but obviously that didn’t work out.”

“Really? Thanks for the offer.” Shirou smiles hesitantly at him. Then his eyes widen, and he leans forward, resting his hands on his knees. “Oh, that reminds me—are you okay, Lancer? I mean, last night—”

Lancer laughs off his worries. “No, I’m fine! The young lady took care of that. They weren’t serious injuries, anyway.”

Shirou looks skeptical for a moment. He sighs and shakes his head. “I guess I’ll take your word on that.”

Lancer decides to ignore that slight on his honor…for now. He gets the tea ready, and dishes out the eggs; he leaves some in the pans, just in case Shirou winds up hungry after all. He sits opposite Shirou at the table, with his back to the sliding door.

Lancer refuses to let him sneak away during the talk they’re about to have.

Shirou stares at Lancer’s plate as he digs in. “Am I seeing things?”

“Hmm?” Lancer manages with his mouth full. To be able to savor home-cooked, savory eggs again is amazing.

“There’re six eggs on that plate.” Shirou rubs his eyes and stares again. “Six.

Lancer swallows and merrily saws through a remaining egg, sopping up the vibrant yellow yolk with a piece of egg white. “Five, now,” he says before continuing to eat.

Shirou’s lips crimp in annoyance. “You used a whole carton—they were going to last two weeks.”

Four eggs left. “When they taste this good? You’ve got to be kidding!”

“You should’ve asked me first.”

Lancer gestures toward Shirou’s mended stomach with his knife and keeps eating.

“That would’ve been fine, I’m up late today anyway. Ugh…”

“…It’s just past dawn, kid.”

“So what? I’m still late.” Shirou slumps forward and runs a hand through his hair in irritation. “And I caused you trouble, in the end. Having to carry me back home, seriously…”

Lancer lets him complain to his heart’s content, and cleans his plate. I’m still hungry, but I’ll let him eat the rest. If he doesn’t finish them, I will.

Shirou picks up Lancer’s empty plate, as if by instinct. He’s already carried it over to the sink before Lancer can say anything. In a strange turn of events, that simple gesture seems to cool the kid’s annoyance a little.

“We need to talk, by the way,” he says, once Shirou sits back down. “It’s about last night.”

“…Oh.” There’s surprisingly little pushback.

Lancer rests his arms on the table and leans forward. “You said you didn’t want to fight, and yet you rushed in like an idiot. Look, you’re a Master and Masters don’t fight Servants—it’s as simple as that.”

“But you were in trouble,” Shirou says, as if that solves everything.

Lancer’s hackles rise.

“You really think that less of me?” he snaps. “I would’ve figured out a way—impossible odds are my specialty, got it?”

“That—thing—was too powerful for you to handle alone!” Shirou’s face scrunches up in displeasure, like he just tasted something bitter. “I refuse to let you fight in odds that bad!”

Lancer growls low in his throat. “You,” he snaps, “clearly learned nothing from last night. It seems to me you need to be punished.”

Shirou actually snorts. “What’re you going to do,” he says snidely, “spank me?”

Lancer blinks slowly, giving him time to regret what he just said. Shirou continues to glare at him, unwilling to back down even after a near-death experience.

With that stubborn impertinence, he could be a fresh recruit, just entering training and already thinking he’s a god. Or maybe Shirou’s a saint, looking at Lancer as an unwashed sinner who needs to be redeemed—or that he’s a sinner that needs to repent.

This isn’t the time and place for leaving things unsaid, for coddling dangerous flaws.

…You know what? Spanking’s a great idea.

Lancer grabs Shirou by the shirt collar and dumps the kid in his lap. Shirou’s back is literally exposed—he still hasn’t changed out of the torn shirt he wore yesterday. Was he looking for praise, or is he just that out of it?

Shirou growls and struggles, but all Lancer has to do is grab his wrists with one hand and apply the barest amount of pressure to make him freeze.

“You’ll keep your jeans on,” Lancer informs Shirou, not wanting him to freak out and miss why they’re doing this. “Let’s see…three should get the point across.”

There’s a pause; Shirou’s measuring his options. “…I know just saying sorry isn’t going to cut it.” His voice is level, clipped. “You can let go of my wrists, I won’t fight back.”

Lancer doesn’t let surprise show on his face. “Do you really understand what the point of this is? Say it aloud.”

Shirou turns his head a little to stare at him. “It’s because I’m not doing what you want, right?”

Those eyes are eerily close to how they looked last night, when he was clutching his stomach and smiling, smiling, smiling.

No, get that idea out of your head! I’m the Servant, here.”

Shirou makes a confused sound. “Then why?”

“Because you nearly got yourself killed,” Lancer growls low in his throat, “and you were overjoyed about it!”

There’s another pause. Shirou is as still as a corpse; Lancer can feel his chest rise and fall against his thighs, each breath as light as down.

Shirou mumbles something, and Lancer flips him over. He lets go of Shirou’s wrists for good measure—his hand was getting tired, anyway.

He lets Shirou clamber off his lap, too; there’s no point in keeping him there if he doesn’t want to be.

“What was that?”

Shirou returns to his seat. “I said ‘you were happy too’.” His eyes are wide with curiosity. “When you fought Berserker, you looked like a hero.”

“Oh, so that’s it.” Lancer sighs and rests his chin in his hand. “Listen, Shirou, you can be brave and not stupid. Pick your battles.”

“Like just now?” A ghost of a smile flits across his face.

“Yeah. You felt how easily I could pin you down, right? If I were a human, like you, you’d be able to free yourself soon enough. But I barely had to exert any pressure on you.”

“…That wasn’t even your full strength?”

Lancer puffs out his chest and rests his hands on his hips. “Not even a quarter of it.”

Shirou looks at his hands and flexes them tentatively. It looks like he’s beginning to get it.

As he walks over to get some breakfast, he says “I’ll only fight when provoked. And I don’t want to kill outsiders, either.”

“Alright.”

Lancer’s pleased that they seem to have come to an agreement. He was expecting a more drawn-out affair.

Shirou’s just about to sit down with his eggs when his eyes widen in horror. “Lancer. It’s Sunday.”

“Yeah, and?”

Shirou’s still calm enough to place his plate gently on the table. “A friend of mine—her name’s Sakura—she makes breakfast with me, even on Sundays.” He points at Lancer’s armor. “And you’re here, wearing that!”

Lancer gets the point, albeit reluctantly. “Got anything I could wear?”

Shirou shakes his head, already looking frantic. “Just—quick, go hide in my room!”

That could make the wrong impression, you know. Still, Lancer does as he’s told, wondering if Shirou’s also trying to keep him away from this mystery girl. Lancer chuckles at the idea—many greater men than his Master have tried and failed at that. Oh, well. I’ll leave them be for now.  

He decides to rest his eyes just as rainclouds begin to form outside Shirou’s bedroom window. He needs to conserve his mana if he wants to have a proper fight, after all. In the distance, he can hear Shirou and Sakura talking in the kitchen—and hopefully eating the remaining eggs. Heh, how’ll Shirou explain that, I wonder…I’ll ask later.

More importantly, there’s the young lady and her Archer to consider. Are they enemies, or allies? Lancer wouldn’t mind either way. And that Berserker’s still skulking around, too, not to mention Assassin, Rider, Saber, Caster…

Lancer grins and leans against the bedroom wall. He folds his arms behind his head and watches the first drops of rain. I wonder which ones I should go after first? Pick off the weaklings, or go all out—hm. It’s a matter of “which ones won’t make my Master do something stupid”, really.

His mind flashes to Shirou’s eerie smile, how he looked so happy as he bled out on the tar. Lancer’s own grin fades. Even a guy like him could notice when someone’s a little off, and his Master definitely qualifies.

I need to keep him off the field, no matter what happens. There’s got to be a way.

Chapter Text

At night, Lancer expects Shirou to flop into bed and get some rest. As he’s quickly learning, Shirou doesn’t let himself be an ordinary human.

Lancer watches his Master stroll across the yard, the moonlight stretching his shadow across the grass. He’s headed for the same shed Lancer was summoned in, and he closes the door behind him.

Huh. Well, this is as good a time as ever to start the hunt. Lancer gets to his feet and leaves the comfortable porch behind.

But he doesn’t leave. Instead, his feet cross the yard in a few lazy strides, and he stands before the shed, unmoving.

With his enhanced hearing, Shirou’s muttered incantation is as clear as day.

“Trace…on. Analyzing component materials. Strengthen—ngh!”

Something that sounds like a steel pipe clangs to the floor. Looks like Shirou’s wound is still hurting him, despite his insisting otherwise. Typical.

Lancer shakes his head as Shirou tries again. Might as well let him tough it out.

But he doesn’t leave. He knocks on the shed door and waits for a response.

The door opens with a rattle, and Shirou pokes his head out, eyebrows furrowed in disgruntlement. “…Hello, Lancer.”

“Hey,” Lancer says cheerily. “I was just thinking, can I watch you practice?”

“Eh? Why?”

Lancer rests a hand on his hip and cocks his head to one side. “Well, since you don’t want me to fight, I’m not exactly rolling in options here. Give me something to do, Master.”

Shirou nods and steps back to let him pass. “Maybe having an audience will help me concentrate,” he mutters.

Lancer takes the opportunity to see his Master’s workshop. It’s a basic setup (a blue tarp and an assortment of machines), but in his experience that’s for the best. The Summoning Circle is several feet away, and hidden under boxes—meaning that Lancer’s worst fears were true, and this was an accident after all. Oh well, nothing to do about it now.

“Have a seat,” Shirou says, and they sit opposite each other on the tarp.  

“So, your talent lies in Strengthening Magecraft,” Lancer says, to get his Master in the right headspace.

Shirou nods, picking up a rock and holding it up to the moonlight piercing the window above. “But I only know the most basic of basics…”

“Don’t feel bad!” Lancer merrily claps Shirou on the back. “You’re the same as I was, back in the day.”

It takes his Master a moment to understand. Then he looks at Lancer with wide, baffled eyes. “Wait…you know Magecraft too?”

“Well, some. Runes are Magecraft—or is that True Magic?—anyway, I had a great teacher.”

“Amazing!” Shirou rubs the back of his head and looks away with an awkward smile. “Hopefully this won’t be boring, watching me fumble around.”

Lancer resists the urge to clap him on the back again, and replies “It’s fine, just pretend I’m not here.”

Shirou tries his incantation again, his whole body rigid with tension. Green, glowing circuitry flows against his wrists and fingers, and onto the stone in his hand.

Just as Lancer’s about to congratulate Shirou on a job well done, the rock splits apart, a clean cut. Both halves hit the tarp with a clunk.

“Sooo…was that meant to happen?”

Shirou’s expression curdles, and he smacks his fist against his palm. “Damn it, why won’t it work today?”

Lancer shrugs. “It’s probably your injury. Don’t wear yourself out for nothing.” He pokes at the rock halves thoughtfully, and they roll back and forth. “Want a Magecraft lesson, instead?”

Shirou nods silently, still looking disappointed at his failure.

Lancer doesn’t know if he’s cut out to be a teacher, but by using the shattered rock he’s able to explain a little of how Magecraft works—namely by showing Shirou how to make the halves whole again. Of course, his Master’s exhausted, and Lancer makes a point to keep his voice soft and level so that Shirou falls into sleep despite his stubbornness.

Lancer grins and closes the door without a sound. Sleep well, kid.

Now he leaves, bounding off the roof of Shirou’s shed and toward the distinctive thrum of True Magic, lurking somewhere in Fuyuki. It isn’t Caster, but their minions. They’ll probably be entertaining.

---

This really isn’t Lancer’s night for guesswork.

Caster’s minions—chimera-puppets made from ancient bones—are the swarming type. They’re hanging out at an office building like rabid dogs, while a mana-draining spell leeches the life off the salarymen who’re trapped there. It’s an effective plan: even if a human does manage to overcome the spell, the attack dogs will tear them to shreds.

Of course, Lancer’s a different story.

He sweeps through the first floor, bashing open skulls and scattering ribs everywhere with a few spins of Gae Bolg. The second floor is much the same, and the third. Fragments of bone vanish in bursts of dark purple sparks.

He begins to miss Berserker—at least it put up a decent fight. But he’s here for a reason: to lure out Caster.

Unfortunately, Caster doesn’t seem to care about her minions very much. He does manage to free the victims, and one calls for an ambulance while he slides into the shadows.

I’d call this a job well done.

When he reaches the roof, he finds a familiar face waiting for him.

“I shouldn’t be surprised at your work ethic,” Archer says dryly, strolling along the building’s edge. “Considering you’ve played nursemaid so far.”

The moon hides behind deep blue clouds, but the lights of the city below illuminate Archer just fine. His hair is as bright as sunlit snow, and his blood-red jacket looks spills and clings across his arms and back like he just stalked off a battlefield. Hell, Archer probably did—warriors never really leave their origins behind.

And yet, despite being able to see Archer clearly, Lancer still has no idea which Heroic Spirit he is. He may as well be blind.

“You here to keep tabs on me?” Lancer tracks Archer’s movements, waiting for a weapon to appear. He bares his teeth in a grin. “I’m flattered.”

Archer chuckles. The sound is unnatural, as if he’s obeying an unspoken order.

He doesn’t answer the question, but then that’s to be expected from a guy this suspicious.

Lancer spins Gae Bolg, shamelessly showing off how with one expert hand it dances around his body like a living thing. He watches Archer’s eyes flick back and forth, always keeping Gae Bolg in his sights.

“Nice, huh?”

Archer’s lips curl into something resembling a smile. “Indeed. When it comes to wasted movement, you’re nothing less than a natural.”

Lancer stops playing around and rests Gae Bolg over his shoulders, the familiar weight nestling against his back. “That ‘wasted movement’ just saved lives, y’know.”

“Did it? Many of them were already dead. You could have harvested them for mana—it’s obvious you need it.” Archer folds his arms across his chest and snorts in disdain. “Like I said, wasted movement.”

Lancer looses a short, raspy chuckle. “Oh, I get it now. I ruined your dinner! Sorry, sorry.”

A twitch of a silver eyebrow is all the reaction he’s going to get, apparently. But Lancer still appreciates the reaction all the same; it’s an unexpected delight.

Archer blinks slowly at him, his grey eyes bright. “My Master hasn’t ordered your death yet. However, that doesn’t mean we’re allies. Remember that, when next we meet.”

“Sounds like a date,” Lancer says, and winks.

This time, Archer’s reaction is more than he could’ve hoped for. It’s got everything: flushed ears, uncrossed arms, and another strongly worded threat that may or may not mean something.

“You’re a good fit for his Master after all, Archer!”

With a more genuine laugh, Lancer bounds off the roof and heads off in search of new prey. The wind roars around him, tangling in his hair and making his mood even lighter.

---

Lancer arrives at Shirou’s place at sunup, without much to report aside from the rescued civilians (and Archer’s adorable reaction). He doesn’t bother checking the bedroom; he can almost taste the traces of Magecraft floating off the shed.

Shirou opens the door with a sharp rattle before Lancer can knock. “Hmm? Oh, morning Lancer.” He yawns wide and rubs his eyes slowly. “Did you sleep well last night?”

“Not bad.” Lancer shrugs and lets him pass.

He sees Shirou’s made a little progress since last night. Before he can get a closer look, though, Shirou shuts the shed door and shuffles toward the house. It’s hard to tell if he blocked Lancer on purpose or not.

Shirou cooks breakfast this time, and Lancer watches him maneuver through the kitchen with remarkable grace. He never drops a plate, all of his measurements are careful…it’s clear that this is where Shirou’s mind and heart truly lie.

“Are you sure you want a traditional breakfast, Lancer? You may not like it.”

Lancer takes a seat at the kitchen table and grins. “I’m not going to force you to make only food I’m used to! And there’s fish involved, right? Sounds good to me.”

Shirou nods in approval. “Alright, I’ll do my best!”

Do you ever not? Hopefully that’s just an expression.

While Shirou cooks breakfast, he says over his shoulder “I’m going to school tomorrow…which means you’ll have to stay here. There shouldn’t be any Masters at school—”

“—Aside from the young lady, you mean,” Lancer interrupts, resting his chin in his hand.

“Eh? Tohsaka? Oh, it’ll be fine. I just have to go home right after school ends; that’s what she told me, anyway.”

“Awfully generous of her, considering she’s our enemy.”

“Hmm…I guess.”

Lancer grins as Shirou pointedly stares at the rice cooker, not meeting his gaze. His Master’s got it bad for those blue eyes.

“And what if your other lady-friend—Sakura, right—decides to show?”

“…I thought we discussed this. You hide in my room until she and Fuji-nee leave.” Shirou’s shoulders tense, as if afraid the women in question will burst through the door at any second.

Lancer rolls his eyes. “For crying out loud, kid, they can handle themselves! If they come to this maze of a house for your company, they can handle a new face on the premises.”

The metal spoon in Shirou’s hand hits the bubbling pot of vegetables a little too loudly, but he doesn’t say anything.

…Conversation over.

“Say,” Lancer says, “why don’t I get a job, like you?”

Shirou looks like he just got whacked on the head with his spoon. “What?!”

“You said you lost a day of work yesterday because of me—I’d like to remedy that.”

Shirou mutters to himself for a moment, as if weighing the benefits. Then he sighs loudly and nods. “That’s fine. Copenhagen’s got a waiter position open…but you’ll need new clothes.”

“It’s about time,” Lancer says, satisfied.

He soon learns why Shirou was so hesitant to give him clothes: there are boxes full of them lying around, but they still carry the scent of someone long gone. Shirou can’t smell it, but Lancer can. Still, he dresses in the only white t-shirt in the collection, along with black pants and leather shoes, and looks damn good in his opinion.

Well, let’s see what my luck has in store for me this time…

---

Lancer gets the job at Copenhagen right off—he’s able to charm customers into buying more food and drink, which is all that matters. And Shirou seems to enjoy having someone else to talk to when they close up shop.

He helps Shirou clean out the garbage after their shifts end, and since he’s the older of the two he’s tapped to down what drinks the customers couldn’t finish.

“How can you still move?” Shirou asks in awe, as Lancer tips his head back and drinks the last beer margarita.

He gestures to his height.

“Oh, of course.”

Lancer places the glass back with great care and wipes his mouth with his knuckles. “There, that settles that.”

Shirou looks at the carefully stacked glasses that line the bar counter like soldiers in formation, then back to Lancer. “So,” he murmurs, “I need to ask you something about your home. Can I?”

“Sure.” Lancer bends down slightly to Shirou’s height.

He leans toward Lancer’s ear and whispers “Is our alcohol as good as in your time?”

Since the bartender’s still getting ready to leave, Lancer can’t grimace like he wants to—the rich, buttery taste of beer really doesn’t work with sour lime and bitter vodka, in his opinion. Instead he says “I’d take plain whiskey or ale over some of the more…blunt stuff.”

Shirou nods and steps out of Lancer’s space, as if he expected that. “Fuji-nee has some beer in the fridge, if you want any.”

Lancer rests his hands on his hips. “Sounds like my kind of woman!”

Shirou’s brows pinch, and he looks away—but it seems like there’s more than one reason why.

---

It’s inevitable that Lancer meets Shirou’s most frequent guests; it’s boring waiting around for them to leave. But what’s strange is that Shirou’s the one who agrees to it—in a manner of speaking.

Lancer sits in the room opposite Shirou’s, listening to a CD player he bought with his own salary. He’s not sure how he feels about modern music just yet, but it is handy to have a portable bard around. And the melody’s catchy enough. He closes his eyes and lets the music flow through the mildly itchy headphones into his ears, letting his mind wander where it may.

He cracks an eye open and finds Shirou’s standing at the door, out of breath—he must’ve run all the way from the kitchen. He leans his arm against the doorframe, his breathing growing steady. Then he walks toward Lancer, pointing to the headphones.

Lancer takes them off, drapes them around his neck. “Something wrong?” he asks, his voice sounding like a flat boom as his ears adjust to the sudden silence.

“Come eat with us,” Shirou says without preamble.

He’s worried for no reason again.

“You what now? Didn’t we agree—”

“—Never mind that, I was stupid.” Shirou rubs the back of his head and glances to the side awkwardly.

“I don’t know if I’d call something like that ‘stupid’. Overprotective, sure.” Lancer can hear Fuji-nee and Sakura chatting away in the distance; they’re wondering what’s keeping Shirou. “The ladies are getting suspicious.”

Eyes as bright as the dawn stare at him with simple-hearted sincerity. “Please, Lancer.”

Lancer places the headphones atop the CD player and gets to his feet. “Thought you’d never ask,” he says with a grin.

Shirou’s visibly relieved as they make their way back to the kitchen. Lancer stares at Shirou’s back, wondering what he was thinking. What, did he think I was wasting away from loneliness back here? At this rate, this kid’ll have a heart attack before the month’s out.

Despite that, Lancer can’t deny he appreciates the sentiment. While he often fought alone, he rarely drank alone—and from what he’s gathered, the woman Shirou calls Fuji-nee loves beer.

When Shirou enters the kitchen and introduces Lancer, “normal” clothes and all, the women eating at the table go silent.

The younger of the two is already striking, despite her age. Her long purple hair frames her face like a curtain of lilacs, and her eyes look at Lancer with awe—before glancing away shyly, hiding behind her locks. She’s a cute one, and the orange and black school uniform suits her. Lancer suspects she’s another lady who can walk herself home at night.

The older woman is of more interest to him. Ladies didn’t wear their hair short in his time, but it’s a good look on her, somewhere between mature and playful. Her clothes are casual too, but Lancer can’t help but notice they’re pretty tight around her chest and legs. And speaking of legs…nice. She has a refreshing, hot-blooded vibe around her, too, in a way that reminds Lancer of his wife Emer.

But her brown eyes narrow at him with unhidden suspicion.

Lancer puts on his best smile and waves. “Hey, ladies!”

The younger of the two says with a soft, sweet voice “Sempai, who is this?”

“Sakura, Fuji-nee, this is a friend of the old man’s,” Shirou replies, the lie blundering through the silence. “His name’s Lancer. He’ll be staying for awhile, so—do you two mind if he eats dinner with us?”

Fuji-nee leaps up with unrestrained enthusiasm, a giant grin on her face. “Wow, he looks like a friend of Kiritsugu’s!” She sniffs the air. “What kind of cologne is that? It smells…hmm. I can’t put my finger on it.”

Lancer’s gotten that question before, so he laughs it off. “I wouldn’t know either, sorry! But you have an amazing sense of smell, to have picked that up.”

Fuji-nee puffs up with pride, her hands on her hips. “Thanks! As a teacher—and professional taste-tester for Shirou’s cooking—I have many talents.”

Sakura cocks her head to one side. “…I’m not sure I understand, Ms. Fujimura.” Then she nods and smiles slightly. “Oh, I see, never mind.”

Lancer blinks in surprise. “Huh, I just thought her name was Fuji-nee.”

When Sakura giggles, covering her mouth with her hand, Lancer watches Shirou’s expression soften. Or rather, turn to mush. Ah-ha, so Sakura’s off-limits, got it.

“I don’t mind if you call me Fuji-nee,” the woman in question says with a light-hearted smile. “It’s not like you’re a student, after all!”

“So you’re a teacher, huh?” Lancer asks, sitting beside Fuji-nee. “You know, I could tell right off. But judging by your physique, you’re no stranger to athletics.”

Fuji-nee’s smile puts the overhead light to shame. “That’s right, I’m a kendo champion!”

“Oh-ho, I can believe it.” Lancer leans forward a little, narrowing his eyes in thought. “Hmm…y’know, I think I’ve heard of you before. You hold a record even the current kendo club can’t beat!”

(He overheard the club’s teacher complaining at Copenhagen. He couldn’t resist cheering them up and getting a nice tip in the bargain.)

Fuji-nee looks around excitedly. “Check it out, I have a fan!”

“Congratulations, Miss Fujimura.” Sakura beams.

“I’m not sure I understand his taste,” Shirou grumbles, and takes another bite of rice.

“’Course not, she’s your aunt.”

Tonight’s dinner is stir-fried tofu with rice. Despite having never had stir-fry before, Lancer finds he quite likes it: the vegetables taste savory, and are as firm as the nut-flavored tofu, and the rice is simple but satisfying.

Of course, he quite likes the company too—Sakura and Fuji-nee bring out a warm, contented side to Shirou, a pleasant respite from their more prickly interactions. It’s as if Lancer’s watching a family dinner, but isn’t excluded either. Not a bad change, really.

“So, Fuji-nee,” Lancer says, after Sakura and Shirou have cleared the dishes away, “you must have some stories about Shirou and his dad, right?”

She perks up. “Of course, I knew Kiritsugu and Shirou from the very beginning!” She glances at Shirou then back at Lancer with a mischievous glint in her eyes. “Want to hear?”

“Absolutely.”

Lancer gets comfortable, watching with amusement as Shirou tries not to look like he’s listening in as he scrubs a pot clean. Sakura isn’t even bothering to hide her curiosity, looking up from wiping a bowl and zeroing her attention on Fuji-nee’s every word.

Well,” Fuji-nee says with a giggle, “Kiritsugu may’ve been a busy man, always going on overseas trips and stuff, but he always did his best to look out for the underdog. And Shirou followed his lead, just like a little sidekick!”

“I had to,” the sidekick in question pipes up from the kitchen sink. “He kept getting lost or buying junk food, remember?”

“Excuses, excuses,” Fuji-nee trills, and continues: “Anyway, Shirou was a good child. He couldn’t stand bullies, and would always stick up for anyone getting hurt. He was very mature for his age.” She sighs forlornly. “You were such a cute kid, Shirou, what happened?”

“I had a childish adult to take care of. It’s to be expected that kids grow up quicker with lazy freeloaders around.”

Lancer whistles. “Wow, your tongue is sharper than that carving knife.”

Fuji-nee looks the picture of anguish. “Aww, Shirou, you’re so mean sometimes!”

“Then don’t call me cute!”

“Hmph. Fine, you’re an old man in a student’s body, like how Kiritsugu was a child in an old man’s body.” She snaps her fingers, remembering something. “…Oh, and here’s the best part!”

“Oh, what’s that?” Lancer leans forward, and his ponytail spills over his shoulder.

“One time, when asked what he wanted to be when he grew up—”

Shirou’s whole body tenses and shivers, as if a spider dropped down the back of his shirt. “F-Fuji-nee, you’re not going to—!”

“—Guess what Shirou said?” Fuji-nee says in a tone befitting a proud parent and troublemaker.

Lancer hums in thought and leans back on his hands. “How about ‘I want to be a lawman’?”

For some reason, none of them get it. Perhaps it’s a translation issue, or just that the quasi-joke didn’t land.

“Something like that,” Fuji-nee says after a thoughtful pause. “Actually, he said”—she folds her arms across her chest and imitates Shirou’s voice—“‘I want to be a Hero of Justice’!”

“Oh, so I was close after all. Sounds like a good nickname, actually.”

Shirou drags a hand through his hair in irritation. “Ugh, Fuji-nee, how come you remember that? It sounds so lame now!”

Sakura laughs good-naturedly. “I don’t think so, Sempai. I would’ve gladly helped you fight off bullies back then.”

Lancer winks at Shirou, who’s staring at Sakura like a knight looks at a fair maiden. “Still think it’s lame, kid?”

“…I’ll have to think about it.”

Lancer smiles at him and stretches his arms behind his head luxuriously. “’Course you do, you haven’t given up on that dream yet.”

Evidently, he said something wrong: Shirou bristles at him and snaps “Why do you care? You have your own dream to take care of!”

“It looks like they’re intertwined, Shirou.” Lancer leans back on one hand, and drapes the other across his knee. “You shouldn’t feel ashamed for something that good-hearted.”

It’s said sincerely, and it hangs in the air frozen.

“I said I’ll think about it,” Shirou finally relents, and the debate comes to a standstill.

Lancer turns his attention back to Fuji-nee, noting that she’s admiring his ponytail. “See something you like, Miss?”

She looks good when she blushes, too. Must run in the family. “O-Oh, nothing! I just liked your hair.”

“Oh, I see.” He bends his head a little, letting his ponytail slope against his shoulders and back. “You can touch it, if you want. Just don’t pull!”

“You hear that, Sakura? Want to play?” Fuji-nee asks eagerly.

“O-Oh, no thanks!”

Peace is restored, and Lancer sits back and lets a beauty fuss over him. Win-win.

Shirou watches from his spot at the kitchen counter, putting the dishes away. He looks somewhere between fond and exasperated. “Honestly, I don’t know what I expected…”

Their stillborn argument still lurks in Lancer’s mind, even as he enjoys Fuji-nee’s antics.

---

Lancer takes the opportunity to go on another nighttime expedition. It goes about as well as to be expected: he takes down Berserker after a drawn-out affair with a well-aimed stab to the heart and a burst of flame from his Ansuz rune, setting Berserker ablaze.

It’s almost a pity—Berserker was a wily opponent. Lancer took a few hits before the giant went down.

He stands in the ruins of the Einzbern mansion. The gleaming chandeliers dangle by a thread, ready to shatter atop the shards of what remains of the stairway.

And in the center of it all sits Berserker’s ex-Master, with silver in her eyes and sliding down her cheeks. She’s holding on to Berserker’s monstrous hand, even as it fades away in a flurry of red. Her Command Seals seem to float off her skin like ash, back to the Grail’s keeping. Her shoulders shake, but no sound passes her lips.

Lancer scowls and wonders what to do. Sure, Masters need to be eliminated just like their Servants. But he’s never been a fan of killing innocents, even when the Warp Spasm pushed his bloodlust to its limits.

…And Shirou would hate the idea of blood on his hands.

Lancer thinks of Shirou’s cozy, warm house, with plenty of rooms to explore, good food to eat and good company to share it with. It’s perfect for a kid like her. This place is too big, too empty. Even a tomb would be better than this.

He opens his mouth to speak, but the girl beats him to it.

“…Liz, Sella,” she whispers.

Two maids who look like older versions of the girl are by her side in a flash. It seems she’s not so alone after all.

He doesn’t want to admit it, but he’s exhausted. Berserker took a lot out of him, and he’s covered in glass shards from another chandelier they broke when they fought upstairs. His left ankle aches with a heavy pain when he puts too much weight on it, threatening to strain—or worse, break. Even though he still wants to fight, he knows when to pack it in.

“Go to the church, you’ll be safe there,” Lancer suggests lazily, before making his exit.

He travels in stops and starts, pausing to rest when the pain gets too much. Looks like my luck’s finally running out, huh…typical.

He makes it halfway to Shirou’s place when he’s forced to collapse at a park. His ankle’s throbbing even worse now, and he doesn’t have enough mana for some quick-and-dirty healing. The green-roofed gazebo shivers in his vision. With unsteady steps, he limps up the two concrete stairs and slips beneath the awning. He slumps on the nearest bench and twitches at the cold, wet, clammy sensation that clings to the back of his head.

His fingers reach behind him and grope at his neck. What’s—oh, it’s just a wet leaf. Grumbling at nothing, he throws the brown leaf away and gets ready to remove the glass decorating his body.

“What a surprise,” Archer drawls, materializing by his side. “Looks like you’re good for something after all, Cu Chulainn.”

Lancer hacks out a laugh and begins picking out glass from the back of his head. “What about you, slacker? What help have you been to the young lady?”

Archer mutters something so soft Lancer can barely make it out, so he doesn’t bother.

He winces as the glass slides free, bringing stinging pain and bloodied skin with it. When he tosses it to the ground, he watches a drop of rain drip from the awning and splash among his blood.

He hears rather than sees Archer move, and he flicks his gaze to Archer’s hand, hesitating inches from his hair.

“You want to help? Be my guest.”

Archer nods in calm acceptance. His fingers slide through Lancer’s bristly, bloody strands, strangely gentle considering his usual demeanor. It would be a nice massage if not for the pain that slowly blossoms when Archer begins removing a large shard.

“Hold still,” Archer says, his voice devoid of emotion.

“Like you need to tell me—”

“—That counts as movement.”

Lancer rolls his eyes and grits his teeth as the shard comes free, hot blood trickling down the back of his neck. Bastard.

The process is slow, but not agonizingly so (aside from the obvious). In between, Archer asks a little too casually about Berserker’s ex-Master, and Lancer just as casually tells him about the church. Judging by Archer’s grunt, it really was just a question to pass the time.

Or at least, it would be if Lancer didn’t catch the way Archer’s gray eyes glinted with the barest hint of relief.

Maybe you’re not a slacker after all. Maybe you’re just softhearted, deep down.

Lancer doesn’t say so aloud. Instead, he listens to the patter of rain falling on the gazebo’s roof, to Archer’s steady breathing. Steady, cool hands move against his hair and skin. Lancer doesn’t object when Archer moves on to the shards sticking to his flesh—why would he? Archer knows what he’s doing, and Lancer’s too tired to deal with it himself.

Time passes. The rain continues to drum around them, cocooning them in a small, frozen world.

With doctor-like precision, Archer’s hand rests on the small of Lancer’s back and pinches the last shard between his fingers, just like he did with the others. The brief sting is the same as the shards before it, quick as an ember’s spark.

“I knew a man like you, once,” Archer says, his voice almost drowned out by the rain drumming on the roof. “He wasn’t allowed to be this reckless.”

Lancer snickers. “Oh, really? Then he wasn’t much like me at all.”

Archer smirks. “Hmm, perhaps you’re right. But he had his good qualities, in the end.”

“Let me guess: you were ordered to help me out?”

There’s a pause as the rain grows heavier, trickling down the roof and along the roof’s poles in gushing streams. In the artificial, stark white light of the park, the water looks more like milk, or melted pearls. It makes Archer’s armor all the more striking, a glimpse of something that shouldn’t be in a place like this.

“I’ll let you decide on that,” Archer says, and his eyes don’t match his smug tone.

He leaves before Lancer can thank him. His dematerializing form floats through the rain and doesn’t let it touch his skin.  

Lancer sighs and gets to his feet; his ankle feels a little better already. Still, there’s no way I can face another Servant tonight—not in this condition.

He slowly, haltingly continues his journey to Shirou’s house, thinking about Archer’s strange reactions and stranger demeanor. What’s his problem? Nothing about him makes sense; he’s a bowman who wields two swords, he says he’s an enemy but helps me out…

Lancer’s still puzzling over Archer when he nears the road close to Shirou’s street and hears someone walking his way.

Since he can’t turn to spirit form, he hides in the darkness of the sloping hill that leads to the high school. He keeps his breathing slow and doesn’t move a muscle as the person’s footsteps vibrate through the ground. It’s a steady rhythm, without the need to hurry. Someone having a nighttime stroll.

Just as Lancer comes to this conclusion, he catches sight of the mystery figure. He breathes a sigh of disappointment and relief—it’s just a student. A student with weird, seaweed-like hair, but still nobody to get worked up over.

Wait a minute. Lancer frowns as the student continues his sauntering trek. Why would a kid his age be out this late? And Shirou has school tomorrow, too, so it’s not like there’s a holiday…

Lancer makes sure he’s wearing his casual clothes before strolling out of the shadows toward the seaweed student.

As expected, he shrieks like a banshee when he sees Lancer, his dark blue eyes wide. “S-Stay back, thug! Just who do you think you are?”

“Just somebody out for a walk, like you.” Lancer looks the student over, noting how sickly-pale he is, the bags under his eyes. “You okay, kid? You’ve seen better days.”

“Hmph! I’m fine, no thanks to you.” The student sticks up his nose at him; Lancer can practically see up his nostrils. “What business is it of yours, anyway?”

Huh, this again. But Shirou’s version made more sense… Lancer folds his arms across his chest and smirks. “It’s not. Got to say, you’re awfully obsessed with being the center of my world—did a girl dismiss you just now? That’s rough, buddy.”

The student bridles in a pout that only a noble’s brat could perfect. “How dare you speak to me like that! I’m the Matou family heir!”

Lancer yawns and passes him by, keeping his distance in case the brat tries to tug his ponytail. “Which means shit to me, kid. So run along back to your parents and whine about how mean I was.”

The brat’s still swearing at him as Lancer takes the scenic route back to Shirou’s house.

He senses something lurking in the corner of his vision, and hears the faint clink of a chain. Smells like blood, too. But when he turns to look, all he sees are silent houses shrouded in darkness.

Chapter Text

“Wait,” Shirou says under his breath as he and Lancer peer through Copenhagen’s kitchen window, “are you sure it’s a good idea to go talk to Tohsaka right now? She looks worried about something.”

“That’s why we should,” Lancer replies in a whisper, his breath fogging up the glass. “It’s probably something related to the Grail War.”

Shirou scowls and glances around to make sure nobody else heard. “Yeah, but it’s supposed to be secret!”

Lancer stares down at him. “Obviously. I’m just going to ask how she’s doing, that’s all. Or you can chat with her, take your pick.”

After fighting Berserker to the death last night, finding time to chat with a young lady sounds downright simple.

Shirou shoves a hand in his black apron pocket and pulls out a notepad and pencil. “I’ll do it—be right back.”

“Good luck,” Lancer mouths to him and watches his Master head out into the bustling throng.

Copenhagen is much busier than usual today: every round table is full, and customer’s shadows overlap and overwhelm the varnished cherry wood floor, turning it dark as teak. Since it’s a few minutes to “happy hour”, the bartender’s watching over the scene with dreamy eyes. Chatting faces cover and uncover the photos taped to the far wall and the painting of a waterfall by turns. The young lady has the best seat in this place, right next to the old stove—that’ll keep the winter chill away, at least.

Seeing that Shirou made it to the young lady safely, Lancer busies himself with his own job.

…At least, he would, if he didn’t sense something strange coming from outside.

It’s a cloying, sickly-sweet sort of “smell” that reminds him of badly-made perfume. Not exactly enticing.

Lancer tightens his apron strings and strolls to the back door; maybe he can get a look before someone—

“—Lancer, there’s a customer waiting at table six,” one of the other employees calls, barely able to see over her teetering stack of dirty dishes.

Ugh. “On it!”

Lancer takes out his own notepad and pencil and shoulders his way out of the kitchen and toward the table in question, smiling brightly.

“Good afternoon, sir. How may I help you?”

The customer gives Lancer a once-over with a look of utter disdain. “I’ve been awaiting your service since I arrived; that is unacceptable.”

Ah, one of those types.

The blond-haired man is handsome enough to catch the eyes of bards. Dim, intimate lighting brings out his bronzed skin. His leather jacket, cotton shirt and trousers are well made, and his voice is pleasant, but what he says ruins the effect. It’s like seeing a well-bred, decorated horse taking a shit.  

Lancer bows deeply and smiles even wider, showing off his teeth. “Sorry about that! Have you decided on your order?”

Blood-red eyes flick down at the menu then back up at him. “A lifetime ago…hm. I shall have today’s special. And your finest vintage.” He snaps his fingers at Lancer and smirks. “Don’t dawdle.”

Maybe I could follow him into the bathroom later. Yeah, and drown him in a toilet…

Lancer writes down the order, bows again and puts as much space between him and that glittery bastard as possible. The rest of the staff seems to understand his pain. There’s only two hours left of our shift…two hours left…I can do this!

As Lancer starts going through the wine bottles, it occurs to him that he could mix tap water and vinegar in an empty bottle and serve it as revenge. But knowing my luck? Better not risk it. He gets a chuckle out of the idea anyway.

He glances over his shoulder to make sure that Shirou isn’t in that guy’s range, and sighs in relief. The young lady seems to be keeping Shirou out of harms way, calmly chatting as if nothing’s wrong. Good, now just stay there for a little while longer…

Then Lancer notices that the blond bastard is staring at the young lady and Shirou with an unreadable expression, his posture almost hungry. He looks ready to get up and walk over—and whatever happens next can’t be good.

There can be only one reason for a look like that.

Damn it, not now! Why here?

A plan comes to Lancer, roughshod and risky, but it could work.

Lancer exits the kitchen with the “finest vintage”, really a random bottle of white wine. His every step is weighed down by the desire to kick the chair out from underneath the Servant and engage in a duel.

When Lancer reaches the Servant’s table, those disdainful red eyes turn his way with obvious reluctance. Then his gaze scrolls down from Lancer’s face to his nametag, and back up again. The Servant’s lips curl upwards in a cruel smirk, and it feels to Lancer like he’s caught in a lion’s jaws.

Lancer pours the wine, not breaking eye contact for a second. The melodic sound of wine rippling into the glass is as loud as a sword sliding free of its sheath.  

“Ah,” the Servant finally says. “Very good, for a mongrel. And just as I was considering calling over that redheaded companion of yours…he isn’t limping about pathetically.”

It takes all of Lancer’s will not to dump the bottle over his head and drag Shirou and the young lady out the door.

“Sorry about the wait, sir.”

The Servant takes a sip of wine and swirls it around it his mouth for a moment before grimacing. “What is this swill? Another.”

Lancer grits his teeth and tries to bear it. He can't. “Now, listen here—this is the best we can offer you. You don’t like it? Leave.”

The Servant glares at him. “What impudence.”

With a movement too fast for the human eye, he “accidentally” knocks the glass over the edge of the table.

Lancer catches it by the stem—but not before spilling ice-cold wine all over his crisp uniform.

He grunts at the clinging, freezing sensation, and everyone’s attention turns to him, like searchlights piercing through fog.

The Servant clicks his tongue, and Lancer can feel the air shift slightly with the thrum of mana. “What terrible service. You do your…superior little credit.” He glances pointedly at Shirou, who looks ready to leap to Lancer’s defense. “But in the end, you have wasted my precious time at this hovel.”

“That’s enough.” Shirou’s voice is a low, defiant growl.

Right,” the young lady snaps, positioning herself in front of Shirou, “why would you come here in the first place if it didn’t suit your taste?”

“Boredom,” the Servant drawls, as if it were obvious. He looks at the sun through the window. “Ah, I must be off. I have an important—if dull—meeting to attend.”

The chair shrieks abrasively as the Servant pushes it back; he stands in one fluid motion that no human could replicate.

Identical red eyes glare at each other, searching for weakness.

“You know your way out,” Lancer growls.

“Indeed.” The Servant smirks and places a few coins on the table—they’ll cover the damages, at least. “For that brief moment of entertainment.”

Then he saunters out, leaving Lancer dripping wine onto the glossy wood floor.

Shirou rushes to Lancer’s side, fretting over him without caring if the other customers gawk. He takes the glass from Lancer’s hands and stares at it for a long moment before putting it back on the table with a loud clink.

“I’m fine, Shirou, don’t worry!” Lancer turns to the young lady, who looks equal parts concerned and steaming mad. “Hey, thanks for standing up for me.”

She takes a deep breath and regains her icy composure. “It was nothing. I just can’t stand to watch a lowlife do what they want.”

Lancer raises an eyebrow in amusement but says nothing.

Shirou tugs at his shoulder. “Come on, let’s get you a clean uniform.”

“Sure, sure.” He lets himself be pushed along, dimly aware that the customers are murmuring among themselves.

They hustle to the restaurant’s back room. Piles of neatly arranged boxes overflowing with kitchenware and other stock cast shadows on the white plaster walls and concrete floor. They're illuminated by a single, cream-orange overhead light. Extra uniforms hang from a steel air pipe, like an impromptu tailor’s store. It’s similar to Shirou’s shed, but not as inviting.

The air is stuffy and cold, and Lancer shivers as the wine cools the cotton fabric and presses against his skin.

Shirou asks “So why did you act out like that, anyway? I mean, that guy was a pain, but—”

“—He was looking at you odd.”

Shirou’s lips quirk incredulously. “Well, I was talking to Tohsaka Rin, Homurahara’s top student. Anybody would be looking our way.”

“You’ve got it all wrong.” Lancer loosens his black tie and throws it on the nearest cardboard box. “He felt like a Servant. And I don’t know about you, but he didn’t seem the type to keep bystanders from being killed; if he’d stuck around any longer…”

He saw it in those red eyes: that Servant deemed everyone in the restaurant guilty of whatever crime he pleased, and was eager to pass the sentence. Lancer can almost smell the stench of death in the air, even now.

Shirou pauses in the middle of stepping over a box of knives. He looks at Lancer as if seeing him in a new light; maybe he sees something heroic there.

“…Thanks, Lancer,” he says softly. He continues his trek, his movements careful and easy.

“Oh, Shirou, there’s something I forgot to tell you before.”

“I’m listening.”

“Before I had to go serve that glittery bastard,” Lancer begins, reaching behind his back for the apron strings, “I sensed something weird outside. Like a smell.”

“‘Weird’ how?” Shirou’s voice is muffled by the row of uniforms he’s picking through. “Drunks sometimes vomit back there.”

Finding the strings, Lancer shucks off his ruined apron in a careless blur of motion, letting it fall to the concrete floor with a wet flop. “It wasn’t like that. It was sickly-sweet, and rotted, y’know? Like dead flowers, or fish, something like that. But I didn’t have time to check it out—could you?”

“In a second. How’re the rest of your clothes?”

Lancer lifts his vest and sniffs; the heady scent of wine floats up to him. “Looks like I’ll need a new vest, and shirt.” Unfortunately, both are clinging to him like a second, pale green skin, and the wet buttons slip against his fingers. “Come on, you stupid—!”

Shirou pokes his head out from behind the uniforms and heads toward him. “Oh, I can help with that.”

Lancer wants to tell him no, but when a vest button pops and lands at their feet, he throws up his hands in resignation and grumbles “Thanks, kid.”

“It’s no trouble.”

Shirou glances at Lancer’s arms beneath the soaked fabric for a moment, in a way that might be admiring, before reaching for the vest.

The room is quiet. Shirou’s fingers deftly unbutton the vest’s buttons, his eyes glazed over with thought. Then, after a bit of wriggling, together they tug the vest off and dump it beside the apron.

Lancer watches Shirou’s hands, their doctor-like in precision. He thinks about mentioning Archer. But then he’d get all fidgety about me getting injured…better not.

Shirou’s fingers twitch in surprise as they brush against the first button of Lancer’s shirt. “Your skin’s…warmer than I thought.”

Now, as Lancer looks down at Shirou’s face, he wonders if his Master’s thinking of something else. The scent of wine fills the air, intoxicatingly sweet.

“I’m not a walking corpse, you know,” Lancer drawls, as Shirou shakes off his reverie and continues.

“Sorry, that’s not what I meant.”

“I wasn’t offended at all.” Lancer grins as the buttons come undone, one after the other without a single tear. “Been caught in the rain before, have you?”

Shirou smiles self-deprecatingly and finishes the last button. His hand lingers at Lancer’s arm before pulling back.

“I’ll go check out that smell, while you wash yourself off,” he says, his brows pinched in annoyance again. He wipes his hands with a washcloth in his pocket and stalks out of the back room, his movements stiff and awkward.

“Wait,” Lancer starts, but he sighs and does as he’s told—he needs to get rid of the alcohol-stench, anyway. There’s no point in getting a new uniform if you stain it again! Ugh, I’m a little ‘off’ since that Servant showed up…

After Lancer uses the cramped employee showers and gets dressed, he finds out Copenhagen’s closed for today: Shirou found a high school student passed out in a back alley, bleeding from a puncture wound in her neck. The student’s bag is missing, but first priority is getting her to the hospital.

“Her name’s Mitsuzuri Ayako,” Shirou intones, holding the black desk phone to his ear with a white-knuckled grip. “She’s a classmate of mine. No, she’s not the sort to use drugs, officer. She looks like she’s been mugged. Yes, officer. Thank you, officer.”

Lancer looks at the precise way he places the phone back on the cradle, and a chill settles on his spine.

---

Shirou’s silent the whole way back to his place.

Lancer lets him lead the way, guarding his back from any potential attackers. Considering how weird this day’s been, one never knows what could happen next. He watches Shirou’s back, how it’s slightly slumped as if a yoke’s bearing down on his head and neck, forcing him forward.

“Hey,” Lancer says, as the sunset casts the clouds overhead in bruise-blue and flame-orange, “you should visit Mitsuzuri tomorrow, once the healers have patched her up. I’m sure she’ll be fine.”

He gets a grunt in response.

“That so? Sounds like a good yarn.”

Another grunt, more annoyed this time.

He can’t resist: “A ten-course feast in an hour? Not bad, not bad at—”

Shirou turns to look at him, his eyes somehow both emotionless and intense. He blinks once, as if registering Lancer’s presence, then looks straight ahead again.

Lancer’s beginning to understand. Off the battlefield, he met many warriors who couldn’t handle the carnage. They acted just like Shirou: trapped in their own thoughts, unable to hear or see anything but the blood and screams.

(Rumors swirled around Ulster castle, that Cu Chulainn could leave even the most grisly battlefield with a smile; that he knew the secret to sleeping at night. The truth is, the wars didn’t wake him in the early hours, his mind an endless blank. He doesn’t care to recall what the nightmares are about.)

He shakes his head and focuses on the problem at hand.

“It happened long before we got there,” Lancer says, keeping his voice calm and gentle. “It’s not your fault, Shirou.”

There’s a slight tilt of Shirou’s head, showing he heard, but otherwise there’s not even a grunt.

I’ll take that as an improvement.

When they reach Shirou’s house, he’s acting a little more himself. It takes him a moment of fumbling to get his keys, but he’s able to unlock the door and slip inside. Lancer follows after Shirou, wondering just what made him feel better. Somehow I doubt it was my doing.

Shirou places his book bag against the wall and begins taking off his sneakers. He’s as slow as a turtle tonight, clearly trying to work up the courage (or think of the words) for what he wants to say.

“Lancer…” Shirou murmurs, putting his sneakers to one side with a thump. “…Thank you for what you said earlier.”

“No problem! I know it’s not fun seeing someone you care about hurt.”

Shirou nods and slips on his inside shoes, heading into the house proper.

“So, is Sakura cooking tonight?” Lancer asks, following Shirou’s example.

“Unfortunately, she can’t,” Shirou says, stuffing his keys back in his pocket. “The archery club is practicing late, which means Fuji-nee will probably just head home too.”

“Aw, that’s a shame.” Lancer was hoping those two could help cheer Shirou up. He stretches his arms over his head and groans at the pleasant pop and strain that follows. “Oh well, I’ll cook!”

Shirou looks ready to object, but then his lips curl into a slight smile. “Alright—you know where everything is by now, help yourself.”

Lancer beams at him, and welcomes this change of pace. “Anything in particular you want?”

Shirou cocks his head to one side and hums thoughtfully. “Omurice,” he replies, looking almost sheepish. “I feel like comfort food tonight.”

Thanks to the Grail’s knowledge, Lancer quickly figures out what Shirou means—an omelet on top of rice fried with chicken—and he marvels at the modern world’s genius.

“Sure, that sounds simple enough.” Once again, he dons an apron. “I’ll get to it!”

Time passes in a peaceful flurry of sizzling pots and pans and the scents of crispy egg and savory rice filling the air. Lancer keeps expecting Shirou to come over and help, but instead he feels Shirou’s eyes on him, watching thoughtfully. It doesn’t make him uncomfortable—in fact, it makes him want to show off. But he’s smart enough to keep a lid on that urge for now; there’re too many flammable things around for that.

“Lancer, does your foot hurt?” Shirou asks with concern from the kitchen table.

“Hmm? Oh, a little. But it’s nothing serious.” As long as I don’t put my full weight on it, that is.

“I see.” A pause. Then: “You’ve been fighting at night.”

It’s not phrased like an accusation. But there is an undercurrent of conflicted feelings in that steady voice.

“Yeah. I figured it’d keep enemies off our trail if I searched for them, not the other way around.”

Lancer jiggles the frying pan, and the watery eggs wobble and slosh about. He waits for a reply, wondering if he’ll get praise or scorn.

“…Hm. That’s right, you enjoy that sort of thing.”

Lancer turns to look at Shirou, who’s gazing off into the distance like he’s seeing an unpleasant memory play out before him.

“Got a problem with that?”

Shirou’s shoulders hunch over, as if expecting a blow. “There’s no point in saying so.”

Lancer tries not to crush the pan’s handle in his grip. “Don’t brush me off.”

“What, and let you ignore me instead? You obviously don’t care about what I want.”

“I thought you didn’t want to fight—I’m following your orders!”

And you got hurt.” Shirou’s voice hardens. “What if that Servant guy tries to attack you later? You’re already injured, what if you lose?”

Lancer bares his teeth and forcibly keeps his fists at his sides, keeps his body still. “Then I’ll kill him before he gets to you!”

Shirou’s smile is self-deprecating and bitter. “He wouldn’t aim for me, remember? You’re worrying for nothing.”

“Not when it comes to you,” Lancer growls, and points to Shirou’s stomach. “It’s better to fight when you can’t show up and get yourself killed!”

“But—I’m—” Shirou’s hand presses against his stomach, and his face turns pale with remembered pain. Then he glares up at Lancer, his eyes ablaze with determination. “—It’ll be worth it, if I can protect you.”

What…

Lancer’s pride bristles at the very idea of needing to be protected, like a green recruit at his first battle.

…The…

That Shirou believes this, without a shred of self-consciousness, seems almost unreal. Then Lancer remembers that he’s just seen a classmate injured in a back alley today, and that’s obviously on his mind. But Lancer is many things, and “as fragile as a human” isn’t one of them.

…Hell—?!  

His temper comes to a boil, and it explodes out of him in a roar.

“Are you serious, Shirou? You’re not just doing me disrespect, but Heroes in general! You think you didn’t have a choice to fight in this Grail War? You think this is some sort of burden? Well then, make yourself strong enough to carry that weight! I know you can, I’ve seen you trying. I’m not going to coddle you and feed your fantasy!”

Lancer pants for breath, still shaking from head to toe. When his vision refocuses, he sees Shirou’s still sitting there, pale-faced and too livid to speak.

The clock ticks in an abrasive, never-changing rhythm. Tick. Tick. Tick. In Lancer’s state of mind, it sounds mocking.

Servant and Master look forcefully away from each other, angry silence stretching between them like battle lines.

But it can't last. The more time passes, the more Lancer’s blood begins to cool. He hears Shirou mutter something about going to the shed, and doesn’t stop him. He focuses all his attention on cooking: straining the rice and frying it with the chicken, letting the sharp hissing sounds interrupt his temper whenever it threatens to seethe again.

He doesn’t know how long it takes, but he hears Shirou come back inside and sit at the table with a weary thump.

“Feel better?” Lancer asks, turning his head to look at Shirou’s despondent face.

Shirou sighs and bows his head. “I deserved that. I’m really sorry, Lancer. You’re a guy, and a Servant, after all.”

“That I’m ‘a guy’ has nothing to do with it. It’d be equally in bad taste to spout that stuff to a woman Servant, too.” Lancer adjusts the shoulder strap of his apron. “But I can tell you mean that apology, so I’ll take it. I shouldn’t have yelled at you, either—so I’m sorry too.”

Shirou straightens up and blinks in surprise, as if needing an apology hadn’t crossed his mind. Then he rubs the back of his head and smiles bashfully.

“Thank you again.”

'Course, just because he apologized doesn’t mean he won’t still want to “protect” me…but who knows, maybe I got through to him.

Lancer’s attention turns back to cooking—something’s ready to burn. He saves the rice just in time. Lancer scoops out a good-sized spoonful, puts it on a plate and carefully nudges and presses it until it’s shaped like an almond. Okay, now comes the hard part…

“I’m surprised,” Shirou says quietly, “I didn’t have to give you instructions at all.”

Lancer pauses in the middle of grabbing a spatula for the omelet and looks his way. “Do you want to?”

There’s a second of silence, as Shirou notices the hint of something intimate that slipped into Lancer’s voice. He grumbles and doesn’t answer.

“Oh, right, I’m doing what you want already.” Lancer hums a jaunty reel to himself as he keeps working, scraping the crispy omelet from the bottom of the pan and taking great care to drape it over the rice like the image the Grail gave him. “Hmm, it needs ketchup too, right?”

“That’s the tradition.”

Lancer brings the plate and chopsticks over first before getting the ketchup from the fridge; Shirou’s eyeing his meal hungrily.

After giving the chilly ketchup bottle a light smack, Lancer saunters over to the table and pops open the white cap.

“What’d you like me to draw?” he asks cheerily.

Shirou blinks in confusion. “Uh…a zigzag line.”

“Okay, coming right up!”

Lancer bites his tongue to keep from laughing like a kid as he squeezes the bottle and the ketchup oozes out with a long, drawn-out splurt. He’s never heard that kind of sound from something meant for food before.

“Thanks again,” Shirou says, not noticing Lancer’s reaction. He picks up the chopsticks and begins to eat.

Lancer’s eager to find out if he followed the recipe right. He doesn’t say anything, though; he just goes to put the ketchup back.

Shirou lets out a muffled yelp of surprise, disrupting that plan.

He’s beside him in a flash. “What’s wrong, kid?”

When he realizes Shirou spat what he was eating onto the plate, and is doubled over with a hand over his mouth, Lancer knows there’s a problem.

Finally Shirou can speak again. “Did—did you check the label on the bottle, Lancer?” He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, looking like he still hasn’t gotten rid of the taste.

Lancer nods and looks at the bottle again, just to be sure. His heart sinks. “…Oh. This is hot sauce. But wait a second…”

He squints at the label suspiciously—it’s a little wrinkled, like somebody switched it.

When he points this out to Shirou, Shirou shakes his head in exasperation. “Fuji-nee’s at it again. What did I do this time?”

“No idea. Maybe she didn’t like that ‘immature adult’ comment from before?”

“Huh, you may be right.” Shirou cocks his head to one side thoughtfully and frowns. “But you would think she’d be used to it by now…”

Lancer strikes a confident pose, resting his hands on his hips. “Wouldn’t you feel like crap after being teased by your nephew in front of a handsome stranger?”

“Hmmm…let me think about it. That’s a really specific scenario.”

Lancer’s eyebrow twitches. “You’re just playing dumb, aren’t you.”

Shirou doesn’t seem to be listening; he’s totally wrapped up in imagining that “specific scenario”. Looks like I was wrong—he’s just a weird, good-hearted guy.

“I understand,” Shirou says, looking up at Lancer with a sunny smile. “I’ll ask Fuji-nee to forget what I said before. And I can still eat the omurice, I just have to avoid the sauce.”

…Emphasis on the “good-hearted”. And the “weird” part too.

---

Lancer’s bad luck kicks in again: it seems the other Masters and their Servants are determined to scuttle away into their dark holes and brood, instead of coming out to fight.

The only good news is that the blond Servant doesn’t come back to Copenhagen again, and nobody else Shirou knows gets injured. Lancer and Shirou keep doing their jobs, and Shirou goes to visit Mitsuzuri at the hospital until she’s discharged a day later.

At school Shirou says that the young lady’s trying to teach him a bit of Magecraft too—at least, she’s making sure he knows how to take care of Servants.

Lancer wonders if that’s what’s making Shirou so antsy. He’s stopped complaining about Lancer’s food intake (which is great), but now he goes quiet when he sees Lancer’s injured foot is slowly healing. Whenever Lancer tries to ask him what’s wrong, he just smiles with forced cheer and says it’s nothing.

What a pain…

Still, a few peaceful days are worth cherishing.

---

“There’s a problem,” Shirou says, when he gets home.

“Wow, something finally happened.” Lancer pats the spot beside him, the wood floor of the dojo smooth against his palm. “Well, what’s up?”

“It’s Shinji—one of my classmates,” Shirou says after he sits down, dumping his schoolbag unceremoniously at his side. “He’s a Master, too.”

“Told you,” Lancer drawls, resting his hands between his knees.

“What? You only counted Tohsaka as a Master!” Shirou clears his throat, trying to look cool and collected. “Anyway. Shinji came to me today and asked me to team up with him. He said we should stick together, since we’re…acquaintances.”

The setting sun peers in through the window, drenching the dojo in bronze and purple. Shirou’s eyes glaze over in thought, or something darker, and Lancer wonders if this Shinji is—or was—a friend of his.

An “acquaintance” can’t hurt you that deeply.

“So, what did you do?”

Shirou blinks. “I told him no. If Tohsaka turned him down, Shinji’s not planning to fight fairly.”  

“…Huh. That makes sense.”

Shirou continues, his body rigid with concern. “The way he treated Rider…he just touched her like she was an object. She’s beautiful, but—she’s so quiet. It’s not normal.”

Lancer shrugs one shoulder lazily. “Rider’s a Servant. She’s not here to chat, y’know.”

Shirou shakes his head, still frowning. “No, that’s not it. It’s like she can’t talk back to him, even when he treats her that way. But they’re both acting like it’s fine! It’s…” His head bows forward, and his fingers slowly curl into fists. “…It’s just like…”

Lancer thinks he understands now. “…It’s like something you’ve seen him do before?”

Shirou growls. “I don’t know! It—it’s just vexing.

“Sounds about right. This Shinji guy shouldn’t treat a Hero like any old weapon. Doesn’t matter if Rider’s a woman; it’s all about free will.”

“…Yeah.” Shirou looks up, and for a moment Lancer sees a flash of the young idiot he once was. “Whatever Shinji’s planning to use Rider for—if he’s going to attack the school, I can’t let him do that!”

“Wait, wait, the school? Why there?”

“Oh, that’s right, I forgot. Shinji made a Bounded Field around school, at some point. He says it’s for defense, but…I’m not so sure. Nothing’s happened yet, but I can’t just ignore it, either.”

Lancer rests his cheek in his hand and grins. “You’re getting the hang of this, Master.”

“Thanks. I’m trying, anyway.” With a self-deprecating smile, Shirou’s back to his usual self. “Oh, Rider said something about Caster—that she’s hiding out in Ryuudou Temple.”

Lancer raises an eyebrow. “That so? It’s best to investigate that, and not go off of an enemy’s word.”

Shirou frowns. “I did. My friend Issei lives at the Temple—he’s a monk—and he said there wasn’t anything strange going on. Just wedding planning.”

“Weddings can be strange—particularly the circumstances leading up to it. But whatever, maybe it’s nothing to be concerned over.”

Shirou nods and looks off to the side thoughtfully. Then he nods, as if confirming his own resolve. “Well, we shouldn’t worry about Caster right now. Shinji and Rider should be our—your first priority!”

Lancer chuckles. “Got a bone to pick with this guy? I’m in.”

“No, we should just be careful, that’s all.”

Lancer places a fist over his heart and bows his head. “As you wish, Shirou.”

Shirou’s eyes widen for a moment. Then he gives a little smile. “Huh. I can’t believe I forgot you’re a knight.”

Lancer straightens up, wariness making his neck prickle. “I didn’t tell you that.”

“—Oh, sorry. I just dreamed about it, that’s all!”

“I suppose that makes sense. Fair enough.”

As Shirou leaves to prepare dinner, Lancer stands at the door of the dojo and thinks on his Master's words. In the back of his mind, he recalls he had a weird dream of his own—not that seeing burnt battlefields in his dreams is weird. Rather, he was seeing through the eyes of a civilian. It was a short dream, filled with the foul stench of death and burning rubble, but it still lingered in his mind.

Looks like I’m getting soft-hearted, too.

Shaking his head with a rueful smile, Lancer follows Shirou to the kitchen.

“Hey,” Lancer says, without thinking. “Since we know who Rider’s Master is…if you want to fight him, you’re going to have to train.”

Shirou looks over his shoulder at him, eyebrows raised. “You mean—with you?”

“You bet.” Lancer rests a hand on his hip and grins. “We start tomorrow morning, at dawn. Think you can handle it?”

Shirou’s answering smile of confidence is exactly what he hoped for.

---

Whack. Thud.

Lancer points the shinai at Shirou’s chest, while his Master sits and stares up at him in stunned silence.

“And now you’re a dead man. Again.” He pulls back his hand and lets the shinai rest on his shoulder. “You up for another round?”

Shirou groans and gets to his feet, his shirt drenched in sweat. “Of course I am!”

Lancer huffs disdainfully and gets into a defensive posture. “Alright, hit me.”

Shirou’s fingers clench around the handle of his shinai and he rushes forward, his eyes bright with frustration.

So it’s an all-out assault this time, huh? Fine.

Lancer blocks the attack with ease and kicks Shirou’s legs out from under him. But Shirou’s wising up—he switches from a fall to a roll, evading Lancer’s next hit by an inch.

“Not bad,” Lancer says, ducking his head out of the way as Shirou’s fingers nearly grab his ponytail. “Ooh, so close!”

“Quit making fun of me—”

Shirou’s shinai slashes at Lancer’s chest; he glides out of the way just in time.

That simple action only makes Shirou angrier. But he doesn’t grow sloppy—instead, he seems to focus, truly getting into the rhythm of the fight. (Which is what Lancer wanted all along.)

Shirou bobs and weaves through Lancer’s strikes; his gaze is focused on Lancer’s arms, waiting for an opening. Sunlit sweat drips onto the floor, staining the wood.

Lancer loosens his posture, baring his belly for Shirou to see.

Of course Shirou takes the bait. His face a mask of tension, he lunges forward, swings his shinai with all his might—

—And Lancer takes the opportunity to side-step out of the way.

Shirou loses his momentum in an instant. It’s pretty entertaining, watching his socks skid and force him onto all fours. Fuming, he scrambles to his feet.

“What was that for?!”

“Next time,” Lancer says, tossing his shinai from hand to hand, “be more cautious about attacking an obvious opening, got it?”

“Fine,” Shirou growls, and tackles him.

Or tries to, anyway. While he’s got meat on his bones, he’s no Berserker. His sweaty body pressing up against Lancer’s chest, he pushes and pushes, and Lancer doesn’t give an inch.

Lancer sighs. Y’know, I think I will ease up on him a little.

He falls backward—taking Shirou with him—and hits the hard floor with a thud.

Shirou grins and taps Lancer’s head very, very lightly with his shinai before casting it aside. It rolls across the floor with a rumble and comes to a stop a foot away.

“There, now we’re—oh. Are you tired, Lancer?”

“Not particularly. You?”

Shirou’s red eyebrows pinch in annoyance. Then he glances to one side with a wry smile. “Yeah, I guess.”    

Lancer looks up at Shirou’s face and watches beads of sweat slide down his cheek and collect on his chin. He can see Shirou’s lungs expand with air and empty in short, quick bursts. His spread legs tremble with exertion above Lancer’s stomach. But despite his obvious exhaustion, he could push himself further, simply because he wants to.

“You sparred with me for three hours straight,” Lancer mutters, wiping the shivering sweat off Shirou’s chin before it falls. “I’ve got to hand it to you, you’re more rough-and-tumble than other Mages!”

There’s a pause, as Shirou registers the touch of Lancer’s hand and the accompanying praise. His breath ruffles Lancer’s hair, and Lancer tactfully ignores the hitch that comes with it.

“Huh. I’ll take that as a compliment.” Shirou tries to stand up, but since he’s too tired for that he rolls over onto his side. “You know, I actually do look sick right now; anybody who thinks I’m skipping school would second-guess themselves…”

He goes quiet, closing his eyes to rest. His breathing evens out, and he wipes beading sweat from his brow.

Lancer has a hunch he’s going to ask something, and opts to loiter.

“Yeah,” Shirou mutters, “‘that’ Lancer would be really interesting…”

Lancer raises an eyebrow. “What’s that, kid? I’m the only Lancer around here.”

Shirou grimaces. “Ugh, I said that out loud, didn’t I—what I meant was, what were you like before you became a Heroic Spirit?”

Lancer chuckles and shakes his head. “You don’t want to know that! It’s pretty repetitive: training, fighting, winning, and back again. That’s all I can tell you without giving you my true name.”

“Oh, you’re right. Sorry.” It’s obvious Shirou’s disappointed, though.

Can’t let you linger on that for too long—

Lancer gets to his feet in one smooth motion. “Want some water?”

Shirou smiles. “Yes, please. I brought a kettle, actually, it’s over by the wall.”

Lancer turns to look: lo and behold, there’s a copper kettle glinting in the morning sun. “Got it,” he says and does. 

“Thanks again.” Shirou props himself up on his arms as Lancer walks back to him, the kettle swinging lazily from his hands. 

“No problem, again.” The handle's lukewarm to the touch.

Shirou takes the kettle, tilts it downward and tips the copper spout toward his parched lips. The sun casts a soft, gold-white glow on the copper and his skin; the image reminds Lancer of his time training in the Land of Shadows, sharing wineskins with the other students.

Water spills from the spout, looking like liquid sunlight before passing Shirou’s lips. His eyes flutter closed in bliss, and Lancer can see his throat bob greedily to take in every last drop.

This is the first time Lancer’s seen his Master want something and take it, without reservation.

“Don’t drown,” Lancer says, his voice unexpectedly hoarse.

Shirou stops drinking and wipes his mouth with his hand. “Mm, that’s enough for now.” He rests the kettle on his lap, staring at it in thought. “Oh,” he says softly, his expression drooping in disappointment, “I should’ve asked if you wanted some too!”

That relief was too good to last, after all.

Lancer clears his throat. “I was just about to get a glass myself. Don’t worry about it, just rest there.”

“But Lancer—”

He smiles and takes his leave.

His smile fades as he heads for the kitchen. We’re going to need all the mana we can get against Rider, let alone the others. I doubt he knows how to do that transfer yet. And even if he did—he wouldn’t let himself enjoy it.

But maybe…

Lancer shakes his head at his own stupidity. …No. I shouldn’t get my hopes up.

Lancer pours himself a glass of water and chugs it down, the sunlight rippling through the glass.

---

There are two facts of life Lancer knows well: there’s never enough time for fun, and never enough food stored away. The good news is the latter’s an easy problem to fix.

He leaves Shirou to rest after a second day of training, and goes out to buy groceries. (He’s borrowing one of Shirou’s bikes for the occasion, a crotchety old thing that’s still able to work.) It’s afternoon, and school is still in session. Puffy clouds float over the looming buildings of iron and glass, and Lancer hopes rain comes soon. Civilians blissfully walk through the streets, unaware that they’re sharing space with a legendary Celtic warrior.

Lancer enters the grocery store and consults the way too thorough list Shirou gave him. He finds everything with the same ease he would at a market back home, and some stuff he couldn’t.

Dried…seaweed? No way. He looks at the crinkly package again. The simple label remains the same, and the dark green sheets inside still look too much like medicine for his liking. Hmm, looks crunchy, though. I’ll trust your judgment, Shirou—for now.

Then Lancer feels something icy-cold and foreign creep across his spine, coming from the direction of the high school.

Heart racing with adrenaline, he speeds his way through checkout, dumps the full plastic bags into the bike cart and pedals like a madman after the eerie sensation.

Damn it, why didn’t I think to check the Bounded Field earlier?! Idiot! He pushes the regrets aside—there’s nothing he can do about the past. All he can do now is follow the strange presence coming from the school.

And hey, it’s not like Shirou’s there, right?

---

As Lancer pulls up before the school’s front gate, he realizes things are worse than he thought.

The streets nearby are too empty for this time of day, for one. And there’s the Bounded Field wrapped around the school grounds like a python’s coils, turning the insides into a soupy mirage. Looming above it all is a vast, unblinking eye red as bull’s blood, wreathed in lightning to match.

Lancer jumps off the bike and rushes over to the front gate, Gae Bolg in hand. He didn’t work up a sweat on his way here—the salty wetness dripping down the back of his neck is from the waves of prana washing over him from the Bounded Field. It carries a cloying, sickly-sweet scent as well, which reminds him of stale perfume and rotted flesh…

Looks like I’ve found that girl’s attacker.

Just as Lancer raises Gae Bolg, prepared to pierce his way through the Bounded Field, he senses someone else is nearby—a familiar Servant.

“Hey, Archer, you actually going to help this time or what?”

Archer materializes across the street, ready to summon his bow by the angle of his arm. His calm voice carries: “Rin is hunting for a way inside. She told me to find you, and lend a hand.”

Lancer smirks. “…Y’know, I’m beginning to doubt this whole ‘Master told me to’ routine you’ve got going. But go ahead, prove me wrong!”

Archer’s as impassive as always. “Don’t flatter yourself. I’m just here to fight, the same as you.” His black bow and silver arrows finally appear, and he nocks two against the bowstring.    

“Any day now, buddy…”

“You have no appreciation for the art of the bow, I see. As expected from a Servant like you.”

“Oh, please, you just want to look good!”

“I’m afraid that’s your issue, Lancer.”

Archer looses his bowstring.

The arrows fly over Lancer’s head, missing his hair by a centimeter. They shatter like glass against the Bounded Field. Lancer can see the faintest of cracks where the arrowheads made contact—not a total loss.

“My turn,” Lancer snarls, and jabs Gae Bolg at the crack in a blur of motion. Once, twice, and yet nothing changes.

He figures he has time, and steps back a few paces, prepares to charge…

…Then he sees it.

A window on the third floor shatters, sending shards of glass falling to the ground like snow.

And in the middle of that man-made blizzard, his image refracted and reflected in a thousand tiny mirrors, is—

Shirou,” Lancer mouths, his blood roaring in his ears.

The world turns silent, slow, and cold. He’s aware that he’s slashing, stabbing at the invisible wall between him and his Master, but all he can see is Shirou’s agonizingly slow descent, the way he simply lets himself fall. Lancer wonders if he didn’t save someone inside, if he thinks it’s his punishment.

He can only watch as Shirou’s Magic Circuits flicker feverishly across his clothes, a desperate, unconscious bid for armor. He can almost feel Shirou’s heart slowing, his mind shutting down, forcing him to give up.

Perhaps it’s to be expected—Lancer’s never had good luck with protecting others. Not when it counts, anyway. It looks like Shirou’s come to the same conclusion: Well, I did what I could, and it wasn’t enough. But I tried, right? So I’ll carry that to my grave.

Then Shirou’s gaze locks with Lancer’s.

Even this far away, they see each other. Even in this moment, at this impossible distance, Lancer can see the fire in Shirou’s eyes returning.

Shirou’s Magic Circuits grow steady, stronger. His arm reaches out, across the gulf of prana between them.  

Lancer's aware his voice is straining with a cry of triumph, that a warrior in red is holding him back, but all he cares about is the crimson light shining from Shirou’s hand.

It hits him like a hook to the heart, yanking him forward, filling him with strength beyond his limits:

Please, come to me—Lancer!

And he bursts through the Bounded Field like a comet, arms outstretched to catch Shirou. The world switches to pale blue to drenched in blood red, and his hearing returns just in time for the sound of glass raining on the ground to fill his ears.

Lancer catches Shirou mid-fall, noting that he’s heavier than last time. He doesn’t mention it, though.

They skid across the ground, kicking up dust and leaving a thick trail behind. Not a bad landing.

“You did it,” Shirou murmurs, looking at him like he’s…well, Lancer will gladly take praise in any form.

You did it,” he replies, “though you really should’ve called me earlier. I suspect it was out of your hands before.”

Shirou sighs. “You’re not wrong.”

He sets Shirou on the ground and lets his back lean against his chest as he regains his balance.

“Lancer,” Shirou says softly, a thick rasp in his voice.

“Yeah?”

“You need to kill Rider. Now.” It’s a simple order spoken plainly, with an edge of anger running beneath the surface. “I’ll handle Shinji.”

Lancer folds his arms across his chest. “Sure thing. But I want to see you walk on your own, first.”

Shirou does so, only a little unsteady on his feet. His breathing is heavier than normal, and Lancer can see the flesh of his right arm’s gaping open. Slick white bone peers out of the gore like a grotesque parody of a maiden lifting her veil.

“Don’t tell me you fought Rider…” Lancer claps a hand to his face and groans.

An annoyed snort follows. “I wanted to, but I didn’t. I tried to retreat, but—well, you saw what happened.”

Lancer hears the icy clink of a chain. “Tell me more later, okay?”

A woman’s chuckle greets him, and he glares up at the source.

Rider clings to the front wall of the school like a patch of darkness, a wicked smile on her lips as her weapon swirls back to her hand. “So we finally meet, Lancer.”

Lancer huffs out a laugh and spins Gae Bolg in a lazy circle before settling into a fighting stance. “It’s not my style to keep a lady waiting. If you had stuck around that night, we could’ve met far earlier. I guess you’re the shy type!”

Like Shirou said, Rider is beautiful, even with her eyes covered by a purple mask. Tall, pale as the moon and wrapped in darkness—she makes the red light around them look dull, due to the bloodlust pouring off her like a heady perfume.

There’s another scent on Rider, and its one Lancer knows intimately.

Some would call her a monster, but Lancer prefers the term Divine Mystery. It’s much more flattering.

“Come closer, Lancer,” Rider purrs, “and witness how ‘shy’ I can be.”

She’s a blur of motion as she scuttles back the way she came.

“Sure,” he growls low in his throat.

Then, in a feat only a knight of Ulster could perform, Lancer races up the building using the whitewashed bricks as footholds.

The plan is to distract her, but that isn't happening.

Rider’s chain lashes out, and Lancer only just manages to dodge it. They clash and break apart in a whirl of deadly motion, chasing after each other, Rider always one step ahead.

The icy wind roars past Lancer’s face, making tears prick at his eyes. He ignores the way his body instinctively wants to fall backward, forces his legs to keep pumping, keep running. Don’t trip like a moron and ruin the moment—

He considers throwing Gae Bolg, but his sense of gravity’s warped right now as it is. It’s best to keep it dematerialized for now.

Rider outpaces him and slithers up to the third floor. This Bounded Field of hers has one thing in Lancer’s favor: it won’t let her use another Noble Phantasm.

Not that her chain’s easy to deal with, either: the dagger on the end slices the air, and Lancer’s cheek along with it. Ignoring the stinging, he grabs the handle before she can pull it back and yanks—

—But Rider’s cleverer than that: she drops the chain and lets it melt like boiling sugar in his hands.

Then he has to jump out of the way as Rider re-summons the chain-and-dagger again, this time arcing behind him.

The world tilts and lurches sickeningly.

His feet threaten to give out. His eyes roll in their sockets, searching for something to focus on.

In a manner of speaking, he gets his wish: an arrow like a comet roars overhead, hitting the space between two windows above him with a thud. It looks almost pale red in this crimson light, and the material swirls into a cone-shape. He stares at it in confusion—he’s never seen an arrow this thick, this bladelike before.

But it’s something he can grab on to, and he does. Thanks, Archer. He takes two deep breaths and uses the arrow as leverage, launching himself upwards.

Lancer makes it to the broken window and hops inside. It takes him a moment for his brain to stop rolling around in his head, get used to standing still and upright on solid ground. He can only imagine how Shirou feels; his footsteps echo up the stairs. He should reach the next hall over, at that rate.

The school is covered with red on the inside, too. It feels like they’re inside a giant womb, the very air pulsing in a relentless rhythm. Lancer looks around the empty hallway and doesn’t see any sign of Rider or her Master, but he knows they’re somewhere nearby.

Metal slithers in the red stillness.

—There!

Rider detaches from the wall and lunges for him, her chain whipping toward him dagger first.

He blocks it easily; the metal clangs and sparks against Gae Bolg.

Spin and guard, leap out of the way and guard again. Compared to their little race before, it’s dull.

That’s his mistake.

There’s a flash of silver. The chain wraps around Gae Bolg and his hands like a python, holding fast. And the dagger—

The blade bites deep into where his shoulder connects to his arm. Lancer bites back a cry of shock as searing cold metal enters his flesh, and hot blood trickles forth.

Hmm…maybe I don’t have to hold that back.

He strains his neck, trying to grab the blade’s handle with his teeth.

“You needn’t bother,” Rider says coolly, tugging at the chain with a predator’s grace. “Your Master will join you in death momentarily.”

Lancer’s stomach clenches as the dagger wrenches inside him. In a few quick movements he’s pulled closer and closer to Rider, her lips curled in an elegant smile.

Wait for it…

He lets out a hiss, makes sure it carries.

“Yes, I shall play with you for now, Lancer. That voice is…sweet.”

Lancer wants to say Thanks for the compliment, really he does. But that’s a little difficult when his hands are going numb and his arm twitches with each wrench of the dagger. You’d think I’d be used to pain like this.

“That won’t do,” Rider says, her voice like wine laced with poison. “Keep your attention on me.”

They’re close enough to touch, now, and Rider does: keeping the other end of the chain wrapped around her hand, she reaches out with too-soft fingers and caresses the wound bleeding around her knife. Then she pulls it free.

Wait for it…

She licks the blade clean with a few lingering, languid strokes of her tongue, taking precious mana with it. Before he can react, she lets the dagger hang by her side and presses her fingers into the wound; a series of wet, slippery sounds fill the stagnant air. Sharp, heavy sparks of pain run down his arm, making him shudder.

Her neck and chest are growing flushed, and Lancer inwardly balks at the sight.

“You may speak,” Rider murmurs. “Or you can remain silent, and endure. It will be amusing regardless.”

Lancer bites his lip and tastes blood.

“Yes,” Rider murmurs, her voice sultry-sweet as poisoned wine. “Give your life to me.”

…Now.

Lancer manages a grin. “You forgot something, by the way.”

Rider’s body tenses in understanding. She reaches for her knife—

And he knees her in the stomach.

Blood leaks from her mouth. She curls in on herself, desperate to protect her vitals. The chain loosens just enough.

He yanks his arms free and retreats, flexing his fingers to return circulation. Thankfully, he’s had practice with quick recoveries—he can feel Gae Bolg’s texture and weight against his hands again, at least. And he won’t get distracted this time.

“Now for round two,” he growls, and lunges at Rider again.

This time, he doesn’t let her try any fancy moves. He jabs at her relentlessly, forcing her to guard.

He’s beyond pain.

All that matters is the enemy before him, giving way to his blows.

Lancer knows how difficult it is to keep a Bounded Field up and fight to the death at the same time; Rider’s beginning to tire. She can’t swing her chain the way she used to—it’s leaden in her hands.

Each time she tries to return to her Master, Lancer speeds up his attack and forces her into close quarters. In a matter of moments Rider’s back hits the wall with a thump.

Rider keeps her head high, as a Heroic Spirit should. “End it, then,” she says, without a shred of regret that Lancer can hear.

“This was a good fight, Rider.” Red flames wreathe his body and spear.

Her answering smile reminds him too much of Medb.

“Now I’ll take your heart,” he says, and finishes it.

As Rider’s form turns to red dust beneath Gae Bolg, the Bounded Field erodes away like a mountainside in a flood. It’s almost painful, seeing the whitewashed walls in the sun after all that red.

Lancer stops and listens, just in case Archer or any other Servants decide to come out and play. He hears Shirou talking tersely with Rider’s Master in the hall up ahead, and dashes off to check.

Shirou steps back from Rider’s Master, looking at Lancer with relief. “You won,” he says softly, with a hint of pride.

Lancer takes the time to soak in the praise. He ignores the weary ache in his bones. “I figured you’d need the pick-me-up.”

“You—you mean, Rider’s…?!” The horrified, sniveling young man can only be Rider’s Master. The enemy.

“Oh, hey,” Lancer says, realizing the enemy looks familiar. “You’re that snooty kid from before! Looks like you really don’t handle rejection well, huh?”

Rider’s Master—Shinji, Shirou called him—glares and clutches at his arm, bent like a spider's. “…What a low-life. Well, Emiya? The Bounded Field’s gone.”

“Yeah.” Shirou’s voice is devoid of emotion. “What happens next depends on whether anybody’s dead because of you.”

Lancer tunes out Shinji’s whimpering and rambling, and instead focuses on the bruises forming at his pale neck like a necklace. It’s obvious that Shirou tried to kill him—unsurprising, since Fuji-nee’s life energy is flickering, threatening to fade away in one of the classes. Got to say, I’m impressed with your control…

Lancer senses Archer’s mana close by, cold and relentless like winter's winds. Casually, carefully, he rests his hand on Shirou’s shoulder and pulls him behind him, just far enough that Archer’s arrow doesn’t hit the wrong target.

Shirou sways on his feet, but doesn’t fall.

Shinji stops ranting, his eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Emiya, what—?”

Lancer watches silently. A black blade as thin as an arrow zips through the air and pierces Shinji’s heart. A blue flame flares around the body, turning it to ash in an instant.

It almost seems too good for a guy like that. Oh, well.

“Lancer,” Shirou mutters, “you didn’t have to…shield my eyes with your back…”

“You knew the guy, I figured you wouldn’t want to see what happened. Now, want me to chase Archer down?”

There’s no response.

Lancer whips around and watches as Shirou leans against the nearest wall, breathing heavily and looking ready to collapse. It’s amazing that he’s stayed on his feet for this long, bleeding as he is.

“We need,” he rasps, “to check for survivors…”

Lancer shrugs and does as he’s requested, ignoring the way his vision flickers and warps each time he blinks. He’s worried about Fuji-nee and Sakura too.

A familiar voice calls “Emiya!” and Lancer catches a glimpse of the young lady walking toward them, Sakura’s arm slung around her shoulder. Huh, maybe she knows Sakura. Hopefully she’s not injured.

He clutches at his arm, trying to staunch the bleeding, and lightheadedness swoops over him. Looks like that Bounded Field affects Servants, too. Why else is Lancer’s body aching, yearning to collapse, why his skin is so hot and feverish?

No. He's running out of mana.

But I can’t give in yet…

Lancer refocuses on his task, passing through each classroom and bringing the victims out for the Fuyuki Church’s inspection. (The young lady was smart and called ahead, judging by what she’s telling Shirou.) Most of them are unconscious due to lack of oxygen, but some of them have skin that’s still bubbling, melting onto the floor. And yet, in the end, they’re all able to breathe. Their hearts still beat in their chests. They’re safe.

The amount of mana here would be tempting, if not for the fact that it wouldn't be worth it. There's only the faintest trickle, here; it would only tide Lancer over for a few minutes.

When Lancer finishes his task, he finds Shirou still slumped on the floor with his back to the wall, pale and exhausted. The young lady’s taking care of his more external injuries, her eyes narrowed in concentration.

“He went on his own again, didn’t he.” She doesn’t phrase it like a question—there’s no need to.

“I should’ve been more careful.” Lancer grinds his teeth together, the pain in his jaw keeping him awake. He’s remarkably lucid, despite his fever. “I didn’t think that Shinji idiot would act in broad daylight!”

“I didn’t either. I guess he really did want me on his side, for some reason.” The young lady shrugs and looks at the long, long row of rescued victims lying on blue tarps. “Well, at least everyone is safe.”

“Yeah—I’ll be sure to tell Shirou.”

“Yes, please do.” The young lady smiles self-consciously. “I’m such a fool, treating my enemies so well.”

Lancer cocks his head to one side. “Eh, really? It makes sense to me. Who cares if you’re an enemy, you’re not attacking us right now. If you want to lend a hand, go ahead!”

The young lady’s smile turns more mischievous, almost conniving. “Well, you know, I wouldn’t want to get in your way, Lancer. You get Emiya’s good-hearted idiocy all to yourself, isn’t that great?”

“…You sound like you’re pawning off a cheap knickknack. Whatever, I’ll take him!”

“Enjoy.” Her laughter is close to mocking, but doesn’t quite reach it.

Lancer looks back at Shirou, who’s fallen unconscious too. Let’s head back—you deserve a long rest in bed, Master. And I need to bring the groceries back too, somehow…oh, well. I’ll figure it out as I go.

He sees those strange threads of Magecraft working on Shirou’s injured arm. They’re slower than before. Still, it’s a reassuring sight, especially when combined with the gentle, steady cadence of his Master's breathing.

“We need to have another talk,” Lancer mutters. He smiles down at him with only a little exasperation. “Still, you didn’t do too bad, Shirou.”

Shirou’s brows pinch, as if he heard.

“He’s improving,” the young lady says with unexpected warmth. “I can help take him home, if you need it.”

“See?” Lancer says, managing a laugh. “It’s not so difficult, lending a hand.”

“Hmph. It’s just for today.”

“…Sure…”

Lancer leans against the wall, realizing he can’t support his own weight any longer. He hears the young lady shout from a long distance away, and collapses.

Chapter Text

Lancer is floating in a pool of darkness.

Everything is numb, aching. He can’t open his eyes—even the slightest movement sends a wave of nausea flooding through his body, making his stomach lurch and twist.

“Lancer needs to replenish his mana, and soon,” a feminine voice says faintly. “Otherwise, he’ll disappear.”

So that’s what this feeling is.

“Wait, disappear? But Tohsaka, you said his Noble Phantasm didn’t take that much mana!”

Lancer tries to fight back the sickening heat burning in his head, and fails. Hey, Shirou, relax a little—

“I’m sorry, Emiya, but fighting Rider in her Bounded Field must have taken a lot out of him. If he’s been fighting at night, like you said, he probably hasn’t had time to conserve energy…”

“So what can we do?”

The desperation in Shirou’s voice is unexpected.

Lancer falls deeper into darkness before he can hear anything else.

---

Lancer is dreaming through someone else’s eyes.

The sky was murky, overwhelmed with smoke. The rain couldn’t wash it away. Throats choked by the ash and fumes, the victims couldn’t cry out for help.

Their outstretched hands were ignored.

Except for one.

The fire finally died, and a young boy was rescued, the sole survivor. He was adopted by his savior, and lived far away from where the disaster struck. Life went on.

He went to school like other children, protected the weak against the powerful, worked hard and helped his father tend to the house. There was a smile on his face, visible to everyone.

But that feeling inside his heart never changed.

He was the only survivor. That unfair truth gnawed at him, a constant ache that others couldn’t see. He didn’t want to be a burden, so he never mentioned it. Now matter how blue the sky above him was, he could visualize the oppressive flames and choking clouds with perfect clarity.

His father was sick. Why wouldn’t he be, after struggling through the wreckage, desperately searching for one living person? But his father was stronger and kinder than anyone; he shouldn’t die for something like that. The survivor decided to help him in return for that unexpected kindness.

He made sure his father ate well, that he had eight hours of sleep, that he lived as comfortable a life as he could. When his father traveled—which was often—the survivor made sure that he would come home to a cared-for home and a smiling son.

It was the least he could do, wasn’t it?  

---

“Lancer, are you awake?”

Someone is carrying him. Their arms are strong and steady, cool to the touch. For a moment, he wonders if it’s Fergus. But that voice…it’s too much like a lord’s, too smug.

“What’s it to you?” is what Lancer means to say, but it comes out as a slurred, garbled mess.

Lancer cracks open and eye and looks up at Archer. In this hazy lighting, it’s hard to tell if he’s concerned or not.

Archer’s lips curl into a smirk. “I figured you would prefer knowing about the cool bath beforehand. It’s for your fever.”

That sounds wonderful.

“Where’s…Shirou…?”

“Waiting in the bathroom. You were unconscious for hours—it’s past midnight—so his arm has healed. And here we are.”

“…Great…”

The bathroom lights are dimmed down, and a blob that looks like Shirou opens the sliding glass door that leads to the bathtub. From the looks of things, Archer’s going to put Lancer on the stool first. But wait a minute…

“Armor.” Lancer forces himself to focus, to dematerialize it. As soon as he tries, a headache like a hammer smashes through his mind. He squeezes his eyes shut and groans.

“We can handle that.” Shirou’s voice is soft as he eases Lancer onto the stool. “If that’s okay with you, I mean.”

“S’ fine.”

Lancer hangs his head and breathes slowly as two pairs of hands begin the process of peeling off his armor. Given how slippery and clammy with sweat he is, it’s a relief to take everything off, from the shoulder guards to his boots. (He wishes he could see Shirou’s face, though. Unfortunately, opening his eyes is too much effort right now.)

Behind him, Shirou fumbles with the lower half of Lancer’s armor. “How do I get this part off?”

“Dimming the lights and asking politely does the trick, in my experience,” Archer drawls, his fingers curled around Lancer’s ankle as he slides the boot free.

Shirou actually freezes. Lancer wishes he could say “Don’t worry, the bath will solve all our problems.” Instead he weakly flips the bird at Archer, who takes it in stride.

The armor comes off, eventually, and a great weight’s been lifted from him. Now all that’s left is scrubbing him down and dunking him in the tub.

He’s aware that Shirou’s washing his back with unexpected tenderness, the soft washcloth swirling over his skin. Were he in better condition, he’d be able to “let one thing lead to another”, as the songs say—but he’s too weary to appreciate it, alas.

It’s hard to tell how long washing him off actually takes, with Lancer continually falling in and out of consciousness.

The good news is he wakes up just in time to hear Archer say “Alright, we’re lowering you in now. Emiya Shirou, take his legs.”

Lancer’s thighs touch the cold water first; he jolts and curses at the painful sensation.

“A-Are you okay?” Shirou asks—Lancer can feel his hands shuddering with exertion.

Whose idea…was this…exactly?”

Shirou jerks his head toward Archer.

“As a fellow Servant, I have faith in your endurance,” Archer says, before easing Lancer into the bath.

Lancer prepares for the worst…but it’s not freezing after all, just the right temperature.

Once he’s submerged to his chest, he sighs with relief and wallows shamelessly. His feet press against the slick tiles on the opposite end of the bath. He wiggles his toes in the warm air, pleased at the contrast.

Shirou quickly drops a towel over Lancer’s thighs, as if he’s never seen another man naked before. Or he’s worried staring will cause a reaction. Not that it matters—cold water, remember?

His fever fades a little, but he’s going to need more than a nice bath to get him back in top form again.

“Now what, Archer?” Shirou asks, his voice sounding strangely boxed-in. “Tohsaka said something about blood being a mana source…”

“That’s correct.” There’s the rustle of fabric being drawn back—a sleeve, perhaps. “Lancer. I’m going to demonstrate.”

It takes a moment for his words to sink in.

“You’re going to what?” Shirou’s voice slams against the tiled walls. “No way. Lancer’s my Servant, and you’re our enemy!”

“Not at the moment, according to my Master.”

Lancer speaks through dry lips “Shirou…it’s okay. Not like…he can poison…his blood…”

“Exactly. Now open up.”

Good gods, you can’t sense the mood at all! Lancer cracks open his eyes and does his best to glare at the forearm bent in front of him, but he’s in no shape to threaten anyone.

He reaches out with an unsteady hand and wraps his fingers around Archer’s arm.

Archer’s tanned skin may not belong to a human, but Lancer can feel the relentless pulse of mana and blood beneath, and the places where scars have healed over. He didn’t realize how much he needed mana until now, as his mouth waters and his eyes focus completely on the deep blue veins before him. Better late than never, in this case.

Lancer brings Archer’s arm to his mouth, feeling goose bumps rise against his lips. It tickles.

He locks eyes with Archer, makes sure to hold his gaze as his teeth break the skin and sink into the flesh in an instant.

Lukewarm blood and the electric, liquid pulse of mana fill Lancer’s mouth, and a muffled moan of relief escapes his lips. Already, he can feel his wounds beginning to stitch themselves back together. His foot, long-healed, is getting a better patch-up too.

Shirou sucks in a breath, doesn’t say a word.

The only clue to Archer’s reaction is his eyes threatening to flutter shut. Otherwise, he’s as stoic as always, not letting any emotions show. Another flustered expression isn’t in the cards tonight. Not that it’s supposed to matter—the point of this is to get mana, not flirt with “the enemy”. That’s what Archer would say, anyway.

Seems like a boring way to live.  

Lancer caresses Archer’s arm lightly with his fingers as he continues sucking blood, both to get a reaction out of him and keep him from pulling away prematurely.

It doesn’t work.

Archer’s lips crimp in a frown. “That isn’t necessary.”

Lancer lifts his lips from Archer’s flesh, licking blood from the corners of his mouth before it can be wasted. “Why’s that?”

“You don’t need to treat me so…tenderly. I’m not Emiya Shirou.” His words are barbed and thick with loathing. It’s as if Archer can’t hold it back any longer.

“Hey,” Shirou complains. “I didn’t ask for a lecture!”

“It’s the truth,” Archer says dryly.

Lancer runs his tongue along bloodstained teeth thoughtfully. “Is that so…? Well then.”

He digs his fingers into Archer’s skin and bites down with more force than before. Archer’s muscles shudder and writhe beneath his teeth.

Wet slurping and hoarse breaths fill the air. There’s no tender treatment anymore, no attempts at civility.

Shirou’s breath is quickening, though he’s trying to muffle it behind his hand.

As Lancer gulps down another mouthful of blood, an image flickers in his mind.

The moment is faded with time: the sight of Gae Bolg piercing someone’s heart, just as they’re beginning to tire from running. He’s seeing it from the victim’s eyes—that hand reaching out in shock isn’t his own—and that gives him pause.

“Do you regret your choice?” Archer murmurs, a hint of something dark in his tone. “That’s understandable.”

Lancer’s teeth sink a little deeper, and he sucks a little harder.

He watches a soft sigh escape Archer’s stern lips. It isn’t due to arousal, per se, but something a little more spiritual.

It’s as if he’s been hoping for this, wanting this consensual cruelty.

Wanting to be used and useful.

That’s going to leave a bad taste in my mouth. Lancer drinks his fill and lets go of Archer’s arm. He draws back with a gasp, aware that he looks like he crawled out of a campfire horror story, or worse.

Shirou stares at the puncture marks on Archer’s arm. “Is that…all you need, Lancer?”

“Unfortunately, no. But it’s enough to keep me awake—and I can talk properly now.”

“More’s the pity,” Archer says, pulling his arm back. The marks are already healing. “In the meantime, I’ll keep watch in your place.”

“Not going to help me bathe? What a waste.”

Archer looks at Shirou slyly. “It appears I’ve incited your Master’s jealousy enough for now. I’ll take my leave.”

“…I’m not jealous,” Shirou grumbles, still not looking at Lancer.

Archer laughs mockingly under his breath; the bathroom door opens and shuts.

Lancer sighs and scoops his cupped hands through the water, pouring it over his face. That image of Gae Bolg returns, fainter than before. It’s from the mana depletion, that’s all. Why else would I see something like that?

Gentle fingers brush against Lancer’s forehead, linger for a moment then retreat. “Your fever’s still there.”

“Yeah, but it’s better.” Lancer grunts as his ponytail threatens to get caught between his back and the tub. “Hey…can you let my hair down for me, Shirou?”

“Sure. Here, let me lift you up.”

After easing Lancer’s back upright, Shirou takes Lancer’s ponytail and removes the gold clip that holds it together. Blue hair tumbles in waves against Lancer’s back, dipping into the water. Already, his head aches a little less than before. I should really do this more often…

“Ah—”

What an unexpected sound.

Lancer turns his gaze to Shirou, who’s staring at the thick hair pooling on his palm and between his fingers. There’s a faint tremble in that hand, as if he’s enchanted. His eyes are bright and provocative, and his lips are parted.  

“See something good?” Lancer asks with a knowing smile.

Shirou pulls back his hand like it’s been burned. “I—I’m sorry, Lancer, I didn’t mean to! Uh, it’s not that your hair looks ugly. It’s just…well—”

“—You like my hair. I’m flattered!”

Shirou turns away, and Lancer’s pleased to see that his ears are as red as ripe apples. “W-Well, guys aren’t supposed to say such things.”

“What killjoy told you that crock? The world won’t end if you admit you find a guy good-looking, or other things like that, you know. We’re not in a convent.”

Shirou rubs the back of his head awkwardly. “Even so, I need to get used to it.”

“…Oh. Got it.”

There’s a long stretch of silence, only interrupted by water sloshing about. It isn’t as awkward as expected, though. Lancer drenches his face in more water, sighing at the welcome coolness. The mana flowing through him is lowering the thick fog in his head, but it’s hard to tell if he’s ready for another fight yet.

“Lancer,” Shirou says quietly, turning back to look at him. “There’s something I need to say.”

“Ooh, more compliments? I’m in!”

Shirou smiles and shrugs. “Well, maybe.” His expression turns serious, and he bows his head deeply. “That is—I’m really sorry about not trusting you before.”

The words don’t connect, at first. Then Lancer blinks and leans forward, trying not to splash Shirou. “What do you mean?”

As expected, it takes a moment for Shirou to get his words together. There’s none of the bashfulness from before; it seems that he can push such things aside when he has something important he wants to say. He lifts his head and speaks.

“Before, when I said I didn’t want you to fight—that wasn’t because I doubted your abilities. It’s because I thought I could handle things on my own, and if I did that…then you wouldn’t get hurt.”

“That’s what I figured.”

“…But then, after we trained, and Rider attacked me, I realized I’d been going about this wrong.” Shirou sighs and rubs at his arm. “You were sent here for a reason, to be my protection against Servants. You’re supposed to be my shield—no, my partner.”

Lancer’s aware this is serious, that Shirou’s baring his soul to him, but he can’t help the grin spreading across his face, the swelling in his heart.

“So, I’d like to start over.” Shirou holds out his hand, his arm tense as if he expects it to be smacked away. But his eyes are bright and his gaze unwavering. “What do you say, Lancer?”

He doesn’t have to think about it. He clasps hands with Shirou, noting how there isn’t much difference between their respective sizes or the firmness of their grips. Yeah, “kid” isn’t going to fit anymore…

There’s not a single scar on Shirou’s hand, and only a few callouses. Lancer assumes they come from holding cooking knives at first.

Then he realizes they’re callouses from the handle of a shinai, or the string of a bow.

Interesting.

“Um, Lancer?” Shirou’s bashfulness returns in force. “My arm’s going to fall asleep, at this rate. And you’ll get the floor wet.”

“Oh. Oh!” He lets go of Shirou’s hand with a laugh. The opening of Shirou’s sleeve is soaked through. “Sorry about that!”

“It’s fine, if I do this.” Shirou flaps his wet sleeve at him, spraying his face with lukewarm droplets.

“Oh, so it’s a fight you want, huh?” Lancer scoops up a handful of water, eager to play around.

“No, wait, don’t—!”

A stream trickles from his hands, returning to the bath. “…Oh, right, the floor.” Lancer raises an eyebrow at Shirou. “But wait a minute, that means I can’t retaliate against you! Fight fairly…”

“Sorry.” It seems like Shirou means it; the playful look in his eyes vanishes as if it was never there. He stands up and stretches. “Anyway, if you’re okay in here, I’ll go call Tohsaka. She said to get in touch if you improved or got worse.”

“Sure,” Lancer says, expecting that by now. “I’ll holler if I need anything.”

Shirou nods and ambles out the door, a slight spring in his step.

Lancer takes the time to wallow in the bath, his knees jutting out like pink islands into the chill air. The water’s already warming up, which is a shame—it feels like he only just got in here. So he’ll enjoy it while he can.

It’s amazing how much better he feels with Archer’s mana running through his veins. Suspiciously so, now that he thinks about it. It shouldn’t work this well. So what’s up with that?

Running through all the possibilities, he resorts to a lazy shrug and pushes it aside. Whatever. If the transfer works, it works.

Besides, there’re other things to worry about. Case in point: which Servant’s going to come after them next, or if Lancer’s going to have to go hunting again. That’s far more important than whether or not the Archer with a noble’s voice and no sense of humor has some kind of past connection to him.

(It’s equally fun to think about, though.)

---

The next day, the fever lingers in the back of Lancer’s mind like an ever-present fog, and his movements are still sluggish—but that’s a small price to pay for a sane temperature. All right, no more feeling like my veins caught fire!

Shirou, for his part, spends time alternating between studying with the young lady and tending to Lancer. He doesn’t seem to mind the new routine, so Lancer doesn’t push him toward focusing on his lessons. Instead, he watches from his cot as Shirou tiptoes back and forth from his room to the living room, carrying books or trays full of snacks by turns.

Archer considers his part in tending to Lancer over and done with…which is what Lancer expected. He spends his time lurking on the roof, doing reconnaissance—something Lancer should be doing.

By nightfall, Lancer can’t take it anymore: he shuffles out to get some fresh air, and prove that he can do that much in his condition.

Hopping onto the roof is still as easy as breathing.

Lancer reclines on the rooftop, watching the moon peer out from behind thick patches of clouds. A cool night breeze caresses his skin, carrying no traces of Servants’ prana. Ha, so everyone else is in hiding again—back to the war room.

His ears perk up; footsteps as silent as shadow walk along the rooftop to stop three steps behind him. The shingles shift just barely under the person’s weight, and the Bounded Field’s alarm system doesn’t go off the way one would expect. (It’s not clear if they’re allies, yet.)

“You should be in bed,” Archer says, as if he’s won some contest only he knew about.

“Yes, dear,” Lancer means to simper, but it comes out like a hoarse gurgle instead.

“In any event, Caster is proving more troublesome than expected.” Archer’s shadow stretches across the moonlit tiles. “They are the culprit behind those mysterious ‘gas leaks’ in the papers; they’re using the town as a mana storage tank, of sorts.”

Lancer leisurely kicks his legs back and forth. “Huh. That’s a solid strategy, for a wet noodle that can’t fight.”

Archer raises an eyebrow. “You only fought their minions. The real opponent lies at Ryuudou Temple. And thanks to your attacking me, I’m in no shape to combat them.”

“I know, I know. On both counts.” Lancer groans and rubs his temples. “You think they’ll come to us, or just keep hiding?”

“Perhaps. Or perhaps not.”

Something’s been bothering Lancer, so he speaks up about it: “Why did you kill Rider’s Master, anyway? That’s not a Servant’s job, even a weird bowman like yourself.”

“It was obvious Emiya Shirou didn’t have the nerve,” Archer explains as if it’s a passing observation. “The death of Rider’s Master was quicker than he probably deserved, but it needed to be done.”

Lancer stares at Archer, at the patient pressure of his gaze, the stiffness of his posture.

“You wanted Shirou to see what you did. Why?”

Archer scowls and glances downward, surveying the back yard like it’s a termite nest. “Am I not your enemy? Clearly, the best way to get your Master out in the open is to toy with his foolish ideals.”

The night breeze catches a pile of dead maple leaves and whisks them away to other shores. They flutter against the moon like bats, pitch black against suck stark whiteness.

For a moment, Archer’s expression softens. “That is, that’s what I thought: challenge that static ideal with the cold force of reality. After what I saw yesterday…perhaps he’s changing.”

Interesting. “‘Changing’ how, exactly?”  

And it’s back to the regularly scheduled smirking. “Your loyalty may have some uses after all.”

Lancer sneers. “Like you can talk.” He keeps his attention on Archer, who in turn looks at him like a strange device to be picked apart.

Neither speaks. Lancer waits patiently for Archer to get impatient, to draw his weapon. Archer does the same.

Tension unspools between them like live wires, frayed from overuse.

Archer looks away first. He stares out at the moon, his expression solemn once more.

“So, Archer…is that why you’ve been trying the ‘tough love’ look on for size? Giving me your mana was suspiciously kind.”

Archer lets out an emotionless huff of air that might be amusement. “I want to see if you’ll continue changing your Master. And, perhaps if fate aligns, we can have a proper fight. If you vanish, then what point is there in those curiosities?”

He may as well be wearing sheer fabric, with how transparent he is.

“You know,” Lancer says, kicking his legs back and forth again, “for a guy who says they aren’t like Shirou, you sure do have similar issues. Makes sense you’d want to beat him to a pulp.”

Archer smirks, his gaze still on the moon. “And you will never let me.”

“Right.” Lancer drops his voice to a low growl. “So I suggest you run off to your Master, instead of skulking around waiting for Shirou to come looking for me.”  

Archer finally looks at him, but his expression betrays nothing. “My apologies. It seems I made my goal too evident.”

“Ha! That’s fine. Oh—and thanks for the meal, yesterday.”

“You’ll need a ‘refill’ soon enough; ask your Master next time.” Despite his words, its obvious Archer enjoys being praised. “Good evening.”

“Likewise,” Lancer calls, as Archer vanishes in a burst of metallic blue motes.

He looks back up at the moon again, and wonders what Archer saw there. Maybe he’ll ask, sometime.

He hops down from the roof and enters the house, wondering if he should make dinner or not. He soon reaches a conclusion. Of course I should. I won’t get better if I don’t push myself.

In the mood to experiment, he whips up a pot of miso soup, humming as he works. It’s almost midnight—he can just save a bowl or two in the fridge for tomorrow. Will the school be open? You’d have to be crazy to try and keep things running with your entire student body injured.

Lancer frowns into the steam. That’s right. Even if nobody died, none of them can just walk that off. He stirs the pot again, watching the pale brown soup and green onions swirl, while white tofu cubes bob about like boats at sea.

Well, their loved ones won’t need to hold mass funerals. That’s what counts.

After the soup’s done and packed away in the fridge, Lancer restlessly paces around the house, his body rattling with nervous energy. But even that grows boring, in time.

There’s nothing else for it. He drags his weary body to Shirou’s room, sits by the door and drops into slumber in an instant.

His dreams are confusing, too long, and drenched in red.

He expects nothing less.

Chapter Text

“The broth has too much salt,” Archer says plainly, pushing his bowl of miso soup to one side. “And the ‘tofu’ is more liquid than solid. In short, your miso soup's the work of an amateur.”

Lancer beams. “Go swallow a live eel, bowman.”

Shirou and the young lady look across the table at each other and sigh dismally.

It’s morning. It’s gray outside today, too, which only seems to worsen Archer’s already prickly mood.

Lancer thought breakfast would cheer him up a little. He proudly showed off the miso soup he made last night, everyone seemed interested, at least…and then Archer had to taste it and open his big mouth.

“It’s not that bad,” Shirou insists. “Don’t be so hard on him, Archer!”

It’s obvious from the slight pursing of his lips that the soup really is too salty. He’s nearly finished his bowl, determined as always.

“I’m not being willfully cruel, Emiya Shirou. I’m stating the truth.”

The young lady’s brows pinch together in annoyance. “There’s a time and a place for that, Archer. Lancer didn’t have to go through all this trouble to cook for us in his condition, but he did. We should appreciate it.”

She’s only taken a mouthful, though. Her spoon sits in her bowl, untouched and useless.

“You don’t have to eat it, y’know,” Lancer mutters, turning his gaze in the opposite direction. He wants to keep a cheerful attitude, but for some reason it’s just not coming easily today. “Why don’t you cook something, bowman?”

“If your Master has no objections.”

There’s a pause, then: “Just for this morning.”

The sound of Archer getting to his feet is like a giant’s footstep. The floor vibrates softly as Archer walks over to the kitchen and takes stock of what they have.

“A traditional breakfast would be best, I think. Yes, the ingredients are all in order…”

Lancer pouts like a kid without candy, listening to the sounds of pots boiling and pans sizzling. It’s stupid, he’s well aware of that, but something about what Archer said set him off. Maybe it’s our talk last night. Or that weird vision I had when I drank his blood…

And then there’s the Bounded Field. It’s not worn down, by any means—it’s a solidly constructed bit of Magecraft. Shirou’s old man did nothing by half-measures, apparently. So Archer’s ability to stroll about the house without a problem is just weird.

Archer’s still cooking up a storm; Shirou and the young lady are chatting about Caster.

Lancer looks up at the ceiling and rubs his chin. Archer's Magic Resistance is weak, so that’s not it either…

There is a possible answer, but it’s so overcomplicated and impossible that it’s not worth pursuing. Lancer grins wryly. How would I even explain it, anyway? Hey, Shirou, so Archer’s your dad, or maybe your long-lost brother. Anyway, he somehow came back and he’s really keen on getting a brooding session together…

It has to be a coincidence. Otherwise…well, it’s something to worry about. And Lancer likes his life simple.

Lancer rubs the back of his neck and turns his attention to Archer.

The atmosphere around Archer has changed completely. No longer is he some prideful fool who wishes to fight on the front lines like a swordsman. Instead, he’s completely focused on his task. There’s no wasted movement in how he holds the paring knife, the cuts are brisk and short, and he knows exactly how high the stove’s heater needs to be. It’s efficiency and care all the way down with this guy.

Shirou’s watching Archer too. The stillness in his posture suggest he’s taking a few mental notes. Naturally a young cook wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to see another’s skill—just like how Lancer wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to watch Fergus spar.

“Lancer.” Archer’s voice cuts through Lancer’s thoughts like a sword.

“What now?”

“Some advice: These tofu cubes are soft, so it’s easy for an amateur to overcook them. Dissolve the miso paste first, then add the tofu—that way, they will remain solid.”

Lancer’s surprised—he expected something insulting, like “let the professionals do it next time”.

“Oh. Thanks.”

“Hmph. You’re welcome, I suppose.”

The young lady and Shirou look at each other with wide eyes then go back to their conversation.

Lancer divides his attention between Archer’s cooking and the Caster chat, but he’s already feeling restless. Sure, he may not be healed yet, but it’s not like Caster’s here to be polite. They’ll probably take the opportunity to leech mana from the town, like the young lady’s saying. And then, once they have enough strength, they can hunt down the other Servants and slaughter them all.

Like hell I’m going to just sit here and let that happen!

He can’t go just yet, however. It’s too early in the morning, for one, and he’s running low on mana again. Knowing his luck, it’d be an easy loss in this position.

“And here we are,” Archer says, walking over to the table with a tray laden with breakfast. “Please, enjoy.”

Lancer considers turning up his nose at it, but frankly the savory scents of broiled cod, steamed rice-with-eggs and miso soup are so delicious he forgoes pettiness and digs in.

“This is good, Archer!” He means it: aside from the usual stuff about how the dishes compliment each other, they taste fresh and are filling to boot. “You could cook for a king!”

Archer closes one eye and grins. “Well, well, I made an impression on the most renowned spearman in the world. May wonders never cease. If I knew it’d be that easy, I would have offered my services weeks ago.”

Lancer pulls a face at him. “Come on, you’re spoiling your own meal. You can at least try to be humble!”

“Like you can talk.”

Despite trading barbs, the atmosphere’s peaceful, considering the circumstances.

Anyway,” the young lady interrupts primly, “we still haven’t figured out how to deal with Caster.”

“They could be a worse opponent than Rider, huh,” Shirou says, frowning down at his bowl of rice. “And neither Lancer or I are in any shape to fight…”

“You don’t have to fight to begin with, Emiya,” the young lady reminds him, folding her arms across her chest. “Unless a Master attacks you, that is.”

Shirou nods, but he’s not convinced in the slightest. “That feels a little too simple, Tohsaka. Something about this is strange—but I can’t put my finger on why.

“I can fight Caster, you know,” Archer says, standing stiff-backed beside the young lady. “Even in my condition, I can still use long-range attacks.”

The young lady ponders this for a long moment, weighing her options. “I don’t want to lose you so early, Archer,” she says, heavily implying or at all. “I’d rather wait on it and think of a proper plan, while we have the chance.”

Archer sighs and dips his head in acknowledgement. “As you wish, Rin.”

“Well then,” Lancer says, having eaten his fill, “I’ve got an idea we can try.”

Everyone’s eyes turn to him, with varying degrees of curiosity.

“Shirou, think you can hold a bike’s handlebars steady?”

Shirou moves his arm from side to side, then his wrist. “Sure, that should be easy. Why?”

Lancer places his chopsticks down on the empty bowl of rice and grins. “I’d like to bike around town today. We can check for Caster’s life-draining spells as we go.”

That’s not the only goal he has in mind. He’s noticed Shirou doesn’t really do much besides go to school, work part-time jobs, and take care of the house. That can’t be good for someone’s head. Everyone needs a change of pace sometimes, and here’s an opportunity for that.

The young lady stares at him, stunned. “You—you want to cover all of Fuyuki that way?”

“That I do.” Lancer stretches lazily. “Like you said, we have time…”

Archer looks at him with an unreadable expression.

“But what about your fever?” Shirou’s brows pinch in concern. “Is it really okay to be doing something like that, in your condition?”

Lancer tries to hide the warmth he feels from Shirou’s worries. “If I need a break, I’ll tell you. I am getting better, y’know!”

The young lady ponders for a moment, a loose fist over her mouth. Then she looks to Archer. “…I have to create more jewels for the upcoming battles, so you can go with them, Archer.”

Archer looks as pleased with this idea as he would an order to put leeches down his trousers. “You can’t possibly be serious, Rin.”

The smile on the young lady’s face chills the room. “Of course I am, Archer. After all, you did say that you felt well enough to fight, remember? What’s an outing like this going to hurt?”

Archer’s posture slackens, and he sighs in defeat. “Very well, Rin. Your arguments are as relentless as always.”

The young lady lifts her chin proudly. “Of course! It helps me wake up in the morning.”

They really are a good pair. It’s obvious that the young lady would gladly hear out any honest complaints, and Archer wouldn’t let her walk all over him for no reason, either. They got lucky—the Grail has a weird sense of humor, when it comes to the rest of us Servants.

Shirou doesn’t look pleased with Archer tagging along, either, though he’s trying to hide it. Lancer can sense the disappointment wafting off him like body odor.

Then he sighs and comes to terms with the young lady’s decision.

“You should go in spirit form, Archer—unless you have extra clothes lying around,” Shirou says, looking Archer up and down thoughtfully.

Archer shrugs. “Spirit form is fine.”

Shirou’s gaze passes to Lancer then to the window. “It might snow today, so you’ll need a scarf or coat.”

Archer nods, his face a little stiff.

Lancer scoffs at that. “Trust me, until you’ve been to Eire, the snow here is nothing. I’ll be fine with long sleeves, don’t worry!”

“…Eire?” Shirou’s eyes widen in understanding. “Oh, so that’s where you’re from.” He smiles sheepishly. “I’ve never heard of it, though, sorry.”

“Yes you have, Emiya,” the young lady says, her voice unexpectedly gentle. “We call it Ireland now.”

As Shirou’s smile widens in happy surprise, casting the kitchen in a warm glow, it occurs to Lancer that he might be in trouble.

In more ways than one.

---

Archer jogs leisurely beside Shirou and Lancer’s bikes as they begin their trek, his body outlined in a cool blue that contrasts sharply with the gathering clouds overhead.

Shirou’s plaid scarf flies behind him like a banner of black and red as he pedals briskly beside Lancer. His attention’s completely focused on the road ahead of him, his fingers curled around the bike’s handlebars with a practiced grip. He looks good in the saddle, as one would expect of a guy with three bikes…

…Whoa!

Lancer lurches to a stop in front of the stoplight. He was a second away from blissfully riding into the intersection. I’d better follow Shirou’s example.

The light turns green, and he glimpses Archer staring at his back as he starts pedaling again.

The air chills Lancer’s throat like he swallowed needles, but it’s a nostalgic feeling. The bike’s wheels glide beneath him, almost as if he’s riding a horse.

He remembers saddles being more comfortable, though.

After an uneventful ride, they arrive at their first stop—the Shopping District.

Due to the weather, it’s not as busy as it was last time Lancer came to buy groceries. It’s fun to watch people pass through Archer’s form and shudder, as if they were just dunked in freezing water. Not one of them questions it, though. Huh, that’s interesting. Maybe they’re too busy to care?

Archer doesn’t pay it any mind, either. He keeps watch as Lancer and Shirou chain up their bikes, his grey gaze raking the area as though he’s seen it a thousand times. He probably has, considering his Master.

The one thing Lancer could do without is the thick, bitter-tasting smog that clings to the area. It clogs his throat and makes him cough like an old geezer, but his lungs get used to it slowly but surely.

“So, where to first?” Lancer asks Shirou, who’s staring up at the sky pensively.

“Hmm…lets try the business area first, that’s the most common place for those gas leaks.”

Archer murmurs in agreement, since an invisible nod won’t do.

Lancer drapes a casual arm around Shirou’s shoulder. “Sounds good to me!”

Lancer waits for Shirou’s body to tense, for him to slip free. He doesn’t. He looks a little flustered, but he’s smiling up at Lancer as if he expected this.

It’s a pleasant surprise.

They take their time, not wanting to attract suspicion. As far as the humans are concerned, Lancer and Shirou are enjoying a weekend stroll. And Archer is just an unexpected cold spot on the sidewalk.

Since Lancer brought along some money he’s earned from Copenhagen, he asks “Hey, Shirou, want something to drink?”

Shirou turns his head and spots the vending machine in front of them. “Sure, thanks. I’ll have green tea, please.”

Lancer nods and puts a few coins in the slot. After hitting the green tea button, he decides on canned hot chocolate—he’s never had that before. The machine’s a fascinating contraption, with its moving white claw that seems to know exactly where each drink is, scooping it into its matching trough and sending it down the chute. He listens to the harsh whirring and doesn’t flinch at the loud clang-clunk-clunk sound that follows.

Archer is standing beside him. He leans down slightly, murmuring “I would like green tea as well.” His voice has a strange reverb to it, sounding both close and far away.

“Already got you one, actually,” Lancer says, as he scoops up three cans from the dispenser. They warm up his arms in pleasant contrast to the crisp winter air.

Paying extra is worth it when it nets him an expression like what Archer’s making now: a subtle, eyes-narrowed stare, as if trying to figure out what game Lancer’s playing.

The best part is that since Archer’s invisible, Lancer gets that look all to himself.

“…Thank you,” Archer says eventually, and takes one of the green teas off his hands.

Shirou takes the remaining tea, cracking open the can with a practiced tweak of his thumb and forefinger. “Better drink it fast, in case someone sees a floating can.”

“Hmph. In that case, I’ll let you hold onto it for a time.”

Lancer lets them hash it out, while he enjoys his hot chocolate. Steam rises from the open can, shielding Archer and Shirou’s faces in soft, swirling white. It matches the steel-gray sky above.

“…Fine, I’ll take it,” Shirou says, holding out his free hand stiffly.

“Thank you,” Archer says, as if on instinct. He hands the green tea over with equal stiffness.

Two things occur to Lancer at once: one, hot chocolate is another delicious invention, and two, that Archer’s being remarkably chummy, despite his usual veneer of sarcasm. Which means something’s up.

But he knows there’s no way Archer will answer if asked about it. Why waste his breath? If it’s really a problem, he’ll tell me.

They stroll through the business district, finding nothing of note. Archer and Lancer let Shirou guide them through street after street. He occasionally brings up places of interest when they walk past, which Lancer gives his full attention. Archer doesn’t care.

Then they move on to the shopping mall, where Lancer spends equal amounts of time people-watching and checking out the stores. The sheer, overwhelming size of this place makes the open-air market back at Ulster look…about the same, actually. The difference is the variety of goods here: board games with rule books several inches thick, bookstores with shelves packing every subject imaginable, clothing stores from the affordable to the ridiculous, a food court wafting mouth-watering scents through the air—and that’s just the first floor.

I can see why this place is so packed, it's got everything!

“Hey, Shirou, what’s that?” Lancer points at a spot in the corner, where brightly painted boxes with colored lights flicker and beep invitingly.

“Oh, it’s an arcade,” Shirou says, looking a little nervous. “I’ve never been very comfortable with things like that…but you can have a look, if you want.”

Lancer’s a little disappointed, but not for long. “Sure. I’ll be right back!”

He quickly realizes why Shirou isn’t comfortable here: these arcade things are loud enough to make a pack of angry hounds seem mute, and they hoard wealth like dragons.

On the other hand, Lancer grows fascinated with the dancing games. The music itself isn’t to his taste, but that’s fine. All he need do is follow the rhythm. In his opinion, the faster the song, the better.

It doesn’t take long before he’s breezed through the tutorial and the machine’s bellowing “Great! Excellent! Perfect!” like it’s never seen anything like him.

His feet follow the blinking arrows before his mind sees them on the bright, busy screen. The mat sticks to the soles of his shoes, but he wrenches them free with ease. I might've outplayed a clever scam, just now. Oh, well. I still fed the machine money, so it's fine.

Great! Excellent! Excellent! You’re on fire!” cries the machine.

Lancer happily throws his arms over his head as he gets a high score. The faceless crowd on-screen goes wild, but it’s not as fun as with a real audience. He takes a swig of his hot chocolate and decides enough is enough.

He turns around and sees Archer was watching him play.

Archer doesn’t seem to find the arcade much fun either. But since he’s pointedly glancing away from Lancer, he’s also trying to hide his interest in Lancer’s skills.

Lancer gives a graceful bow, just for him.

I would applaud, but that could cause unneeded trouble.” Archer smirks and floats away.

Lancer chuckles and strolls along after Archer. Maybe he'll convince this eternal fussbudget to relax sometime. 

They find Shirou sitting at a food court table with a brochure and two strips of glossy paper.

Lancer sits opposite him, trying to get comfortable in the stiff, rubbery chair. “What’ve you got there, Shirou?”

Shirou looks up at him and holds out the items for him to see. “Apparently, the aquarium is having a special month-long discount. I thought you might like to go.”

The Grail provides an answer to Lancer’s unspoken question. “That sounds great! What’s your favorite thing to see there?”

Shirou starts, like it’s a trick question. His eyes narrow in thought, and he looks at the brochure for a moment. “Well…the whale sharks look interesting.”

Lancer notes that Shirou doesn’t seem particularly excited about this, but opts to ignore it for now.

---

They look around some more, and finally find something useful—a small magic circle traced delicately in one of the men’s bathroom stalls. Only someone like Lancer or Archer would catch it, but Shirou can see the thin outlines, and feel the draining effects.

“Head hurts,” he groans, leaning against the sink. “My legs are…wobbling too…”

Take a few deep breaths, and wash your face,” Archer says sternly. It’s obvious he thinks Shirou’s weak, but he has the sense not to say it.

Water rushes into the sink, and Lancer can hear Shirou following Archer’s advice.

“Whatever they use to clean this place hides the smell,” Lancer says thoughtfully, tracing his finger against the swirling purple marks on the wall. “Not that any humans could catch it. As setups go, it’s not bad. Still…”

He destroys the circle with a simple Rune spell of his own.

“Good job, Lancer.” Shirou wipes his face with a paper towel. “That’s one down.”

“Thanks, thanks. But I doubt the others will be that easy.” Lancer walks over to the row of porcelain sinks and washes his hands; who knows what’s been on those walls? “Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if that one’s a set up, designed to see if any Masters are on Caster’s trail.”

Shirou crumples the paper towel in his hands and tosses it into the trash. “Well, let’s go get the bikes.”

But as soon as they leave the bathroom…

…It takes a special kind of curse to wind up cornered in the back of a mall by Caster’s flunkies.

Lancer scopes out the area: they’re in a long, darkened hallway that’s wide enough to fit six huge chimeras, but without an exit to run to. The walls are gray, and the chimeras’ bones blend in perfectly.

The mall must be closing down, as Lancer can’t hear anything but the clack-click-clack of bones on the linoleum floor. That, or...the humans didn't make it out in time. 

If he wanted, he could push Shirou into the bathroom a foot away—but that would make for even tighter quarters.

Shirou and Lancer press back to back, while Archer’s standing close by. Not being a team player, as usual…

“How did these chimeras get here, anyway?” Lancer summons Gae Bolg.

Archer looks at him askance, summoning his bow. “These aren’t chimeras. These are soldiers made from dragon’s teeth.

“That so? Sounds complicated, with an overly-long name to boot. Just your style.”

“…They look like skeletons to me,” Shirou says, not sounding keen to enter their debate.

“I like your idea better, Shirou!”

Archer sighs and shakes his head. “Just kill them.

The skeletons prowl closer, materializing through the walls and ceiling like scissors through paper. They’re circling like wolves sizing up prey.

Lancer manages to spin Gae Bolg, even in quarters this tight. He hears Archer scoff, and Shirou breathe a small sigh of relief.

“So, Archer, got any ideas?”

Fight back, obviously.

“Well, yeah, but—hey, Shirou, don’t you need a weapon?”

“Working on it,” Shirou grunts, fumbling around behind Lancer. “There’s a janitor’s mop, right here…but it’s behind a bunch of these monsters.”

Lancer considers asking where the janitor went, but considering that magic circle just now it’s pretty obvious. “Hold tight, Master!”

The skeletons take that chance to attack.

He jabs Gae Bolg at the closest skeleton, and pierces its skull with ease.

That doesn’t stop its claws from swiping at him, and he winces as they graze his arm.

He hears a taut bowstring loose and the sound of bones shattering. Looks like Archer’ll play his part after all.

“Any luck, Shirou?” Lancer asks, kicking a skeleton’s ribs in.

Shirou mutters under his breath. There’s the electric sound of his Magic Circuits activating—he must’ve Reinforced his clothes, because the skeletons near Shirou aren’t hitting their target.

“My clothes won’t last long, I need something else, quick!”

One of Archer’s twin swords slashes through two more skeletons in a blur of white. “Keep your guard up, and imagine something that can help you win,” he says, calm as ever.

“Yeah,” Lancer snarls disdainfully, swinging Gae Bolg in a wide arc, “and die while you’re dreaming!”

Archer chuckles. “I wouldn’t expect you to understand, Lancer.

Lancer’s too busy smashing through skeletons to reply.

Unfortunately, when one skeleton falls, two more eagerly take its place. And Lancer isn’t in great shape—he’s already tiring out, and the fight’s barely started. 

Is this what humans feel like, when they fight? Gods, this is miserable; I may as well keel over...! 

At least this fight isn't boring like the one before. It looks like Caster’s done some remodeling: these flunkies take more than just a few arrows and stabs.  

And as for Shirou…

“I have an idea!” Shirou yells, and Lancer can hear his sneakers squeak on the floor as he starts hopping around on one foot.

“Good,” Lancer says, distracted by the endless shambling horde in front of him.

Something comes loose in Shirou’s hand. “And—there!” 

Two more skeletons lunge at Lancer; he slashes wearily at them, the blue sparks blurred in his vision. He can’t even tell if he hit his targets.

“Trace, on.

Archer pauses in the middle of loosing another volley of arrows and stares dumbly at Shirou. Too bad Lancer can’t see why, though.

There’s the heavy whoosh of something being thrown, and…

BAM.

The floor shakes behind Lancer. He hears the sound of heavy splinters dropping to the floor like hail.

What the—?

Archer is back to business, drawing back his bow. “Passable work, Emiya Shirou.”

Shirou grunts and hops around again. “Just keep them off me!”

Arrows fly and hit their targets.

“Trace…on.

“Okay, now I have to see what’s up,” Lancer growls, trying to find an opportunity to look behind him.

Then a Reinforced sneaker sails past his head, toward the nearest skeleton.

Oh, hey.

A skeleton stares dumbly—

BAM.

The stupid skeleton’s ribs cave in, and the legs and vertebrae shatter on contact. The sneaker doesn’t look much better, the rubber soles burnt to a crisp on the floor.

Lancer bursts into delighted laughter as skeletons shamble back. “Not so eager now, huh?”

Shirou yelps as his socks skid on the linoleum, and he clutches Lancer’s back for support.

“It worked…?” His breath is hot on Lancer’s shoulder, and Lancer can feel his heart pounding.

“You bet it did,” Lancer says proudly.

Though Shirou’s balance is off now, they still manage to power their way through the horde, with Archer leading the charge.

The plan is to destroy most of them and give the rest the slip, running through the mall every which way—and it seems to work. The skeletons scatter once enough of them have been defeated—maybe Caster doesn’t want to waste resources.

Lancer laughs under his breath. Or maybe they’re scared of flying shoes.

Their pounding footsteps echo in the stillness. Everything’s been abandoned: the shops, the food court, even the arcade is dark and silent. Something tells Lancer they shouldn’t go out through the front door, and Archer agrees, judging by how he makes for the nearest exit.  

When they burst out the back door of the mall, everything seems normal. (For a cold, dingy alleyway, that is.)

It’s as if Caster trapped the mall in a dream…or rather, a Bounded Field.

“Hey.” Shirou taps Lancer’s shoulder. “Can you hear that?”

Lancer listens carefully. As seconds pass, a shiver crawls up his spine.

It’s the sound of hundreds of feet coming back into the mall.

Each footstep is at a different pace, and it’s a steady enough trickle of people, but they may as well be marching in lockstep with each other. The murmur of voices that follows is almost like an afterthought, as if whoever’s controlling them remembered that these’re meant to be free people.

A voice over a loudspeaker calls “The emergency has been taken care of. Thank you for your cooperation.”

“Normally, there’s an alarm,” Shirou says, a confused lilt to his voice.

There was no need for one, with Caster about,” Archer replies, still in spirit form. “While we’re here, Lancer, I suggest you rest for a bit. And buy your Master new shoes.

---

Now that they know the mall's secret, Lancer can't shake the feeling that their every step's being watched by invisible eyes. Every sappy couple holding hands could be under Caster's control. Every laughing kid could be a spy. And worse still, any human could be Caster's Master in disguise.

Still, Shirou got a new pair of sneakers out of the ordeal.

If Shirou shares Lancer's paranoia, he doesn't show it. He just says "We should move on," and that's that. 

Lancer doesn't mind; maybe they'll have better luck elsewhere. 

He's wrong. Their luck is abysmal, plain and simple.

That magic circle at the mall was a fluke. No matter how hard Lancer focuses, he can’t sense any other signs of Magecraft anywhere in Fuyuki. At this rate, there's only one place they’ll be able to go: Ryuudou Temple.

And in their condition, nothing good will come of it.

 ---

 As the sun sets over the buildings, it reflects in orange and purple lines on the handles of Lancer’s bike, with specks of stars here and there. It may seem like this day was a waste, but in the end Lancer can appreciate spending time like this.

“Let’s stop here,” Shirou says out of the blue.

Lancer doesn’t see what’s so special about this place. They’re at a park by the big red bridge, and despite the cool breeze, it seems very lonely here. Still, he parks his bike and hops off, aware that Archer’s keeping watch nearby.

Shirou is one step ahead of him, having already placed his bike in a bike parking section. He’s pensive tonight.

“Did you have fun today, Shirou?” Lancer asks, as Shirou strolls alongside him. “Aside from the fight with Caster’s flunkies, that is.”

The answer is a long time coming. Shirou’s head turns away from Lancer, and he watches the river flowing alongside them. The sunset turns his hair the color of wine, or blood, and his footsteps walk in a steady rhythm.

“I don’t know,” Shirou finally says, his voice quiet. “That’s not something I can say for sure.”

Lancer folds his arms behind his head, looking up at the stars—they’re out in force now, yet they aren’t as bright as he remembers. Maybe smog is in the way.

“I suppose that makes sense.”

“Why?”

Lancer thinks it over, watching a shadowed plane fly overhead.

“Well…in my experience, the good things in your life leave the quickest. So the moments when you were happy aren’t obvious until they’re gone. Hindsight and all that.”

Silver clouds are beginning to form again, floating leisurely over the stars like fog on glass.

“But you seemed happy today.”

Lancer grins. “I was! But that’s because of that ‘hindsight’ thing.”

Shirou hums in thought, still looking at the river.

“Y’know”—Lancer side-steps a row of bushes—“you don’t have to say ‘hey, I’m happy’ if you don’t want to. I could sense something light in you today.”

Shirou doesn’t say anything, but he’s listening.

“And hey, we caught one of Caster’s tricks, that’s something!”

“I hate to interrupt your therapy session,” Archer says dryly, materializing beside them, “but do you see that light up there?”

Shirou and Lancer follow Archer’s pointing finger, up above their heads. There doesn’t seem to be anything there, just the stars glittering in the sky.

Lancer soon spots it. “Clever, clever. The stars hide those threads no problem.”

Shirou rocks back on his heels. “I can’t—wait, I see them, they look like thin rainbows!”

Lancer grins and pats him on the back. “Got it in one, Shirou. See, you’re improving!”

“Celebrate later,” Archer sneers, and his finger traces the intertwining threads that ensnare Fuyuki, pointing toward Ryuudou Temple. “It seems we didn’t foil Caster’s plot after all.”

“Well, we can’t exactly go after them now, can we,” Lancer snaps, more at his own weakened state than at Archer. “Let’s just go back to the house, call it a day—”

“—Well, well. That actually sounds reasonable.”

Shirou looks between the two of them like a bedraggled older sibling. “Then let’s stop bickering and get going.”

This wasn’t how Lancer planned this day to end. But then, Archer seems to regard everything with suspicion, so perhaps that’s to be expected.

At least Shirou’s posture is relaxed.

As they make their way back, Lancer continually feels like something’s watching them.

It’s obviously Saber; that prana can’t belong to anyone else. While he waits for her to come out and fight, like the honorable knight she claims to be, she never does. Must be another cowardly order from her Master…

Archer is aware of Saber’s presence too: his expression grows even more stoic and unreadable than usual, and he walks as if each step pains him.

It’s enough to make Lancer curious.

But he doesn’t bother asking. Archer would never answer a question that revealing.

“Did you feel that?” Lancer asks Shirou, as they reach his place.

“…A little. That was Saber, I think.” Shirou searches through his pockets for his keys. “I’m glad she didn’t attack us, though.”

“As well you should,” Archer says scornfully. “She would best Lancer with ease, in his condition.”

Lancer growls “The same goes for you, bowman.”  

Shirou looks past Archer and waves. “Tohsaka!”

Lo and behold, here the young lady comes down the street, as stately as you please. Despite her calm stride, it’s obvious from the stiffness in her shoulders that something’s up.

“There you are,” she says, looking relieved, and Archer is at her side in an instant.

“What is it, Rin?”

The young lady sighs exaggeratedly and runs a hand through her hair. “Oh, you know, rogue Master sightings, this obvious power-play on Caster’s part, that sort of thing.”

Shirou frowns. “Wait, did you say ‘rogue Master’?”

“That’s right. I finished my work early, and as soon as I passed my front door, I sensed someone probing the Bounded Field around the mansion. Unfortunately, they were too careful, and I couldn’t catch them in time—but it was obviously a Master.”

Is there a way to catch a Master, young lady?” The idea has potential.

There’s a thoughtful pause, followed by a slow “…Well, it’s possible. But that would require a lot of planning.”

Archer frowns and looks off into the distance, his expression closed off and neutral. “Then in that case, an alliance may be necessary after all.”

Shirou smiles slightly. “That sounds good. If Tohsaka’s on our side, we’re sure to succeed.”

The young lady must have expected that compliment coming; she’s a little more collected this time. “Th-thank you, Emiya.” She points at him with a dramatic flair. “But remember, this alliance is temporary!”

Shirou looks at his feet, obviously flattered that the alliance is happening at all. “…Thank you, Tohsaka.”

Archer looks at the young lady sternly. “But you will not stay here, of course.”

Half-hidden by her hand, her smile is deadly sweet and sly. “Oh my, Archer, are you thinking something scandalous?”

Archer lifts his chin and sneers. “Scandals aside, Lancer takes a small millennia to get ready in the mornings, and there’s only one bathroom. That’s a battlefield I would prefer to avoid.”

Shirou opens his mouth, looking more than ready to defend Lancer’s honor, but Lancer shakes his head. It’s a good point.

“Hmm, you’re right, that would be a problem. I was going to stay at home, anyway.” The young lady slips her hands into her pockets and beams shamelessly at Archer. “Consider your worries noted!”

Archer smirks back. “Very well. And you can brew your own tea tomorrow morning.”

The young lady pouts at him before turning her attention back to Shirou and Lancer. “Thank you for helping today,” she says, dipping her head slightly. “And be careful on your errands, until we figure out who that Master is. Come on, Archer, we’re going!”

“Yes, yes,” Archer replies, only giving Lancer the briefest of glances.

The two of them bicker casually as they head back to their house, leaving Lancer and Shirou on their own.

“…Well then,” Lancer says, as Caster’s threads continue to tangle in the starlit sky above. It still hasn’t snowed yet. “Looks like we can never have things easy, huh?”

Shirou looks at him and blinks. “I thought you liked difficult odds?”

“Oh, I do.” Lancer gestures to his head and grimaces. “But in this case, with a fever that comes and goes? It’s a little much.”

“…That’s true.” Shirou makes a point to lock the gate behind him, even though Saber broke through the Bounded Field before. “How’re you feeling, Lancer?”

“Might need to lie down, or something.”

“Oh, okay.”

Lancer walks to the front door, and stops just before crossing the threshold. He turns and watches Shirou, who’s staring up at the moon as if mesmerized by it. His skin looks almost translucent in this silver light, and his Command Seals stand out all the harsher for it.

“Something wrong, Shirou?”

Shirou starts and turns his head with a self-deprecating smile. “Sorry, it’s nothing. Don’t worry, I’ll come in in a moment.”

Lancer shrugs. “Suit yourself. There’s plenty of food, if you’re hungry!”

“You, too.”

---

It comes as no surprise that Shirou immediately bustles off to his shed, to do some late-night Magecraft training. Now rested, Lancer takes the opportunity to heat up some leftovers and come lend a hand.

Apparently the young lady’s brief lessons at school are paying off. Along with today’s fight, now Shirou can enhance a rock without shattering it, and he’s in less pain when he practices now.

Lancer adds in his own two cents, but he’s not sure if his lessons take hold or not.

Despite that, Shirou enjoys Lancer’s company, asking questions without a hint of self-consciousness. They’re mostly about Runes, or Lancer’s time with Scathach, both topics of which Lancer can’t speak much. (Most Mages can only master one type of Magecraft, and Lancer’s feelings toward his teacher are…thorny.) He does his best.

“You must be tired,” Shirou says, past midnight. “We did a lot today.”

“Hmm? Oh, yeah.” Lancer yawns wide. “Now I’ll really lie down.”

Shirou nods sleepily and lurches to his feet.

Shirou hits the sack as soon as he reaches his room. Lancer stays up a little while longer, listening to Shirou’s steady breathing behind the sliding door.

He runs over today’s events in his mind—Archer’s cooking, scoping out the town, the fight against Caster, Shirou’s reluctance to say he was happy—and tries to find a pattern.

The only things that stand out are that Shirou trusts him more, and that Archer trusts him less. (And yet Archer agreed to “an alliance”, as he put it. Maybe he does have a little trust in Lancer after all.)

Lancer runs a hand over his face and watches the moon's silver light filter in through the window. There’s something else, too—how Archer reacted to Saber’s presence. It’s like he shut down, or he’s trying to hide something. He snorts softly. In that case, Archer’s a worse liar than I thought!

Lancer sighs and kicks the blankets off his futon, his skin overheating again. …Guess I’ll take another bath.

Taking care not to wake Shirou up, Lancer sneaks out of the joined bedroom into the hall. His vision’s blurred from weariness. When he reaches the bathroom, he closes the door behind him with great care—but it still sounds as loud as rocks rolling down a mountainside.

Tense seconds pass.

When Lancer doesn’t hear Shirou stir, he lets his shoulders sag in relief and shuffles over to the bath. Yeah, cool water should help, like last time.

In the end, it doesn’t help as much as expected. He’s still stuck with Archer’s stiff posture and Shirou’s uncertainty lingering in his mind, in a house that seems too quiet and empty for its owner. He drains the tub after only a few minutes, disgusted with himself. In the uneasy fog of his mind, he trek back to bed seems to take forever.

As the moon casts its light on the kitchen floor, Lancer stands and stares at the spot where Archer cooked today. That guy was too comfortable here. He knew exactly what Shirou had in stock, despite having never been here before. And when we went out...he was trying to put me off the scent.  

His suspicions about Archer continue to grow, like thorny brambles overtaking a country road. And each theory his weary head spins only brings unease.

What could turn someone like Shirou into a cold guy like that? 

There's no way to answer that question. Lancer stays up to think of one regardless, until the moon begins to slink out of sight.

Chapter Text

Shirou groans and wakes up at six o’clock, the same time as always.

Lancer listens to Shirou make his bed and shuffle off down the hall. He’s content for the moment to just lie back on his futon and sleep a little longer. Well, maybe the young lady won’t call with some news, and I can get a little shut-eye…until something inevitably comes up, that is.

He grunts and rolls over onto his side, falling back into slumber again. After what feels like only a few seconds, he wakes up to the sound of water rushing through the overhead pipes. Okay, okay, I’ll get up…maybe I’ll take a shower, after Shirou’s done.

First, he heads outside for some fresh air.

A winter chill settles on Lancer’s skin as he walks across the yard. There’s frost on the grass, and the shed’s roof has a silver cast, as if a huge invisible paintbrush slid across the metal. The neighborhood is quiet and peaceful, despite what’s been going on. It’s hard to tell if that’s because everyone’s cooped up inside, fearful of going to work, or if it’s just too early in the morning for everyone to be awake.

Hopefully it’s the latter.

“Good morning,” Archer says from the shed’s roof. “You’re still feverish, I see.”

“It’ll go away eventually.” Lancer peers up at him. “So, is your Master here?”

“Not yet. She asked me to check on you.” Archer crosses his legs at the knee and looks out at the rows of houses. “Did you sense any Masters last night?”

“Not a one.”

“I see. Perhaps that’s to be expected—your Master slept well, after all.”

“Wait, so Shirou knows you’re here?”

“Yes. We had a short conversation earlier…” Archer raises an eyebrow. “Don’t make that face, nothing dangerous happened.”

Lancer rests his hands on his hips. “Will Shirou say the same?”

Archer lets out a huff of amusement. “Who knows? Best ask him yourself.”

With a sigh, Lancer decides to check on Shirou. It’s getting too cold outside, anyway.

He checks the kitchen to see if Shirou’s there, but no dice. On the table he finds a textbook claiming to help high school graduates-to-be get into the college they’re aiming for instead. He flips through it idly, wondering if there’s a section for bards—but no dice.

There are some things of interest, though: a bookmarked index page listing off colleges with law majors. Huh, that could suit him. Lancer’s eye catches a blue sticky note with “???” scribbled on it a few pages ahead, and he sees that section covers political majors. The thought of Shirou and all his contradictions mingling in a king’s court makes Lancer shudder.

…Hey, I shouldn’t be going through his stuff like this! I’ll ask him about it later.

Leaving Shirou’s unknown future behind, Lancer ambles off to the bathroom.

There’re no sounds of running water coming from the bathroom, which could be either good or bad. But he’s not just going to barge in uninvited, either.

“Hey, you alright in there?” he calls, leaning against the opposite wall.

“Yeah, just toweling off!” Shirou’s reply is muffled slightly by the door. A hairdryer wails like a banshee. “I’ll be out in a second!”

“You don’t need to rush.”

“Good.”

Lancer rolls his shoulders, pleased that his strength is returning…even if it’s one step forward, two steps back.

While he waits, he thinks about what Archer said before—about Shirou “changing” under his influence. Lancer’s not sure he gets it, let alone how Shirou’s changing, exactly. But it’s probably Archer’s attempt at manipulation.

And yet…Lancer thinks of that strange, faded memory of Gae Bolg. He wouldn’t be surprised if that was Archer’s; he cut down many warriors in his time. So why did that killing blow seem worthless?

There’s an obvious answer for that, too: maybe Lancer killed Archer when he was past his prime as a warrior, too withered and decrepit to fight back. An order like that was a dime a dozen, even when Lancer liked the kings he served. It’s plausible enough, and not worth thinking of any longer. Otherwise, I’ll go back to thinking about useless things again.

The bathroom door opens, and Shirou steps out, in fresh black clothes and a towel draped over his shoulders. “Did you need something, Lancer?”

“Hmm…I did, but that can wait.”

He looks closer at Shirou’s new clothes, and is surprised by how they cling to his muscles. Sure, he figured out Shirou has muscles before, but this is the first time Lancer’s seen them shown off like this, with his shirt sleeves rolled up to the elbows.

But there’s something weird, here…

“Did you cut yourself, Shirou?”

Shirou looks at his index finger and winces. “Oh yeah, that. So, I was trying to make a comb as sharp as a knife last night, and I was so tired I thought I’d failed. Then I tested it this morning, and…” He smiles sheepishly. “…It worked.”

“A band-aid isn’t any good soaking wet, though.”

“I know. This is a new one I just applied.”

“I see…huh.”  

Lancer reaches out and runs a finger across the peach-colored band-aid where it’s threatening to peel, and Shirou shivers at the contact.

“Whoa, sorry, did that hurt?”

Shirou shakes his head silently. His gaze is glued to Lancer’s fingers before traveling up the slope of Lancer’s arm. His lips part, but no sound comes out.

Then he realizes what he’s doing, and the excuses flow like wine at a feast.

They’re so ridiculous and fast-paced Lancer doesn’t have time to respond to them all—the one about wanting to check if Lancer’s okay seems the most plausible, but least likely. At that point, it’s time to step in and calm things down.

“You don’t have to apologize, you know,” Lancer says, resting his hand on his hip. “I like being looked at. And you’re not the type to force me!”

Shirou rubs the back of his neck and glances to one side. “Okay, but—oh, that’s right, you don’t mind if I’m a guy.”

“Yeah. Like I said, I don’t see what the big deal is.” Lancer hits on an idea. “I can flex for you, if you want—oof, okay, I’m sorry!” He laughs and dodges the towel Shirou chucks at him.

There’s a damp thump as the soft fabric hits the wall and puddles on the floor.

“Idiot,” Shirou grumbles, and goes to pick up the towel. He checks the wall to make sure it isn’t stained and seems satisfied with what he sees (if still annoyed at Lancer). “Seriously, you can’t read the mood at all sometimes…”

Lancer shrugs. “I don’t know, you’re pretty easy to figure out.” He remembers what he came here to do. “So, Archer’s here—he said you had a chat with him.” He holds up a hand. “I don’t need to know what you talked about, just—did he insult you again?”

Shirou sighs and drapes the towel over his shoulder. “Not really. It was good advice, just said smugly. So, the usual response from him.”

Lancer chuckles. “Ah, right, right.”

“Well, anyway, I’m going to go get groceries. I’ll tell the boss at Copenhagen you’re sick, so don’t worry about missing anything. Just sleep it off, okay?”

“Promise you’ll be careful about that rogue Master,” Lancer reminds him, “and we’ll have a deal.”

Shirou grins. “Promise. Oh, that’s right—about that rogue Master thing.”

Lancer raises an eyebrow. “You know who it is?”

“Well, maybe. Illya’s still around; I’ve had the chance to talk with her now and then.” Shirou says this casually, as if he expects Lancer to know this already.

“…You did?”

Shirou blinks in surprise. “Yeah, didn’t I tell you? I met her at market, a few days before we fought Rider. She keeps running away from her maids; it looks like they’re strict on her.”

“Huh. And you guys didn’t fight?”

“No, but I haven’t met Illya after sunset.”

Don’t.”

Shirou sighs and flaps a hand. “I know, and I’m sorry for making you worry. Anyway, I need to hurry up, or I’ll be late!”

“Alright, have fun.”

Lancer watches Shirou amble down the hall, and wonders if Archer was the inspiration for that black outfit. Or maybe he just felt like a new look—not everything has to do with Archer. Idiot.

He runs a hand through his hair and decides a shower isn’t a bad idea. Who knows, maybe he can find something to do around the house in the meantime.

---

Lancer goes outside for some fresh air after his shower, and sees that Archer’s still here, on the shed’s roof in spirit form. He’s staring at something across the street, his whole body tensed to attack.

Lancer hops up beside him and follows his gaze. “What’s up?”

“…I’m unsure. It may be an enemy, or it may not be.” Archer shrugs one shoulder. “All I know for certain is that someone’s headed this way.”

Lancer peers down the street, watching the neighbors amble by on whatever business they have. In that hustle and bustle is a tall, black-haired man without any other striking features, carrying a grocery bag in his hand.

He doesn’t look suspicious—which only makes Lancer more on edge.

“Oh,” Archer says, remembering something, “that must be one of the high school teachers. Rin has mentioned a stern teacher with a green suit before…he must have been discharged from the hospital.”

“Yeah, but why’s he coming here? Shouldn’t he be going to your Master’s place, or something?”

Archer frowns and shifts his weight. “That’s true. But it may be for a simpler purpose.”

It soon becomes clear that the teacher isn’t headed toward Shirou’s house at all, but rather toward Ryuudou Temple. As the teacher passes the wall around Shirou’s house, he glances up at Lancer with dark, fathomless eyes.

Now that he’s close enough, Lancer can sense something weird about this “ordinary” teacher. There’s no traces of Magecraft coming off him, but there is a feeling of purposefulness—like he’s come this way for a reason. His gaze is steady, and his breathing even more so. He’s like a snake in the grass, biding his time.

The whole thing stinks of a plot.

The teacher blinks once, as if acknowledging him, and resumes his steady walk.

Lancer watches him go without blinking, long after he’s out of sight. Then he looks to Archer and asks “The hell was that all about?”

Archer runs a hand through his hair. “I have no idea. But it felt like a challenge of some kind.” He glares at him. “Don’t take him up on it, Lancer…whatever it may be.”

“I know, I know, worrywart.” Lancer hops down from the roof and begins to pace. “I think that teacher might be in league with Caster, or maybe they bewitched him—something like that.”

Archer rubs his chin and paces on the roof, almost in sync with Lancer. “That could be. In that case, perhaps the Master Rin felt probing the Bounded Field around her mansion is simply a spy for Caster…”

“We should tell our Masters, then.” Lancer sighs and kicks a stray pebble; it bounces across the yard before skidding into the thawing ground. “Jeez, as if things couldn’t get more complicated…”

“And here I thought you enjoyed impossible odds. My mistake.”

“Well, at least we’re both on the same page, right Shirou?”

It wasn’t something conscious. It was an instinctive reaction to the similar phrasing, and all the little details Lancer’s noticed since yesterday.

He doesn’t register what he said at first. It hangs in the winter air like an executioner’s blade.

Then Archer flits down from the shed, icy dust rising up from his boots as they crunch onto the ground. His gray eyes aren’t betraying any emotion, but his murderous intent is clear as day.

What did you call me, Lancer?” Archer’s voice lashes through the air like a hammer striking anvil.

Uh-oh.

“Sorry, Archer, that wasn’t on—”

The apology falls on deaf ears. Archer’s stoicism is replaced with icy rage.

“—Must you always compare us? How are we anything alike?!” Archer flings out his hand toward an invisible Shirou. “That idiot is impulsive, weak, easily-swayed by the first person who asks for his aid. He is a leech who only derives happiness from others, nothing but a worthless parasite! And his ideals”—Archer laughs bitterly—“what good will they bring him? Only ruin and despair!”

Lancer grits his teeth and digs in his heels. “Go on, keep going. Let it all out.” He means it: with Shirou and the young lady far from here, this is the perfect time to vent. “Or is that self-loathing really all you’ve got?”

Archer’s hands clench into fists, and his body trembles from his shoulders down. “Do you know how I came to be a Heroic Spirit?”

“By following those same ideals, I’d wager.” Lancer tilts his chin up and gives him a feral grin. “And now that it isn’t turning out the way you planned, you want out. Why, because you couldn’t save ‘everyone’?”

Archer’s eyes glow with something resembling pride, but it’s tempered with bitterness. “Oh, you misunderstand. I did save others, by killing others. And that—”

“—Made you despair.” Lancer shrugs one shoulder. “Hey, I get it. Watching people die from your own actions never feels good. But if you could help even one person…isn’t it worth it?”

Archer lunges forward, his twin swords drawn.

Gae Bolg materializes and blocks them in an instant. A gust of wind bursts out across the yard, disrupting a bird from its nest.

Even in his condition, Lancer’s not going to sit there and take it. He swings Gae Bolg with all his might, a whirling force of death that cuts through Archer’s swords like they’re paper.

He forces Archer back a few steps, keeping him on the defensive. Clang, clang, clang. He can see Archer’s armor’s taking a beating. And his swords shatter after a few blows.

But Archer’s a quick one: he brings forth a new pair of swords like it’s nothing. In that instant, he resumes his attack, ducking and weaving and slicing like a man possessed.

The fact remains that he’s angry, and Lancer has no problem using that to his advantage.

“You still lack finesse, Archer,” he says, as he side-steps Archer’s strike and roundhouse kicks his ribs.

Archer’s back hits the ground once. Then he rolls to his feet, leaving a thick gash behind him. Judging by how he’s favoring his side, Lancer must’ve struck a rib or two.

But that’s fine—they’ll heal soon enough. And it’s not like Lancer can kick at full power right now.

“Oh, don’t get me wrong, your swordsmanship’s not bad for a bowman,” Lancer says, shifting his weight from foot to foot eagerly, “but at least Shirou knows when to back out of a losing fight!”

Archer slides into a fighting stance again, his gaze unwavering.

…Well, don’t know why I expected anything else.

Lancer zigzags his way over to Archer, heedless of the craters his heavy footsteps leave behind.

Archer keeps him in his sights, and when they clash again his eyes smolder like the sparks flying from their weapons.

Despite both of them being incapacitated, they still give a good showing: to an outsider’s view, they’d just be blurs of blue and red, whirling and crashing against each other, leaving gouges in the ground where their weapons miss or their feet skid.

The battle rages on. Lancer’s pleased to see that Archer’s rage is being tempered. Being able to hit something that can hit back helps a lot. Sure, civilians may have healthier ways to de-stress, but when you’re a centuries-old warrior this’ll do.

As Archer’s swords spin close to him again, Lancer buries Gae Bolg’s tip in the ground and launches his body toward Archer like a stone from a catapult.

His leg swings through the air and hits Archer’s face with a solid crunch. On a human, that blow would’ve shattered their jaw. For Archer, it just disorients him.

That’s fine!

Lancer lands on Archer’s belly with his full weight. His legs splay out on either side of Archer’s torso and his hands pin down Archer’s wrists. They grind into the dirt like the wheels of a farmer’s plow.  

“So, about that alliance of ours,” Lancer says conversationally, as if the air isn’t being forced from Archer’s lungs, “you think it’s over already?”

Archer smiles wryly and shakes his head.

That’s an intriguing response. Lancer keeps his grip on Archer’s hands, but relaxes his weight a little. He watches as Archer sucks in a breath, his broad chest expanding, and marvels at this “not-Shirou’s” ability to adapt.

“Uncle?”

Archer looks at him in total bafflement.

“Whoops, sorry. I mean, ‘truce’?”

Archer nods. “This,” he manages, his voice hoarse, “was simply a ‘date’ long overdue.”

Lancer snickers. “That, and I just pissed you off.”

“Indeed. But I have little anger left in me at the moment.”

“You trust me with your ‘secret identity’ then?”

Archer tilts his head, baring his neck. “Perhaps. What would guarantee your cooperation?”

Lancer blinks in surprise.

It’s blatant. It’s teasing. It’s the first time Archer’s made a move in this weird relationship of theirs.

It’s another mind game, designed to split Lancer and Shirou apart when neither of them are at their best.

Lancer and Archer’s warmth breaths mingle in the cold air, their faces inches apart.

“…Heh. You know what my answer is already, bowman.”

The reason is simple. Even if Archer had the same starting point as Shirou, he’s changed enough over his time as a Heroic Spirit that there’s little similarity between what Lancer has with his Master. It'd be like having an affair with Shirou's brother. So an excuse like “we’re the same person” doesn’t cut it.

Archer raises an eyebrow. “As I recall, monogamy doesn’t suit you.”

“What? Sure it does. My princess knew about my lovers ‘cause I told her right out. If she had a problem with them, I wouldn’t tumble them—the same goes here.” Lancer cocks his head to one side and grins. “Besides, it’s not like you really want to lie with me right now, right? Mr. Too-Cool-To-Care.”

Archer huffs an amused breath. “Yes, well. We are outside in broad daylight. People will talk.”

“And you’re the type to dislike seeing yourself happy.”

“Ah, it appears you’re learning.”

“And I don’t like what I’m finding out.” Lancer sighs and lets go of Archer’s wrists. “Next time you want a kiss, ask honestly. You ruin a good lovemaking session with all that ‘guarantee your cooperation’ bull, y’know.”

Archer doesn’t answer—he seems satisfied with the results. He sits up and rotates his shoulder, checking for further injury with the ease of a well-oiled machine.

There’s no need for past regrets, for Archer.

Which reminds me.

“Archer—did you summon me in your time, too?”

Archer’s eyes hold a hint of something bittersweet. “No. Your summoning is unprecedented.”

“Huh.” Lancer brushes off his knees, keeping his eyes on Archer. “Why do you think that is?”

“I’m not sure. But, if I had to guess…” Archer glances at Gae Bolg for a split second then shakes his head ruefully. “…Never mind.”

Lancer sets that thought aside for now and extends a hand to Archer. “Come on—we’ve got to look like allies when our Masters come back.”

It takes a moment for Archer to take his hand.

Maybe it’s that he’s tired, or maybe because no one’s helped him stand on his own two feet in a long while.

Either way, when he clasps Lancer’s hand and lifts himself up, he seems a little less tense now.

“That’s right,” Archer says, turning his attention toward Ryuudou Temple in the distance. “We have some useful information for them.”

“Hopefully,” Lancer adds, looking around the yard. “Hmm…we should clean this up, too.”

Archer has the grace to wince.

It takes what feels like forever for them to pack dirt down over the craters, and the grass still looks a mess. But with any luck, neither the young lady nor Shirou will notice…at first. They’ll have to explain eventually, though.

“We can say we were sparring,” Archer says coolly. “You were holding back against me.”

“Well, we’re both under the weather to begin with.” Lancer points a finger at Archer’s side. “How’re your ribs holding up, by the way?”

“…They’re passable.”

“Great! Now I don’t have to feel bad for hitting an ally.”

Archer looks at Lancer with dry amusement. “You’re welcome, I suppose.”

---

The young lady and Shirou take the news of Mr. Kuzuki’s strange trip rather well—probably because nobody knows what Caster’s capable of yet.

“Why would Caster enslave Mr. Kuzuki, though?” Shirou asks over lunch. “He’s just an ordinary teacher, if a little strict…”

The young lady stares into her cup of tea and stirs her spoon with thoughtful slowness. “He’s a teacher at our school, and we’re both Masters. That’s reason enough.”

“Sounds about right,” Lancer says. His gaze flicks from the clock to Shirou’s back, bent over the shrimp dumplings cooking on the stove. “Good thing school’s still out…”

Archer speaks up from his position against the doorframe. “It feels like a trap—we should wait before rushing in impulsively.” He looks pointedly at Lancer then Shirou.

“You ever get tired of acting high and mighty, Archer?” Lancer’s genuinely curious.

“No more than you do, I imagine,” is the smooth reply.

Archer seems too big for this place. His shadow overwhelms the carpet, and his posture hides a nervous energy that even the young lady, deep in thought, can notice.

“Archer,” she says, her tone distracted, “I’m going to make a familiar to scope out Ryuudou Temple.”

“Of course. I shall bring your tools right away.”

“Oh, you don’t need to bring them here—just set them up for me at home, okay?”

Archer bows and vanishes. Lancer hears him leap onto the roof and into the night.

“What happens if your familiar finds Caster and their Master there?” Shirou asks, carrying over a tray laden with lunch. “Would you let Archer attack later, Tohsaka?”

“In that case, I may not have a choice.” The young lady takes a sip of her tea before continuing. “Caster can’t just drain this town dry—not while I’m its protector.”

“That’s the spirit,” Lancer says cheerily, both in reference to the young lady’s words and the mouth-watering shrimp dumplings Shirou sets down on the table. “Mm, these smell good…is this a new recipe, Shirou?”

“Yeah, I wanted to try making something from China,” Shirou replies, taking off the oven mitts.

Lancer picks up a golden-brown dumpling with his chopsticks and carefully places it on his plate. It's so tender, it could fall apart if it fell.

Archer materializes, looking every inch a butler. “Everything is ready, Rin.”

“Thanks again,” the young lady says with a smile, and bows politely at Shirou. “Sorry, but I’m going to have to eat lunch later. I’ll be sure to come by as soon as I’m done, though!”

Shirou smiles. “That’s fine. It’ll be waiting for you in the fridge.”

The young lady smiles gratefully back and heads out, with Archer close behind.

The kitchen is silent for a time. Lancer takes the chance to enjoy his lunch. The shrimp must be fresh, since it’s so savory-sweet—and the breading is a little thinner than what would be made at Ulster. He eagerly gives his compliments to the chef, plucking out more dumplings.

“Thanks,” Shirou says with a smile, closing the fridge door. “I’ve never made those before, so I’m glad they came out well.” He cocks his head to one side curiously. “You don’t mind that they’re spicy?”

Lancer shrugs his shoulders—he can’t speak with his mouth full. He chews and swallows. “It’s not that hot, really. And it’s nice on a day like this.”

Shirou nods, making a note of this, and wanders back to the kitchen table to eat. “You know,” he says, sitting down, “it almost feels like we haven’t had a real break lately. First Rider, now Caster…and I have to tell Sakura about Shinji sooner or later.”

“Huh? Why Lady Sakura?” Then it hits him. “…Oh. He was her brother?”

Shirou nods again, picking up his chopsticks but not doing anything with them.

The kitchen is silent again.

“There’s not much I can say, other than ‘welcome to war, Master’.” Lancer takes a sip of tea and peers over the cup’s rim at Shirou. “It’s not how you imagined, huh?”

“…That’s…” Shirou looks away, ashamed. “…I don’t know what I expected.”

Lancer curses his awful phrasing. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to insult you. The songs make it sound like a grand old time, but not everyone’s cut out for it.” He corrects himself: “Nobody’s cut out for it, in the end.”

That sparks something in Shirou’s eyes. “Hey, Lancer?”

“Yeah?”

“You were stronger than whole armies at their best, right? Nobody could beat you. So…” Shirou clicks his chopsticks together once, as if trying to grab a thought. “…There was a dream I had. In it, you—you weren’t alone on the battlefield.”

Lancer has a hunch as to where this is going. “Were there kids?”

“Yeah. They insisted on tagging along.”

He keeps his face and voice neutral. “Were they alive, or dead?”

Shirou shrugs helplessly. “I only saw one or two. One’s legs were trapped underneath his horse—”

—And he screamed for his mother, even when the ravens came—

“—Awful sight, huh?” Lancer sips his tea, staring at his rippling reflection. “Sorry you had to see that. Must’ve put you off your grub.”

“No, I should apologize, Lancer! I didn’t mean to bring that up…I mean, I saw happier things too.”

Lancer manages a laugh. “That’s a relief. Any parties?”

Shirou smiles slightly. “One or two…I’m glad you had fun sometimes, Lancer.”

He doesn’t seem to realize how contradictory he’s being. But Lancer figures he’ll get it eventually, and doesn’t press the issue.

---

Later that evening, Lancer realizes Shirou isn’t back yet from Copenhagen.

“…That’s not right,” he murmurs, sitting up in bed. “He should be back by now.”

He just woke up from another mana-charging nap, and is eager to shake this lame duck feeling off for good. And I need to tell him about Archer’s “offer” too.

Lancer checks the kitchen, just in case Shirou came in quietly to give Lancer some rest. Nothing’s changed since the young lady got her lunch this afternoon. So it’s not just me. Shirou really is late…

Shaking his head, Lancer dons his armor and hops on the roof, ready to head for Copenhagen—

—But something stops him.

More specifically, it’s one of Caster’s rainbow threads, kept apart from the rest of the weave around Fuyuki. It seems to be acting as a leash, dragging someone toward Ryuudou Temple…and there’s little doubt who that could be. While human souls are all well and good for mana, Mages tend to be a prime meal.

Lancer turns on his heel and bounds toward Ryuudou Temple, glad that he caught on when he did.

While Shirou didn’t do too badly in the skeleton fight yesterday, he’ll never be a match for a Servant. (Unless, like in Archer’s case, he becomes a Servant himself. But that’s as unlikely as fish swimming in the air.) With any luck, Lancer will catch up in time and avoid his Master becoming dinner.

It’s a strange feeling, moving from cold, modern buildings to the neutrality of trees. The mountain that Ryuudou Temple rests on is an old one, the kind that makes humans uneasy if they linger too long. The trees are ancient, and stand like soldiers guarding an emperor. The air is stagnant here, almost a living thing. And to complete the hostile vibes, there’s a barrier thicker than mortar that knocks Lancer back as soon as he tries to breach it.

“Seriously?” he grumbles, racking his brain for a quick solution.

Then he realizes: Just rush through it, already! I have Magic Resistance, don’t I?

So he takes a few steps back, braces himself for a running leap. The winding stone steps ahead take up all his attention; even the whisper of the night wind is cast aside. Every second counts. He takes a breath, in, out, in…

…And he charges forward.

His hair flies back with the force of his racing feet. When he hits the Bounded Field, it strains to push him out like wet fabric, clammy and clinging to his body down to the bone. For a moment, his heart stops—what if he’s wrong?

He’s flung back, and his heels skid and stumble on the concrete.

Breathing heavily, he stares at the Bounded Field again, trying to work out what he missed. The film-like shield still stands firm.

Lancer looks closer, toward the treetops, and grins. Oh, I get it now.

Ignoring the pounding of his heart, and the fever burning through his skin, Lancer slams the tip of Gae Bolg into the ground and vaults over the Bounded Field.

The wind rushes by. Tears spring to his eyes, until he lands safely in a tree without a sound. The bark scratches his palms like a cat’s claws. He pays it no mind. He’s here to find Shirou, and he could be too late already.

Once Lancer catches sight of the thread through gaps in the branches and leaves, he bounds off again.

The boughs of the trees shake slightly under his feet, but he’s careful not to attract attention otherwise. It’s night, now, and the moon is bright as fresh snow. He can see where he’s going with ease.

And he can see Shirou, biking his way through the winding path. A thread glints like moonlit oil around his neck.

Yet again, this stinks of a plot.

Lancer growls with impatience and jumps down from the trees, landing at Shirou’s side—and cuts the thread with one strike of Gae Bolg. He muffles Shirou’s yell of surprise with a hand clapped over his mouth.

“What the hell are you doing, Master?!” Lancer whispers.

Shirou calms down enough to stare flatly at him and point at the hand covering his mouth.

“…Fair enough.” Reluctantly, Lancer pulls back his hand and glowers at Shirou. “Now spill.”

Shirou points to where the student went. “My friend Issei—he lives at the Temple, remember—hung out with me after my shift ended. He…doesn’t look good. I tried to follow him up here, and a thread got me—”

“—Forgive my interruption,” a cool, baritone voice says in the distance, “but I’m afraid you fell for a trap.”

Beat me to it.

Lancer and Shirou turn their heads toward the top of the staircase. There, standing in the moonlight, is a new Servant.

He’s a fan of purple: everything from his long ponytail to his finely embroidered kimono to his sandals has that color. He’s watching them in silence, taking in Lancer with particular interest.

“…Who’re you, then?” Lancer places Gae Bolg casually across his shoulders, keeping his hands loose on either side.

“I am Kojirou Sasaki, Assassin class Servant.” Assassin glances at Gae Bolg. His lips curl upwards. “You are Lancer, of course.”

“You’re a cocky one, to tell me your name right out,” Lancer says, not moving an inch.

“Wait a minute…Kojirou…!” Shirou sounds awed. “The swordsman who killed swallows mid-flight?”

Lancer whistles through his teeth. “Really, now. Sounds like a good fight to me!”

Assassin doesn’t budge. “Truly, I’m flattered by your compliments. However, you seem hobbled by a lack of mana; it would be a lackluster battle in that case.”

Lancer glares at him. “You calling me an invalid, Assassin?”

“Oh, not at all. Even from this distance, I can see your worth. I consider you a worthy opponent.” Assassin sighs and squats down, his sword still sheathed. “As a consequence, I must ask you to leave until your mana’s replenished.”

“What about you?” Shirou asks, his voice unwavering. “Aren’t you worried about losing mana?”

Assassin shakes his head and makes a sweeping gesture encompassing the forest around them. “You could say this Temple is my Master, and mana supply. I have no such worries—and so, you can leave without worrying if I’ll disappear.”

Lancer scoffs. “You’re joking, right? If you’d just keep your mouth shut, I’d gladly leave you be for tonight.” He raises Gae Bolg, whirling it about his head in a blur of red. “And unfortunately for you, I’ve been sitting on my ass for days! Tedious things don’t suit me…any more than they do you.”

Assassin’s smile turns wily. “Yes, we are of a similar mold, aren’t we? And with your Master here…well, that gives you a steady flow of mana. My apologies.”

With that snide remark, he finally unsheathes his blade, a katana as long as he is tall. To Lancer’s eyes, it’s an unwieldy, brittle thing—but then he’s never fought an Eastern opponent before.

This could be fun—!

As Lancer rushes toward Assassin, he notes how Assassin doesn’t react, still content to watch him. It’s only when their weapons clash that Assassin finally makes his first move: quick flashes of strikes and parries that Lancer can only block.

Assassin’s moves flow like a river—constant, smooth, beautiful. It’s an endless assault.

And his sword has more weight behind it than expected.

Each time Assassin forces Lancer back down the steps, his blade threatens to knock Gae Bolg from Lancer’s hands at the slightest chance. The only reason Lancer doesn’t trip and fall is because he’s mindful of the sharp incline of each step.

As soon as Assassin relaxes his guard, Lancer strikes.

He won’t give Assassin any quarter. His sharp stabs and wide blows come one after the other, forcing Assassin to step lightly.

Lancer’s arms ache with each attack.

His breath comes in short bursts.

But at least he’s doing something.

I can win. I will win. Even like this—!

But Assassin isn’t backing down. His moves are still deadly and graceful. His smile’s unfaltering. His sword remains steady in his grip. It’s like trying to hold water in your hands; sooner or later it’ll trickle between the gaps of your fingers.

Lancer can hear Shirou cursing, trying to find something to help with—a branch would be Lancer’s best bet. But there’s little he can do: for an Assassin, this guy’s no pushover.

“Are you certain you don’t wish to retreat while you can?” Assassin asks, still keeping the high ground. “You’re getting nowhere.”

Lancer sneers and doesn’t answer. Tonight, his damned fever isn’t as strong, and there’s no way he’s quitting now.

“…Very well. I shall end this quickly.”

In a unexpected and stupid move, Assassin strolls down the steps toward Lancer, his expression hidden by his hair. Lancer’s too stunned to even try to intercept him; they stand face to face on the middle stone landing.

“You wish to bring victory to your Master, even in difficult conditions…that is worthy of praise. However: it is not worthy of success.”

Assassin changes his stance. He turns sideways, drawing his sword up toward his shoulder, preparing a wide, arcing slash. The light of the moon shines off the blade, almost blinding in its brightness.

It’s a killing blow, obviously. Lancer shifts his weight from foot to foot. He’s confident he can dodge it. He’s done well so far. Of course, Assassin could be going easy on me…

“Lancer, run!” Shirou cries out on the steps below.

Ultimate—

Lancer starts as Assassin begins his strike. In an arc that wide, he has plenty of time to dodge.

He lunges to the side—

“—Swallow Reversal!

In that instant, Lancer sees three swords.

First one strike, then a second, a third: a three-sided prison impossible to avoid.

Lancer grew cocky, waited too long. Assassin makes him pay that price threefold.

Even as Lancer moves out of the way of the first blade, the second blade hits Gae Bolg, knocking it from his hands, and the third breaks his right wrist like a rotten branch.

Lancer loses his balance. Everything lurches and spins.

He hears Shirou screaming, as if from far away.

To add further injury on top of insult, Lancer rolls and bounces down the steps toward Shirou’s feet like a child’s ball.

He finally stops at the first landing. His wrist throbs and burns each time he tries to move it.

“Mas…ter. Run…” Lancer says weakly, limping to his feet.

“Don’t be stupid!” Shirou sounds ready to strangle him. “I won’t leave you, Lancer!”

Assassin doesn’t move from the highest step. “An impressive dodge, I must say. My Swallow Reversal should have killed you.”

It takes Lancer a moment to realize Assassin’s sheathed his sword. “What’re you…?”

“Isn’t it obvious? I am here to block you from entering the temple. Since you’ve been injured, and you’re clearly a worthy opponent when in peak condition, I have no reason to kill you now.”

Lancer watches Assassin stride back up the steps, and calls out “Thanks. I owe you.”

“Then come back to face me when your health returns.” Assassin sounds testy.

Lancer manages to a chuckle. “Sure thing.”

Shirou’s gaze flicks across Lancer’s body, searching for more injuries. “Can you walk, Lancer?”

“Yeah. It’s my wrist that’s the trouble, here.” Lancer cradles it tenderly, gritting his teeth as pins and needles shoot up his arm. I can’t put this off any more—I need Shirou’s mana, now. Or else…

…I’ll disappear.

It’s strange, to think of disappearing as something unwanted. He entered this war in the first place to battle strong opponents, and give his all in one last, grand fight. And that’s still what he wants, of course. But something else—something obvious, even to a foe like Assassin—is growing in importance too.

It’s dangerous, to care this much. Things never go well when Cu Chulainn grows fond of someone.

But there’s no time to think about that now. They go back the way they came (Shirou biking, Lancer jogging alongside) and don’t look back. They pass through the Bounded Field around the mountain with the ease only soundly beaten opponents can manage.

When they reach the bottom, back in the world of concrete and iron, Lancer realizes that their night isn’t over yet.

Blood-red eyes shine like polished jewels in the stark moonlight. Gold pendant earrings chime and sway like little bells. A white, fur-trimmed coat, sharply contrasting a black shirt and trousers, flutters like moth’s wings as a night wind glides by.

“Good evening,” the golden Servant says, leaning his side against a road sign. “You…men seem to be in a dismal situation.”

His appearing here and now raises a thousand questions in Lancer’s mind; they vanish like smoke soon enough. Of course a Servant would be on the lookout for anyone leaving Ryuudou Temple, with Caster’s threads floating about. And Lancer remembers clearly that this bastard hates being bored—he’d take any opportunity to stave it off.

The golden Servant holds out a hand. The silver ring on his finger glows as white as the hottest flame in the stark white light from the street lamps.

“Perhaps a civil discussion over drinks will ease the sting of defeat.”

Lancer and Shirou look at each other. There’s little they can do, in this situation—and there’s no guarantee that this Servant will let them go free.

“Is this a trick?” Shirou asks plainly, looking back at the Servant.

The Servant snorts disdainfully. “I have no need for such things against the likes of you. No, this is an invitation…should you choose to accept it.”

Lancer frowns. “And what if we don’t?”

“Then you have a dreary, desperate ride ahead of you. I suppose the result would be the same, if you returned to your hovel. But my destination will have food already prepared. And you will lose out on a prime opportunity for revenge.”

Shirou glances at Lancer’s broken wrist then the Servant’s outstretched hand. He sighs. “As long as you promise not to hurt Lancer—”

“—Or my Master—”

The Servant chuckles and nods his assent. “It would prove redundant to begin with, but very well. I give you my word.”

And so Lancer and Shirou follow after the gold Servant, toward the Entertainment District.

Chapter Text

“Come in,” the gold Servant says, pushing open a door into a curiously empty restaurant.  

Hot air blasts against Lancer’s skin as he and Shirou enter after their host.

This place is high-end, but cozy. The varnished wood floor under Lancer’s feet has been smoothed by hundreds of people walking on it through the years. A fireplace crackles in the corner, and a shelf with a long row of empty antique bottles stands above it. The booths have dark red leather cushions, and stained-glass chandeliers hang like crystalized fruits above the tables draped with creamy white tablecloths. There’s a perfect view of the river, and the bridge that connects new and old Fuyuki.

There should be customers by the dozen here.

“You bought this place out for the night,” Shirou says softly, staring at the gold Servant’s back.

“Of course,” the gold Servant replies, amusement enriching his voice. “We must avoid mongrels eavesdropping on our talk.”

Soft classical music floats in from the speakers clinging to the walls, four on each side. It’s not very soothing, in this context.

Lancer watches the gold Servant slide into a booth in the back. His reflection removes his jacket, two images overlapping.

“Well? Be seated.”

Reluctantly, Lancer and Shirou slide into the seat opposite the gold Servant. Three leather-bound menus are already before them, with laminated pages.

No matter how hard Lancer stares at the lists of lovingly described food, he doesn’t feel hungry.

Something about this restaurant doesn’t sit right with him—as if he should be ready to run at any second. It’s probably because the gold Servant’s staring at Shirou. His red eyes size Shirou up like he’s somewhere between a fine wine and dirty dishwater.

“…Do I have something on my face?”

“No,” the gold Servant replies, leaning back in his seat and draping one arm over the booth’s side. “Lancer: if you’ve decided on your order, you can replenish your mana faster.”

“Don’t rush me,” Lancer grumbles, and after pointedly dithering chooses a plate of onigiri. Since they’re just rice packed together, he can eat that one-handed.

Shirou frowns at the menu. “…Omurice, I guess?”

Lancer doesn’t see that on the list, and opens his mouth to say something—then he closes it again. There’s some kind of magic at work here. Not just Magecraft, but the real deal.

The gold Servant smiles condescendingly and snaps his fingers.

In that instant, rippling portals of gold appear in mid-air, and their food arrives. It looks and smells fresh and delicious; steam rises from each porcelain dish, coating Lancer’s vision in silver. When he can see again, he watches as the gold Servant takes out a gleaming silver pitcher and cups from another portal.

“Um,” Shirou pipes up, “I can’t drink wine.”

“Hmph, how disappointing.” A disdainful sigh. “Very well, have tea.”

Of course, the tea smells fresh-brewed, raspberries mixed with lemon. Not Lancer’s first choice (he’d rather ale), but that’s better than getting Shirou too drunk to smell a trap.

The pitcher and cups sit on the table, untouched.

Shirou stands and starts pouring.

Credit where it’s due: he doesn’t spill a drop, even with the gold Servant’s eyes boring into him. He manages a pleasant smile too, meeting that wicked glare with an unblinking stare of his own. Working at Copenhagen for this long has its perks!

When Shirou sits down, the gold Servant gets to business.

“As I was saying, mongrel, you do interest me. After all, most Masters enter this troublesome Grail War with a wish to grant, a desire to fulfill.” He cocks his head to one side and smiles. “And yet here you are, lacking anything of the sort.”

Shirou leans forward, his shoulders hunched. “I don’t want innocent people to be hurt—that’s my wish.”  

“Ah. But you have no need for the Grail, in that case.” The gold Servant’s gaze flicks to Lancer. “And what of you, mongrel?”

Lancer shrugs one shoulder. “Good fights and good spoils, that’s all I’m after.”

The gold Servant nods, as if understanding. “I expected no less from one of your…tastes.”

“What’re you after, doing all this?” Lancer asks, refusing to take the bait.

“I have a proposition to offer you two, for a very simple price.” The gold Servant sips his tea and gestures for them to eat.

Lancer decides it’s better not to turn up his nose at free food and takes a bite of an onigiri. It’s about what he expected, salty and savory.

“Since one of you prefers to keep mongrels out of harms’ way, and the other desires a fight worthy of him, there is a little something I can do for you.” The gold Servant smirks. “That Caster is a nuisance to the extreme for everyone here. So I shall deign to eliminate them for you—for an aforementioned price.”

Lancer’s not that surprised that the gold Servant was already planning on “eliminating” Caster—but he’s curious about this “price”. At least we'll get something out of it, if this goes through.

Shirou pauses with a forkful of omurice halfway to his mouth. “Tell us what that is, already.”

“Hmph. Such impertinence…for now, I shall ignore it.” The gold Servant looks down his nose at Shirou. “I wish to learn more of that bizarre healing ability of yours. Show it to me at once.”

A long, grim silence smothers the conversation. 

Lancer moves to shield Shirou. “What the hell?! You gave your word not to harm him!”

“So I did.” The gold Servant speaks slowly, as if savoring Lancer’s reaction. “As he trusts you, you will be the one to discover the source of his power.”

Shirou hasn’t said anything. Lancer can hear him putting down his fork with a clink.

“Don’t agree to this, Shirou,” Lancer snaps, keeping his glare firmly on the gold Servant’s smug face. “No matter what he says, it’s not worth it!”

Sparks pop in the fireplace. Seconds tick by, and Lancer’s heart pounds frantically in his chest.

Shirou still hasn’t said anything.

Any moment now, he could cut open his skin, or rip off a fingernail. Or worse: he could order Lancer to do it, with that same dreamy smile as before. And Lancer won’t be able to do anything about it.

“I only require something small,” the gold Servant says, soothing and sickeningly sweet. “An eye, perhaps. Their color is quite charming.” His lips curl upwards. “Or perhaps an eardrum—I have a delicate instrument or two for such purposes.”

All-too-vivid images of what those “delicate instruments” could be, and do, fill Lancer’s head. He thinks of Shirou's gaping stomach, soft and vulnerable, and his arm shredded deep enough to show bone.

“Alternatively,” the gold Servant says, his gaze crawling over Lancer’s face, “your Servant could drink your blood, right here and now.”

That gets a reaction: Shirou’s arm twitches, making the table shake.

“You just want a show,” Lancer growls, his wrist throbbing in pain.

“Oh? There’s no need to fear. If your healing is as extraordinary as I’ve heard…you two shall be on your feet in no time at all.”

Lancer wants to open his mouth, say that it’s a lie, but he knows that won’t convince Shirou in this situation. The gold Servant’s mana squirms and pulses around them, a thick, suffocating mass. Is this what it’s like to be helpless?

Shirou’s eating again, mulling things over no doubt. It makes sense—who knows what’ll happen after he answers?

Reluctantly, Lancer follows his lead. He can’t taste the onigiri, with all his attention laser-focused on the gold Servant staring them down. At this rate, he might just get sick to his stomach. Ugh, don’t think about that! Just keep stuffing your face.

If Shirou was hoping to get the gold Servant impatient, it isn’t working. The bastard leans back in his seat and grins, perfectly content to wait them out.

The only good thing to come from this mess is that a trickle of mana is filling Lancer’s body, keeping him from disappearing. The gold Servant could still kill him with a flick of his fingers.

Shirou cleans his plate, and it vanishes in a burst of gold. He leans forward, his shoulders squared and his jaw set.

“Everything you’ve said,” Shirou says, his voice quiet and raw, “is hurting Lancer. And I still feel pain, even with whatever healing Magecraft I have. I can’t trust you, with a ‘price’ like that.”

The gold Servant snickers and sips his tea. “Clever little mongrel, aren’t you? You make a valid point…perhaps I can deign to adjust my needs accordingly. You should be grateful.”

You were hoping this would happen. You’re definitely a King.

Shirou nods. “Thanks.”

A heartless glare. “That response is quite inadequate. Again—with more feeling, this time.”

“Just do it,” Lancer mutters, as Shirou bristles.

Grinding his teeth so hard the speakers can’t drown them out, Shirou bows his head so deeply it almost touches the table. “Your mercy is deeply appreciated. But your attention to detail…”

It’s amazing, that Lancer couldn’t tell Archer’s identity before. That barely-veiled sarcasm and carefully selected wording are major clues.

The gold Servant lowers his cup; it doesn’t make a sound when it’s placed on the table. “What a pity. You were so close…” He sighs and turns an annoyed glare to Lancer. “I shall ask you then. Again: are you grateful for my mercy?”

Lancer lowers his gaze and intones “Thank you, from the bottom of our hearts. We’re at your service…”

He trails off, having no idea what to call the gold Servant in front of him. He only has a guess. Using anything other than the bastard’s title would bring nothing but trouble.

“…I am a King,” the gold Servant says softly.

“…Your Majesty.” Lancer manages to speak those words without grimacing.

For a moment, the gold Servant looks Lancer over, checking for sincerity. Lancer’s prepared for another round of “better” groveling, and holds his tongue. Can’t afford to act stupid now, can I?

The gold Servant huffs in disinterest and waves a hand. “That was closer still to genuine gratitude…but not enough. Instead, I shall ask a physical favor of you.”

Shirou’s shoulders bunch, and he rasps “We won’t do anything intimate.”

He may as well have puked down the gold Servant’s throat. “Of that, you can be certain. As if you mongrels are worthy of such pleasure! Ugh, how repulsive…”

Lancer isn’t sure whether to be offended or relieved. Actually, no, I know exactly how I feel about that.

There’s a pause, as the gold Servant ponders his options like a buyer at market. Then his gaze falls to the floor and trails to the fireplace.

“Oh, what a shame. You two have dirtied the floor.” He points to the dirt and bits of grass they tracked in from the mountain, looking genuinely filled with distaste. “Clean it up.”

“Hmm,” Lancer says, rising to his feet with ease, “most of that’s my doing. So I’ll handle it.” He makes a point to remove his shoes and dumps them at the doormat. “I’ll get a mop or—”

“—A cloth will do,” the gold Servant interrupts smoothly.

Lancer expects the washcloth and buckets that ooze from the portals. He wets the cloth carefully, wrings it out and drops to all fours. He ignores Shirou’s gasp of horror. The floor is warm and hard under his palms and knees; his injured wrist burns. He pushes the pain aside as best he can.

“Lancer, wait!” Shirou scrambles to join him. “With your wrist, there’s no way you can do something like that! And—doesn’t it hurt your pride?”

Lancer gives Shirou his best smile. “‘Better my pride gets hurt than you. Or letting my family get drained by Caster.’ That’s what you’d say, right?”

Shirou grits his teeth, but he doesn’t object. “…Don't overwork yourself.”

The gold Servant’s laughter is loud and annoying. “Yes, this will be adequate entertainment! Go on, then, mongrel.”

I hope you choke on your fancy tea. Lancer closes his eyes, braces himself, and begins to scrub.

This isn’t the first time he’s had cleaning duty. He still remembers every corner of Scathach’s training halls. Yet somehow, running the white cloth over the floor, feeling the wet grit under his hands, it’s much more boring. It doesn’t help that his wrist wants to lock into place, throbbing ceaselessly.

He rubs the cloth back and forth, back and forth.

The gold Servant’s amused stare burns like a brand on his skin: there’s no desire there, no respect. Lancer is in the dirt where he belongs.

“Be seated, Lancer’s Master,” the gold Servant says up above him. “Now, you have truly earned an audience with me.”

Shirou’s urge to kill the bastard rolls off his stiff body like miasma.

Lancer tries to tell Shirou with his eyes that it isn’t worth the effort…and it seems to work. Shirou sits back down, his shoulders trembling.

“How do you plan to get past that Bounded Field?” he asks, his voice carefully neutral.

“Oh, that is quite simple. I can send my weapons through, and they’ll pass with ease. The mongrels—innocents—will never suspect a thing.”

Lancer pauses for a moment then quickly resumes his mind-numbing chore. He has more than one weapon? …Well, it’s possible, I guess. But still, that makes this a lucky break. If he can get to Caster, then we won’t have to worry about the whole town turning on us.

But if the gold Servant has weapons that can pass through a Bounded Field that strong, there’s nothing stopping him from skewering Shirou at close range. And he gets bored easily. With Lancer’s wrist and little mana, he may as well be a thousand miles away. Out of reach.

He rubs the cloth back and forth, back and forth.

Shirou sounds surprised too. “…So you have more than one Noble Phantasm, huh. Is it like Projection?”

A disdainful sniff. “As if I’d require a charlatan’s tricks!”

“…Sorry.” Shirou sounds genuine this time. But there’s an undercurrent of annoyance.

Wet grass and dirt threaten to seep through the washcloth and cling between Lancer’s fingers. He grimaces and dunks the washcloth in the dirty bucket. And I’m just getting started…

There’s the clink of a fork against porcelain. “So, after you kill Caster, you’ll call off this truce?”

“Indeed. Perhaps I will find you two intriguing enough to toy with—assuming all goes well against Assassin, of course.”

Lancer’s wrist creaks, threatens to give out. He ignores it.

The conversation turns to less interesting things, leaving Lancer alone with his task. He finishes the first patch of dirt and moves on to the next.

He rubs the cloth back and forth, back and forth.

He can’t afford to let his mind wander, so he’s stuck watching dirt turn the washcloth a sickly grey. Time trickles by, going too slow for Lancer’s comfort. His knees are beginning to ache.

“…Maybe Lancer should get up, soon. I don’t think his wrist can take any more of this.”

“Oh? What a surprise.”

Lancer presses his injured wrist to his chest. He can’t look Shirou in the eye, not like this. He takes a short break and looks over his progress. Second patch is clean—there’s one more left.

Maybe after that’s done, they can leave.

He flexes his fingers, and pretends his wrist feels better. It’ll last a little while longer, at least. Okay—break’s over.

He rubs the cloth back and forth, back and forth.

“You’re strangely protective of your Servant, mongrel. Most Masters would find such care to be a chore.”

Lancer watches a tangle of dry grass cling to the washcloth, turning it a sickly green. There’s no dirt in this patch. It’s variety, at least.

“Really? That’s…not right. Does your Master treat you like that?”

The gold Servant laughs patronizingly. “If they did, they would live to regret it.”

Lancer rubs the cloth back and forth, back and forth. He can feel Shirou’s gaze on him, and he instinctively looks up. “Something wrong?”

“Uh, no,” Shirou says, his ears reddening. “That is, you’re sure your wrist’s okay, Lancer?”

He wasn’t looking at Lancer’s wrist. If he had been, he wouldn’t be so flustered.

“…Well, it’s not healed yet.” Lancer’s rather pleased by Shirou’s concern for him.

The gold Servant cups his chin in his hand, watching them like a lordly scholar would two village idiots. “I could tell from the beginning that you were fond of your Servant. It’s…sweet, in a commonplace way.”

“Well—that’s not your business.” Shirou’s brows pinch. “Lancer, I think you cleaned the dirt off by now.” He speaks with the authority of a housework enthusiast.

The gold Servant doesn’t say anything, so Lancer gratefully gets to his feet, ignoring his wet, clammy hands.

Shirou goes to find something to dry them with, and comes back carrying two sheets of paper towels. They’re rough on Lancer’s skin—he’s particularly careful with his tender wrist—but they get the job done. Golden portals appear and engulf the used buckets and washcloth, returning them to who knows where.

There’s an awkward lull in the conversation; the gold Servant isn’t bothered though. His blood-red eyes rake over the floor, searching for anything Lancer missed. His eyelids lower in boredom, and Lancer feels a twinge of pride.

“Your work is acceptable, mongrel.” He cocks his head to one side and smiles slyly. “Be grateful you did not use your tongue.”

Lancer’s knees are sore, so he bows at the waist instead. “Your mercy never ends, your Majesty.”

“Hmm.” The gold Servant’s shoulders ripple in a shrug. “Consider this bargain struck. You may leave.”

Lancer wants to lash out at that casual order, but he can’t resist freedom. He and Shirou waste no time getting the hell out of there. If the gold Servant stares at their backs, Lancer doesn’t see.

---

They bike back to Shirou’s place. The moon overhead is almost blindingly bright, but Shirou is too focused on the road ahead to care. Lancer’s arms are wrapped carefully around Shirou’s middle, to keep from falling off like dead weight. Lancer’s wrist still throbs with pain, and he forces his mind to ignore it, for now.

Shirou’s back is warm.

Lancer can feel Shirou’s muscles bunch and flex as he pedals, can smell the sweat cooling on his skin in the night air. If Lancer wanted, he could rest his chin on Shirou’s shoulder, and get a glimpse of what Shirou sees as they travel. As Shirou’s lived in Fuyuki all his life, does he see the buildings’ windows illuminating the night? Does he notice the way civilians look at him fondly, a reassuring presence?

…Sheesh. I need Archer to come smack me upside the head. It’s a halfhearted joke at best.

By the time they reach Shirou’s house, Lancer’s lack of mana threatens to knock him out cold. Shirou has to help him inside, looping his arm around Lancer’s shoulders as best he can. Clouds are beginning to roll over the moon, obscuring its light from view. Maybe it’ll finally snow.

Shirou turns on the lights and turns up the heater, bustling about with nervous energy. This leaves Lancer with little to do but sit at the kitchen table, staring numbly at nothing in particular.

“…Okay, that’s everything,” Shirou murmurs. He still hasn’t taken off his coat.

“Now what?” Lancer asks, listening to the clock tick-tick-ticking away on the wall.

Shirou rubs the back of his neck nervously. “This might be selfish of me, but—before we do anything, I’d like to talk.”

Lancer manages to shrug one shoulder. “Fair enough. You want to go out on the porch?”

“Oh, no, here is fine.” Shirou slips his hands in his pockets. “Lancer—there’s a question I need to ask.”

That’s unexpected. “Sure, go ahead.”

Through the window, the first few snowflakes begin to fall. The golden overhead lights stretch Shirou’s shadow across the floor, taller even than Lancer.

“I made a promise, a long time ago,” Shirou says, his voice soft as a mourner’s. “I haven’t kept it very well.”

“Here, sit down.” Lancer pats an empty cushion beside him. “This’ll take some thinking, I can tell.”

Shirou turns around in surprise, and takes Lancer up on his offer. He folds his legs beneath him and frowns down at his lap.

“Kiritsugu—my father—he told me that he wanted to be a hero when he was younger. Making people happy meant everything to him. But he said that being a hero had an expiration date, and that he was too old for it now.”

Lancer guesses where this is going. “So you took him up on it, right? That’s where the whole ‘Hero of Justice’ thing came from, then.”

Shirou nods, and hunches further into his coat. “Yeah. But—what have I done to achieve that goal? I fix appliances, and cook…what kind of ‘hero’ would do that?”

“A small-scale one.” Lancer rests his chin in his hand, watching Shirou brood. “Y’know, I don’t think your family would mind if you kept at what you’ve been doing.”

Shirou smiles wryly. “Mm, Fuji-nee loves freeloading…”

“Pfft, that’s not what I mean and you know it.”

“You’re right. But…” He’s brooding again. “…A Hero of Justice saves people, like how you saved me, and everyone at school—”

“—Wrong. I wanted to save you and your family.”

Shirou stares at Lancer with wide, shocked eyes. “What?!”

Lancer shrugs. “It’s true. I don’t know those people, and I had no idea if they were alive or dead. So I focused on those I could and wanted to protect.” He chuckles self-deprecatingly. “I don’t have much room in my head for a whole school’s worth of people, sorry to say.”

Shirou bows his head. “Saving Sakura and Fuji-nee is fine, but…I don’t understand.”

Lancer guessed it was coming. Still, there’s a part of him that’s shocked at how dense his Master can be. Another part of him gets it.

The fire, Kiritsugu, the promise—all of it hollowed Shirou out, scraped out his desires and left him with only an ideal to fill it with. And while he is beginning to fill that hole with something more tangible, there’s no guarantee it’ll stay that way. It’s possible that, when Lancer inevitably fades away, that hollowness will swell back up like a canker. And like Lancer said, he won’t coddle Shirou until then.

“Hmm,” Shirou mutters, disrupting Lancer’s train of thought, “maybe that’s not right.”

Something in Shirou’s voice catches Lancer’s heart and pulls his gaze toward him.

Shirou’s sitting a little straighter, his body half-turned toward Lancer. His eyes glint gold in the artificial light, and they’re close enough that Lancer can see the autumn-red curve of Shirou’s eyelashes when he blinks.

“Lancer,” Shirou says, his head tilted to one side, “you wanted me to have fun yesterday.”

“That was the plan, yeah. You deserve happiness, Shirou.”

It’s the honest truth, spoken plainly and without reservation.

Outside, snowflakes drift down from the sky, slow and steady. The heater warms the room, making Lancer’s toes curl in his shoes. Shirou’s staring at Lancer, struck dumb by what he just said. His cheeks aren’t flushed.

“Too forward, huh.” Lancer’s prepared to laugh it off, but he doubts he’ll make it convincing, with the mood he’s in.

Shirou shakes his head slowly and removes his coat, walking to the mudroom to hang it up. When he returns, his face is still clouded in thought.

“If I deserve happiness, then you do too,” Shirou says, equally straightforward. He sits back on the cushion, his movements fidgety. “So…”

Lancer grins and gets himself comfortable, despite his injured wrist. “‘So’…?”

“…So don’t disappear,” Shirou murmurs, holding out his hand. “Take my mana. Please.

Lancer doesn’t need to be told twice, with an order that warm and firm. He takes Shirou’s wrist in a gentle hold and brings the slender fingers to his lips. The pulse in his Master’s hand is steady as a war drum.

“You won’t use my wrist?” Shirou asks, brows pinched. “That seems like it’d be easier.”

Lancer stops, Shirou’s fingers inches from his mouth. “Hmm…good point, but there’s a lot that could go wrong with that artery. Can’t have you bleeding out.” Lancer’s voice drops an octave. “And I’m…pretty desperate, right now.”

“O-Oh. Got it.” Shirou’s doing remarkably well, for someone who feels Lancer’s every breath against his sensitive skin.

“You sure you’re okay with this, Shirou?”

Shirou nods without hesitation.

Shirou’s fingers are at Lancer’s lips now.

Lancer smiles against the pad of Shirou’s index finger, and watches a shiver tickle up his arm. Truly, Lancer’s been lucky with this Master.

“Do it, Lancer.”

Lancer hums in agreement and nips Shirou’s fingertip.

A hot trickle of blood passes his lips; copper and mana burst on his tongue. If Archer’s blood tasted good, Shirou’s is delicious. He purses his lips over Shirou’s finger and begins to suckle. His skin is salty, and smooth on Lancer’s tongue.

“Ah…!”

Lancer looks at Shirou and delights in what he sees.

Unlike Archer, who refuses to show emotions lest they betray him, Shirou’s show plainly on his face. His eyes flutter shut, until he opens them again, looking determined to burn Lancer’s image in his mind. His breath is speeding up, and his free hand clutches the table with whitening knuckles.

Lancer takes the opportunity to make his suckling sounds louder, wetter. He doesn’t need to, really—Shirou’s finger has disappeared down to the knuckle, and Lancer’s cheeks are hollowed against it on all sides. The point is to make Shirou’s lips part, his ears flush, and his breath to flow out in short pants, tickling Lancer’s hair.

He gets exactly that, plus something extra.

Shirou’s hand reaches out to cup Lancer’s head and makes a gentle pushing motion. “Hey…Lancer, let go for a second.”

Lancer pulls back, casting an admiring glance at the wet, sticky sheen coating Shirou’s bloodstained finger. Then he focuses back on Shirou.

“Something wrong?”

Shirou licks his lips in a nervous gesture. “Just my finger won’t do. And if you don’t want to use my wrist, then…” He holds Lancer’s gaze and tugs at his shirt collar, revealing the tan slope of his neck. “…Here.”

The blood from Shirou’s finger soaks into the fabric, a stark contrast to his unblinking sunset eyes. His smile is genuine and inviting.

Lancer breathes Shirou’s name and Shirou pulls him closer, his hand resting in the space between his shoulders. They’re pressed chest to chest, now, and Shirou’s scent washes over Lancer, smelling of soap and salty sweat.

“Go on,” Shirou murmurs, his voice rumbling against Lancer’s chest, “but be gentle. Please.”

Lancer chuckles and buries his head in the crook of Shirou’s neck, loving the way Shirou’s fingers curl against his back. His teeth pierce the tender skin gently, as requested. His fingers slide up Shirou’s nape and bury themselves in his thick, downy hair.

Shirou inhales sharply, and it rolls through Lancer’s body like the first notes plucked from a harp. And that’s before he starts suckling again, drinking that electric-sweet mana down like he’s dying of thirst.

Lancer’s wrist slowly knits back together with each hot mouthful of blood. He tries to be quieter this time, so close to Shirou’s ear, but a moan of relief and pleasure passes his lips all the same. He hears and feels Shirou echo him. The sound spurs him on—he wants to hear more.

“Lan…cer.”

Shirou’s fingers splay out and slide down the muscular, curving slope of Lancer’s back, following the heat swirling down to Lancer’s belly. He doesn’t seem to have anything to say, which is a little disappointing.

It feels good. All of it, from Shirou’s panting breaths against Lancer’s shoulder, to the mana filling his belly, to Shirou’s body pressed against his—he couldn’t have asked for better. To think, he nearly killed himself against Assassin and missed out on this.

Lancer lifts his head briefly to get some air, and smiles as Shirou groans in disappointment. “Don’t worry, Master, I’ll keep going soon.”

Shirou points to the corner of his mouth, a dazed look on his face. “Lancer, your lips are smeared with blood…”

Lancer licks his lips, not wanting to waste a drop. Then something worrisome occurs to him. “Hey, you feel light-headed or anything?”

Shirou watches Lancer’s lips with half-lidded eyes. “Yeah,” he murmurs then shrugs. “But it’s not from blood loss.”

Lancer raises his eyebrows and smiles. “You sure? Again, I don’t want you bleeding out.”

Shirou grumbles under his breath and none-too-subtly pushes Lancer’s back forward. “I’ll tell you if something’s wrong.”

“Heh, fine by me,” Lancer says, and bends his head down again.

The room is pleasantly warm, and so is Shirou’s body. Beneath his clothes, Lancer can feel Shirou’s heart beating, faster and faster. His wrist is just sprained now. Hopefully by morning it’ll be totally healed.

“—Lancer, s-stop. For a second.”

Lancer does, and sits back on his heels.

Shirou’s leaning so far back he’s almost lying down, and a trickle of sweat flows across his cheek. For the first time, Lancer can see the broad chest beneath his shirt, and the way it rises and falls.

“So,” Lancer says, peering at Shirou’s clouded eyes and parted lips. “Want me to do something else?”

Shirou blinks at him, trying to gather his thoughts. His hand is still on Lancer’s back, every pad of his fingers clearly felt through the fabric of Lancer’s shirt.

“I’ll stop whenever you need me to,” Lancer assures him, his voice a gentle rumble from the depths of his chest.

Shirou licks his lips and nods. “Okay. Kiss me.”

“…Even if my lips taste like blood?”

“It’s my blood, right? Just—hurry, please…!”

Lancer doesn’t need further instruction. He cups Shirou’s cheek with a hand, pulls back to get some air, and presses his lips to Shirou’s with as much gentleness as someone like him can muster.

Shirou’s body startles beneath him, and Shirou’s grunt of surprise vibrates sweetly against his lips. Looks like he didn’t expect delicate treatment. But he clearly appreciates it; he leans forward and deepens the kiss, his hands burying themselves in Lancer’s hair.

Well, what do you know. He’s been holding this in!

Shirou’s a clumsy kisser. His breath rasps against Lancer’s cheek when he comes up for air, his kisses somewhere between chaste and hungry. The good news is he doesn’t try to shove his tongue down Lancer’s throat, the way one idiot did back at Ulster.

(Said idiot was Lancer, toward his first lover. When Fergus heard about it, he loved to tell that story at full volume to anyone who would listen.)

Lancer doesn’t have an opinion on kissing in general; it’s a case-by-case thing. In this case? Having Shirou practically melt against him, his lips warm and a little chapped from the cold, his gentle moans rumbling against Lancer’s lips, his arms draped around Lancer’s neck in a casual embrace—it’s really good. It’s almost good enough to get turned on.

When Lancer tries to go for an open-mouthed kiss, Shirou pulls away.

“That’s too much, Lancer,” he says, wiping the back of his mouth with his sleeve. “Fuji-nee said ‘Kissing always leads to something else’. But I don’t want that tonight.”

“Oh.” Lancer can’t hide the disappointment from his voice. But he shrugs and lets it be. “I think I have enough mana to last me awhile. Not enough for a fight, though…but that’s fine.”

Shirou sighs in relief and tentatively touches his neck, where Lancer drank. He frowns. “…I’ll need a bandage for this, and my finger,” he says, and stands.

His body’s purposefully turned away from Lancer when he walks to the bathroom, and his movements are awkward and stiff. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why.

Lancer makes a point of politely ignoring him.

A few minutes later, Shirou comes back, looking a little more at ease.

“I don’t know about you,” Lancer says, stretching his arms behind his head, “but I’m pretty beat.”

“Yeah.” Shirou finishes putting a bandage on his neck. “Tomorrow, I’m going to see Illyasviel again. Want to come?”

Lancer has half a mind to say no, but then it’s been so long since he’s seen the Einzbern Master it’s a tempting offer. “…Sure. What’ll you do then?”

“Eat lunch and talk, probably.” Shirou smiles fondly. “That’s what we usually do.”

“I wonder if she’s still sore that she lost against me,” Lancer wonders, the need for sleep sinking into his bones. “That could make things awkward.”

Shirou scratches his head. “Maybe? It didn’t come up much—she stays away from Grail War topics.”

Lancer raises an eyebrow. “Well, that might be the answer.”

Shirou’s nods and does a sleepy stretch. “I can ask her tomorrow. Come on, let’s get some sleep now, or else we never will.”

Lancer tries to hide his pride at Shirou learning his limits. It probably shows on his face, because Shirou shuffles off to bed bashfully, his body drooping with exhaustion.

It’s been a long day. Lancer rests a hand on his belly, content at the feeling of fresh, pulsing mana nestling there. Tomorrow will have it’s own problems—he’s still not sure about Assassin’s powers, and where his limits lie—but he’s in no mood to puzzle over them now. He got to drink from Shirou’s blood, and Shirou kissed him full on the mouth with nothing but enthusiasm.

“If I deserve happiness, then you do too.” That’s what Shirou said, with enough sincerity to make someone like Archer pause. He didn’t even fumble over the fact that they’re both guys, like he did this morning.

Lancer smiles and strolls to the kitchen door, flicking off the light switch. It’s an improvement, that’s for sure.

Chapter Text

“Are you sure your wrist feels okay, Lancer?” Shirou asks for the thousandth time after breakfast.

Yes,” Lancer replies, trying his best not to keep his temper this early in the morning. “It’s not broken anymore, just a little sprained. I should be fine in a while.”

Shirou doesn’t look convinced. He sighs and turns back to the dishes, which he’s washing extra thoroughly today. Soapsuds tumble over his hands, turning his skin flushed.

He hasn’t said anything about the mana transfer last night, but that’s to be expected from a guy like Shirou. All Lancer cares about is whether or not Shirou enjoyed it. Not that I’ll get an answer to that any time soon. Heh, but his face showed the truth well enough…

Lancer continues wiping off the clean plates on the counter, putting them back in the cupboards when he’s done. The snow is still on the ground from last night, and it might flurry again today. He’ll have a hand-made ice pack if his wrist acts up, at least.

If he stands on tiptoe and turns his head to the left, he can see the footprints Shirou left when he trekked to his shed for Magecraft training early this morning. Too early. But then Lancer knows by now that Shirou’s training can and will pay off, so he shouldn’t lecture him.

“Hey, Lancer.” Shirou slides another wet plate atop the stack. “Do you think making a trade-off with that gold Servant was a good idea?”

Lancer picks up the plate and starts wiping it, careful not to let it slip from his hands. “No idea. I figured he was going to kill Caster anyway—he doesn’t sound fond of them—so at least we get something out of it.”

Shirou chuckles and gives him an exasperated but understanding look. “You just want a strong opponent, that’s all.”

Lancer puffs up with pride. “You better believe it!”

The conversation trails off as they get back to their chores.

The clock’s relentless ticking is annoying. The hours in the day are trickling by. I know that, I don’t need to hear it too! Ugh…

“We’re heading out soon,” Shirou says, noticing Lancer’s restlessness. “Illyasviel should be at the park again.”

That puts Lancer’s mind at ease—for now.

When they leave the house (walking, this time), Lancer senses Archer’s presence marching alongside them. He gives Archer a subtle nod of acknowledgement instead of saying hello. The harried father trundling by with a baby carriage might get suspicious otherwise.

Archer nods back, with a look on his blurry face that suggests Lancer’s in for a lecture. Well, I guess I deserve it.

The air is chilly and crisp, and today even Lancer’s wearing a puffy blue coat for the winter. This morning, he went shopping while Shirou trained. The coat's hood is furred, and he gets a kick out of zipping it up past his chin and letting it frame his head like a lion’s mane. It’s warm, too, which is a plus. Shirou found him some gloves in the shed, but he figures the cold air will help his wrist, so he keeps them in a pocket.

Shirou looks at Lancer curiously. “Is Archer with us?” he whispers.

“Yeah. He’s got a bone to pick with me.”

“…Oh. Good luck, then.” The carefree smile clashes with Shirou’s solemn words.

“Y’know, you’re more like the young lady than you think, sometimes.” Lancer doesn’t mean it negatively.

Shirou hunches over and stuffs his hands in his pockets. His black coat and plaid scarf rustle with his movements. “I’m not that heartless,” he grumbles.

Archer shrugs one shoulder, looking dryly amused at the whole thing. If he knows where they’re headed, he doesn’t say.

Probably just waiting for an opening to strike with his “I told you so”…

---

The girl is waiting for them at the park, like Shirou said. She’s nowhere to be seen, but Lancer can sense her presence.

He immediately gets on the defensive, not knowing what’s to come. It could be a trap. That girl seems the type to lie in wait for ages, just for the right chance.

“Illya,” Shirou calls, obliviously playful, “I know you’re here!”

Silence.

“Shirou, get behind me.”

“Huh? It’s still morning. Illya won't—”

—Something hurls through the air.

Lancer’s hand snaps up and catches it in a blur of motion. Ow, cold! Whatever it is, it’s hard and freezing to the touch. And wet, sticky…

…Wait a sec.

Lancer brings his hand down in front of his eyes, staring blankly at a melting snowball.

“Yay, Shirou caught it!” the girl sings out, popping up from behind a slide with two more snowballs in her hand. Her smile falters when she sees Lancer. “…Oh.”

She takes care to put the snowballs on the ground beside her, in easy reach. But she glares at Lancer like he killed her friend. Oh, right. I did, didn’t I? Oops.

“Illya, this is Lancer.” Shirou gestures to Lancer, as if they haven’t met before. “Lancer, this is—”

“—I know.” The girl’s voice is serene and sweet, but there’s no warmth in those red eyes. “He killed Berserker.”

Lancer lets the snowball drop to the snowy ground, kicking up ice where it falls. “I know ‘sorry’ won’t cut it, but I don’t know what else you want from me.”

She folds her arms behind her back and smiles. “You almost died yesterday, right? Tell me, did it hurt?”

“Yeah, that’s kinda to be expected. I’m healing fast, though!”

“Were you worried?”

“No.” This girl's making it difficult to view her as a friend.

Those huge red eyes blink slowly, as if trying to savor his expression. “That’s a lie—but I’ll allow it for today. You’re a grownup, after all.” She giggles, a delicate, cold sound that makes Lancer’s skin crawl. “I guess that’ll have to do!”

“Oh, that’s right,” Shirou says, remembering something. He bows politely to the girl. “Your training helped me out a few days ago, Illya—thanks!”

Her expression changes from coldly calculating to childlike enthusiasm in an instant. “Strengthening your clothes worked?”

“Yeah. I had to fight with something else, but at least I can protect myself a little better now.”

The girl bounces excitedly, sending up a shower of powdery snow. “Good job, Shirou!”

This is news to Lancer. “Wait, training? I thought you were just talking.”

Another icy-sweet giggle. “Oh, we do! But when we first met here I taught him how to Strengthen fabric.” She squints at Shirou’s chest. “…Your side is healed up, right?”

Shirou nods proudly. “It only took an hour or two.”

Lancer glowers at the girl. “When was this?”

“Oh, the day after you killed Berserker. I was mad.”

Shirou winces, recalling that day. “Your Magecraft’s something else. You set up a Bounded Field here and everything, even though nobody visits this place anyway.”

By this point, Lancer decides Shirou’s learned his lesson and doesn’t need a lecture. Sure, he could smack him upside the head, but what good would that do?

But the girl…there’s something he needs to ask her.

Lancer crosses his arms over his chest. “Hey, Einzbern. Didn’t I tell you to go to the Church?”

The girl mimics his pose and pouts. “Yeah, but I got shooed away—so you’re a chronic liar!”

The hell is this? “Hey, now. How can I lie if I didn’t know that would happen?”

“’Cause like I said, you’re a grown-up! They’re either boring, or liars.”

“…I’m a Servant, though. We can’t lie.”

“Hmph, that doesn’t matter. I still hate you, Lancer.”

He can’t help but laugh bitterly at that. “Oh, don’t worry, it’s your right to hate my guts.”

Shirou blinks. “Illya, you didn’t tell me you were turned away.” He looks ready to march over to the Church himself and give the entire congregation a piece of his mind.

The girl’s posture softens slightly. “That’s because you would’ve brought me back there, and the same thing would’ve happened. Liz and Sella tried that already, but…”

“…Do you know who it was who keeps doing this?”

It’s as if her bad mood melted like snow. “Oh yeah, it was Saber.”

Archer finally materializes, looking shocked. “Saber?” He stops and holds up his hands in a placating gesture. “I’m not here to harm you, I just have business with Lancer. But this news is…unexpected.”

It takes a moment for the girl to relax. She must sense something in him, because she nods in approval and drops her fighting stance.

“So,” Shirou says, rocking from foot to foot, “Saber.”

The girl bends down and carefully places one snowball atop the other. “Saber showed up halfway to the Church, on that hill where we fought before. She told Liz and Sella that we’d be in danger if we went any further.” The top ball rolls off, and she sulkily grinds it down onto its perch.

“And you tried again later, I take it,” Archer says, staying very still.

She sticks tiny branches on the sides of the bottom ball, like little arms. “Yeah, but she caught us again, even further away from the Church. She must live nearby, or something.”

“Saber has been patrolling the city all this time, as it happens. Perhaps she wished you to follow her.” Archer’s looking at somewhere far away; his words are idle yet controlled. “And yet, it could have been a trap.”

The girl nods, looking at Archer curiously. “You’re very nice, Archer. Why?”

“I have no reason not to be.”

“Illya,” Shirou interjects, looking at her with worry plain on his face, “where’ve you been staying all this time?”

“With Liz and Sella,” the girl replies, putting the finishing touches on her tiny snowman. “Shirou, make a snow city with me, please!”

“Sure. Thanks for asking politely.”

While Shirou and the girl play around, Archer takes Lancer aside, by the swing set. The black rubber seats are soaked with snow, and the chains swing forlornly back and forth in the wind.

“So, first things first.” Archer scowls down at Lancer. “Last night, you faced another Servant without backup, and nearly died.”

Lancer whistles. “You make it sound pretty cool, actually!” He sobers up once he sees the look Archer’s eyes. “…You were really worried, huh? I’m sorry.”

Archer didn’t expect that response; he’s silent for a minute, thinking it over. Then he sighs, from deep in his chest, and looks at Lancer with a bittersweet grin. “I suppose I should’ve expected that. It’s a miracle you lounged about for as long as you did.”

“Well, y’know. I needed a break.” Lancer walks in place, to keep his blood circulation going. “So anyway, about Saber.”

“Hmm,” Archer says, instead of saying what’s on his mind. “She knows something we don’t. Perhaps patrolling has its benefits.”

It’s phenomenal, how good Archer is at dawdling. “That’s a fat load of nothing, and you know it. Don’t hold back.”

Archer’s shoulders hunch as he folds his arms across his chest, blocking out both the cold and Lancer. “It’s obvious that the Church isn’t safe for Illyasviel—but why? That requires investigation, which requires running into Saber.”

“Which you don’t want to do. Why? She your lost love?”

For a moment, Lancer stares into Archer’s placid gaze and wonders if he went too far.

“…Close enough,” Archer mutters. “All I can say for sure is: Saber saved my life, back when I had no luck and no power. If there is a way I can repay that debt, I will.”

Lancer grins, watching how the shuttered look in Archer’s eyes is replaced with the quiet determination he’s come to hope for. “Which you’ll handle on your own.”

“Of course. Hmm?”

Archer turns his head in surprise as the girl comes tromping toward them. She’s on a mission.

“Come here, Archer, look at our city!” She eyes Lancer warily. “Lancer can come too, I guess.”

Archer bows at the waist and smiles. “I accept your invitation, my lady.”

Lancer bites his cheek to keep from laughing as the girl nods in ladylike approval.

The snow-city’s walls and citizens might be a little lopsided and lumpy, but they make up for their flaws with sheer numbers. By the time the sun rises high into the sky, the playground’s overwhelmed by a small army of snowmen. Lancer’s hands are chilled and clammy, and his throat is raw from the icy air, but he can look in satisfaction at a job well done. Weirdly, Archer doesn’t look as pleased. This despite half the snowmen here are his doing.

The girl wraps her arms around Archer’s middle, having apparently forgotten he’s her enemy. “They look great, Archer! Thank you!”

“I’m glad you approve,” Archer says, before carefully detangling from her grip. “Now, I must be off. My Master is expecting me, and your news about Saber is something she’d like to learn as well.”

“Oh.” The girl doesn’t hide her disappointment. Then she smiles and waves goodbye, like nothing’s wrong. “Tell Rin I said hello, okay?”

Archer sighs and nods in agreement. “Very well. Lancer. Illyasviel.”

With that curt farewell, he turns back to spirit form and heads off.

Lancer and the girl watch him go silently. Puffy clouds float across the blue sky like ships at sea, showing no sign of snow.

“I’m glad my cheats are paying off,” the girl says.

He looks back down, into her deep red eyes. “Your what now?”

You know. I’m sneaking out to play, instead of staying with Liz and Sella like the Einzbern Master should.” Her expression is one of serene acceptance, like an old woman waiting for sickness to snuff out her life.

Don’t look like that. But that’s not what needs to be said.

“…Huh. So you’ve been wandering around looking for things to do, is that it?”

“That’s right!” The girl smiles and folds her arms behind her back, watching her white skirt float back and forth as she moves. “I thought Shirou was at Rin’s house, but he wasn’t, so I just waited for him to come here like always.”

Lancer turns his gaze to Shirou, who’s busy building sturdy walls for the snow city. He seems to be enjoying himself, in a quiet sort of way.

“He’s smiling, look,” the girl whispers in delight.

“I see it,” Lancer assures her, warmth blooming in his chest. Maybe this girl isn’t as manipulative as I thought…

He has an idea, something dumb and fun for days like these. “Hey, Einzbern, ever had a snowball fight?”

She’s already scooping up snow, an eager grin on her face. “I won’t lose!”

Lancer laughs at their shared priorities and quickly makes his own snowballs. “How’s this: the first person who gives up loses.”

“Okay!”

The cold, wet snow stings his palms and numbs his fingers, but it’s not unpleasant. The swing set won’t make for good cover, so he’ll just have to launch a volley of snowballs and run somewhere better. He’s always had a knack for working fast: in a matter of seconds he has a knee-height pyramid of snowballs, ready to be thrown. She’s no slouch, either—

“Take this!” the girl yells, angling her arm back and throwing the first snowball like a javelin.

Lancer ducks; it just misses his ear. “Nice try, kid!” His just-finished snowball sails through the air, deliberately missing by inches. “…Well, now we’re even.”

She pouts and snatches up more ammo, two in each hand this time. “Don’t go easy on me, Lancer!”

Her throws are curved, this time, and the snowballs smack Lancer’s coat. Wet coldness seeps through the downy insides, and he instinctively flinches.

“If you say so, Einzbern—!”

Snowballs fly through the air, thick and furious. Lancer’s hands are getting numb. He rubs them together when he gets a spare moment, dancing out of the girl’s reach.

He wants to make this a challenge, but not unwinnable. So he lets her almost hit him, almost gets within striking distance. It works. She tracks him relentlessly, even if her body’s tripped up by unexpected dips in ground level. When she falls, he stops and waits for her to lurch back up.

“Stand still, dummy!” The girl stumbles after him, her arms loaded with snowballs.

“If you put some of those down, it’d be eas—guh!”

Watery, melting snow splats against his cheek. She’s stronger than she looks: Shirou would’ve been bruised. Hell, I’m probably bruised. He places a hand to his forehead, makes a dramatic groan and falls backward onto the packed snow.

“Oh, no, I’ve been defeated! Take the cow, it’s yours…”

“What cow?” The girl muffles her laughter behind her mittens. “You’re so strange, Lancer!”

Shirou shuffles over, his back hunched as a strong wind barrels through the park. “Um, what’s going on?”

“A new challenger appears,” the girl cries out, and chucks a fresh snowball at Shirou’s face without hesitation.

Shirou stumbles back, regains his footing. Lancer can’t see his expression, as the snow melts on his nose and trickles down his chin. For a second, Lancer wonders if Shirou’s nose is broken.

Then Shirou sighs, wipes his face with his sleeve and glowers at the girl. “Illya…!”

The girl steps back, her eyes like a cornered rabbit’s. “Um, Shirou…? D-Did I hurt you, I’m sorry—”

“—Nah, he’s fine,” Lancer reassures her on instinct. He points to Shirou’s coat. “See? No blood. I don’t know what he’s thinking, though…”

Shirou bends down and scoops up snow. His fingers never tremble with cold. He looks up at the girl with a smile that’s almost playful, and it stops Lancer in his tracks. It’s like looking at a sunlit river for too long.

“Here comes Emiya Shirou’s counter attack—!”

Shirou’s aim is nothing to sneeze at. After a series of barrages and near-defeats the girl and Lancer wind up backed up against the slide, with Shirou proudly using the walls of the snow city as a barricade. Things are looking grim. The girl’s huddled beneath the slide’s platform, hastily making snowballs. Lancer only has one left.

There’s just one path to victory, and its one Lancer intends to take. It’s more fun that way.

“Yo, Einzbern, you want to join forces?”

“Eh?!” She looks flabbergasted at the idea. “But aren’t we enemies?”

“We were, sure. But now we got ourselves a common foe.” Lancer gestures to Shirou’s fortress, and to Shirou’s tufts of red hair peeking out from behind it. “We can’t beat him alone, right?”

The girl stares up at Lancer with wide eyes, the stiffness in her posture suggesting she’s awaiting a trap. Then she nods and sticks out her hand with a determined smile.

“…You’re right, Lancer. Then call me ‘Illya’. I’ll let you, since you’ve paid for your crimes.”

Lancer’s taken aback by the honesty in her voice. She’s acting her age, again. It’s a strange thing, making friends instead of enemies. Since Shirou’s welcomed the girl into his heart, Lancer might as well.

He shakes the girl—Illya’s—hand. The mitten is wool, warm. Her hand fits in his palm. “Sure. Illya it is.”

Illya beams and lets go of his hand, turning her attention to Shirou. “Alright, let’s start our counterattack!”

There’s no clear winner in this fight, but everyone had a fun time in the end. (That said, getting Illya to stop clinging to Shirou and knocking him off balance will take some doing.) If Lancer looks closely at Shirou, he can see his Master is very pleased with himself. Almost like he was hoping this would happen. As schemes go, it’s refreshingly good-natured, so Lancer lets it slide.

The sun is high in the sky; it’s past noon, and Illya can’t stay out here forever.

“We’ll talk tomorrow, right Shirou?” Illya’s eyes are full of hope, and a hint of worry.

“Of course,” Shirou says, his smile bright and reassuring.

Illya jabs her mitten at Lancer. “Take care of Shirou, no matter what!”

Lancer grins. “That’s the plan.”

It’s safe to say that Illya’s part of Shirou’s family now, even if she has her own home to get to. Lancer watches Illya leave for her castle, the wind ruffling her dress and furred cap.

---

Lancer doesn’t bother trying to sneak out tonight; it wouldn’t be fair to Shirou. He strolls over to the shed, snow crunching beneath his feet and soaking his boots. The sky is starlit and clear.

Shirou’s getting good at recognizing Lancer’s presence—he opens the door before Lancer gets a chance to knock. He doesn’t look annoyed or tired, which is a pleasant surprise. Huh. He’s filling out a little, losing some baby fat too.

“You’re going to fight Assassin, huh.”

Lancer stretches his arms behind his head lazily. “Yeah. Want to come?”

It takes Shirou a moment to think it over—understandable, considering how last night went. “Do you need more mana?”

Now it’s Lancer’s turn to think it over. “Well, I ate and slept all day, after we visited Einzbern, so I’m feeling good!”

Shirou smiles in relief. “Then I’ll stop acting like a mother hen.” He rolls one shoulder confidently. “I think my Magic Circuits are in good shape, too, so I’m ready when you are.”

With the night air settling like a cold blanket on their skin, they set out by bike. Shirou is using his favorite bike, while Lancer takes one of the “spares” (which is just as good). The pedals churn under Lancer’s feet, and the soft whirring and squeaking of the wheels are the only sounds in the stillness. Once again, Fuyuki is as silent as a ghost town. It’s lying in wait for the next phase of the Grail War.

Lancer still isn’t used to it, this dead emptiness here that only comes out at night. While Ulster was smaller than Fuyuki, there was always something happening, day or night. It’s like the life is being drained from this place—because it is.

When they reach the foot of the hill leading to Ryuudou Temple, Shirou hits the brakes in front of Lancer. It’s easy to see why—the young lady’s standing at the steps, with Archer at her side.

“You’re going to fight tonight, huh?” The young lady doesn’t waste any time.

Shirou nods and doesn’t say anything.

“Good,” she says, a confident smile on her face. “Then we’ll take care of Assassin’s Master, right Archer?”

“Naturally,” Archer replies, already looking toward the mountaintop. “If you two provide a distraction, we should be able to slip through without a problem.”

“Hey, wait,” Lancer says, stepping forward and holding out a hand. “That gold Servant’s going to attack Caster, don’t get caught in the line of fire!”

“Oh?” Archer raises a skeptical eyebrow. “And how do you know that?”

“We talked to him last night,” Shirou says, his posture tense. “I know you won’t believe us, Archer, but can you at least sense if Assassin’s Master is there before going in?”

Archer scowls and looks back to Fuyuki. After an agonizing pause he says “It appears Assassin’s Master has been wiped from the board as well, just like Caster’s.”

Shirou tenses. “What…?”

Archer waves a hand toward the bridge—his arm’s shadow falls across the steps. “A moment ago, we found a corpse riddled with stab wounds, carrying an empty bag from the local jewelers. I can’t sense Caster, either.” He nods in approval. “Well, that’s one less issue to deal with.”

Lancer’s body grows cold. If that’s the case then—when was Caster killed? Did the gold Servant kill them just now, or last night? And how come I didn’t even sense it?

“Good,” the young lady says, turning on her heel. “We’ll let you two handle Assassin. Come on, Archer, let’s go to the Church. I need to ask Kirei something.”

“Very well.” Archer goes to Rin, scoops her into his arms like a princess, and rushes off. The young lady’s complaints fade away into the night.

“Let’s go,” Shirou says, locking his bike and beginning to climb the steps.

The Bounded Field parts for him like a ripple in placid water.

Lancer locks his bike too and follows after Shirou, leaping over the Bounded Field once again. Once he’s through, he takes Shirou by the hand and breaks into a run.

They can’t afford to waste any time. The gold Servant might get antsy and kill Assassin too. Murky trees and silvery stone rush past Lancer, and to Shirou they must be little more than blurs. Snow is still on the ground, thick and glistening in the stars light above, but the steps are clean as ever.

When Lancer reaches the temple gate, he finds Assassin waiting for him, gliding to his feet. His long purple hair tangles in the wind, and he bows politely.

“Welcome back,” Assassin says, a hint of menace in his voice. “I see you have recovered your strength—good.”

Lancer wants to ask if Assassin knows about Caster’s death, but Assassin is already unsheathing his sword. He’s been eager for a rematch, and doesn’t want to waste a second with idle talk.

Lancer lets go of Shirou’s hand and summons Gae Bolg, spinning it lazily before getting into a striking position. His heart’s racing. He chuckles under his breath at the good fight waiting for him.

Lancer hears Shirou slip into the trees on the side. He’s searching for something to Strengthen no doubt.

“Shall we begin, Lancer?”

Assassin doesn’t wait for an answer. He rushes forward, his sword arm tucked back and his blade poised to strike.

Lancer meets him, blow for blow.

Spear and sword whirl and clash. Every move creates a gust, which becomes a gale. Lancer hears Shirou get knocked back, but there’s no time to check on him. Assassin’s still too fast. Even a blink could prove fatal.

I have to break away from him. At this rate—!

But there’s no opening to retreat. Every time Lancer tries to jump back, Assassin’s one step ahead of him, blocking his path. All Lancer can do is block Assassin’s flurry of blows with Gae Bolg.

Clouds pass over the moon.

A sliver of darkness slashes past Lancer’s head, shaving off strands of hair. He steps back, nearly stumbles—

—And from behind him, something long and pointed whizzes past his head. An arrow. But who loosed it?

Assassin steps back in surprise. It gives Lancer the opportunity to get out of his range. He goes back to Shirou’s side, giving up equal ground.

“Hmm,” Assassin says, gesturing lazily toward Shirou. “An interesting technique, Lancer’s Master.”

Now Lancer can see Shirou was the one who shot the arrow, with a makeshift bow thanks to his Strengthening.

“Nice shot,” Lancer says, his breath turning to fine mist in the cold air.

“But I missed.” Shirou scowls down at his bow. “And the bow’s lopsided, see?”

“I’ll look later!” Lancer steps forward again, heedless of Shirou’s reply.

He’s not going to go in for a direct, close range attack this time. Assassin will gut him instantly. So he has to be either sneaky, or straight-up reckless. Which would sound better in a song? That’s the real question, here.

Lancer crouches down. Before him, Assassin stands like a shard of moonlit glass, his blade pointed toward him. When Assassin gradually turns to his side and swings his arms back, Lancer knows what technique he’s going to use.

A Noble Phantasm that doesn’t act like it should. A charlatan’s trick, that which distorts the world to make a new reality. “A badass super-move”, as a modern man could put it.

It’s something Lancer still has no idea what to do with.

So he decides to stay as far away as he possibly can. There’s nothing else he can do, anyway.

Assassin squints at him, rightfully suspicious. “…What are you doing, Lancer?”

“Watching you.” Lancer shrugs. “So what’re you up to? That sword can’t behead me by itself.”

“Hmph. Indeed.” Assassin chuckles and takes a seat. His hunched shadow spills over the steps like ink, staining the white stone. “I shall join you.”

And that’s what they do: stare each other down. As clouds pass overhead, obscuring the moon, they size each other up in silence. Neither moves. Not as the moon gradually begins to sink, not as birds hesitantly begin their songs, not as Shirou sets about fixing his bow.

“If you guys are going to waste time,” Shirou grumbles, trudging off into the surrounding forest, “I might as well work on this!”

“Okay, have fun,” Lancer calls, listening to Shirou rustling the nearby bushes.

“A determined young man, isn’t he.” Assassin rests his chin in his hand, a relaxed smile on his face. His whole posture is somewhere between relaxed and refined, fitting a guy like him perfectly.

Lancer checks Assassin’s stats one last time, and finds only trouble. Except—well, it’s as slim a chance as any, but there is something Lancer can try. Not yet. Soon.

“You’re a real piece of work, you know that?” Lancer mimics Assassin, resting his chin in his hand. “I can’t get close enough to hit you, and you can just hop on down whenever and take me out. And I don’t want to finish you off so soon, either.”

“Ah,” Assassin says, a sly, catlike smile on his face. “So you’re merely stalling, is that it?”

Lancer grins.

“I see. How unexpected…but then, I feel the same way.”

“Glad to hear it.”

Lancer hears Shirou come back; he’s surprised Shirou didn’t try a backhanded strike. Something sweet occurs to him—Shirou’s beginning to understand what gives Lancer joy. Maybe he wants to let me have my fun, first.

Shirou strides up the steps, his footsteps making the stone vibrate slightly with each impact. Lancer watches Assassin’s eyes follow him, tracking his movements like an owl would a scurrying mouse.

“…Everything okay?” Shirou pipes up, stopping a step behind Lancer.

“Oh, yeah. Just shooting the breeze.”

“With…him?” Lancer hears Shirou chuckle and brush the back of his neck. “Oh, wait. Never mind.”

Assassin sighs; the wind toys with his hair. “On another occasion, perhaps we could share a drink and watch the moon together instead.” He looks and sounds genuinely disappointed. Then his expression hardens. “But this is not that sort of occasion.”

They stand at the same time: slowly, reluctantly, but with shared anticipation in their eyes. Both of them know the value of a worthy opponent, and Lancer won’t let that go to waste.

“Good luck,” Shirou whispers, a hint of frustration in his voice.

“It’s fine, Shirou. Just watch your Servant win.”

There’s an amused hum in response.

Lancer does a trick or two with Gae Bolg, his heart racing at how strong and alive his body feels. He lets Gae Bolg stop at his side. “Ready when you are, Assassin!”

“Very well.” Assassin holds out his sword arm to his side, letting the leaves flickering shadows catch the blade.

Then he moves.

Turns out, Assassin’s been holding back. He manages to fence Lancer into a nonexistent corner with a few precise slashes, keeping Lancer on the defensive once again.

There’s no time to think. All Lancer can do is block. Block. Block.

“Bastard,” he growls, as Assassin flips over his head and blocks his retreat.

“Forgive me,” Assassin says with calm mockery, “but I have been ordered to guard this gate. Intruders must be stopped, no matter what.”

Fortunately, Lancer’s no slouch in the acrobatic department. He ducks under Assassin’s slashing blow (there goes the tip of his ear), swipes Gae Bolg at Assassin’s feet and jumps for a tree.

Assassin’s balance is ridiculous: he just sidesteps Gae Bolg and gets to high ground. Lancer can see him in the gaps through the leaves, listening for the slightest rustle. The forest is silent, as if holding its breath.

Very, very carefully, Lancer hefts Gae Bolg and does his best to get into a launching position. Balanced on a huge branch like this, it’s harder than usual. He’ll make do.

In that instant—

“—Found you.”

Assassin’s under the tree. All he has to do is jump slightly and swing.

The branch Lancer’s standing on cracks. Assassin’s blade sliced it clean through.

“Shit…!”

The branch plummets to the ground, taking Lancer with it. The world blurs and spins around him; it feels like his brain’s spinning helplessly in his head. He grabs hold of the branch and rolls awkwardly. Since he’s curled atop it, the branch will take the impact instead of him.

THUD.

The plan mostly works. The branch breaks down the middle when it hits the ground, but Lancer lopes away with only dizzying vision to show for it.

“Lancer!” Shirou cries out, and rushes to him.

“Hey,” Lancer replies woozily. He lurches forward like a drunk, rights himself.

“A sensible plan, if poorly carried out,” Assassin says, right back where he started. “Do you need a moment? Your eyes look a mess.”

Lancer shakes his head, trying to clear the nausea away. “No need…to worry about me…”

“Good.” Assassin seems unfazed. With a dancer’s grace, he begins his attack again.

---

This isn’t good.

It’s been hours, and neither Lancer nor Assassin has landed a killing blow. Part of that’s because of the fun they’re having—there’s something about trading compliments with a worthy opponent that really spikes the blood. But on the other hand, they’re both too good at fighting to actually leave any openings. It’s a great problem to have…

So Lancer circles Assassin, and vice-versa. Blood drips from their arms and legs, streaks the steps. Even with their matching black eyes, they gaze at each other with competitive, mutual pride.

“At least your wrist isn’t broken this time,” Assassin says, more than capable of doing it again.

“True.” Lancer watches silvery fog sweep in from the trees, like curtains drawing the night to a close. “I think it’s about time to wrap this up. Don’t you?”

Assassin shrugs one shoulder, his long silk sleeve rippling as he moves. “That seems fair.”

Lancer nods in agreement and jumps back several feet, near the very last row of steps. He gets down on all fours, like a runner at the starting line awaiting his mark. Gae Bolg is slippery with sweat in his hand, but his grip is still tight. He has a clear view, and enough mana to make his Noble Phantasm soar through the air. Everything’s set. The only thing that could stop him is Assassin’s Swallow Reversal.

“Hey,” Shirou whispers from behind Lancer, “look at Assassin’s katana.”

“Weren’t you supposed to be the peanut gallery?”

“I know, but—this isn’t something I want to shout. Just look at it already!”

Lancer does as he’s bid…and quickly sees what Shirou’s talking about. Assassin’s katana is bent and chipped from their all-night fight. They're subtle details, but now that Lancer sees them he can’t stop staring. He chuckles under his breath. That’s how I’ll win.

Assassin seems aware of what’s to come; anticipation glints in his eyes. This is the point they’ve been waiting for—bittersweet though it is, it’s been a fun night. But it has to end sometime.

“You can do it, Lancer,” Shirou murmurs, pride and determination warming his voice.

All Lancer can do is nod. He takes that unexpected pride into himself, feeds off it as his heart pounds with wild abandon in his chest. That’s enough. It’s time.

Lancer holds a breath. Lets it out. And runs.

The steps crack under his feet. The air rushes past his fast, stinging his skin, and the morning mist obscures his vision for a moment. But not for long: using his speed, he leaps into the air, high as the treetops.

Assassin is a mere speck of color on the ground, ready to unleash his Swallow Reversal. He’s confident enough not to move out of the way. Maybe he could.

While Lancer wants to say what an honor it’s been, it’s not like he can float in midair. Assassin probably knows what I want to say, anyway.

Lancer’s voice rings out in the dew-drenched forest: “Now, I’ll have your heart!”

He can see Assassin’s lips moving, saying his Noble Phantasm’s name. He must make this quick.

Lancer’s arm muscles bulge, as he arcs his hand back as though pulling the drawstring of a huge bow. Crimson flames wreathe his body, licking his skin but never burning him. Gae Bolg looks almost purple in this dim, silvery light, but it gleams with his sweat.

“Gae…Bolg!”

He throws it with all his might, and it rockets down to Assassin, blooming with flames. The fog parts for it like a veil.

“Swallow Reversal!”

The three blades appear, in perfect tandem. Assassin jumps back toward the Temple gate, toward higher ground.

Lancer lands at Shirou’s side. He watches the three blades crash against Gae Bolg. Assassin’s trying to knock it away, like he did before. Sparks fly, red and silver.

Gae Bolg ricochets, twice. It bypasses the third, bent blade with ease.

That’s it, come on—!

As if sensing where its prey is, Gae Bolg changes course and launches back to Assassin. Assassin holds his katana in a desperate last defense, his posture as straight-backed and proud as ever.

Gae Bolg finds his heart, as it was always going to.

It’s a quick death. The spear tip goes straight through Assassin’s chest and spins back to Lancer’s waiting hand.

Unlike with Berserker, there isn’t as much blood on Gae Bolg, and it doesn’t smell rancid. As Lancer strides up the temple steps to where Assassin lies crumpled, he shakes the tip absentmindedly to clean it.

“You made me work for my victory, that’s for damn sure,” Lancer says, once he stands next to Assassin. “Hate to say it, but I’m not eager for a rematch.”

Assassin manages to smile, even with the blood trickling past his lips. His nod of agreement takes a little more effort, and he coughs weakly.

Lancer crouches down beside him and waits for him to fade away. The world is still enclosed in fog. Lancer can hear Shirou climbing the steps toward them. In the trees, birds are hesitantly beginning to sing, a strange, sweet sound in winter.

“Looks like spring’s near,” Lancer murmurs, the only comforting thing he can think of.

Assassin slowly turns his head to listen, his smile growing slightly wider, more genuine. His hand never drops his katana, even as he fades away in a flurry of purple, petal-like motes.

Rider deserved a moment like this, too. Lancer pushes that thought away. There’s no point in regrets. All he can do is move forward, like always.

Shirou passes through the fog just in time to watch the motes float away. He stares solemnly at their passing, tracking them up to the glassy sky.

“That was a good thing you did,” Shirou mutters, turning his gaze back to Lancer. “He wasn’t a cruel man.”

Lancer looks at him askance. “Then I killed a good one.”

Shirou growls in exasperation. “That’s obvious. What I mean is—you stayed with him while he passed on. That’s…a luxury, I think.”

It’s not hard to guess why Shirou would think that. Lancer doesn’t say anything, just lets the silence wash over him for a moment. Then he stands and dematerializes Gae Bolg.

“Come on, let’s head back.”

After a brief pause, Shirou follows him.

The fog swirls around them, soaking their clothes and skin with dew. It cools the sweat on Lancer’s skin, soothes his cuts and bruises. The only downside is the filmy greyness makes the steps hard to see. Lancer almost face-plants until Shirou grabs him by the arm and tugs him back.

“Thanks,” Lancer says, now aware of how exhausted he is. “Y’know, you saved my life just now.”

“From tripping?”

“Uh, close. I meant against Assassin.”

Shirou’s eyes widen at the news, and a smile starts to cross his lips. Then he squints at Lancer in suspicion. “Is this a joke?”

“’Course not.” You should know me better than that!

“Oh. Sorry.” Shirou awkwardly lets go of Lancer’s arm and glances away from him. “You…seemed out of ideas. You probably could’ve thought of something, but when I saw that blade—”

Lancer grins and reaches out to pull him close. “Don’t worry, I get what you mean.”

His arm loops around Shirou’s shoulder. Shirou’s hair tickles his side, making him chuckle. Shirou’s face heats up, warming Lancer’s body too.

Shirou stills at the touch, but doesn’t pull away. Instead, he rests his hand atop Lancer’s, looking ready to brood.

“What’s up?”

“Hmm? Oh, nothing. Just…I haven’t been very useful in a fight, have I?”

Lancer shrugs one shoulder. “Eh, not really. But you’re not going to run into enemy fire on my watch, either.”

The brooding’s beginning in earnest, now. “I get the feeling that gold Servant won’t just let me stand around—if we face him.”

“That’s a problem for another day,” Lancer says cheerily. But in the back of his head, he knows Shirou’s right. That bastard never did get the demonstration he wanted, did he…

“Another day” might come sooner than Lancer would like.

Chapter Text

Ryuudou Temple vanishes in a gust of wind. There is nothing more to see.

This must be her punishment—for her failure as a King, for her failure as a Servant. Instead of participating in this Grail War, she’s forced to spectate.

Saber’s mind turns back to those gloomy thoughts as she returns to her Master. For once, she has news he’d be intrigued to hear.

Assassin has been defeated, and with that, only four Servants remain.

She pays little attention to the morning sun shining through the cloudy sky above, or the early commuters heading off to work below her. She races over the rooftops of Fuyuki to the church on the hill.

Despite knowing how foolish she’s acting, she finds she misses her original Master. Bazett—who wished to be on a first-name basis—was the straightforward type, but there was kindness in her too, like the first green shoots in early spring. She was every inch a knight, who acknowledged Saber’s role as King and treated her with every courtesy. More than Saber deserved. And Saber respected her in turn, despite Bazett insisting bashfully that it wasn’t necessary.

Saber rests for a moment, cloaked from view beneath a row of trees. She closes her eyes, wills the thoughts of Bazett to leave, but they linger on, heady and hazy. Perhaps this is a girl’s sentimentality.

Bazett was strong, kind, worthy of the Grail—

—But that doesn’t matter. She is long dead, now.

Saber’s vision blurs and stings, and her throat burns. All are signs of weakness, more than worthy of punishment.

It was, as these things often are, an accident. Saber didn’t mean to leave Bazzett for so long. She should’ve asked Bazzett who this “trusted friend” was. And when she came across Kirei taking the Command Seals from Bazzett’s severed arm…she should have killed him on the spot.

Saber smiles grimly, opens her eyes and straightens her back. Those are the thoughts of a foolish little girl, not a King. She wipes the wetness from her eyes and continues onward.

The Church is silent when she arrives. She can see the lights are on inside, an orange glow that clashes with the somber whites and blacks of the exterior. In Saber’s time, churches were smaller, simpler. This one treads toward being ostentatious, but the solemn design evens things out somewhat.  

Saber squares her shoulders, takes a deep breath, and enters.

As expected, her Master stands at the pulpit, preparing his speech for today’s Mass. A stack of parchment in one hand, he’s mouthing the lines as he goes, and every so often takes a pencil that rests behind his ear to make edits. In this silvery morning light, he looks almost benevolent.

Then he looks up and nods at her. His eyes are cold as always. “Report, Saber.”

This is familiar territory. “Lancer has defeated Assassin. Now, only the three Knight Classes remain.”

“Four. Gilgamesh is still here.” Her Master smiles thinly. “In any event, this is good news, Saber. The Holy Grail will soon be in your possession, and you can leave your girlish dreams behind at last.”

Saber clenches her fists. “Failure or not, I am still King of Britain, Master. Keep your end of the contract, and you will see that Holy miracle as well.”

Her Master blinks slowly at her. “I already have. But you know that well enough.” His voice turns softer, more compassionate: “You have worked hard, Saber. You must rest, and eat.”

Unbidden, Saber’s mind flashes to the Church basement, and the little coffins nestled there. Her throat constricts, threatens to choke her. She shakes her head.

“Again?” Her Master sighs and looks at her as a parent would a child. “Very well, you have your methods by now.”

She nods, wanting nothing more than to leave.

“Tell me,” her Master says, amusement slithering through his voice, “has the Einzbern Master come by this way recently?”

“No.”

It’s the same answer she’s given him every other time he’s asked. Now her Master will shrug and voice his disappointment before dismissing her. This is part of their routine.

Her Master looks at her for a long, unblinking moment, a small smile on his face. “She looks like Irisviel von Einzbern—but then all Homunculi look alike, do they not?”

Ah. His needling has begun early today. I suppose I should be grateful—yesterday the topic concerned Camlann, and those who fell there.

“…Yes, Master.”

“The Einzbern Master was beautiful, wasn’t she? You have good taste.” It’s said with deceptive casualness, as if he’s chatting with a close friend. “When she played in the ocean, the moonlight shining on her hair, water lapping at her thighs—that must have been a treat to you.”

“Don’t you dare speak of her that way.” She fails to keep her voice level, but she doesn’t care.

“My apologies. You seemed in a sentimental mood.” He shrugs his shoulders and chuckles. “I admit, women are a mystery to me. But then, you understand such troubles, don’t you? King Arthur.”

“The King cannot understand the feelings of others.” Those words from a knight long gone float through her mind, unbidden.

“…I don’t follow.” She shifts her weight, turns her gaze to the door behind the pulpit. “Excuse me, Master.”

“Oh? But we’ve just begun our talk. I believe you asked recently if we could chat from time to time.” He grins. “Perhaps I was mistaken.”

“You were.” She makes for the door.

“The key is in its usual place,” her Master says. “Enjoy yourself, King of Knights.”

She doesn’t reply to him. She marches through the dark hallway, past the courtyard and into her Master’s study. Her black suit awaits her, bespoke and comfortable. She takes the key from the long-empty wine cabinet and storms off to the room it unlocks.

---

Fuyuki is an average town in one respect: where people live, so do their desires.

The good news is this love hotel is the most high-class, so Saber doesn’t need to creep through dingy back-alleys to her destination. From what she can tell, most love hotels don’t allow customers to rent rooms, especially not long-term. So they’ve compromised: a different room each time. And none of the clerks care to recognize her. She’s just their newest, valued customer.

“You have Room 1, miss,” the clerk says, her eyes bright. She whispers “That’s at the top floor, our most luxurious suite!”

“Thank you,” Saber says, and gives the clerk as gallant a smile as she can muster right now.

The wood-paneled elevator is, in a word, cute: the buttons are shaped like hearts, and the carpet has frilly detailing in neat little rows. Mellow, sensual jazz plays as the elevator ascends.

Ground floor.

First floor.

Second.

Third.

The elevator lets out a metallic ding as the doors slide open.

She strides through one cream-colored hallway after another, her feet silent on the pink plush carpet. Soft piano music is piping in from overhead speakers. Little by little her walk turns more languid, relaxed. Her Master won't follow her here.

It’s a relief to know that the rooms here are soundproof. She doesn’t want to hear or be heard by anyone. Her Master has invaded her privacy enough as it is. Still, it’s strange to be in a place without windows.

Those thoughts are feeble attempts to distract herself from what’s up ahead. More specifically: that she dreamed up this idea in the first place. She ensured she could leave the key in the cabinet whenever she wishes. And yet, she’s here.

She’s so distracted by her thoughts she nearly walks past Room 1. The pinkish-gold plaque gleams in the dim hallway lights, warping her reflection into a series of lines. The key sweats in her hand, smelling of copper.

The simple act of knocking on the door thrice instinctively relaxes her shoulders. Hearing the key turn and unlock, even more so.

The door opens soundlessly. She slips into the room and locks the door behind her. She slips the key into her pocket and doesn’t bother checking if that person’s here. He always is.

“Good morning, Saber,” Gilgamesh purrs, seated comfortably on a plush sofa. “What do you desire today?”

She notes that his furred coat is hanging up already, leaving him clad in black. As a result, he stands out sharply against the fairytale-like grotto that lies in wait behind him. A small coffee table sits between the two sofas, all a royal blue. Pale violet, gauzy curtains hide the bed from view, but the soft blue lighting illuminates the rest of the room quite well. It could pass for a princess’ bedchamber, dreamy yet elegant.

“You can guess the answer already,” she says brusquely, her hand still clutching the warm doorknob.

“Perhaps.” Gilgamesh’s hand dangles from an armrest, fingers loose and wrist dipped downward. “But I wish to hear it from your lips.”

There’s no use in being petty and not saying a word. Unfortunately. “Very well, King of Heroes. I require mana.”

“Ah, I see.” He smiles slyly and crooks a finger.

She takes her time walking over to him, knowing how much it rankles. She indulges her petty side and takes the long way around, winding past a table set for two and another sofa.

She allows herself a grim smile when she reaches him. “Your patience is impressive, King of Heroes. It would have been far easier for you to come to me.”

Gilgamesh’s red eyes hold a glint of annoyance, but his chuckle is genuine. “Mm, would you have me crawl on all fours?”

“It would be a pleasant change, to see eye to eye.”

Gilgamesh smiles and holds out a slim wrist. “In any event…your mana.”

“…Thank you.” She takes his wrist, pressing her nails into his tender flesh, and bites down without preamble.

The King of Heroes’ reincarnation has an unexpected perk: he’s close enough to human that she can take his mana for herself. And just in case, Gilgamesh pilfers (“reclaims”, as he puts it) blood bags from the local hospital for the both of them to share. She’d rather use the King of Heroes than what’s inside those little coffins. The thought of her Master touching her brings only discomfort.

Gilgamesh’s blood has a strange tang she can’t quite describe—it’s heavy like chocolate, but not as sweet. Perhaps that’s the taste of divinity. She drinks deep regardless.

A strong, gentle hand strokes her hair. “What a lovely sight.” Warm fingers tickle the little hairs at the nape of her neck. “Shall I pamper you? Or shall I allow you to toss me about?”

…Pamper me?

Saber bites back a groan of annoyance and lifts her head. “If you keep talking,” she growls, “I will leave.”

Gilgamesh looks at her with disquieting fondness. He deigns to keep silent.

It’s only recently that she allowed him to touch her. Beforehand, she would “throw him about”, as he puts it, venting her inability to fight on his willing body before taking his mana. Then one night, things changed. As blood from Gilgamesh’s broken nose dripped into his white shirt, he cradled her bloodied fist and gave the knuckles a chaste kiss.

“What are you doing?” she asked, as he let go of her hand.

He looked at her with a sly smile. “Appreciating your efforts. And your beauty, of course.

She slammed him against the nearest wall and sunk her teeth into his neck. His fingers curled into her hair, and for some reason she allowed it.

Despite his desire for her, he has yet to act on it. Perhaps he's savoring it as the final course in a depraved banquet. Or her Master's treatment cools his passion. Regardless, he keeps his touch gentle, chaste. Like an older sibling indulging one younger.

She has yet to grow used to it. As King of Britain, she couldn’t allow such luxuries.

She can’t look him in the eye any longer; she stares at a fixed point above his head. “Why do you treat me so kindly?”

“If I told you, you would claim it another jape.” That hand pulls back, leaving a tingling sensation in its wake. “I have a sack of blood for you in the cooler.”

Saber knows exactly where the cooler is. The layout is always the same here; only the décor changes.

She goes over to the corner, opens the cooler’s gleaming metal door and extracts her plastic prize. “Bloodtype: O”. The sloshing blood looks almost black in this light. She pops open the bag, and her mouth waters at the coppery aroma that greets her.

“Thank you,” she says hesitantly.

“My pleasure.”

She ignores the purr in his voice, and drinks from the blood bag like it’s a wineskin. It chills her lips, her throat. Her body shivers with mana, converting it in moments.

After the bag is drained, it vanishes from her hands in a burst of gold flecks.

“I have decided,” Saber says, making her way over to the bed. “You will pamper me.”

She parts the gauze curtains and takes her seat. The mattress sinks beneath her weight, then rises to meet her. Through the gauze, she can see Gilgamesh strolling over, his movements languid as always.

In truth, she has only the faintest idea of what Gilgamesh considers “pampering”. It’s never come up. It isn’t sexual, or else he wouldn’t suggest it. So she removes her jacket and waits, one leg crossed over the other.

Gilgamesh parts the curtains. Of course, he doesn’t act like a pageboy or squire. Rather, he gives a white silk pillow the honor of bearing his knees. She can tilt her head slightly to look him in the eye.

“To begin,” he says, his breath ghosting against her hair, “I can tell your feet are aching from your last venture.”

Saber opens her mouth to say her feet are fine. Closes it. “Remove my shoes, then.”

She catches a flicker of something strange in his eyes. For a heart-pounding moment, she wonders if he’s going to kiss her leather shoe. It's possible; he enjoys mocking her chivalry and Kingship in one fell swoop.

He makes quick work of the laces. Through the black sock, his fingers are warm on her ankle. He raises her foot, black laces trailing. An inch more, and his lips could be at the tip.

Sweat beads at the nape of her neck, and she wipes it away with a brisk hand.

“Is something the matter, Saber?”

There’s a teasing undercurrent to his voice. It’s troubling.

“You needn’t—submit yourself to me, King of Heroes.”

Gilgamesh smirks, and the shoe slips off in one smooth motion. He tosses it to one side like it’s nothing. To him, it probably is. The next shoe follows suit.

“How delicate they are,” Gilgamesh says in wonderment, picking up her foot again. “My smallest toe could fit three of yours…”

“What of my so—ah!” She jolts at the ticklish sensation springing from her toes.

“Forgive me,” Gilgamesh says without a shred of sincerity. “I merely wished to check for soreness.”

She squirms. “You liar.”

“What good would that do, in this situation?” He cocks his head to one side and grins. “Are you ticklish, perhaps?”

“Obviously!” She yanks her foot free, ready to kick his teeth in.

Much to her surprise, he takes notice of her response. “Your face will stick like that, if you continue to glare so,” he says dryly. “If you wish me to stop, I will.”

“…Why?”

“Because I wish for entertainment in this tedious world.” He raises an eyebrow. “You are much the same.”

“No.” She looks off to the side in thought, then back to him. “I would prefer you left my feet alone.”

That doesn’t faze him at all. “Very well.”

Saber rolls her shoulders and winces at the burning stiffness that accompanies them. “A massage would be best.”

Gilgamesh’s eyelids lower a fraction, a pleased glint in his eyes. “Lie back, then. On your stomach.”

She looks at him warily for a moment before acquiescing. The bed is comfortable against her belly, even if her breasts feel a bit constricted. Once she adjusts her position, she hears Gilgamesh climb in beside her. He’s kneeling above her now. There’s no sense of danger coming from him, and she lets her body relax for now. It’s difficult.

“You needn’t fret,” Gilgamesh says with soft amusement. “I will content myself with your shoulders, and go no further.”

“Good.” She folds her arms beneath her chin and stares at the ornate headboard. Shells dot the swirling blue metal like stars. “Begin.”

The King of Heroes must be no stranger to massages, for he applies a pleasant, rubbing pressure against her muscles. She can feel it through her waistcoat and shirt; a sigh escapes her lips. Two thumbs roll across her shoulders.

For a time, there is only silence. He finds a rhythm, slow and smooth. The knots tangled in her shoulders slowly disappear. It’s as if her muscles are dissolving, trickling down her back. She could melt into this bed.

“If I may opine…”

She snorts at such faux politeness. “Spare me your nonsense and speak.”    

“Such impertinence…but I expected that.”

“Mm. Well?”

“Surely you’re aware of it, Saber. No one in this era is happy. It’s quite pathetic.”

“That’s not true. My Master is happy.”

“Is he?” Gilgamesh doesn’t sound convinced. “Kirei’s misery was more pronounced in the Fourth War, to be sure. He spent his days pondering why he was so ‘cursed’. And now…he spends his days pondering his curse with a smile.”

Saber turns her head slightly to look at him. “And that disappoints you.”

“Of course—I was expecting entertainment.”

She smirks. “And he became your jailor.”

Gilgamesh stares down at her, stopped in the middle of his massage. There’s no emotion in his eyes. His body is still. But she can see the little tells: the pulse beating in his neck, the set of his jaw.

Are you going to kill me? It shows the monotony of her time in this Grail War, that such thoughts are only diversions instead of fears.

The massage resumes, just as it was before. His emotions are stored away, far from her eyes.

“You believe this war is your punishment,” he says coolly. “Even here, where Kirei cannot touch you.”

There’s nothing to say. Why refute the truth?

His thumbs press deeper, against the tip of her spine. She twitches at the stabbing weight of it. The pads brush soothingly against that protruding bone and move elsewhere.

“Indeed, any who made to torture you would fail miserably. How many miseries have you conjured for yourself this morning, I wonder?”

“…And what of you, King of Heroes?” she manages, ready to buck him off the bed any moment. “Freedom is within your grasp, if you only took it.”

There’s no response. She takes that as a victory.

“And you, as well. Kingship should be joyous.”

She holds herself still, keeps her breathing even, and doesn’t rise to the bait. The mattress bounces as she climbs out of bed.

“You shouldn’t say such things,” she chides Gilgamesh firmly. “Despite your base actions, you are a King.”

He smiles and rests on his back, splayed out like a lion in the sun. “Yet bloodying my nose is? My, what a barbaric woman you are!”

She slips on her suit jacket and buttons it faster than necessary. “If you dislike it so much, stab me with one of your treasures.”

“Ah, but that would ruin the entertainment.” He stretches luxuriously and rests his hands on his belly. “Oh, that reminds me. Lancer’s Master might be of interest to you.”

That he waited until now to tell her isn’t surprising.

She adjusts her tie. “He already was; he survived a blade to the heart and stomach on the same night.”

“True.” Gilgamesh turns his hooded gaze to the ceiling. “I've discovered neither of those mongrels have any need of the Grail.”

“And yet, they are friendly toward the Einzbern Master.” Conflicting thoughts crowd Saber’s mind. “Perhaps they mean to lure us out.”

“As always, follow the path you deem best,” Gilgamesh says, somewhere between sincere and mocking. “It will surely yield the greatest reward.”

Saber came to her conclusion before he spoke. As one of the only Servants left, the playing field has been leveled; potentially in her favor. This time, I will have the Grail. Unlike Lancer, there's nothing to distract me. 

“I must be off. Thank you for the mana, once again.”

She doesn’t wait for Gilgamesh’s response. Once the door closes behind her, Saber heads back into the war. 

Chapter Text

Lancer and Shirou drag themselves through the front door, exhausted but satisfied. The early morning fog is beginning to disperse outside. After what’s happened, all Lancer can think about is sleep. Too bad there isn’t a bed right here… He totters, leans his arm on the doorframe.

“Are you okay, Lancer?” Shirou rubs his eyes and yawns.

“Yeah. Just tired.” The wood is cool and smooth against Lancer’s skin; it’s weirdly soothing.

“That was different from fighting Rider,” Shirou mumbles, more to himself than Lancer. “It felt…exciting, I guess?”

“Oh, that’s right—you’ve never been in a scenario like that.” Lancer yawns and lurches toward the bedroom. “Well, we can talk later. Let’s hit the sack for now.”

Shirou grunts an affirmative and follows suit.

---

Lancer has a new dream—but not of Shirou’s past this time. It’s his memory.

It was dawn, when the rider came.

Cu Chulainn woke next to his princess Emer, watching the golden rays pierce through the castle window and cast a delicate glow across her cheek. Her eyelashes fluttered, and she sleepily curled against his side. He can’t recall her face properly, veiled in his love as it was—but even now, he knows her voice, the dreamy murmurings of that morning.

Lonely hoof beats pounded on the road.

He was careful not to wake her up as he slid out of bed. He didn’t know then he’d never see that bedchamber again. He should’ve lingered awhile longer: tended the hearth, or drawn the billowing gauze of the four-poster bed, or stroked Emer’s cheek with a gentle finger.

But that’s a dream, not a memory, and there’s no changing the past to make a pretty picture.

Cu went to see the messenger himself. His feet didn’t make a sound as he stalked through the chilled stone halls, still in his bedclothes.

No one stopped him, even though a servant could’ve gone to get the messenger in his stead. But it’d been awhile since Chulann’s guard dog was let loose on the battlefield. Cu needed a change of pace.

The rising sun over the golden harvest obscured the messenger’s face, but his words were clear. “Cu Chulainn, a strange youth as powerful as you has appeared on the coast, killing any warrior who comes near him. The King knows you are the only one who can stop him—”

“—So he wants me to kill somebody, I get it.” Cu yawned and scratched his chest, mostly for show. “Tell the King I’m on my way, will you?”

The messenger nodded and rode off without so much as a “good morning”.

When Cu turned to go back inside, he saw Emer standing there, still in her bedclothes and her thick curls rumpled from sleep.

“You should be in bed, princess,” Cu said, taking her face in his gentle hands and kissing her forehead. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”

Emer put her hand on his wrist, a touch as delicate as spider silk. “You mustn’t go.” Her voice was thick with tears.

It was the only time she said such a thing. The words struck his heart, and made his bloodlust flicker. But even if she was right, what could he do? There was a worthy enemy to defeat, and loved ones to return to with a smile. It was happiness, laid out neatly before him.

Cu embraced her and whispered in her ear: “I know, it’s a good morning to spend with you. But this is the King’s order. I have to obey.”

Emer understood that, wise as she was, but her hands still clutched at his back. “Please…return home as soon as you can.”

Cu chuckled, even as something wet and stinging soaked his chest. “What kind of fool do you take me for?”

On that morning, the Hound of Ulster set off to face a mysterious warrior that matched his strength. A nameless warrior, one who would never back down from a fight.

That night, Cu returned with the blood of his son on his hands.

---

Lancer wakes up slowly, his whole body stiff and listless. He runs a hand over his face and groans. It just had to be about ‘that time’, didn’t it…?

That isn’t to say Lancer regrets his life. On the contrary, he’d be offended even if Sakura suggested it.

His borrowed bedroom is both too big and too small all at once. He shivers at an unexpected draft of cold air that tickles his feet. He curls in on himself, trying to conserve warmth. His eyes are blurry and gummed with sleep.

He sits and listens to the snow falling off the roof and running across the window. From the sounds of it, today’s going to be overcast again.

Thinking of the weather doesn’t make that dream disappear.

“You mustn’t go.”

Lancer slams his fist against the cot. Useless. Don’t think about shit you’ve already dealt with, moron!

That’s right. Cu Chulainn ran through life without regrets, laughing even as he died. It’s the life Lancer wanted: the life of a hero, worthy of a thousand songs. Even if he lost people he cared about, he protected many more loved ones. So who cares about “what might have been”?

Lancer’s body prickles with stagnant heat, and he kicks off the covers in useless frustration. At this rate, he’ll just lie here like a log.

So, sighing in frustration, he drags his body out of bed and shuffles over to the kitchen. Just stepping into the now-familiar hallway makes him feel better; his dream vanishes with every strolling step he takes.

What really wakes him up is the realization he hasn’t told Shirou about how Archer offered to tumble him. It’s enough to make Lancer run exasperated fingers through his hair—did he tell Shirou, or does he not remember telling him?

He tries not to rush as he heads to the kitchen, hoping that nobody else is there yet. 

---

Lancer enters the kitchen, rubbing his eyes, and finds Shirou cooking brunch with reassuring enthusiasm. Unsurprisingly, even his Master managed to sleep until noon. 

Looks like the fight didn’t take much out of him, after all. Lancer idly looks Shirou over, both to make sure his Master’s safe and because he can. Huh, he’s wearing that black shirt again. The apron almost blends right in…

The young lady’s here too, sipping tea calmly.

Well, shit.

“Good morning, Lancer,” she says, setting the teacup down with practiced care. “You did well last night—wait, maybe it’s ‘this morning’…”

“Thanks anyway.” Lancer sits in his usual spot, next to where Shirou usually sits. “Learn anything from the overseer?”

The young lady tosses one of her twintails over her shoulder with a pout. “Not at all! He just said that Masters were being defeated on time, so why worry? He threatened to give me a lecture, but I escaped in the nick of time.”

“Didn’t that guy already ramble on at you before?”

“Yes, well. You could say it’s his hobby.”

“Some hobby.” Lancer watches Shirou move around the kitchen, backlit by the overhead stove light’s warm glow. “So what’re we having today, Shirou?”

“Um, just egg yolk mixed with rice for now.” He turns his head slightly to look at Lancer. “Unless you have any objections.”

“Nope.” Lancer grins and cocks his head to one side, showing off the curve of his neck. “Since you’re making it, it’s going to be delicious.”

Shirou stops for a second, frozen in the act of cracking an egg. Even from this distance, Lancer can see that his ears are turning red as cherries, and it’s just as sweet. Then Shirou mumbles a “thank you” and goes back to work, humming softly. This is different from the stumbling and stammering he’d normally be doing right now. It’s an interesting change of pace.

“Lancer,” Shirou says, once the egg is sizzling in the pan, “I was hoping we’d train today. If you’re up for it, I mean.”

“Huh. And here I thought you didn’t need to anymore, now that Rider’s Master is out of the picture.”

Shirou turns his head to look at him, his eyebrows raised in surprise. “I guess. But it’s a routine now, right? And I enjoy spending time with you.”

“…Oh.” Warmth blooms in Lancer’s chest. “Me too.”

The young lady’s laughter is somewhere between good-natured and mischievous. “I’d love to watch Lancer mop the floor with you, Emiya! But not as much as you seem to enjoy it…”

“T-Tohsaka, it’s not like that! Well, I mean, I lose all the time, but that’s to be expected. It’s not about winning, anyway—”

“—Oh, I see. So you really just want to spend time with Lancer, is that it?”

“…Yeah. Why wouldn’t I?”

The young lady smiles at him and sips her tea. She doesn’t reply, probably because everybody knows the answer already.

Shirou grumbles and pokes at one of the eggs with a spatula. “Seriously, why do you tease me all the time?”

“Because it’s fun. But…” She genuinely looks remorseful. “…If it really bothers you, I’ll stop. Okay?”

“Thanks, Tohsaka. …Oh, that’s right. By the way, Fuji-nee’s coming over!”

Lancer can’t believe it. “So she’s finally feeling better?”

“That’s good news,” the young lady says, a hint of fondness in her voice. “You must have missed having Miss Fujimura around, right Emiya?”

“Yeah, it feels strange not having her eat me out of house and home.” Shirou grins over his shoulder at Lancer. “But there’s a guest who’s been picking up where she left off.”

Lancer chuckles. “Not like you mind.”

“Anyway, she’ll be here for dinner. We have plenty of time to spar.”

The young lady’s smile turns sly. “Lancer, do you mind if I watch you two for awhile?”

“Nope, go on ahead!”

Shirou scowls in obvious disappointment then sighs and gives in. “…Okay. Just don’t interrupt us.”

“Sure.” Her words aren’t very reassuring.

Lancer can sense Archer nearby, but he hasn’t come around yet. Strange. His Master must’ve given him watch duty. Or maybe… Lancer grins. …Maybe he’s being shy?

The mental image of Archer peeking around corners and stammering is unlikely, but fun to mull over. Lancer bites his lip, struggling to keep a straight face.

Neither the young lady nor Shirou notice Lancer’s plight; they’re too busy with friendly bickering. At one point, breakfast threatens to burn, but Shirou saves it in the knick of time.

“Enjoy,” he says, setting three bowls of steaming egg-rice on the table. Chopsticks follow suit.

“Thanks for the meal!”

Lancer’s mouth waters at the sight. It’s a simple dish, sure, but the yellow egg yolk makes the rice seem…cheerful. That’s the best way to put it. He picks up his chopsticks and digs in. The flavors pleasantly contrast each other, too: they’re different layers of “savory”. He takes his time, but it’s tempting to scarf down the whole delicious bowl.

After a few bites, he notices Shirou’s watching him intently.

“Ish goo’!”

The young lady makes a disgusted face. “Please don’t talk with your mouth full, Lancer.”

He swallows and smiles sheepishly. “Sorry ‘bout that, didn’t mean to put you off your food.”

Shirou doesn’t seem to mind. “I’m glad you like it! It’s the best I could do on short notice.”

“Don’t worry about it. Your cooking is always worth the wait, y’know.”

Shirou’s delight is clear as day. With a warm, soft voice, he says “There’s another reason I cooked this.”

Lancer leans forward a little, echoing Shirou’s tone. “That so?”

Unfortunately, Shirou realizes what he sounds like and clears his throat with an embarrassed face. “…I can’t wait to spar with you, either. That’s all.”

Well, now. That’s just adorable of you. But there’s no way Shirou will take that compliment well, so Lancer goes with another option.

“Aw, man, you were doing so well too. Whatever, I’m glad to hear it.”

The young lady giggles at Shirou’s face. “I think the temperature went up just now!”

“Hey, I thought you weren’t going to tease me anymore.”

“Yeah,” Lancer says, lazily defending his Master. “That was walking up to the line, just now.”

“Sorry. But you were acting so different than usual, Emiya. I just had to point it out!”

Shirou runs an exasperated hand through his hair before eating more briskly than earlier. He goes so far as lifting the bowl to his face, to avoid looking anybody in the eye. It’s understandable, if disappointing.

Lancer isn’t sure why he felt the need to stand up for Shirou—especially over something as innocent as a friendly ribbing. He shouldn’t have to. But as he resumes eating, tasting the meal Shirou made with his usual care and attention, it occurs to him that he might be a little possessive. Not of Shirou himself, but of the peace he brings in this simple kitchen.

…Good gods, that’s so sappy. The young lady’d laugh her ass off if I said that! Lancer’s head’s still muddled with sleep, even with breakfast waking him up.

That’s his theory, and he’s sticking to it.

Finally, he remembers what he rushed here for. “Oh, by the way, Shirou, there’s something I need to tell you. Alone. I might’ve told you already, but just in case…”

“Sure.”

The young lady excuses herself and heads for the bathroom—or maybe she wants some fresh air. Either way, she’s far enough away that she can’t eavesdrop.

“So what is it, Lancer?”

It’s tough, figuring out how to phrase this. “So, uh, you know that time Archer and I were sparring…”

Shirou nods, a flicker of mischief in his eyes. “Are you saying he beat you?”

“Damn near.” Lancer’s throat is dry; he chugs his tea down to the dregs. He sets the cup down and wipes his mouth; time to say it. “Well, the point is…he asked if I wanted to sleep with him. I didn’t, though.”

Shirou nods absentmindedly, his eyes glazed over in thought. Then they widen in shock and embarrassment. “He did what?!”

Lancer winces. “Ah, looks like I did forget after all. I know sorry won’t cut it, but—”

“—I’m glad you told me now,” Shirou interrupts, still out of sorts. “Why would he even offer that? I mean…he’s…oh.” He looks askance at Lancer. Rests his elbow on the table, his chin in his hand. “Archer’s handsome, isn’t he.”

“And he was losing the fight.” Lancer mirrors Shirou’s pose. “But he wasn’t serious about it, especially not in that position.”

“Position…?”

“Well, I was on top of him. Nearly broke his wrists, too!”

“Hmm.” Shirou’s deep in thought again. “But he did offer his mana to you, that time. He didn’t have to do that. And in that ‘position’…”

“Are you jealous?” Lancer asks, not wanting to leave things unsaid. That, and he’s curious.

“Well, you’re heavy, so not really.”

“Pfft…I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t that.

“Oh, I didn’t mean to call you fat! You’re just, well, a Servant. And muscular.”

Lancer snickers and resists the urge to ruffle Shirou’s hair. “You’re dodging the question again. But if you don’t have an answer, that’s not surprising.” He stands up and stretches his arms behind his head. “Well, you ready to train?”

Shirou nods and stands. “Just let me get the dishes first.”      

---

Today’s sparring session has a different feel than before. The young lady isn’t the only spectator.

Archer stands while the young lady sits against the wall, their shadows framing their bodies. Archer isn’t showing the same interest as his Master—not outwardly. His gaze flicks from Shirou to Lancer, watching every step and swing with great care. His arms are folded across his chest, but one lone finger taps out a rhythm against his bicep. One-two-three, one-two-three. Slash-parry-slash.

Lancer doesn’t spend too much time on Archer, though—Shirou has his full attention. His Master still hasn’t been able to land a hit, but his footwork is better, and he doesn’t go in for obvious traps.

“Not bad,” Lancer says, as Shirou snatches his shinai in mid-air after Lancer knocked it from his hand. “You couldn’t do that last time.”

Shirou grins and wipes his sweaty face with the back of his arm. “Thanks. See, you’re a better teacher than you thought!”

The young lady giggles, but keeps her word and doesn’t say anything. Lancer can tell Shirou’s constantly aware of their audience, and it’s putting a damper on things. 

“I know she’s cute,” Lancer says, drawing back his arm, “but focus!”

Lancer’s shinai jabs at Shirou’s side.

Shirou yelps and lurches out of the way. His socks slip on the floor, but he doesn’t fall. The sheen of sweat he wiped away comes back in force, and he uses his shirt this time.

Lancer decides to be sporting and waits. Shirou’s sweat-stained shirt drops back over his heaving abs, clinging wetly and looking like it’s seen better days.

“If I may,” Archer says coolly, “I would like to show your Master a better method of entering a fight.”

“By throwing swords at him? No thanks.”

Archer actually looks amused. “Not today, no. I meant by adjusting his posture.”

“…Uh-huh.” Lancer puts a hand on his hip, letting his shinai hang loose in his hand. “Why?”

Archer mirrors him. “Because watching him stand there like a practice dummy is vexing.”

Shirou growls low in his throat. “Tohsaka, your Servant’s being a pain…!”

“He’s right, Archer,” the young lady admits, “but I’d like to see what you mean.”

Shirou won’t say it aloud, but it’s clear he’s curious too. Lancer’s more forthright about it.

“Okay, bowman, show us what you got.”

Archer has the nerve to give a short bow at the waist toward Lancer, before straightening up and walking over to Shirou. There’re a few feet between them and Lancer. 

What inches of distance stand between Shirou and Archer fall away once Archer stops behind Shirou’s back.

“If I may, I’d like to check the angle of your back first. May I?” It’s said with the usual casual arrogance, but the question still stands out in the stillness.

Shirou nods, his brows furrowed and eyes wary.

“Very well.” A tanned hand reaches out, vanishes behind Shirou’s back. Fabric rustles. “Hmm, your spine is straight as it should be. Good.”

Judging by Shirou’s lack of response, he isn’t being groped or pinched. Wariness begins to leave his eyes. It’s all very impersonal. Practical.

Or it would be, if Archer didn’t look at Lancer with a lingering gaze. Look at him, his eyes seem to say. Look at us.

Looks like somebody’s guessed about what the private talk was about.

“Now, Emiya Shirou,” Archer says, bringing Lancer’s attention back to the lesson. “I told you before that your battle is against yourself, more than any other opponent. If you cannot defeat them—”

“—‘Imagine something that can’, I know.” Shirou’s eyes flick from Archer to Lancer to the young lady, all nerves again. “I don’t see what posture has to do with this…”

Archer smirks, drawing his hand back to rest at his side. “I wouldn’t expect you to. What I’m referring to has more to do with ‘movement’ than ‘posture’. A matter of how you enter a battle, if you will.”

“Oh,” the young lady says, “like ‘make your everyday walk your warrior’s walk’?”

“Exactly,” Archer says, looking pleased. “Though in this case, we should make an exception.” His face turns even smugger. “You see, Emiya Shirou’s everyday walk holds nothing of note at all.”

Shirou, understandably, can’t think of anything to say.

Lancer snorts. “What, you want tap-dancing?”

“No.” An answer so dry and flat it practically scrapes at the ears. “What I expect is a sense of power.”

“But you said I have no power, Archer!”

Archer sighs and rubs his temples, the picture of an exasperated mentor. “That I did. The point I’m attempting to make here is that you need to convince your enemy—yourself—that you do have power.”

“Oh, I see now,” Lancer says with a grin. “It’s a bluff.”

“Exactly. At least one of you understands. In any event: the better you can bluff, the more likely you won’t need to fight at all.”

Shirou looks down at the floor, his brows furrowed. Then he nods grimly. “Okay, show me.”

“Very well. First, take a deep breath, and relax your body starting from your shoulders.” Archer demonstrates.

Shirou watches carefully and mirrors him. There’s a subtle change in their positioning; everything’s a little looser.

“Good.” Archer places his hands on his hips. “This may sound odd at first, but we aren’t going to move from the shoulders this time. Instead, move from the pelvis.”

There’s a split second pause, where Shirou’s eyes flick to Lancer and the young lady, assessing something. He glances at Archer’s hands then up at his face. “…Seriously?”

The skepticism sounds a bit forced, but Lancer’s too amused to comment on it.

Archer jerks his head toward Lancer with a sly smile. “Do you truly believe a typical strut would work on him?”

“…Not really. Huh. So it’s a ‘play-by-ear’ thing.”

“Indeed. Now, from the pelvis: one leg in front of the other, as if you’re walking on a tightrope.” Archer demonstrates, his hips swaying leisurely as he saunters across the dojo. “You need to imagine that time obeys your every whim.”

Shirou awkwardly follows Archer’s lead, his arms stiff like a tin soldier.

The young lady stifles a laugh.

“Are you trying to make me look dumb, Archer?”

“No more than usual. Oh—forgive me.” It’s not a very genuine apology. “You can move your arms, just as you normally would. But the pelvis is where your strength and focus should lie.”

Shirou sighs in relief, and now the walk looks more natural. It’s still awkward, like watching a newborn calf take its first steps, but it’s an improvement. As his gaze clings to Archer’s legs, he figures out more of the trick. By the time they do three strolls around the dojo, Shirou could be Archer’s mirror image.

And yet, there’s enough of Shirou’s usual walk in there that it’s not unrecognizable as his: the easygoing sway of his shoulders, the straight-backed curve of his spine, the way he hunches over a little to hear what the young lady’s saying—that’s all Shirou. Just a little more open, relaxed, confident. Exactly what he’d need in a fight.

And it’s really distracting.

The young lady certainly seems to appreciate it: her eyes track Archer and Shirou’s steps like she’s glued to their thighs, and Lancer knows he’s doing something similar.

“…Um, Archer,” Shirou says, his ears turning flushed, “this doesn’t seem like a fighter’s walk.”

Archer glances down at Shirou with cool amusement. “It appears I’ve been caught. But you knew that from the start, didn’t you.”

Shirou grins and rubs the back of his neck. “W-Well, sort of.”

The young lady turns flustered, not knowing where to focus. “Then why do that, idiot?!”

Shirou stares at her. “Uh…Tohsaka? What’s wrong?”

Lancer snorts. “Don’t play dumb. If you guessed about that walk from the get-go, you know what’s up with her.”

“Huh? I’m not playing dumb.” Judging by his furrowed brows and the slight pout, he means it. “I didn’t mean to embarrass you, Tohsaka. That wasn’t the plan at all!”

Lancer cocks his head to one side. “Really? Then what was the plan?”

“…I wanted to show off for you, Lancer.” Shirou rubs the back of his neck again, turning his gaze to the rain-slick windows. “Since I can’t give you the sort of fight you like…at the very least, I could try to look cool.”

A long, awkward pause stretches out like a spider’s thread.

The young lady breaks it with an “I see, so Archer’s the enabler here.”

“I wouldn’t put it like that.” Archer strolls back over to where the young lady sits, amusement wafting off him like cologne. “Rather, I felt things would be boring if they continued as they did.”

Shirou still isn’t looking Lancer in the eye. “I probably overdid it, huh…”

Lancer finally thinks of something to say. “Actually, I’m surprised you bothered to try.”

The young lady giggles and slowly stands up. “Hey, Archer, should we leave these two alone for a moment?”

“Perhaps.” Archer’s footsteps make the floor of the dojo creak softly. “We have been distracting them from their goal.”

“Good,” Shirou says brusquely, getting into an attack stance.

Lancer sighs and readies his shinai. Archer was right, in a sense—they were distracting, but it wasn’t unpleasant. Not to him, anyway. But Shirou didn’t want an audience, did he. So this is better for both of us.

He doesn’t go easy on Shirou, but it’s hard to deny there’s something different about this fight.

He’s more conscious of the space between them, for one. When their shinai clash, forcing their breaths to mingle, he catches Shirou’s eyes glancing at his hands, his lips. Lancer finds himself staring at the bandage on Shirou’s neck. His body grows hot at the little sounds Shirou’s making that are just familiar enough to remind him of that night.

“If I deserve happiness, then you do too.”

Lancer’s shoulder narrowly misses Shirou’s next swing.

But Lancer’s too good at fighting to get distracted for long. He knocks Shirou ass over teakettle over and over again. Each time Shirou climbs to his feet, a determined smile on his face.

When the young lady and Archer come back, Shirou’s too focused on sparring to pay attention to them. 

That strange feeling retreats, leaving a straightforward fight in its wake. The wooden, echoing clack of shinai and the sweat-slick handle between Lancer's fingers overwhelms his senses. He focuses only on Shirou, his dodges and rolls, his desperate lunges, the calculating fire in his eyes. This may be only pretend, compared to the Grail War that awaits them at night, but there’s something worthwhile in it.

Archer doesn’t say anything, but Lancer can sense a hint of pride from him whenever Shirou gets close to a direct hit. Maybe his words before weren’t just a ploy, after all.

---

An few hours later, it’s time for dinner. Lancer places a hand on Shirou’s shoulder before he can drag his tired, sweaty body to the kitchen.

“I’ll cook today. You look ready to fall over, so take a load-off, will you?”

His words don’t seem to register at first. Then Shirou nods reluctantly and lurches over to the kitchen table.

The young lady smiles at Lancer—he must’ve said what was on her mind. “What are you planning on making?”

“Miso soup,” he replies, just to watch Archer’s eyes flick toward him with restrained curiosity. “Since I learned how to make it the right way last time.”

Archer raises an eyebrow. “Very well. Let’s see your improvement.” There’s an unspoken Not that it’s likely, which is easy to ignore.

Lancer sets to work—the sparring session’s energized him, and he puts that energy to delicious use. He remembers what Archer told him before, about how soft the tofu is, and takes his time going through the recipe. Behind him, the young lady and Shirou are chatting. It makes for nice white noise.

As always, the young lady doesn’t miss a chance to tease. “Did you try that walking trick again, Emiya?”

“…No. We were sparring, so all I could do was fight back.”

“Hmm…yes, that makes sense.” Archer sidles into the conversation. “Have you had a successful mana transfer? You have blood to spare, after all.”

“Yeah, my blood’s worked just fine.” Shirou sounds a little stiff, like he’s resisting the urge to punch Archer. It’s a common problem.

“Good,” Archer says, impersonal as always.

Lancer ignores the suspicious thoughts worming around his mind and focuses on the pot full of water that’s supposed to be boiling. He doesn’t need to remember he and Shirou kissed at that table.

No, that’s not the problem here. It’s more like—Shirou’s cooking up a scheme, or something.

He’s had that feeling for a while: since after he beat Assassin. When they walked home, it felt like Shirou was weighing something in his mind, trying to work out a solution to a problem with no easy answers. And then today, when the young lady stuck around, and Shirou got annoyed over such tiny things…

Lancer sighs and shakes his head. I’ll just focus on not setting the house on fire.

He’s almost finished making miso soup when the young lady politely excuses herself.

As soon as she leaves, Shirou says something strange.

“Hey, Archer, when you gave Lancer your mana…I don’t think I thanked you for that. You helped us out, even before we were allies.”

“Oh? What an unexpected topic.” And yet he doesn’t sound surprised at all. “Has that been bothering you, all this time?”

Lancer turns his head slightly to hear the conversation better.

“…Not until today.” Shirou’s almost serene. “Lancer told me about how you tried to win that sparring match before. You offered your body, right?”

Archer chuckles. “I’m surprised he admitted it. But then, perhaps that’s to be expected. You two have a strange bond.”

There’s a stretched-out pause. The pot bubbles and hisses, carrying the mouth-watering scent of broth and boiling tofu. Steam floats up and mists against Lancer’s face. His skin sweats; he wipes his forehead with the back of his arm. When it comes to ignoring the tense talk behind him, he's doing a poor job of it. 

The lull in the conversation starts to grow unnerving, and Lancer tries to think of something to say. A joke, maybe, or mentioning that the soup's almost done. 

Shirou speaks first.

“…I won’t let you steal Lancer away.”

The roughness and hint of weary acceptance in Shirou’s voice makes Lancer’s heart sink. He turns around fully this time, ready to object—

—But Archer beats him to it.

“Lancer would never allow me, even if I wanted to.” His voice is surprisingly gentle. His face betrays no emotion. “And we are allies, remember?”

Shirou blinks in surprise, like he really did forget that for a moment. Or he didn’t think Archer was the honorable type. He turns toward Lancer, an unspoken apology in his eyes.

“Don’t worry about it,” Lancer says, letting the oven mitts dangle loosely from his hands. “It makes sense you’d ask that. And hey, he got a straightforward answer out of you, Archer!”

“That he did.” Archer settles into a more comfortable position, his hands resting on the table where anyone can see them. He’s open, unarmed—somewhat. “It wouldn’t do for me to grow predictable.”

The atmosphere grows calm, befitting a kitchen.

When the young lady comes back, and the soup cools, dinner is served. This time, the miso soup smells much better, and Archer nods in satisfaction at the taste. It doesn’t quite have the flavor that Lancer remembers Archer’s soup having, but it’s a start.

“So,” Lancer says, once everyone’s eaten and the dishes are cleared away, “about Saber.”

“What about her?” the young lady asks. “She hasn’t attacked us once since the first night. She’s had plenty of opportunities…”

“…So why hasn’t she taken them?” Archer rests his elbows on the table and loosely clasps his hands together. “Either Saber is waiting for the right opportunity, or her Master’s holding her back.”

Shirou scratches his head. “Why not both?”

“Because, as a seasoned Heroic Spirit, she should have come after us while you were fighting Assassin.” Archer’s brows furrow. “It makes no sense.

Lancer doubts Archer’s saying half-truths. The confusion in his grey eyes and the subtle tenseness in his hands are very real. But since Lancer has no idea how to help with that, he chooses to listen.

Archer continues: “Perhaps we should have reconnaissance of our own. We need to know her whereabouts if we plan to face her.”

The young lady leans forward, her twintails threatening to pool onto the table. “What about the gold Servant?”

“He’s a later problem,” Lancer says. He doesn’t want to think about that Kingly bastard for a long while. “Saber’s our enemy right now.”

“…Is she?”

Lancer looks at Shirou, who’s staring thoughtfully at the ceiling. “Well, yeah. Normally I’d be with you on this. But let’s be real: when she was stalking us that night, did you get a good feeling about that?”

Shirou keeps staring up at the ceiling, his brows furrowed. “Not really.” He turns his head toward Lancer. “But like Archer said, she hasn’t attacked us…and she helped Illya. We shouldn’t just ignore those things.”

The young lady rubs her arm with a frustrated frown. “Unfortunately, we can’t just talk about this all day, either—especially not when it’s almost dark.” She looks around the table. “If we’re going to go patrolling, we should do it now, before Miss Fujimura gets here.”

“Oh, yeah. Good point.” Lancer glances toward the clock and stands. “Well, since we’re running low on time, why don’t I go patrolling while you three stay here?”

Shirou shakes his head. “You just fought Assassin, you need to rest!”

“We don’t have time for that,” Lancer retorts. “Look, Saber and that gold Servant won’t be lazing around anymore. There’s only four Servants left, and—”

Archer stands too, his eyes dark and intense. “For once, I agree with your Master. Save your strength, and let me search for Saber.”

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what Archer’s really after. This is the perfect chance to figure out what Saber’s up to, and perhaps to have a conversation before nightfall. After that…well, Archer’s not the type to loiter anyway. It’d be fun to watch the young lady lecture him about that, for once.

Lancer shrugs and folds his arms behind his head. “Sure, why not? I’d like to hear what you find out, though.”

If I find anything.” Archer’s lips quirk into something resembling a smile as he turns to spirit form.

There’s a pause as Shirou, the young lady and Lancer stand around the kitchen table. Nobody says a word, lost in their own thoughts. Then the young lady looks at Shirou and Lancer with curious eyes.

“Something wrong, Tohsaka?”

“Oh, not really,” she says, her head slowly tilting to one side. “I’m just surprised neither of you have snuck after Archer yet.”

Lancer moves his hands to his waist. “I don’t feel like it.”

“Really?” Shirou blinks at him. “Why not?”

He paces back and forth aimlessly. “That sounds too tedious—I mean, knowing him, he’ll be back in a flap of a crow’s wings. And you trust him, young lady. Right?”

She glances away and sulks. “…Of course I do. Don’t be stupid.”

Lancer grins and doesn’t say anything more.

“I see,” Shirou says, a hint of playfulness in his voice. “Tohsaka’s just bored!”

The young lady sulks even harder, muttering something about Shirou’s denseness.

Before Lancer can tease the young lady again, the doorbell rings. A familiar, cheerful voice calls out Shirou’s name—Fuji-nee’s here. Sounds like someone else is with her too.

“Well, you won’t be bored now,” Shirou says, as he lopes over to the front door. “I’ll be right there, Fuji-nee!”

The young lady puts a finger to her lips and slinks to the sliding doors leading outside.

“You’re not staying?” Lancer doesn’t get it.

“Oh, you know, Fuji-nee’s old fashioned.” It almost sounds convincing, if not for the dull look in the young lady’s eyes. “I’ll come by tomorrow, okay?”

She leaves before Lancer can convince her otherwise. The sliding door doesn’t make a sound as she opens and closes it behind her.

…Weirdo.

Elsewhere in the house, Shirou opens the front door, and Fuji-nee bursts in like a storm of good cheer.

“Shirou,” she wails, her voice carrying through the mansion, “I missed your cooking so much!”

Lancer struggles not to laugh.

“What about me, huh?” Shirou grumbles goodnaturedly.

“What’re you talking about, of course I missed you too!” There’s a thump like someone's shoe fell off.

“Ow! Hey, you’re—squeezing—mmph.”

Lancer, still chuckling, takes his sweet time coming to the rescue. He finds Shirou and Fuji-nee hugging each other in the front hallway. Fuji-nee’s holding him tight, while Shirou can only pat her back and teeter on the tips of his toes. There's an empty inside shoe lying on its side next to him. His eyes beg Lancer for mercy.

“Hey there, Fuji-nee,” Lancer says, leaning comfortably against the wall.

Fuji-nee detaches from Shirou, bringing him back to solid ground (and his shoe). “Eh…?”

It takes her a moment to recognize him. He hopes it’s not because her eyes are blurred with tears.

Then she beams and lunges for him. Warm arms wrap around his back. “Have you been taking care of Shirou all this time, Mr. Lancer? Oh, thanks so much!”

“Sure thing,” Lancer wheezes, as Fuji-nee’s arms squeeze the air from his lungs. Is she…really crying? Oh, man…

“Oops, sorry,” Fuji-nee says with an embarrassed giggle, before clinging to Lancer’s arm and dragging him to the kitchen. “Hey, we should celebrate, right? Let’s have some beer!”

“I can’t say no to that,” Lancer says with a grin, “especially not from a pretty lady like yourself.”

Fuji-nee snorts. “Oh, come on! Flattery will get you nowhere!” Despite her words, she’s practically skipping.

Behind him, Lancer can hear Sakura’s voice, quietly thanking Shirou for inviting her to dinner. She doesn’t sound like herself, but then that’s to be expected. Huh. Maybe that’s the reason the young lady ditched us.

“Hey hey, Lancer—have you visited Kiritsugu yet?”

“Uh…you mean his grave, right? Nah, haven’t had time.”

“Aw, you should! Kiritsugu’ll be happy to see you and Shirou.”

That catches Lancer’s attention. “Does Shirou not go?”

Fuji-nee’s smile turns a little sad, and she shakes her head. “Maybe it’s still too soon for him to visit.”

The idea disquiets Lancer, so he promptly ignores it. “Hmm, maybe I’ll go tomorrow…”

Just like that, the kitchen’s lively again. Lancer and Fuji-nee get into a drinking contest, and eat the miso soup as a “beer buffer”. Later, she introduces him to sake, which is sweet and sinks into his head like a stone.

Not to waste the chance to cook together again, Shirou and Sakura plan out tomorrow’s breakfast (traditional again) and get to work. They chat about goings-on around town, like ordinary folk.

By the time night falls, Lancer’s too stuffed and pleasantly drunk to move. But who cares?

Time passes. There’s good food, full bellies, and everyone’s smiling. It's how a gathering should be. But Lancer notices Shirou the most. He's totally relaxed, from his smile to his toes wiggling lazily on the cushion. 

Lancer smiles and takes his leave.

---

He goes on the porch, needing to cool his head.

There’s no wind. The sky is cloudy, with a few specks of light peeping in here and there. Night air chills the floorboards as he sits down, his hands between his spread knees. He’s a little tipsy, so the yard is a blurred mess of grays and blues. The rest of him feels nice, though, all loose and lazy. His foot kicks a stone, sending it bouncing. Darkness welcomes it.

A sliding door rattles, and someone new walks onto the porch with delicate steps.

“Ah,” says Sakura, “so you were out here.”

“Mm,” Lancer says, his voice drawn out and sluggish. “Siddown.”

The floorboards shift and creak underneath him as Sakura comes closer. She chooses to stand. Her shadow stretches past Lancer’s, as if trying to race him to the far wall. Her figure looks strange, like she’s lost her limbs.

“My brother is dead,” she says, her voice very small.

It takes Lancer’s slurry-brain a bit to remember what to say. “Sorry for yer loss.”

“…Oh. Thanks.” There’s an awkward pause. “Senpai said you cooked the miso soup.” Then, shyly, “It was good.”

He turns to look at her. She’s still hidden in the porch awning, and there’s only the dim glint of her white blouse to prove she’s there at all. Her hands are clasped against her waist, twisting in the fabric. Her eyes are red around their rims, a bitter parody of eyeshadow.

“It—it’s good to come here,” she says, a barely hidden rasp in her voice. “This house is…it’s warm. Don’t you think?”

“Yeah.” He grins at her. “You help.”

Sakura giggles, like she’s obeying an unspoken order. “Shirou’s right, you’re a flatterer!”

He doesn’t miss how she retreats deeper into the shadows.

Something twists inside him. “Hey. Sakura.”

She starts. “Y-Yes?”   

“If…if someone tells you”—he points a swaying finger in her general direction—“you can’t come here anymore. They’re wrong.

This time, Sakura doesn’t laugh it off. She can’t. She stands there without saying a word, her fingers digging into her blouse. It’s hard to tell if she’s angry, sad, or feeling anything at all.

“Sorry,” Lancer says, mustering up a laugh. “Too upfront, huh?”

“…No,” Sakura says, her voice fragile like autumn leaves. “Not at all.” She bows politely and says something too quiet for Lancer to hear.

He cups a hand to his ear, giving an inviting grin. “What now? Didn’t catch that.”

She turns timid and soft, but when she moves closer to him there’s something bright in her eyes. “I said, um…‘Thank you.’ And there’s another thing, but it’s…it’s hard to say out loud.”

“That so—well, do yer best, anyway.”

The corners of Sakura’s lips turn up hesitantly. “Okay.”

This should be good. Lancer leans forward, his hands dangling loosely between his knees.

Sakura takes a deep breath, lets it out, and points a stern finger at him. “What are your intentions in staying here?”

It takes forever for the question to make sense. Lancer can only stare dumbly at the finger pointed at his forehead, and watch as Sakura crosses her arms in a very familiar pout. It’s a little more cautious than the young lady’s, though. Maybe.

“W-Well?” Sakura asks, bordering on regretful.

“Uh,” Lancer says intelligently. “Let me think. Still kinda drunk.”

She waits. It’s an ominous sight, actually, with her looming over him with huge, worried eyes. It’s enough to make him wish he hadn’t drunk so much alcohol.

Well, he’s always had quick recovery on that front, like everything else. The problem is he’s never had sake before, and his body’s struggling to process it. He sighs and stares down at the ground. His vision’s swaying a little.

At the speed of a turtle after pulling an all-nighter, he figures out what he'll say.

“Well,” Lancer lifts his head to look at her, grinning. “I’m still here 'cause nobody said I couldn’t stick around.”

Sakura nods, her eyes downcast. “…I see.”

“D'you want me to leave?” Best to get this out in the open, while there’s time.

“Not really.” Sakura’s flustered by her own answer. “A-As long as we’re all okay with it, and you don’t cause Senpai any trouble.”

“So that’s what this is!” Lancer forgets himself and tries to elbow her side; she dodges easily. “You’re as pro-tec-tive as Shirou, huh?”

She takes it as the joke it is and laughs, a short, sweet sound. “Well, Senpai normally lives here by himself; I want him to have a good time.”

“Oh. Makes sense t’me.”

After a little more idle chatter, Sakura heads home with Taiga. There’s a curfew now, due to all the problems Fuyuki’s been having. A smart move, considering.

Lancer doesn’t move from his spot, content to cool his heels for now. In the distance, he can hear an owl’s haunting call, followed by another nearby.

He shuffles into the kitchen to get some water, and finds it empty. Shirou’s still around—he’s taking out the trash. Lancer considers helping out, but Shirou seems to have that taken care of. He takes his water and heads back onto the porch, taking leisurely sips.

Little by little, the fog fades from his head.

The moon peers out of the clouds. Its stark light casts the yard in an eerie, silvery glow. It’s like Lancer’s wandered into a world without color or sound.

His head doesn’t feel stuffed with wet cotton anymore, and his tongue doesn’t stick to the roof of his mouth. Even if sake’s good, I’ll stick to my old standbys from now on! He thinks of Assassin and gives a low whistle. That guy had good taste in a lot of things. Too bad.

It looks like he isn’t allowed to be alone tonight, because Shirou steps onto the porch. Not like I mind—especially if it’s him.

He turns his head to look, and sees that Shirou’s changed out of the sweat-stained shirt. Now, he’s wearing a creamy-white sweater that outlines his body in smooth, lean curves. It’s buttoned up to the first button, hinting at a black shirt underneath it.

Shirou isn’t as hesitant as Sakura; he strolls over with his hands in his pockets, curiosity plain on his face. “Are you doing okay, Lancer?”

“Thanks to my sober-juice here,” Lancer says, holding up the cup of water lazily. He takes another sip and sets it down by his side. “How about you?”

Shirou yawns and blinks slowly. “Too much happened today.”

Lancer raises an amused eyebrow. “Even with Fuji-nee and Sakura around? Well, that makes sense. You did cook a lot.”

“Hmm, that’s not it. Cooking calms me down.” Shirou goes over to a wooden beam and leans his back on it, his body subtly curved toward Lancer.

Lancer crosses his legs, one foot bouncing slowly up and down. He knows Shirou well enough by now to figure he’s getting his words together.

“Maybe this is selfish of me,” Shirou murmurs, “but I can’t decide if I want to spend more time with everyone, or just you.”

Lancer’s foot continues bouncing. “I’m not surprised; today’s the first time this house was crowded in awhile.”

“Hmm, that’s true.” Followed by another lingering glance.

Lancer looks at him askance. “You’ve been thinking something about me all day today. Care to share it?”

“…Well, I wanted to. But now I’m tired, and you’re drunk.”

“I was drunk. Now I’m just lazy.”

“There’s a difference? Wait, don’t answer that.”

“Heh. Got it.”

Shirou fishes around in his pocket, pulls out what looks like a candy tin. “Oh, yeah—Tohsaka gave this to me. It’s supposed to help with my Magic Circuits.”

Lancer leans forward, suspicion prickling his skin. “Help how?”

“Well, Tohsaka’s been teaching me more about Magecraft.” Shirou squints at the back of the tin, looking for instructions. “It’s been pretty haphazard, considering our circumstances, but this morning we covered plenty of ground.”

Lancer listens to whatever’s rattling inside the tin—something hard—and doesn’t sense a trap.

“…‘Don’t chew, just swallow’…okay. She said that I’ve been going about it all wrong, basically making a new Magic Circuit from scratch when I shouldn’t have to.”

Lancer kicks himself for not seeing it sooner. “So she chewed you out, I take it.”

Shirou smiles sheepishly. “I was prepared, this time.” He reaches into the tin and pulls out a blue jewel, gleaming like candy in the moonlight. “Anyways, Tohsaka gave me this to ‘open’ my Circuits permanently.”

“Can I see it for a sec? I don’t want you poisoned.”

“Uh, sure.” Shirou tosses the jewel to him casually.

Lancer catches it in midair and peers down at it, turning it this way and that. It’s warm. Not just with Shirou’s body heat, but with the power stored inside it. The young lady must’ve stored her mana here, which makes this jewel quite a handsome gift.

“It’s safe, so far as I can tell. You’ll probably feel weird at first, though.” He tosses the jewel back to Shirou, who leans forward a little to better catch it.

“Thanks—Tohsaka said something about that.” Shirou holds up the jewel and steels himself. “Okay, here we go…!”

He pops the jewel into his mouth, manages to swallow it.

Silence. The porch turns cold with tension.

“Uh, Shirou?” Lancer gets up and moves to Shirou’s side. “Hey, you doing—”

“—Ugh.” Shirou’s face scrunches up. “There’s no flavor.”

Don't scare me like that! “Uh…yeah, only dragons can eat jewels.”

“I know! But still, you’d think a Mage’s medicine would taste good, compared to the usual stuff…” Shirou closes his eyes. “…Oh, it’s melting now.”

Since this is “Mage medicine” at work, Lancer fully expects something strange to happen; a surge of overwhelming power, maybe. Or more realistically, Shirou gets a headache.

An ominous gurgle comes from Shirou’s belly. He presses a hand to his middle. Another gurgle. He wobbles, threatens to fall to his knees. “…It’s…hot…?”

Lancer hates it when he’s right. He reaches out and wraps his arm around Shirou’s shoulders, holding him steady. He nearly lets go on contact—Shirou’s skin is burning up. Shit.

Shirou winces and awkwardly straightens his back. “Don’t…worry about me, Lancer.” His voice is unsteady and rough, but he’s able to speak. “Tohsaka said there could be s-side-effects like this.”

Lancer hurries Shirou back inside. “How long will they last?”

“…Um.” Shirou hangs his head then gingerly looks to Lancer. “It’s like a 24-hour bug, Tohsaka said. So I’ll be fine tomorrow afternoon, maybe a little later.”

Lancer catches a glimpse of the tin’s instructions. “It says here ‘The pain can last for two to three weeks. Please, try to bear it.’” He looks pointedly at Shirou. “Some bug.”

“…Oh.” Shirou grits his teeth—it almost looks like he’s grinning. “Well, like I said, twenty-four hours.”

Lancer can’t help but grin back. “…Fine. That’s my Master for you!”

Shirou’s bedroom isn’t far away. Their footsteps are uneven as they trudge down the hall. He can tell that Shirou’s still in pain, but it seems his training’s paying off—he never faints once.

Instead, there’s a torrent of rambling.

“Tohsaka said…some metaphor about a switch in my head, for my Magic Circuit. Before, I turned it on and shut it off without letting it acclimate to my body. But with that jewel…right now, my Circuits are on full-force, so I feel like I’ve just ran a marathon in five minutes.”

“But you can turn it off, right?” Lancer pushes open the sliding door.

“…In a moment, yeah. Maybe I should try it out?”

“Pull a stunt like that, and I’ll sit on you until morning.” Not the most intimidating threat, but with the right tone, it gets the job done. 

“What are you, an incubus?” Shirou sighs. “Okay, okay. Tomorrow, then.”

Shirou stumbles into his bedroom, disheveled and drenched in sweat. Not that different from this morning. His back hits on the futon, and his eyes flutter as if yearning for sleep. The window’s open a crack, letting in a breeze to cool his body. He’s all set for now.

“You did good today,” Lancer says. He tries and fails to fight back a yawn. “Could’ve done without the sudden ‘bug’ though.”

“It’ll be useful, you’ll see.” Shirou murmurs sleepily, resting the back of his hand on his head. “Good night, Lancer.”

“G’night.”

He lies in bed and waits until Shirou’s breathing evens out before his eyes close. Hopefully, he won’t dream of Fuyuki burning or of Emer’s tearstained face tonight.

A dreamless sleep isn’t as comforting as he hoped.    

Chapter Text

The next morning finds Shirou healed and rested. Naturally, he and the young lady celebrate with a Magecraft lesson. From what Lancer overhears…they could be going better.

“Ugh, Emiya, the lamps can’t handle that amount of energy! Center yourself, and let your mana flow in a trickle at a time.”

From the shed, another lamp shatters.

That makes five now. Or is it six?

“Sorry,” Shirou mutters. “Um, normally when stuff like this happens, I create smaller things to center myself. Would that be okay?”

“‘Create’…you mean like Projection? Hmm. Well, if it’s small, your Circuits should be able to handle it now.”

Curiosity piqued, Lancer wanders across the thawing yard to check things out. 

He opens the shed door a crack and pokes his head in. “Yo!”

“Hi, Lancer.” Shirou smiles warmly at him.

The young lady’s head turns to look at him in shock. “You shouldn’t just barge in,” she scolds, with worry lacing her voice. “Magecraft needs to be confined to one place.”

Lancer’s surprised—last he knew, that wasn’t how it worked. “Whoops. I’ll close the door then.”

The hinge squeaks as the door shuts behind him.

The young lady and Shirou sit opposite each other on the green tarp, with lamps broken beyond repair scattered around them. Sunlight filters in through the window high above, glinting on the shards of glass.

Shirou blinks as his eyes adjust to the lighting. “Do you need something?”

“Eh, not really. Can I join you?”

The young lady tilts her head to one side. “Emiya said that you told him the basics early on. What's so interesting about more of the same?”

Lancer rubs the back of his neck sheepishly. “You’re doing a better job teaching him, though. Anyway, Shirou’s never done that ‘Projection’ thing in front of me before.”

The tarp crinkles under Shirou as he pats an empty spot. “Sure you can watch—if you’re okay with it, Tohsaka.”

She nods, looking suspiciously pleased. “If Lancer’s near, Emiya can relax more.”

“…Have I been acting nervous, Tohsaka?”

She giggles and tosses her hair. “No more than usual, when it comes to our training.”

Lancer grins and sits cross-legged on the tarp. “Is that so? Glad to hear it, on both counts. ‘Steady hands and a steady mind’, that sort of thing.”

His knees are an inch from touching Shirou’s. Warmth spreads comfortably between that gap.

Shirou clears his throat. “Okay, I’m starting.”

Immediately, Lancer can feel the difference in the air. The shed is less stagnant, restricted. Everything turns still and silent. Watching Shirou’s closed eyes and extended hands rippling with green circuitry, it strikes Lancer how helpful the young lady's been.

“Trace…on.” It’s a familiar invocation.

Shirou’s Circuits glow to life, from his arms to his fingertips. He doesn’t say anything, but from the small twitches of his face, he’s reciting a spell in his head. His fingers dance in the air. 

After a flicker of bluish-green light, a screw rolls in the palm of his hand. Then comes a nail, longer and heavier.

Whoa,” Lancer says, leaning forward to get a better look.

“It’s pretty cool, right?” Shirou smiles wryly and holds them up for inspection. “Unfortunately…watch.”

In the light of the sun, both screw and nail crumble into dust and vanish.

The young lady shrugs one shoulder. “That’s why I told you to focus on Strengthening. In the end, Projection can only make momentary fakes.”

“That’s true,” Shirou says with a sigh. Then he holds out his hands again, palms up. “Still…there’s something else I want to try.”

The ritual repeats. This time, when Shirou’s Circuits start to glow, there’s more power in them than Lancer expected. What next, I wonder. A hammer? A lamp?

Then things turn strange.

Shirou’s palms shake. Something begins to form between them, thickness tapering into thinness. Sweat trickles down Shirou’s face, but he doesn’t stop.

After a flicker of bluish-green light, a dirk appears in his hands.

It’s impossible, but it looks straight from Ulster’s armory. The polished blade is iron, dark and slight. The hilt is bone, simple and unadorned. There were as many copies as there were soldiers to wield them. And thousands of years later it’s balanced in Shirou’s palms.

The young lady stares at the dirk and back at Shirou, like there’s some sort of trick. If so, it’s high-class stuff.

Shirou smiles with pride. Carefully, he places the dirk in the middle of the tarp for everyone to see. There’s a subtle, sped-up rise and fall of his chest—this Projection took more out of him than he wants to admit.

“Lancer,” the young lady says with quiet intensity, “do you know what this is?”

He nods and reaches out to touch it. “It’s a weapon from my time.” As his finger nears the handle, he flinches on reflex—it’s still hot. “It’ll vanish like the others, right?”

Shirou hums in thought. “…Yeah, in a minute or two. It should be cool now.”

Lancer picks up the dirk and eyes the balance. It’s good, if a little lighter than it should be. Angling the blade through the air, he grins at the familiar swish-swish that comes with it. Good steel, too.

“I saw it in a dream, last night,” Shirou says cheerfully, resting his hands on his knees. “And it seemed simple enough to do, compared to the others.”

The young lady somberly stares into the middle distance and ponders. “I know I shouldn’t enable my student,” she murmurs, “but Emiya…could you Project Gae Bolg?”

Lancer turns queasy at the prospect. This dirk alone took so much of Shirou’s time and Circuits, what would a Noble Phantasm do?

“If I wanted to die in the process, sure. Swords and things like that are easier.”

The young lady winces and gives a self-deprecating smile. “I guess I deserved that comeback, huh? Good. It was just a theory.”

Lancer watches the dirk turn to cold dust in his hand and doesn’t say anything. Projection, huh…that’s something to keep in mind.      

---

At lunch, Archer goes and needles Lancer about his cooking skills. Because of course he does. It must list in his Servant contract: be muscled like a maiden’s fantasy with the lashing tongue of a dissatisfied master at arms.  

“Weren’t you supposed to be hunting Saber, bowman?” Lancer grumbles, after Archer finishes his overlong lecture on preparing tea.

“There is little to report,” Archer says, watching the teakettle with unblinking eyes. “While she did head this way yesterday evening, her Master appears to have forced her to return to their base—wherever that may be. Sadly, I lost her in the next town over.”

“Still,” the young lady says, coming in from the porch, “we shouldn’t let our guard down. We could be missing something.”

It’s hard to believe that, when the day goes by so leisurely.

There’s one pleasant change of pace: Lancer and Shirou get to work at Copenhagen again. It’s been ages since Lancer bussed dinners and drinks to waiting customers, watched the bartender do her drink-mixing tricks with a playful smile, ignored the stale-beer stench of the garbage bags he and Shirou haul outside. (He could do without that last part.)

When Lancer gets the chance to catch his breath, he spots Shirou looking him over out of the corner of his eye. When they pass each other, there’s a strange spark in the air, like one can’t help but notice the other’s movements. Even the slightest brush of fabric on fabric makes Shirou startle. It’s a wonder nobody else gets smothered in this tension.

But then, the customers come here to get drunk. The next round’s all that matters.

Just like that, their shift is over.

---

They make their way back to Shirou’s place, their hands almost touching but never meeting.

The soft sunset and sharp winter winds battle for dominance, forcing out any chance for conversation. But that’s fine. Today’s been a quiet day, and Lancer can appreciate silent walks every now and then. Even now, as boredom creeps into the edges of his mind like a cloying fog.

This evening the bridge’s walkway is empty. Aside from passing cars, Lancer and Shirou are the only ones ambling across.

Words tumble out of Shirou’s mouth, breaking the silence. “Lancer, I’ve been thinking about mana transfer—can we talk about it?”

“Sure, sure.” The lingering heat is mutual.

“…Actually, I’ve been doing research.”

Lancer looks at him with pride. “Good idea!”

“Thanks,” Shirou says, looking a little more comfortable. “If what Tohsaka says is true, Masters and Servants need to share skin contact for the transfer to work.” He wipes sweat off the back of his neck; it glints in the light of the setting sun. “Anyway. I’ve been researching how to have sex with a guy—school only talks about what a man and a woman can do together. It’s different from what I expected.”

“Huh. How so?”

Shirou folds his arms over his chest and stares at the metal walkway, deep in thought. “…Well, it’s not that different at all. The penetration is in a ‘different place’ so to speak.” He frets silently for a moment before continuing. “It doesn’t sound very comfortable.”

“You mean up the—”

“—Um, yeah, up the butt.” Cue a noticeable clench. “Th-that said, the textbook showed there’s other ways to feel good with a man. It’s in my room, if you want to look at it later.”

“Eh, it can wait. Find anything else?”

“…That’s about it.” Shirou kicks a stray pebble, and it tumbles off the walkway and into the river. “Oh. Well, one more thing…”

“I won’t laugh.”

Despite that assurance, Shirou holds it in like a knight with the runs in the middle of suiting-up. After struggling for half the length of the bridge, he finally cracks.

“…Th-threesomes are doable.”

Lancer raises an eyebrow and leans closer mischievously. “Got any ideas for a third party?”

Shirou looks out at the river for a long moment, before slowly looking back to him. “I’ve thought about this for awhile. You said Archer offered his body to you, right? He’s an ally, but it still vexes me a bit.” He bites his lip. “I figured we could kill two birds with one stone. That is—when it comes to mana.”

“Heh. We sure could.”

The more Lancer thinks it over, the more the plan has potential. Tumbling Archer and Shirou at the same time, and hopefully getting some of this tension out of the way…it should’ve occurred to him sooner. That is, outside of late-night fantasy.

A flustered, flushed face. “I-If it’s a problem, Lancer, we don’t have to. Please just forget it!”

“Nah, I had a hunch that would come up. Sounds good.”

Shirou’s shoulders sink in relief.

They cross the bridge, and the topic turns to dinner.

Lancer keeps track of the sun as it sets, wondering if Saber’s going to come out of hiding. But the only thing that appears is the first, lonely star in the purpling sky. He stuffs his hands in his pockets and lets out an explosive sigh. The need for something to happen sings in his veins, desperate and needling.

It doesn’t have to be a fight. Just—we need to keep things fun.

---

After a simple dinner of beef on rice, Lancer pats his belly contentedly and basks in the afterglow of another delicious meal.

“I’m glad you liked it,” Shirou says with a grin before turning down the heater. A series of clicks, and now they don’t have to worry about the house burning down. “Today went well, huh.”

“Sure,” Lancer says, not wanting to move much right now. He’s not so full that it hurts to breathe. Rather, it’s just the right amount that he could fall asleep where he sits.

Shirou putters around the kitchen, a roiling mass of nervous energy. There may as well be a bride on her wedding night waiting in his bedroom. At the rate he’s going, in the next minute the floor will melt from under him. That, or he’ll have more holes than socks.

“Now’s my chance,” he murmurs to himself, puttering out the door and down the hallway.

Lancer struggles to stay awake. Obviously, his Master’s going to come back with something important, so he shouldn’t fall asleep in the meantime. Not having the heater on helps—the winter night seeps in through the kitchen window, under the sliding doors. The air chills his feet, forcing him to stand.

Might as well go look for him…

Lancer finds Shirou in his bedroom, with the contents of his wallet spilled onto the futon. Money, a school ID, balls of lint, a bike permit, and…

“Oh, yeah,” he says, as Shirou holds up the aquarium tickets from the mall. “Looks like we forgot about those.”

“Technically”—Shirou checks the tickets with disgust—“I forgot the expiration date.”

Lancer scratches a prickling itch on the side of his nose. “Does that mean the aquarium’s closed down, or something?”

“No, thank goodness. It just means we have to pay more to get in.”

“We can split it, if we have enough cash.”

“…That’s true.” Shirou nods twice. “Yeah, that should work.”

Lancer leans his arm against the doorframe and grins. “So, want to go to the aquarium tomorrow?”

Shirou puts the tickets to one side, sulking. “I wanted to ask you first.”

“Oh, okay—wait, why that way around?”

Shirou doesn’t answer at first. It takes a bit for him to find the words again. I guess it’s that kind of day.

After smacking a fist against his palm, he gives Lancer a serious stare. “I want to hang out with you.”

“Sure. But aren’t we already hanging out?”

“Well, yes—I mean, no. I don’t just mean at home, or working at Copenhagen!” From the depths of his chest flows an exasperated sigh. “Why is this so difficult? What I’m trying to say is…”

Lancer has a hunch about where this is going. But he’s been wrong before. So he waits. There’s plenty of time.

“…I want to go on a date with you, Lancer!”

“A…date.”

Somehow, that wasn’t the conclusion he expected. Not entirely, anyway.

He knows what a date is: it’s a courtship ritual with a different coat of paint and just as many unspoken rules to follow. (At least Ulster’s rituals were obvious about it.) Of course Shirou’s hung up about that—he’s an ordinary guy with a “thing” for a Celtic hero who showed up in his shed one night. Courtship would do them both good.

“Uh, Lancer? Hello?” Shirou’s halfway to his feet, holding out a hand to wave in front of Lancer’s face.

“Sorry! I was just thinking about dates. Speaking of…what brought this on? The mana transfer talk?”

“Not at all.” While it may be truthful, it’s said a little too chirpily.

Lancer lifts an eyebrow. “Aww, you don’t want to be seduced?”

It hits Shirou head-on, and he’s totally unprepared.

“Wait a minute…you haven’t been doing that already?”

Now that’s a weird question. “Jeez. People don’t ‘accidentally’ kiss each other breathless, you know.” Lancer moves away from the door and leisurely crosses the threshold. “In particular, I meant seducing you on our date tomorrow.”

“Oh, okay then,” Shirou says, blunt as a bottle to the face.

The conversation halts, and so does Lancer.

The alarm clock ticks away, heedless of the heat filling the room.

“Well,” Lancer purrs, “I’ll do my best then.”

As it dawns on Shirou just what just happened, Lancer’s heart grows lighter and lighter. It takes all his restraint not to bust a gut in response. 

“Hold on, hold on, hold on—!” Apparently, a Master’s lungs are first-rate when they’re embarrassed. “We need a do-over, a do-over!”

Lancer rests one hand on his hip and doesn’t hide his disappointment. “I agreed to the date, though.”

“I know you did!” His heavy breathing slows. “It’s just—I want to seduce Lancer too. But it’s difficult when you’re always one step ahead of me.”

And there it is. “Sorry, it’s instinct.”

Shirou blinks at him guilelessly. “It’s okay. I like that about you.” He cracks a smile. “I’ll show my best side to you tomorrow. It’ll be a challenge, since you’re my opponent, but I won’t lose!”

Lancer’s no stranger to compliments, whether it’s giving or receiving. So his mind only goes a little numb in response.  

Shirou rubs his chin in thought, oblivious to his own charm. “Come to think of it…I’ve never been on a date before.”

"Could've fooled me!"

"How?"  

“Nothing, nothing. You know what a date's about, so that’s good.” Lancer claps Shirou on the back, nearly bowling him over. “And hey, if you don’t know what to do or say, make it up as you go!”

“…Yeah, that’s about what I expected from you.” It’s not meant as an insult. Probably.

Lancer shrugs it off with a grin. “Oh, well. You’ll see what I mean. That said…” He grins and bows at the waist, his hand over his heart. “…I’d be honored to join you tomorrow.”

Shirou gets all flustered and insistent that Lancer doesn’t have to be that formal, really, which Lancer takes in stride. Acting a little knightly now and then has its perks—it netted him that sweet reaction.

---

The next day, they take the bus down to the center of Fuyuki.

It’s a strange sensation, riding inside this huge horseless carriage. The engine rumbles beneath Lancer’s feet, tickling his soles and the backs of his thighs. The leather seat squeaks whenever he adjusts his weight. Through the window, the morning sun glows on the rolling streets, turning the world into a blur of gold and silver.

He can feel Shirou staring at him out of the corner of his eye. He peers over his shoulder at his Master. “Something on my face?”

“Eh? Oh, no—that’s not it.” Shirou rubs his eyes sleepily. “I’m not used to seeing you in this sort of scenario, that’s all.”

“This is new to me, too,” Lancer assures him with a smile.

Shirou smiles back and rests his head against the back of the seat. His eyes flick to Lancer’s trousers then hastily snap back to his face. “…The leather pants are unexpected.”

Lancer stretches out his legs, watching the black leather squeak and gleam in the morning light. “Pretty flattering, huh? I bought these with the coat, but I didn’t have a chance to wear them until now.” 

To be specific, he forgot about them—who knows how. They cost more than the coat and CD player combined, despite being on sale.   

Shirou hums and looks him over thoughtfully. “Tight, white shirt and black leather…” He likes what he sees. “…You look like a rock star this way.”

“‘Rock star’, huh. Is that like a bard?” That could be flattering, depending on the bard.

Shirou smiles and folds one leg over his thigh. “Basically.”  

This would be the perfect time to get some shut-eye. Lancer slept like a log, so he’ll be fine. Outside, he sees a blurry flock of pigeons fighting over scraps of food.

He sneaks a glance at Shirou, whose eyes are already drooping shut. He’s wearing that green sweater with a white shirt today, which makes his jeans look rugged by comparison. Lancer can feel the edge of the sweater’s sleeve against his back; it’s soft and inviting. For a guy who’s never gone courting, he starting on the right foot!

The bus rumbles on. There aren’t many passengers today: not counting Shirou and Lancer, there’s an old lady and a kid. Those two are probably related; they’re chatting happily enough. Their voices are muffled, so Shirou sleeps right through their disembarking. Lancer worries the shriek and hiss of the automatic doors opening will wake him, but they don’t.

Finally, Lancer spots the aquarium through the window. As the announcer chirps their destination over the speakers, Shirou jolts awake.

“Don’t sweat it,” Lancer says gently. “We’re here and on time.”

As they disembark, Shirou tries to smooth out his hair, as its flyaway in the back. “…I didn’t snore, I hope.” He picks at a tangle near his ear with furrowed brows.

“Nope.” Lancer pays for the bus fee, much to Shirou’s consternation.

“Let me pay, next time.”

“Sure thing.”

Lancer realizes there’s a busy street between them and the aquarium. Shirou must notice too, since he takes Lancer’s hand in his. His cheeks are rosy from the cold air.

“Before you say anything,” he says, as the walking signal turns on up ahead, “remember to look both ways.”

Lancer takes his advice, checking for cars carefully before they step off the sidewalk into the street. Even on a weekday morning, people surround them. Couples, a cluster of old women, hordes of schoolchildren…they pack Shirou and Lancer between them like salted fish at market. The morning sun splashes down from the crystal-blue sky. It forces Lancer to shield his eyes with his free hand to better see the walking sign.

“Hello, mister!” a little girl chirps to Shirou. She’s holding her classmate’s hand, swinging their joined arms back and forth. “Are you coming to see the fish, too?”

“That’s right,” Shirou says. “What do you want to see?”

“Umm…the seashell room!”

“No, let’s visit the eels,” her classmate says gruffly, pink scarf swaying in the breeze. “They’re cuter.”

Lancer admires her taste, but her partner gasps in horror.

Eww. They’re all toothy and gross; what’s cute about them?!”        

“Both places sound like fun,” Shirou interrupts gently. “I’m sure you’ll have a good time.”

The two girls step onto the sidewalk first, and are whisked away by the rest of their class toward the kiosk. Lancer and Shirou hang back a bit, letting others push their way through the throng. Then they move on.

“So this is it, huh,” Lancer says, staring up at the whitewashed walls and cheery cartoon fish frolicking at the front gate. “Cute.”

“It’s different inside,” Shirou says, letting go of his hand. “Come on, lets go pay.”

Going Dutch works without a hitch, and soon Lancer has a glossy, sea turtle-decorated keepsake to bring home. Shirou’s ticket has a frilly, lamp-like creature on it. 

“Shirou, what’s that thing?”

“…Oh, this is a jellyfish. They’re usually found deep in the ocean, and can be all different sizes. Even though they look pretty, they can electrocute people with ease.”

“And we can see these things here? Amazing!”

Shirou looks around for a brochure, finds one and begins skimming. He’s surprisingly intense about it. “…Ah-ha, they should be further inside. In the meantime, up ahead there’s something just as amazing—well, according to this, anyway.”

The “amazing thing” turns out to be a long, looping tank, and filled with creatures Lancer’s never seen before. Aside from schools of more ordinary fish, there’re fierce-looking creatures called piranhas with gaping mouths full of needle-like teeth, which come from someplace called the Amazon. Alongside them swim arapaima, greenish-gold fellows with pancake-like dorsal fins and stately (if bulbous) eyes. Amazon warriors must be tough as stone, to live in a place with beasts like these!

Shirou squints at the little plaque detailing all the fish. “…Apparently, you can cook arapaima, but they’re endangered because of it.” He looks at them and sighs. “Bad news all around.”

Lancer watches as a flag-like electric eel swirls menacingly through a piranha school, scattering them in a flash of silver. “Well, there’s always a bigger predator.”

“Indeed,” says Archer from behind them.

They both whip around to look at him; Shirou says what they're both thinking. 

“What are—wait, you’re physically here!” He admires Archer's clothes grumpily. “Ugh, you look good too? That’s outright unfair.” 

Lancer wants to reassure him, but it's an understandable complaint. 

Archer somehow manages to look both casual and professional in a black long-sleeved shirt and matching trousers. If Lancer didn’t know better, he’d think the hint of exposed chest was an accident. The boots are the same as always, judging by the faint glint of the steel toes. He’s hard to make out in the dim light of the aquarium, which must be the point.

“Fairness has nothing to do with it. I simply wanted to get an amusing reaction from you.” Archer shrugs one shoulder with a snide curl of his lips. “What a pity Rin missed it.”

It's hard to tell if Archer's lying by omission or in the mood to screw with Shirou. Who am I kidding? With this guy it's both.

Lancer grins and loops an arm over Archer’s shoulder—which he rebuffs. It’s not out of coldness, exactly, but more like the touch wasn’t expected.

Oh well. Lancer's arm settles over Shirou's shoulders instead. “Archer, want to check this place out top to bottom with us?”

Archer glances at the huge tank for a moment, quietly fascinated. “In a moment. Can you see?” His shoulder nudges against Lancer’s, warm and welcome. “The electric eels are on the hunt.”

They move through three floors worth of ocean life.

At a wave-simulating tank that’s almost thirty feet long, Archer explains that it’s designed to let animals in and out as they please. Turtles with shells dappled by the sun glide serenely through forests of emerald kelp. On the second floor, Dolphins trill at them through the glass with watchful eyes. Swirling jellyfish dance by, aglow in a thousand colors. In the darkness of their tank, they remind Lancer of the dangerous beauty of will o' the wisps. 

And on the third floor, Shirou finally gets to see the whale sharks.

It’s obvious why Shirou was interested in them. These sharks are massive, easily dwarfing Berserker ten times over. But at the same time, they’re as docile as cows. And they’re lookers, too; their skin is decorated in white spots that catch the sunlight above the tank in a pleasant, glowing ripple. Each time one passes by, blotting out onlookers with its shadow, Lancer realizes how little his people understood the sea, despite loving it.

“Amazing,” Shirou murmurs, getting up close to the glass. A baby whale shark bustles by, tucked in close to its mother. “I had no idea they were like this…!”

“No kidding,” Lancer says, stepping back to give some kids a better view.

Archer peers at a nearby plaque. “‘Whale sharks can dive 4,219 feet’…hmm.” No matter how he tries to hide it, he’s impressed.

Lancer snorts. “Oh, come on, you can’t die of fun.”

Shirou gasps, and both Archer and Lancer turn their attentions to him. “Look at their mouths, they’re huge!”

Lancer calls this date a success just for Shirou and Archer’s reactions.

Unfortunately, the walrus and penguin enclosures are too crowded to get a good look. Shirou, Archer and Lancer cut their losses and head out for…wherever, really.

Every so often, Lancer notices Archer’s scoping out the area, like he’s searching for enemies. For once, Lancer leaves him to it. There are other things to worry about, anyway.

As the morning ambles on, it’s hard to ignore that Shirou’s paying more attention to Lancer than the sights. And not in a good way. He reeks of desperation. Each place they go to, he acts like he expects a miracle. Corner stores, boutiques, and later a bowling alley…there’s a constant nervous energy buzzing around him, combined with forced cheer. Even Archer’s cutting remarks miss their target entirely.

“It’s official,” Archer complains over fresh taiyaki at the station, “Emiya Shirou has no idea what a ‘date’ is.”

“Humph. Of course I do, idiot. We’re just taking a break for lunch.”

Lancer eagerly takes his own bag of taiyaki from the vendor. It’s fresh from the oven and guards his hands from the chilly air. Fish-shaped pastry, huh. We can’t make these at Shirou’s place!

Archer hasn’t let up. “If you were going to act this way, you should have stayed home.”

Shirou shakes his head obstinately. “I asked Lancer out on a date. He accepted.” He tears off the taiyaki’s tail with surprising force, spilling gooey sweet bean paste into the bag it came from. He swallows and wipes crumbs away with his thumb. “There’s a few hours to go until work—we’ll make this count!”

Lancer munches on the doughy, sweet head of his taiyaki, humming in agreement. It’s all he can do with his mouth full.

---

The batting cages are where things finally get fun again.

There aren’t many people here, but the sound of baseball bats knocking against each other like huge wind chimes provides plenty of noise. It’s cold outside, but the green benches in each cage aren’t frozen. Beyond the green rope cages, the pitching machines gleam. They stand at the ready like a cross between practice dummies and catapults, loaded up with balls to throw.

Lancer adjusts the heavy black helmet on his head and grins in approval. Everything’s set.

“…And those are the rules,” Shirou says, as he enters the cage beside Lancer, bat at the ready. “Do you have any questions, Lancer?”

“Nope,” he says, picking up a bat. It’s smooth, lightweight, and lukewarm to the touch. “Just tell me who goes first.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Archer calls from the sidelines, pointedly not joining in.

Lancer grins and glides the bat across the ropes. The gentle rasp of metal on cord makes him shiver with delight.

“You shouldn’t do that,” Shirou warns, looking around nervously. “These aren’t exactly sturdy.”

“Got it.” Lancer hefts the bat with both hands, arcs his arms back. “Here goes…!”

When the pitching machine makes its first throw, the bat swings through the air. With a metallic clink, the ball goes flying toward the other side of the lot.

(He’s being very, very careful, so as not to attract attention.)

“Not bad, for a first try,” Shirou says, looking pleased with arms akimbo. Then he picks up his own bat. “All right, my turn.”

His aim is better than Lancer’s, but the ball doesn’t go as far.

Archer’s not even being subtle about patrolling the area. He’s marching all the way around the lot like it’s a fortress he was ordered to defend on pain of death. I guess someone has to keep a lookout.

Lancer swings again, and this time his ball goes off course and bounces off the side of the wall. “Huh,” he says, scratching his head. “Wonder what happened.”

Shirou sizes up the situation. “Well, maybe it has to do with your stance.” He turns his body sideways to demonstrate, widening his legs.

Lancer copies him. “So, like this?”

“Hmm. Yeah, like that, but—let me see your arms.”

“Are you sure? I mean, the machine is still going.”

“Oh. Yeah, it should stop once I step away. See?”

It’s easy to let Shirou into his space. His Master’s steady hand offers a firm touch. It gently guides Lancer’s arms back, with emphasis on the inner elbow.

There’s a slight shiver; Shirou noticed Lancer’s muscles again. Then he lets go and takes a step back to his cage. “If you arc your body a little before you swing, the ball should aim better.”

One hit later proves him right.

“Hey, thanks—you know your stuff!”

“You’re welcome. I’ve had a little practice, here and there. Fuji-nee likes this place.”

“I can see why.” Lancer hears the pitching machine revving up. “Looks like it’s your turn again.”

One match turns into two, then three: Shirou’s not the sort to give up easily, even while playing around. Seeing him smile determinedly as he sizes up the next ball, and the satisfied nod when his aim’s true, never get old.

“Hey, Lancer, I have a question.” Taking a break, Shirou rolls his shoulders as Lancer gets ready for another throw.

He whacks another ball. “Go ahead.”

“I know Gae Bolg is your Noble Phantasm, so it’s your most famous weapon. But in my dreams, I’ve seen you with different ones, like ‘regular’ spears and a sword or two. So did you master every weapon?”

“Pretty much. I can be summoned as a Saber, too.” His pride shines through in his voice and the wide arc of his bat. Another ball out of the park. “In the end, Gae Bolg’s my weapon of choice. I trained long and hard for the right to wield it!”

“…I see.” Shirou smiles back at him. “It’s beautifully made, and it definitely suits you.”

Lancer’s taken aback for a second, but he soon recovers. “Teacher’d be pleased to hear that!”

A moment later, Archer appears with a bat of his own and something resembling a smile. “Keeping watch is dull work. I need a change.”

Lancer waves him over with a light heart. “Whatever the reason, you’re welcome to play! Use whichever cage you want.”

“The one next to you will do nicely.”

Shirou nods and wipes sweat from his brow with the back of his wrist. “Do you know the rules, Archer?”

“Naturally. I read the whiteboard earlier.” Archer gives a practice swing. The muscles of his arms bunch and relax beneath his shirt in a seamless, sensual ripple. “Unlike Lancer, I need no coaching.”

“Says the guy who ‘read the whiteboard earlier’. Watch out, Shirou, we've got a armchair specialist coming through!”

Shirou matches the pitch's speed no problem. “Uh-huh.” He's too focused for wit.

Archer blocks the sun with a hand over his eyes. “How fast are the pitches?”

“50 mph,” Shirou says, holding his bat warily.

Archer’s smile turns challenging. “Make it 100.”

Lancer punches the air, more than ready to square off against him.

Hours later, the results are in: Archer is the sorest loser, worse than Shirou, and Lancer’s a shameless enabler. Four balls are shattered beyond repair, puking rubber and leather into the dirt, and two bats…can’t be called “bats” anymore. And that’s with Servants being careful.

Shirou groans and rubs his arms, his sweat-drenched hair shining like copper. His bat (in one piece) lies on the ground like a defeated foe. “I have no muscles left. None.”

Lancer gently strokes Shirou’s back, the sweater tickling his palm. “You did your ancestors proud.”

Archer dusts off his hands with a pleased expression. “I didn’t expect to be so refreshed. I suppose that deserves praise, Emiya Shirou.”

“Thanks, I guess,” Shirou says, still slumped over.

Despite how much fun they’re having, they can’t play forever. It’s getting late. Once Shirou’s fully recovered, it’s time to head for Copenhagen.

Outside the batting cages, the sky is a striking blue that stings Lancer’s eyes if he looks at it too long. The buildings reflect that brightness with a thousand gleaming windows. Kids and teenagers are walking to and fro in a sea of uniforms, some chatting in pairs, others traveling alone with varying degrees of comfort. The air’s chilly—not cold enough for snow to fall, but it’s enough to make a grin feel tingly and painful.

Archer isn’t corporeal anymore. His pale blue outline blends in perfectly with the colors around him as he stands patiently at the curb.  

“…Were you trying to win at all, Lancer?”

Lancer turns back to look at Shirou, whose suspicious look is sharpened by standing right where the game center’s roof ends. It paints his face in light and shadow.

“Sure I did. Your aim’s too good, that’s all!”

Shirou’s lips quirk into a sheepish smile, and he scratches the bridge of his nose. “Thanks. I guess you’d call that a talent.”

“You better believe it.” Lancer presses back toward a business sign, letting a young couple sashay by. Once they pass, he ambles on.

The air around him shifts as Shirou comes up beside him, matching his pace. There’s a slight bounce in Shirou’s step, out of place among all the weary plodders dragging their bodies home from school.

“Did you have fun today, Lancer?” His voice is suspiciously casual.

“Hmm? Oh, yeah. Don't worry, you kept your promise.” 

Shirou nods and looks up at the sky. “I’m glad,” he says softly.

Archer may be invisible to humans, but Lancer can see the easy stroll in his walk just fine.

It doesn’t take long before Shirou’s feet begin to drag like the others’. His chin droops. Lancer can tell he’s sneaking glances at him, but why he’s doing that isn’t clear. Halfway to Copenhagen, it still isn’t clear—when Lancer tries to ask about it, Shirou forcibly looks away.

“…I’ll tell you later,” Shirou mutters under his breath. “It’s not something I can just ask in public.”

Lancer’s satisfied with that answer…for now, anyway.

---

Copenhagen’s surprisingly busy. So much so that Lancer doesn’t realize the threat closing in until it’s almost too late.

It’s understandable. He’s caught up in waiting tables and all the order-taking, plate-balancing and customer-satisfying that entails, along with a growing weariness from today’s date. He’s paying attention to the people he’s serving, but their faces don’t register. After Shirou finishes dusting up a broken plate near one of the window booths, he drops out of mind. The shift drags its heels like a obstinate brat before bedtime. 

Lancer finishes carrying the latest empty plates over to the kitchen sink, and stops at the sensation of a chilled invisible hand touching his arm.

“Archer?” Lancer mouths, looking over his shoulder to see the wavering outline, the hard set of his jaw.

You need to leave,” Archer whispers, so soft that only a Servant could hear. “She finally showed herself.

“Huh?”

Look through the kitchen window, idiot.

Frowning, Lancer does as suggested. Dusk is staining the tables and floor of Copenhagen, staining the wood. At one of the window booths, the purple light emphasizes the somberness of a beauty’s prim and proper getup.

She stands out in this place, like a warrior in a sea of civilians. Her black suit makes her braided bun look even more formal. She’s petite, so she has to lean forward to rest her feet on the floor. A car passes by, splashing bone-white light across her hair. Her straight-backed posture is strikingly similar to Archer’s, but with her delicate hands resting on her lap she looks less severe. (Not by much, though.)

Wait a second…

The beauty’s head turns. Green eyes rimmed with dark circles stare him down like he’s a rotten tree that needs chopping.

You see?” Archer whispers tensely.

Lancer can only nod.

Saber blinks slowly at him, probing for weakness. Finding nothing useful, she shakes her head and turns her attention to the window. Everything in her posture says Lancer’s dismissed.

She’s searching for someone else—and it’s easy to guess who.

On instinct, Lancer looks around for Shirou…and doesn’t find him. He's not in the kitchen nor at the tables.

His heart lurches. The customers’ chatter and the clinking of glasses seem both louder and muffled.

Meet me outside,” Archer murmurs, and swirls away.

Lancer tells the owner he has a family emergency and immediately heads off to find Shirou. Where did I see him last? When did I see him? His mind’s a blank. Fellow staff members crush past, carrying plates, bottles, steaming pots—and Shirou isn’t one of them.

Pressing on, barely seeing where he’s going, he finally remembers the door not far from the back room. It leads outside. It's the only option left.

To human eyes, he's a gust of blue.

Propped open by a crate of olive jars, there’s a breeze from the door. It opens at the slightest touch, revealing a dark alleyway. There he finds Shirou…who just finished feeding the dumpster.

He already took off his apron, which means Archer must have talked to him earlier. And he still worked his shift, down to doing my job for me. Jeez, this guy...!

“Oh, Lancer, you saw—”

Lancer presses a finger to his lips. There's no point in an escape attempt if Saber finds out midway through.  

They pick their way through the grimy, trash-filled alley. Cars rumble and roar up ahead—do they count as “civilians” in Saber’s mind? It’s hard to say. The only thing Lancer can count on is Saber’s order to observe, not kill…which could be removed at any time. And she’s tried to kill Shirou twice!

The alleyway is long and thin, not ideal fighting conditions. Lancer keeps Shirou at his back. If Saber wants his Master, she’ll have to kill the Hound of Ulster first.

Shirou’s breath is warm on his back. “Shouldn’t we move faster?”

“We could,” Lancer says, his shoulder bumping against a grimed wall, “but we’d risk running into her trap.”

At the alleyway’s exit, space distorts. Archer’s outline is visible in the flashes of gold and red headlights that rush by. His blurred head looks back and forth, up and down…and sees nothing. He gestures for them to come forward.

Lancer picks up his pace, but he doesn’t let Shirou rush by him either. There’s no telling what will come next—no matter how carefully Archer’s watching.

Act natural,” Archer orders, and jogs off toward…well, Lancer isn’t sure, but it’s better than an alleyway.

It’s hard to say if they’re retreating, or acting as bait. Perhaps it’s a mix of both. The tension crawling up Lancer’s back doesn’t fade, even after walking two blocks.

This doesn’t feel right. It’s too convenient…

Lancer looks over his shoulder every so often to see if Saber’s following them—and of course she is. At first glance, she’s doing a better job of “acting natural” than they are. But her relentlessness gives her away. Where a “no walking” sign glows to life, she jumps over the cars and races across roofs. When the crowds grow too thick, she powers through them as if they’re obeying an unspoken order to move.

All the while, her gaze is fixated on Shirou’s back.

After a long walk, Lancer realizes they’re at the edge of the Einzbern Forest. It’s as wet and dreary as ever. Some trees are hunched over, almost at their limit—the last snowfall at work. The ground is wet and mealy beneath Lancer’s feet, not good for combat either.

A twig snaps. Lancer arms himself in a flash of blue, ready for Saber’s attack…

…Until the young lady comes into view, standing by one of the bent trees with a pensive expression. She’s wearing her long red coat over her casual clothes, looking every inch the Master. Well, if the weather turns again, she’ll be wishing she had earmuffs.

“Saber isn’t here yet,” the young lady says, gesturing toward the Einzbern Mansion. “She was hanging around here most of today, waiting for something.”

To be more specific,” Archer says coolly, turning corporeal mid-sentence, “Saber was waiting for you two. And when neither Servant of Master arrived, she opted to track you down instead.”

“Were you here all this time, Tohsaka?” Shirou asks, reaching down to dig up a rock from the wet ground. “Sorry about the wait.”

The young lady shrugs, her smile confident. “Just before sunset.”

Archer summons his matching swords. “Lancer, you and your Master should have taken the night off work.”

“No way,” Lancer complains, giving Gae Bolg a little spin. “We can’t all be homebodies like you.”

Shirou scowls as moonless night seeps into the forest like spilled tar. “I hope Illya’s safe.”

The young lady slips a hand into her skirt pocket, pulling out some gems. “Her maids are stronger than you’d think—they’ll take care of her.”

Grass rustles.

“Everybody shut up for a second.” Lancer’s eyes flick around the forest, watching and listening intently.

Nobody speaks. The forest is silent; there’s no trace of wind, or animals. Lancer knows it’s impossible for Shirou or the young lady to see anything in this dim starlight. For his part, all he can see is blobs of shadow.

Behind them, a burst of silver-blue sparks lights up the clearing. Saber’s here, and armed.

Her voice is as soft and cold as snowfall, but it carries well. “Only one Master and Servant pair may claim the Grail, and none of you desire it.” Her anger cuts through the air like a sword sliding from its sheath. “Lancer and Archer’s Masters: I suggest you relinquish your Command Seals now, if you wish to avoid unnecessary bloodshed.”

“There’s no one else here,” the young lady growls, “and even if we did give up, you’d kill Illyasviel!”

Saber doesn’t deny it. “Very well. I gave you two days’ respite, on my Master’s orders. But you cannot avoid my blade forever.”

Lancer shrugs and points Gae Bolg at her shadowed face. “I don’t know about that. You’re pretty outnumbered right now.”

Saber’s armor clanks as she adjusts her sword. Even from this distance, and in this darkness, Lancer can see the wind spell curling around the blade. It’s held out to one side, ready to swing.

“All the better.” Metal boots shift on drenched ground. “Now, I ask you: shall we fight one-on-one, or all at once? The outcome will be the same, regardless.”

It occurs to Lancer that Archer’s been quiet this whole time. It’s hard to sense him, let alone see him. Should I check—no, it’s too risky. I’ll focus on protecting Shirou right now.

A sharp wind rushes by Lancer’s ear. Twin swords spin Saber’s way, glinting dimly in the dark.

Sparks fly; Saber shatters the blades with one blow. “Very well, Archer. We shall continue our match first.”

Archer lunges in from the side, clashing with Saber head-on.

Playing spectator’s not as fun as Lancer hoped. First: it’s dark, so he can’t see beyond his nose. Second: there’s more than one unfinished match here, and Lancer’s been itching for action for a while now.

“Lancer. Can you see where Saber is?” It’s Shirou, judging by the glowing green branch in his hands.

“Nope. Thanks for the light, though.”

From the sounds of things, Archer is putting up a good fight. Every now and then there’s a burst of sparks, showing Saber and Archer’s grim faces. Metal scrapes against metal. The ground trembles. Trees shake.

Someone skids toward Lancer; he steps back and readies Gae Bolg. Dirt rains on his boots.

“It’s me,” Archer growls, and lunges for Saber again.

Shirou’s branch wobbles—the leaves must’ve tripped him up. “Maybe if I throw this, we can distract Saber!”

Lancer throws out an arm to block him. “I know your aim’s good, but do you want to die?”

“Let me go!”

Crack…BOOM. Too close, a tree topples and the ground shudders. In the dark, there's no way of knowing if something's about to fall and crush you.

Lancer gestures in the tree's general direction. “You see?!”

Shirou clicks his tongue and stomps toward the young lady.

Saber snarls. A gale blasts through the forest, sending Archer sprawling with a grunt.

“Wait, Emiya!” Two pairs of feet scrabble on the wet forest floor. “You'll just get in Archer's way…!” 

“I know, but we need to do something.”

“You should’ve run five minutes ago!” Archer yells, sounding a little out of breath. “Illyasviel will need your help. I will catch up with you—now go!”

Shirou’s Command Seal lights up the darkness like a fire’s spark. “Lancer—take us to the Einzbern Castle, now!”

That’s easy enough.

Lancer scoops Shirou and the young lady over his shoulders and dashes off. Ignoring both the Masters’ struggling for purchase and the pain burning in his chest (Command Seals are no joke), he jumps from tree to tree, the lights of the Einzbern Castle growing closer with each mad leap. Once he’s near the castle entrance, he goes the rest of the way on foot.

He grinds his teeth at the thought of Shirou running into danger again. He thought things were improving. Maybe I was wrong. 

That's something to worry about later.

His feet threaten to slip on wet leaves. He steadies himself just in time. With Saber behind him, a moment off-kilter could cost his allies their lives. A few more steps, and we’re safe!

Unfortunately, there’s one thing he didn’t foresee: a crater in the castle’s yard from the last time he was here. So he passes through the clearing, rushes to the stone steps…

…And trips.

The ground rushes up to meet him, hard and unforgiving. 

Which means he needs both hands for balance.

Which means he lets go of his cargo.

Which means the young lady and Shirou roll unceremoniously onto the grass, narrowly missing the steps by a foot.

In the meantime, Lancer saves himself a concussion with a roll off his own. Landing in a crouch, he stares out into the smog-thick darkness. Keen ears listen for the telltale sound of armored boots striding through the trees, and hear nothing. Saber’s mana feels distant—not out of the forest, but far away.

His breathing slows.

Illya runs out in what must be the clothes usually hidden by her coat. Her silver hair streams behind her like a banner. The stairwell echoes with the heavy thump-thump of her shoes.

“Are you okay?” Illya looks around concernedly at everyone, though she hasn’t helped the young lady or Shirou up yet. “I was going to send Liz and Sella to come to your rescue, but I guess I don’t need to.”

The young lady lurches to her feet like a wraith, covered in grass and dirt. “Lancer, watch where you’re going next time!”

“Sorry about that.” Lancer considers helping her, but she’s already brushing herself off without a problem.

He turns his attention to Shirou, who’s spitting out grass. “Need a hand, Shirou?”

“Ah, that would be good. The light’s a little blinding—whoa!”

Lancer pauses in the middle of hooking his hands under Shirou’s armpits. “Sorry, was that too rough?”

Shirou shakes his head; dried grass and clumps of dirt tumble from his hair. “…No, just unexpected. There's no need to pick me up, I’m not hurt anywhere.”

When Lancer guides him to the stone railing, he can’t help but notice how freezing cold Shirou’s skin is, even under layers of clothing. “Hey, Illya, is there a bath around here?”

Illya’s remarkably cheerful considering it must be past her bedtime. “Four, actually! I can have Liz and Sella prepare them for you. Do you need dinner, too?”

Lancer and Shirou’s bellies gurgle.

They haven’t eaten much (by Lancer’s standards) since they were at the taiyaki stand. Until Saber showed up, they were going to end their shifts and head to Shirou’s place to eat. That’s not likely now. Well, since Saber’s probably going to hang around here for a while, we can’t just leave Illya…

Just then, Archer returns. He’s in one piece, if exhausted and with tattered clothes. He has enough energy to lazily hold up a hand in greeting.

The young lady runs up to him, peppering him with concerned questions. “Archer, are you okay? What about Saber? How did you escape?”

“I’m afraid even my vision wasn’t of use tonight,” Archer replies, picking bits of bark from his sleeves. “I led Saber on a merry chase through the forest—but she’s determined to wait us out. As for how I escaped…I’d rather not reveal that just yet.”

Lancer sidles over and claps Archer on the back. “Whatever, you made it here. That’s something to celebrate!”

Archer doesn’t have a witty retort handy. His muscles are bunched and knotted from stress. That’s right—Saber was his Servant.    

“Illyasviel,” the young lady says after glancing worriedly at the forest, “We shouldn’t impose on you, but would you mind if we stayed here tonight?”

For a moment, Illya’s face glazes over with shock. Then she composes herself. “…But Saber’s out there, isn’t she?”

“She sure is.” Lancer points up at the ink-black sky. “But nobody’s going to do much when it’s this dark.”

“We should wait until morning to get anything done,” Archer adds curtly.

Shirou smiles gently at Illya. “More importantly, we’ve never visited your house before. I’d like to see it.”

Pale eyebrows furrow. “…Is this a trick?”

“No, Illyasviel.” There’s a hint of warmth in the young lady’s voice. “These idiots here are too honest for that—and what would we gain from lying?”

Illya goes through a whole thinking ritual: closing her eyes, folding her arms over her chest, turning her head to the side, opening one eye as if to check everyone’s being patient.

Then she nods and gives a proper curtsy. “Illyasviel von Einzbern bids you welcome.”

Chapter Text

“Sorry about the mess,” Illya says, skipping over to the main stairway ahead of everyone. The repaired chandelier gleams above her head, lighting up the ruined room. “Well, Sella says this part needs more work, but the lights and stairs are all that matter, right?”

Archer surveys the wreckage. “I’m impressed that they survived the encounter.”

“No kidding,” Lancer grumbles, not bothering to look at the place where he killed Berserker. Save for the chandeliers and stairs being in mint condition, nothing much has changed. “How’d you manage that, anyway?”

Illya beams. “Oh, I borrowed money from Grandfather! Then Liz and Sella took care of it.”

The young lady’s eyes glitter. “…Is that so. How much money?”

Illya’s smile turns sneaky. “Does the great Tohsaka heir need some donations? If you do whatever I want while you’re here, I can let you borrow some.” She looks off to the side. “Hmm, you’ll have to convert it to yen though.”

Shirou looks between them with understandable wariness. “Uh, Tohsaka, I know your Magecraft costs a small fortune, but—”

“—Thanks for the encouragement, Emiya.” The young lady tosses her hair. “Illyasviel, I’ll consider your offer.”

Illya’s giggle is downright ominous. “That’s fine. Give me your answer whenever!”

“We should have a bath before we eat,” Shirou says, sniffing his sleeve and making a disgusted face. “Your maids wouldn’t want us to track dirt everywhere.”

Illya shrugs. “You wiped your feet on the welcome mat so carefully, your shoes should be spotless. Don’t worry so much!” Then she smiles and shakes her head; she knows it's a lost cause.

“Oh, by the way,” Lancer says, thinking of something, “you don’t have to get all the baths ready. Shirou and I can double-up.”

Illya blinks incredulously. “Double…up?”

“What Lancer means,” Archer interjects calmly, “is that he and Shirou will share a bath between them.”

“…Wait.” Shirou turns to look at Archer in confusion. “Wouldn’t that just take the same amount of water?”

“As always, Emiya Shirou, you have no sense of scale.”

With that, the Great Archer versus Shirou Bath Debate begins. It’s about as nitpicky as Lancer’s come to expect from these two: how much water is too much, the difference between types of baths, whether the Einzberns have a well, on and on it goes. What was an easily answered question has morphed into a battle of ideals. Why? Because everything’s a battle of ideals with these two, in the wrong time and place.

Unfortunately, Illya doesn’t know that. She stands and boggles by the stairway. “Are…are they really…?”

“Yeah,” Lancer says, walking over and giving Illya’s shoulder a reassuring pat. “You get used to it. We just need to let them hash it out for a bit.”

“Oh.” Illya’s sneaky smile is back. “I could have Liz play with the water heater for a bit…”

The young lady smiles in turn. “That might be a little cruel. Maybe they deserve it, since they’re keeping us from dinner. What do you think, Lancer?”

He chuckles at the thought. “Not too cold. I’ll be bathing too.”

Archer and Shirou’s debate pauses—judging by their faces, they heard the ladies’ plan.

“…Sorry,” Shirou says, smiling awkwardly. “Maybe I’m too tired for dinner.”

No,” Lancer, Illya, and the young lady snap simultaneously.

Shirou flinches at the rebuke; his body tenses as if ready to fight them off. “I was just trying to make things easier for everyone. It’s obvious Archer and I are messing up the plan—”

“No way!” Illya stamps her foot, the sound loud as a firecracker in the huge room. “I know you’re hungry, Shirou. And you’re my guests. So I’m going to have dinner with you guys, and that’s that!”

The young lady sighs and covers her eyes with a hand.

“Hmph.” Archer strides up the stairs ahead of everyone. “Just use a sink for now, Emiya Shirou.”

Shirou looks off to one side and nods slowly.

“Ah, wait for me, Archer!” Illya dashes up the steps, trying to catch him. “I’m supposed to show you around, remember?”

The trip upstairs continues in single file. Illya is in front, chatting to Rin and Archer behind her. Shirou and Lancer make up the rear.

Lancer sighs at Shirou’s dejected walk. “I didn’t mean to shout you down.” His hand runs along the smooth varnished railing. “Your old habits showed up again, is all.”

“It’s what I’m used to doing,” Shirou says softly. He slowly straightens up, more like his usual self. “But Illya’s right, I can’t do much on an empty stomach.”

Illya leads them down a series of richly-designed hallways—good thing Lancer and Berserker never trashed these, repairs would cost a fortune. They stop at a pristine white-walled place where everyone can wash their hands. According to Illya, it’s not that special, but the “sinks” have more in common with the silver washing basins Eire’s kings had at feasts. The soap bars are in fiddly little wrapping papers like they’re at a hotel.

“I feel like I’m at the Overseer’s again,” Shirou complains, as soapsuds and tap water froth around his hands.

“Really?” The young lady pats her hands dry with a handkerchief. “This room feels pretty welcoming to me.”

Lancer’s prepared for the hot water this time. Drops splash on his face; he licks them off on instinct. “Hmm, this is definitely well water. It tastes different from the stuff at Shirou’s place.”

“It must be the lack of fluoride,” Archer says, standing impatiently by the door. “Pick up the pace, you three, or the food will go cold.”

That’s enough to get Lancer to leave the washroom behind. “‘Einzbern’…that would mean Northern food, right? What’ll that taste like, I wonder.”

The young lady follows him, in the mood for pondering. “Hmm, in Germany, dinner servings are small, so it won’t be anything extravagant. Sausages, maybe?”

Shirou’s lured over by the talk of cooking, stuffing a wet handkerchief in his pocket. “Sausages, huh…like hot dogs?”

A shudder wracks Lancer’s body. “Like what now?”

Shirou balks and tries to soothe him. “Ah, don’t worry, they aren’t actually dogs! They’re—they’re pig intestines filled with meat, like sausages. Right, Tohsaka?”

“Exactly. That was funny, but why’d you react like that, Lancer?”

“His legend says he can’t eat dog meat,” Archer explains, a hint of amusement in his eyes.

Shirou nearly bends himself in half bowing at the waist. “Please forgive me, Lancer!”

“Don’t worry about that.” Lancer appreciates the gesture all the same.

Shirou straightens up and furrows his brow. “…Oh, that’s right.” He peers around the doorway. “Is Illya nearby?”

“No,” Archer says calmly. “She must be giving her maids their marching orders.” His brows furrow in a familiar way. “Why do you ask?”

“Um. Well. I know it’s sudden, but there’s something I need to ask you three.”

“Sure, go ahead.” The young lady rests her hands on her hips and smiles.

Shirou stuffs his hands in his pockets, looks between them with serious eyes. “So, I’ve been thinking about this mana transfer business, and…”

Somehow that wasn’t what Lancer expected. He’s both happy Shirou’s going after what he wants and baffled by his timing.

As the plan gets outlined, Lancer gets to watch quite a show. The young lady’s face turns red from holding in her laughter. Archer’s eyebrows rise higher and higher, like they’re ready to breach his scalp and take to the air. And Shirou keeps his eyes fixed pointedly on the stairwell up ahead.

“…So. Um. That’s what I wanted to ask about.”

Lancer shrugs. “I was wondering if it’d come up. No time like the present, right?”

The young lady clutches her belly as she bursts into giggles. Her twintails bounce with every shoulder-shaking laugh. She’s never reacted like this before. It’s an honest, warm sound, and a delight to hear.

“What’s so funny, Tohsaka?” Shirou’s more stunned than annoyed.

“You, obviously.” Archer shakes his head ruefully. “It’s quite a talent. I must say, I’m jealous.”

Lancer’s snicker is hidden by the young lady’s fresh wave of laughter. “No kidding.”

The young lady’s a little breathless when she says “Wow, Emiya, you’re amazing! You only blushed a little bit this time.”

“I knew you’d make fun of me, so I prepared for the worst.” Shirou scratches his cheek and smiles. “I didn’t expect ‘the worst’ to sound that cute, though.”

She hiccups and covers her mouth in a flash of embarrassment. “C-Cute? Idiot. Well, I’ll take that as a compliment for tonight.”

Archer clears his throat. “Regarding the mana transfer, I have no objections to lending a hand. Against Saber, we need all the strength we can possibly get. What about you, Rin?”

The young lady breathes out and puts her game face on. “Then I’ll leave the rest to you, Archer.” Her composure cracks slightly as a mischievous smile crosses her lips. “You and Lancer have a history, after all.”

Lancer grins. “Glad that’s settled. Now lets go find Illya, or we’ll be late for dinner!”

---

The dining room is ridiculous.

Halfway through dinner, Lancer’s resigned that can’t get over this place. The pearl-colored walls are as ornate as the Church. The tablecloth is so clean and white it’s enough to make a guest paranoid about spilling anything. The chandeliers and surrounding lights cast the room in a silvery light, and there’s a glass case full of bronze statuettes in the corner. Their sightless eyes watch the proceedings. Even the mantelpiece mirror seems to judge him.

“Are you okay, Lancer?” Illya asks, seated at the head of the table.

“Uh, yeah, I’m fine. Just…impressed.” He takes a sip of wine—a good year. “Your maids are good cooks!”

“Thank you very much,” comes a soft voice from the door. Must be one of the maids.

Someone—the other maid—clicks her tongue and ushers her away. Their feet don’t make a sound on the carpet.

“…You’re welcome.” Shirou frowns at Illya’s side. “Well, at least one of us got to thank them.”

It’s strange, sitting across from Shirou rather than next to him. It’s stranger sitting on a chair and using a knife and fork; Lancer has to remind himself not to use the knife for everything. There’s something else on his mind too, something he hides under his usual smile.

Each second that ticks by means he, Shirou and Archer are that much closer to a mana transfer. He’s experienced enough that he’s not chomping at the bit to get them alone, but his Master isn’t so patient. It’s understandable. Doing all that research, fantasizing and planning, and then nothing comes of it? That’s a worse case scenario if there ever was one.

At the same time, it’s clear Shirou did want to visit Illya before the Grail War ended. They’re thick as thieves now, but who’s to say things will stay that way? Better to hang out now while they can.

Lancer distracts himself from those dreary thoughts by stuffing his face. He takes his time finishing his last sliced potato. There’s a hint of spice on it, but he can’t pick out which it is. Saffron? The Einzberns could afford that stuff by the pound.

Illya cocks her head to one side. “Is your dining room this big, Shirou?”

“It is—but everything’s simpler.” Shirou takes a bite of pork roast, chews thoughtfully and swallows.

Illya looks like she wants to lean forward. She keeps her back straight. “How is it?”

Shirou smiles. “It’s delicious.”

The young lady nods in agreement—she can’t talk with her mouth full. She and Archer are the farthest away from Illya; it’s a respectful distance rather than shutting them out.

Archer isn’t in critic mode tonight. That, or he’s keeping quiet for Illya’s sake. His bites are almost mechanical, and he hasn’t said much since they sat down. Which means Saber’s still in the forest.

“Archer,” Illya trills, “do you want to hear a joke?”

“…A joke, huh. Alright.” Archer puts down his fork and gives her his full attention.

There’s the sound of Illya’s shoe brushing the carpet. “Okay, here goes. ‘Knock knock’!”

“Who’s there?”

“A talking dog!” Illya throws back her head and giggles.

Lancer considers asking if that’s how the joke is supposed to go, but why ruin a kid’s fun? It’s better than her trying to kill us. 

The maids bring in desert, crisp apple pie that just finished cooling on the oven rack. Illya’s enjoying everyone’s company—this must be the most fun meal she’s ever had. It’s good to see, after the craziness of earlier.

As always, Lancer’s eyes are drawn more to Archer and Shirou.

It’s subtle, but they both seem to be enjoying themselves. Archer listens intently to Illya’s stories about her maids, his features a little more open than usual. Meanwhile, the young lady and Shirou explain to Illya how schools work, and other non-Magecraft things. Well, the young lady gives the broader picture, while Shirou goes into the smaller details. It’s fascinating to watch him talk, moving his hands every so often to make a point, and his seemingly-infinite patience when it comes to Illya’s questions.

“Wait,” Illya says at one point, “so your dad didn’t leave you his Magic Crest when he died?” It’s hard to tell how she feels about that.

“Well, I was a poor excuse for a student, even back then. Father said the things I was good at weren’t useful for a Mage, so he told me to practice Strengthening instead.” Shirou scratches his cheek and smiles sheepishly. “Tohsaka says my father wasn’t a good teacher, but what I learned brought me this far.”

Lancer puts down his knife and fork more forcefully than intended. The tinny noise they make against the porcelain grabs everyone’s attention. “Hold on. Did your old man really say your Magecraft wasn’t useful?”

Shirou shrugs. “He was right, though.”

“No.” Archer’s voice carries clear as a bell across a still lake.

“…What did you say, Archer?”

Illya scowls at the statuettes, her eyes wet at the corners. “…Rin and Archer are right.”

Shirou stares between them, bewildered. “What are you two talking about?”

Archer leans back in his chair, a thin film of casualness straining over his body. “If he didn’t want you to become a Mage, he should never have taught you at all. In the end, he wasn’t far from a Mage himself: callous and greedy.”

Seriously? You’re pulling this shit   now?

Shirou starts to rise from his seat. His body shakes. There’s something like killing intent oozing from him. “I won’t let you talk about my Father like that!”

Archer doesn’t move.

Okay, now you   really can’t read the mood. What, did you break a mirror over your head recently?

Lancer holds out a hand across the table in warning. “Whoa there, even ghosts like Archer and I shouldn’t trash-talk the dead. And we shouldn’t fight in front of our host.” He gives Illya a reassuring grin.

“I thought my silence was apology enough.” Judging by Archer’s annoyed sigh, he’s serious. “…I beg your pardon.”

For a long moment, there’s no expression on Illya’s face. Then she nods. “Hey, Shirou, are meter maids really maids?”

The tension slowly seeps out of the room.  

---

It gets late, and after everyone's brushed their teeth Illya sleepily leads her guests to their rooms. 

“Rin can sleep with me, since we’re both girls. We have lots to talk about.” She glances over her shoulder with a hint of worry. “Right?”

“Sure,” the young lady says, smiling genuinely.

For some reason, Illya’s thrilled. She clasps her hands behind her back, side-stepping a table laden with shiny knickknacks. “What about Archer?”

“I don’t intend to sleep.” Archer glances toward one of the darkened windows. “But then, with your Bounded Field in place, you have little need for watchmen.”

“Do what you want,” Illya says with a yawn. She turns around, the better to see where she’s going. “Hmm…Lancer and Shirou can share the room closest to the stairs.”

“Why that one?” Shirou asks, a floorboard creaking under his foot.

“It’s…warmest.” Illya doesn’t turn to look at him. “Don’t worry, we can hear each other if we yell.”

“Alright.” Fondness creeps into Shirou’s voice. “I’m glad you’re looking out for us, Illya.”

Illya gets a spring in her step. “Of course! Since you came all this way to save me, I’ll repay you.”

Shirou looks at the young lady curiously. “…I guess Mages are really alike, huh Tohsaka.”

The young lady nods. “That’s why I called you a true novice before.” She jabs a finger at him. “The medicine I gave you better not go to waste tomorrow, got it?”

Shirou nods twice, tense like he’s staring down an open bear trap.

“Good,” the young lady says primly, and ambles over to Illya. “So, where’s Emiya’s room?”

Illya stops and poses in front of a nondescript, brown varnished door. “Right here!”

The “warmest” room is also closest to the main stairs—which leads to the only exit. Looks like self-sacrifice is contagious. Lancer doesn’t say anything.

Illya bobs a curtsy. “Good night, everyone. See you in the morning!”

Archer bows at the waist with his hand over his heart, as a knight should. “Pleasant dreams to you and Rin.”

“Not to us?” Lancer teases, as the ladies head off to bed.

Archer smirks and says nothing.

“Let’s just go inside,” Shirou grumbles, opening the door…and striding into light too dim to see by. “Oh. Can you see the switch, Lancer?”

Lancer peers around the doorframe. After a bit of searching, he finds it and flicks it on. Warm light drenches the walls decorated in gold, swirling designs.

“Not bad,” he says, following after Shirou. He has to duck his head to avoid hitting the doorframe. The golden-brown carpet sinks slightly under his feet. “Cozier than I thought it’d be.”

“Cozy” describes their room very well: like the dining room, there’s a fireplace already lit and a mirror above the white mantle. On the opposite end of the room sits a yellow-curtained window and reading nook. The four-poster bed looks freshly made, the pillows plumped and piled up like a hoard of treasure. The white and gold comforter stuffed with feathers is particularly inviting.

“I found the bathroom,” Shirou calls, already opening a door a few paces away from the bed. “That makes things easier.”

“Good.” Lancer turns to Archer, lingering by the door. “You coming in?”

“In a moment,” Archer replies, flicking a wry glance Shirou’s way. “I have something I need to do first. I can’t feel comfortable until I give a proper patrol of the area.”

“Uh-huh. It's okay if you want to pass on mana transfer.”

“...Thank you. On the contrary, I truly do need to patrol.”

“Oh. Fine by me. Any idea when you’ll be back?”

Archer chuckles. “I’ll give you two plenty of time.” And saunters off.

Lancer shuts the door and has a stretch. “What now, Shirou?”

“Sorry, I need a bath,” Shirou calls, his hand resting on the bathroom doorframe. “I’ll be quick.”

“I can’t join you?” Lancer teases, before shrugging his shoulders leisurely. “Go ahead. I'll keep an ear out for the water heater.”

Shirou rolls his eyes good-naturedly and closes the door behind him.

---

He expects a long wait (he takes his time stripping the bed down), but in the end Shirou keeps his promise. 

With steam trailing in his wake, wreathing him in silver, Shirou steps out of the bathroom with his skin damp and flushed. His hair clings to his face and the curve of his neck. His jeans didn’t have grass stains after all.

With a steadying sigh, he eases the bathroom door shut with a splayed hand. He gazes over his shoulder at Lancer with a familiar heat in his eyes.

“Four days,” Shirou murmurs, turning to rest his back against the door. “That’s how long I’ve had to think about that mana transfer.”

For a moment, the world sways. It’s hard to believe this is really happening.

A slow smile crosses Lancer’s lips. “Sounds about right.”

Shirou rubs a hand over his face. “Damn it, I was that obvious?”

“Eh, you did your best. Got to say, I admire your patience!”

“When you put it that way, it’s like you expected me to be in heat.”

“Pfft, nah.” Then, a little softer, “But that walk of yours at the dojo…that was something else.”

Shirou smiles, a bright and hesitant little curve of the lips. “I’m glad it made an impression.”

“You did,” Lancer says, settling his hands on his hips before strolling forward. “Anyway, we’ve waited long enough, don’t you think?”

Electric heat seeps into the room with each step Lancer takes: one, two, three, four. He can see the rise and fall of Shirou’s chest, hugged by his shirt. It will be easy to slip fingers underneath it and feel the smooth heat of his skin. Come to think of it, everything’s clinging to him today. Were his jeans always that tight?

Shirou’s eyes roam across Lancer’s body, his lips parted. He doesn’t move from the door. Either he’s content to wait—or he doesn’t know what he wants to do first.

When Lancer’s close enough to touch, Shirou acts. With a ragged breath, he grabs Lancer’s shirt and tugs him down for a kiss.

A hungry moan leaks out of Lancer’s mouth, making their joined lips tingle. He missed this. Last time was a test run. Tonight the lack of mana won’t force their hand, no matter what Archer claims he’s doing this for.

Shirou’s fingers leave Lancer’s shirt. Both hands hesitantly lift to Lancer’s face, cupping it. Their touch is warm and gentle, with a hint of possessiveness. Lancer catches the scent of soap, and something like flour underneath that—remnants of the morning’s cooking.

He can’t hold back. His hands stroke Shirou’s warm sides, glide over the slim slope of his hips. The pads of his fingers tingle sweetly with each touch.

For a split second, Lancer gets a glimpse of the aquarium from Shirou’s perspective. It’s strange, seeing an outside view of his wide-eyed wonder, tinted blue by rippling glass. There are other fragments too—they’re more interesting. Warmth from two joined hands, the oil-slick gleam of leather, black silk on dark skin, the doughy-sweet taste of taiyaki, and blue hair glinting like sapphires in the sun.

Did my memories came through just now? I’ll ask later.

This time, when the kiss deepens, Shirou doesn’t pull away. Rather, his soft lips part invitingly. When he pulls back for air, his breath tickles Lancer’s cheeks. His pupils are dark and wide. He clumsily recaptures Lancer’s lips like he never wants to stop.

Then there’s the barest, wet flicker of a tongue. Lancer presses his arm against the wall for support, having little else to help him. It’s like Shirou’s tasting his mouth, trying to commit it to memory. Heat prickles against his neck.

Shirou pauses. “How am I doing?” he asks, already sounding breathless.

“Good, until you stopped,” Lancer says with a grin.

Shirou looks at him through hooded eyes. “Lancer…stand near the bed and close your eyes for a second.”

“Nervous?” Lancer asks as he does as he’s told. The bed presses firmly against his lower back. “That makes sense, considering.”

“…I’m not that nervous.” Clothes rustle. “I just don’t want you to see me fumbling around.”

After a few seconds of listening to the growl of a zipper and the whisper of fabric being folded on a nearby chair, silence fills the room.

“Can I…?”

“Huh? Oh. Yeah, you can look now.”

Lancer opens his eyes. Tries not to stare.

Shirou is only wearing his white shirt and dark blue smallclothes. His legs are more muscular than they appear, tapering on and on. That walk-about he did at the dojo only hinted at the view. But there’s something extra…

“You’re still wearing your shirt?”

Shirou’s toes curl in the rug. “Yeah. There’s—something I don’t want you to see.” He rolls his shoulders awkwardly. “It’s unsightly.”

“Nothing about you is ‘unslightly’,” Lancer says, his tone firm. Then he shrugs. “But I won’t push it.”

“Thanks…so, how do I look?”

Lancer grins and slips a thumb into his belt loop. “Come here.”

Shirou strolls over, his gaze lingering over Lancer’s chest and thighs with a hint of shyness. When he gets close enough to touch, he does. His fingers start in Lancer’s spiky hair, stroking back and forth.

Lancer’s nape prickles pleasantly, and warmth like honey glides down his neck. With a hum low in his throat, he dips his head down for another kiss—

—Thunk.

“Owowowow…!”

Their voices crash into each other, like their heads just did. The moment ruined, they clutch their throbbing skulls.

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t fast enough!” At least Shirou’s trying to smile about it.

Lancer laughs awkwardly. “I’m sorry about my shit timing.” He lifts up his hand to check for blood; there’s none. “You got a bruise?”

Shirou prods his forehead curiously. “No, but I might get one later.”

“Oh well, lesson learned. Ready for take two?”

Shirou nods and reaches up. “I’ll, um. I’ll pet your head again, like this. And then you…” His voice grows husky as Lancer pulls him close. “…Yes. That.”

Chest to chest, the heat of their bodies grows stronger, along with their beating hearts. His clothes are clingy and stifling, and he longs to take them off.

“Say, Shirou,” Lancer murmurs, “you said you were reading about lovemaking, to get ready for tonight.”

Shirou nods, still catching his breath.

“Anything catch your eye?” He drags the tips of his fingers along the muscled curves of Shirou’s back, grinning at the shiver he receives in turn. “I’m game for almost anything, y’know.”

Shirou doesn’t seem to know what to say. “…If you don’t mind,” he says, eyes wide, “I’d like to hear you talk for a bit. That is, while you touch me.”

“And I’d be glad to,” Lancer purrs, running his fingers up and down Shirou’s back the way he likes. “Y'know…I’m surprised we held out as long as we did. But I’ll make it worth the wait.”

“Mm. We should keep Archer in mind, too.”

Lancer’s hand glides down to Shirou’s waist, just above the swell of his ass. “Sure. Have you been thinking about him? What his voice sounds like when he’s hot and bothered…those steady fingers working me open for you…”

Shirou’s throat bobs. “A—A little.” His damp hands fumble for something to hold on to, staining Lancer’s shirt.

Lancer grins as Shirou’s fingers make a tingling slide to his chest. “Thought of something, huh?”

Shirou looks up at him with wide eyes. “…Lancer.”

“Yeah?” His words ghost against Shirou’s hair.

“Can you…get on the bed? I want to touch you too.”

That’s easy to manage. Lancer falls back onto the mattress, and backs up toward the pillows. He watches Shirou climb in after him, backlit by the fireplace with a pink glow seeping from his cheeks to his neck.

“You look good like this,” Lancer comments as the mattress dips beneath Shirou’s weight.

“Help me with your shirt,” Shirou says, and wets his lips. Compliments have to wait.

Lancer lifts his white t-shirt slowly, letting Shirou get a good look. Sure, his Master’s technically already seen his body before, but back then he was feverish and half dead—not nearly as appealing. The heat of the room makes the little hairs on his arms stand up.

“I thought you would be quicker than this, Lancer.” 

“Just giving you a show is all.” Pulling the shirt over his head, he grins and holds it out. “Want a whiff?”

Shirou rolls his eyes in amused exasperation. He folds the shirt carefully and sets it on the nearby nightstand, regardless of whether it's meant to be there. “It’s not like your armor hides much, but…” He sizes up the expanse before him. “…You’re seriously huge.”

Lancer snickers. “So you’re a breast man? I’m flattered.”

“N-No. I prefer your arms, actually. Ah, I mean—wait, no, hug me later! Your shirt came off for a reason, remember?”

“Okay, okay. So what next?”

He gets his answer once Shirou’s hand settles over his exposed chest.

“They’re already hard,” Shirou murmurs in surprise, as Lancer’s nipple tightens against his palm. “Can I touch?”

“Go ahead…mm, that’s it.”

A tongue hesitantly brushes his chest. “Ah—salty.” The quiet words tickle his skin.

Familiar heat trickles from his neck to his belly. “You’re…doing good, Master.”

Lancer eases their hips together with his hands. It’s easy to do, now that they’re at the same level. Shirou shivers at the contact, and it sends sparks of pleasure skipping down Lancer’s spine. Their bodies are tantalizingly close to being connected.

Shirou may not want to hear it, but he’s lovely like this. The shyness and desire and the hint of disbelief that this is happening, all of it shows openly on his face. Archer’s a fool to call that “weakness”. 

Shirou pants against his chest, his body understandably out of sync with the rest of the action. Fingers clutch at the sheets. His hips grind down on Lancer’s, faster and faster—he can’t control it.

“You’re close,” Lancer whispers in his ear, fingers pressing into trembling skin. 

“Lancer, I need—”

Yes, there’s no way Shirou can hold back much longer. The way he’s rubbing into Lancer’s thighs is proof of that. 

“—You do, huh? Then go ahead.”

He doesn’t get to see Shirou’s face when the climax hits, unfortunately. Instead, he gets to feel his Master shudder against his hips, struggling to hold in a voice that wants to be heard. 

Lancer slows to a stop, despite his own urges. He pats Shirou’s back, trying to soothe the man who keeps mumbling apologies like he just killed a maiden. Then, because it's that kind of night, Shirou slumps forward in exhaustion with all his weight. His chest crashes onto Lancer’s belly, knocking the breath out of him. 

It takes what feels like ages for Lancer to be able to talk again. Good thing Shirou’s doing enough babbling for three people.

“It’s fine when I’m alone, so why couldn’t it wait?”

“Now there's a familiar refrain!” Lancer hooks his thumb and forefinger under Shirou’s chin and lifts it to see him eye to eye. “Hey. Did you enjoy it?”

“O-Of course I did!”

“Good, good, then it’s fine.”

“Then why did you stop?”

“I didn’t want to kill you.”

Shirou pauses and squints at him. “…That tone’s a little cheery.”

“Huh, I guess so. Sorry! But you get the point, right?”

Shirou nods and props himself up on his hands. It can’t have been a strong release if he can move so soon. Master leans over Servant, his shirt tickling Lancer’s side.

“Lancer, I’m going to learn all the places you feel good.” It’s spoken like a promise—or a threat.

“But what about you?” If he thinks he’s going to ignore his own needs again without argument…

“Lancer,” a gentle rasp, “I just came.”

Oh. Right.

Lancer chuckles and gets comfortable. “Then knock yourself out.”

It turns out that’s—well, it’s not a bad idea, but it turns out that Shirou’s a tease. And it’s not in a “find out what works and move on” sort of way, either. No, he’s committed. Every stroke of a finger, every gentle squeeze, every swirl of a tongue, it’s all slow and soft like there’s no such thing as time.

“Shirou,” Lancer gasps, as Shirou breathes against his sweat-slicked abs, “J-Just touch it already…!”

“I want to, but—ah.” Shirou’s head jerks back as the leather tents. “There're a thousand ways I want to make love with you!”

That puts the teasing in a new light.

Lancer sighs and strokes Shirou’s cheek with a finger. “That's easy to fix. Try starting off small; using your hand or something.” He pauses. “You do know how to—”

Yes. Yes I do, idiot.”

There’s a knock at the door, brisk and blunt. “Archer. I’m coming in.”

Lancer props himself up on his elbows as Archer materializes into the room, wearing his casual outfit.

“You could go through the door,” Shirou says, his arms blocking his waist from view.

“This is simpler.” Archer soundlessly slips off his shoes and socks, setting them aside.

“Hope you don’t mind we started without you,” Lancer says, stretching luxuriously to show off his body.

“As if your Master could perform otherwise.” Archer snorts softly and unbuttons his shirt.

Save for the slow baring of dark flesh there’s little erotic about it. The gesture’s too practical. His arms and chest are bigger than Shirou’s, which isn’t surprising. What does catch Lancer’s eye, however, are the scars: they’re all sizes and shaped like diamonds, dotting his sides and over his heart.

“You’ll forgive me if I keep my pants on,” Archer says dryly, folding his shirt and draping it alongside Shirou’s over a chair. “The sight of those ‘souvenirs of war’ would ruin the proceedings.”

Shirou frowns at the scars as Archer draws close. “Where did you get those?”

“Lancer would say they were heroic deeds. Or perhaps not.” Archer draws one scar taut with a finger, turning the skin around it a lighter brown. “Most of these scars came from sword wounds.”

“Except the one on your chest.” Lancer’s voice is tight. “That came from a spear.”

“My first brush with death.” Archer sounds almost proud. Then he rolls and pops his broad shoulders and eases onto the bed. “Now then…where should I start?"

“You’re being suspicious.” Shirou’s brows furrow. “What are you after?”

Archer kneels and gives him a challenging smile. “That’s simple. Do you need a demonstration? I am here to help, as you wished.”

“All right,” Shirou says after a moment’s pause. “Show me how to, to…” Red-faced and fumbling, he manages to mumble “…Give Lancer head.”

Lancer clears his throat, knowing exactly where this demonstration business is going. “Sexy as that sounds, I’ll pass. I want all of us to have fun here.”

“Very generous of you,” Archer says, not believing a word of it.

“It's no joke.” Lancer fights to keep his voice level. “We’re not short on options, y’know.” He thinks it over. “Well, maybe we are. It's not like we can run out and get lube while Saber's skulking around.” 

Shirou winces. "That would be...embarrassing." 

“Agreed. Saber's reputation would never recover.” Archer looks good on all fours—especially with his shirt off. His expressions are hard to read, as always, in contrast to Shirou’s flushed eagerness. “So, what did you have in mind?”

Lancer rests his elbows on the pillows like they’re a throne’s armrests. “How about me sandwiched between you two?”

Shirou’s eyes widen; he hides his mouth behind his hand. “S-Sandwiched, huh…” His voice is muffled. “…Who gets which side?”

“I can answer that,” Archer replies without missing a beat. “Put simply, I don’t want Lancer to see my expressions.”

Lancer tilts his head to one side. “But you’re half-naked. Your face is the least of your worries.”

“To you, perhaps. But for me, it’s a turn-off.”

Shirou rubs his chin thoughtfully. “If it’ll make things easier, then it’s all right to me. In the end, it’s Lancer’s choice.”

While he’d like to see Archer’s face, he knows by now that the view won’t be easy to understand anyway. And there’s something intimate about giving Archer access to his most vulnerable spot.

“Sure you can.”

“Thank you.” Archer’s voice sounds a little strange—this surprised him.

“No problem.” Lancer eases his trousers open. With that, his plan grinds to a halt—he should’ve taken these off earlier. “Uh, hold on.”

Archer and Shirou scoot out of the way, not wanting to get kicked as he wriggles out of his trousers. It’s the least sexy thing imaginable: his legs jerk around like an upside down bug’s while he tugs the tight leather down his knees. That’s followed up with a round of flailing that sends the trousers flying through the air. Their journey ends with a smack against the window, and they slither onto the floor.

“Amazing, they didn’t land in the fire.” In Shirou’s world, that’s a compliment.

The bed shakes under Archer. “I imagine the women of Ulster were enchanted by that mating display.”

“You should’ve seen the men.” Lancer rolls on his side and gestures for Archer to go behind his back.

Archer doesn’t say a word as he rests his chest against Lancer’s back. It’s like he’s trying to keep himself from showing too much emotion. Good luck with that, bowman.

Shirou eases in front of Lancer, his body slightly curved. “Is this good?”

“’Course it is,” Lancer purrs, running his fingers along Shirou’s cheek, down to his chest. “It’s a great view.”

Archer rests his head on the crook of Lancer’s neck and breathes in. His chest swells against Lancer’s back. It’s a simple gesture, sure, but somehow it emphasizes just how huge he is. There’s only an inch or so between them in height, but in muscle mass? That’s a whole other thing.

“You going to kiss me, bowman?”

Turns out, Archer’s not the kissing type in the first place. Not on the lips, anyway. He makes straight for the shell of Lancer’s ear, pressing his lips to the tip of the earlobe before blowing gently.

Lancer’s lips part in surprise. “Cold…!”

“My apologies,” Archer whispers, before contradicting that with the same trick, followed by a hint of tongue.

Lancer has no idea how Archer knew his weak spot, but he’s not complaining. It’s too late for that. A low moan rumbling down his neck, a few well-timed sucks on his earlobe followed by the slippery flick of Archer’s tongue, and he’s panting.

Any more of this, and he’ll…

Shirou’s brows furrow, and his waist presses firmly against Lancer’s. The joining heat is almost overwhelming. He’s hard again, straining against his smallclothes. The musky scent of sweat drenches the air.

“Open your thighs, Lancer,” Archer whispers, and hums in satisfaction. “Good.”

That brief bit of praise makes Lancer’s body throb with heat just as much as what follows. At the slick, sticky sensation of Archer’s length sliding between his legs, he rocks against Shirou in desperation.

“Well, well, it seems Lancer enjoys that.” Archer’s breath tickles his ear. A clever hand reaches around and strokes his chest. “This spot here—should I touch it, Lancer?”

You’d think arching against his hand would be a goddamn   clue! Of course Archer is as big a tease as Shirou. He should’ve guessed.

Archer rubs against Lancer’s thighs, taking his time finding a rhythm. He’s savoring the flushed ears and neck before him like the finest of feasts. He’s gone quiet, which makes a strange sort of pride glow in Lancer’s chest.

“Lancer.” A sticky sound numbs his brain. The sound of Shirou’s thumb rubbing wet fabric. “You’re really beautiful like this.”

He lets Shirou take him in hand, clumsy but eager. They’re brought close, even with a thin layer of soaked fabric between them. He wants Shirou, wants Archer too; he wants to help them go numb with pleasure. But at this rate they’ll all be spent.

Lancer reaches out and joins his fingers with Shirou’s. “Here,” he purrs, as Shirou gasps and thrusts into their hands. “I thought you’d like help.”

“Your hand’s—ah!” What a sweet voice.

“Go on, Master.” The sight of Shirou’s eyes glazing over with lust makes him pick up the pace. “I want to hear more.”

Archer sighs against him, the prickly fabric of his trousers sliding across Lancer’s bare skin. His voice is rougher than Shirou’s, a low rumble that sinks into Lancer’s head like a spell.

Lancer’s heart is an unending thrum in his chest. It grows faster each time Shirou or Archer sighs in bliss. Sweet pressure builds and builds. Deeper. Deeper. The world melts around them. The air pulses in time with their strained breaths.

The bodies cocooning Lancer lean forward, riding the waves of heat without rhythm or reason.

He can’t see Archer’s face, but Shirou makes up the difference: his gold eyes flutter and a gentle, songlike keen leaves his lips, melts into the air. Liquid heat flows onto Lancer’s belly.

Lancer,” Archer growls, his sturdy arms embracing Lancer from behind as he comes. It’s shockingly tender, coming from a guy like him.

Combined, their climax is enough to bring Lancer to the edge.

Shirou looks at him with wide eyes, not wanting to miss a thing.

Numbing lust scorches his nerves. His hips and his heart thrust upwards. It’s as if Shirou and Archer are pulling his drowning body from the ocean floor to the surface. Half-baked thoughts and images blast through his mind—they’re nothing deep, just sappy gibberish. All he’s aware of are the men lying next to him, sharing his bed, sharing this night.

The tension coiling in Lancer’s belly tightens, and his head goes ever more blank. “Ah—!”

Then release sinks into him, surges up and through him like a burst of electricity. Liquid heat spills over Lancer’s hands and belly, a welcome relief.

His hips slowly stop moving. He falls back—his whole body must have arched upwards—and forces air into his heaving lungs. All he can see is blue sparks, and his ears are filled with white noise. It’s comforting in it’s familiarity. And yet…

…Huh, that’s strange. I’m as jittery as a fresh recruit.   He closes his eyes and breathes slow and deep. Whatever, there’s other stuff to take care of.

Through the sweet haze, he scoops up Shirou’s mana and sucks his fingers clean. A sweet, electric tang fills his mouth and courses through him like a burst of light.

Archer’s fingers touch his lips, carrying more mana for him. It’s not as strong as Shirou’s, but he won’t turn away a gift this intimate. Archer’s fingertips tremble at the slightest touch; must be the aftershocks. That reaction tells Lancer more than Archer probably bargained for.

Lancer twitches when someone else’s fingers brush his drenched belly. His head still fogged over, he watches Shirou licking his fingers clean, looking away shyly.

“Shi…rou?” His voice scrapes against his raw throat.

“It’s more fair this way,” Shirou replies, brows furrowed at the taste.

Thank the gods he’s not raring for another round. Oh, Lancer’s always been a virile guy, but the eventful day finally caught up with him. He’s sweaty and tired and maybe craving a midnight snack. He’s not sure about that last one.

Lancer slowly lifts himself up, but Archer’s hands push his shoulder back down onto the pillows.

“Rest,” Archer says firmly, looking as prim and proper as ever. “I’m going to shower.”

Shirou grunts in agreement. Sweat slides off his chin and onto the covers. He’ll be asleep in a wink.

“I’ll go after Archer,” Lancer says softly.

Shirou twitches awake. “’m sorry, Lancer, what was that just now?”

Lancer sighs and hands him a pillow. “It’s nothing. You need to some shut-eye too.”

Shirou suddenly gets flustered again, and drags himself out of bed. “…Oh,” he says, looking downcast. “Since we’re at Illya’s, I can’t cook here.”

Lancer gets it. “Some fresh air could help.”

“Maybe.”

Shirou shuffles over to the window—and halfway there gets distracted by tending the fire. The conversation stops. Logs get tossed into the flames, followed by a sharp crackle as they’re eaten. Despite the quiet, there’s nothing to show that Shirou regrets tonight.

Can’t hurt to check, though.   “You okay, Shirou? Be honest.”

It seems Shirou expected something like that. He nods energetically, holding up his hands to placate him. “I-It was good, really! I told you, I was thinking about it for days. It’s just”—he looks at Lancer’s bare legs and forcibly focuses on his face—“I wanted to impress you.”

Lancer snickers. “If you’re worried about that, don’t bother! First times are always awkward.” He yawns. “The second and third times, too.”

Shirou brushes bits of wood off his hands into the hearth. “That’s good. I think.” He sighs and frowns at the bathroom door. “Archer had better hurry up. I don’t want to hear the girls complain that I smell tomorrow.”

Lancer yawns. “So about that hug…”

“That sounds good. I’ll be right over.”

Once Shirou’s back in bed, lying half-asleep on his side, Lancer eagerly pulls him close. If Archer comes in right now, all he’ll see is Lancer’s arms and a red shock of hair. He wouldn’t feel the comforting warmth coming off of them, though; his loss.

Shirou handles being pressed up against a lover’s chest and taking in his scent as well as expected. Namely: he lies there and bit-by-bit lets himself wallow. His hands tentatively come up and touch Lancer’s sides, an awkward half-hug that still gets the point across.

When was the last time someone held him like this?   That thought leads nowhere good, so Lancer shuts it down.

It takes him a second to realize Shirou’s hand is what’s smacking his shoulder. He takes the hint and eases up, giving Shirou his space.

“…Thanks, Lancer. That was nice, but thanks.”

“No problem.” Sleepiness settles over him like a tattered blanket, whether he wants it or not.

Even in the afterglow, he can’t relax. Maybe it’s because they aren’t at Shirou’s house. Or maybe it’s because tomorrow, they’ll have to face Saber again. Either way, he can’t shake the feeling that morning will come too soon.

Chapter Text

A man sits in a cold, stone dungeon, still as a clot of shadows. In this dim light, there’s no way to see his face.

A ragged old coot of a jailer spits through the bars, hitting the man’s face. “There will be no trial.”

“Of course not,” Archer says, his voice a raw whisper. “‘That man’ left the country as soon as you captured me. I have no witnesses and no backup.” He cracks his neck. “So, what will it be? A firing squad or the electric chair?”

“Hanging.” The jailer sneers at Archer’s face. “What, is that not heroic enough for you?”

At first, Archer doesn’t say anything. Then he asks “Are the kids safe?”

“Hell if I know. What’s it to you?”

Archer shuffles forward, the wooden stocks around his wrists coming into view. There’s no point to them: his hands are mangled beyond repair, like he shoved them through a bucket of glass shards.

The jailer pulls back from the festering smell, but doesn’t leave. He holds up his flashlight and swings it over Archer’s bare feet, crusted with blood. In fits and jerks, the light travels up his body, showing off the rips in his ratty prison wear.

“I need to save those children.”

“Was one of them yours?”

“No.”

“Then why—” The jailer’s eyes widen in horror as Archer comes fully into view.

The light shivers over Archer’s face, like it can’t stand to be near him. His gums are bleeding, and shrapnel hasn’t been removed from his cheeks, making conversation a nightmare. But his eyes are the worst sight of all: there's nothing to show there's a human behind them, just a tool that's been overused to the breaking point. The corners are crusted over, and grime and dust gum up his eyelashes, turning them jagged.

“You know why.” Archer’s lips curl upwards, and the shrapnel digs in deeper. “I’m a Hero of Justice.”

---

When Lancer wakes, it’s not dawn yet. Through the curtains, he can still see the fog encroaching on the forest, turning the world pale and dreary. Whatever that dream was, it’s already trickling away from him.

A sigh tickles his neck. He looks down to see Shirou curled up beside him, his eyelids fluttering in deep sleep. His bare feet brush against Lancer’s, and he rolls over with a soft grunt. He’s still wearing his white shirt; it’s hard to tell what he’s hiding under there.

There’s another grunt. Shirou kicks off the blankets like a fly struggling in a web. “Hot…” That’s what it sounds like he said, at any rate.

Lancer decides to let him sleep a little longer. It better be a good dream, this time.

He hears a faint rustling noise, and turns his head. Archer’s already dressed, untangling his hair by hand in the mantelpiece mirror. Here’s another one who Lancer hasn’t seen naked yet. Though they both have their reasons, Lancer figures Archer’s are a little more personal. In another life, I could put him on the list of “precious people killed by my spear”…

But that’s not worth thinking about. He puts that aside and admires the view.

Archer must feel someone staring. He looks over his shoulder with a knowing smile. “Is anything out of place, Lancer?” he says, too soft to wake Shirou.

Lancer grins and slips out of bed, not minding the cool air on his bare skin. “Looks good to me,” he says, equally quiet.

Archer nods in satisfaction, but doesn’t move away from the mirror. “I’m still surprised.”

“About what?”

“That you respected my wishes last night.” With that cheerless praise, Archer heads for the door and exits without a sound.

Lancer scowls at his reflection. The hell do I say to that? He sighs and scratches his chest. He wouldn’t want an answer anyway. Well, better get dressed.

In the middle of pulling on his trousers, he hears Shirou stir.

He straightens up, holding the trousers one-handed by the waistband. “Morning, Master. Did you sleep well?”

Shirou blinks at him with sleep-gummed eyes, bracing his hands on the mattress. He looks around the room, putting together where they are. Then he looks down. His eyes widen, and he lets out a embarrassed choking noise. He grabs the covers and pulls them over his waist in a hurry, despite Lancer having seen it last night.

“I—I slept fine.” His gaze flicks from the covers to Lancer. “So…about last night…”

“It was good,” Lancer says jauntily, zipping up his fly. “No worries, you didn’t kick me or steal the blankets.”

“Oh. That’s a relief.” Shirou still looks awkward.

This time, Lancer’s prepared. The mattress shifts under his weight as he moves back onto the bed toward Shirou. On his hands and knees, his ponytail falling over his shoulder, he watches for any signs Shirou doesn’t want to be touched. Hmm…all clear.

“You’re not dressed yet, Lancer. Did I say something wrong?”

Lancer shakes his head and reaches out to ruffle his Master’s hair. It tickles his palm.

Shirou starts. “What are you—?”

“Remember what I said before? You deserve happiness. Just watch: I’ll show you that over and over until you get it.”

There’s a contented pause. Maybe Shirou’s savoring the affection, the promise, or a bit of both.

“I remember.” He ducks his head. “Um, you should really put your clothes on, Lancer.”

Lancer snickers and scours the room. “Where’s my shirt?”

“It should be by my sweater.” Shirou yawns and oozes out of bed—he’s not as awake as he looked. “We should hurry, everyone’s probably waiting for us.”

Lancer glances out the window at the pale, foggy forest, and nods. “Yeah, let’s go.”

---

“You’re late,” Illya crows from the foot of the stairs, her fists pressed against her hips. “Penalty!”

“Whatever you say,” Lancer replies with a good-natured shrug, reaching the bottom step. He waits for Shirou to catch up behind him. “Okay, so what’s the plan?”

The young lady paces back and forth, looking fresh as a spring breeze even at this hour. “Illya’s maids are doing their best to keep Saber at bay. But it won’t be long before Saber exits the forest and comes here.”

Illya’s face turns downcast. “I told Liz and Sella to leave, but they didn’t listen…I don’t understand.” In her eyes something hard as steel glows to life. “But they’ll give us time.”

Shirou makes his way down the stairs. “Illya, the goal is to keep you alive. If you and Tohsaka leave the forest—”

“—No fair,” Illya wails, “I want to go with you, Shirou!”

“You shouldn’t stay behind, Emiya,” the young lady says firmly, spinning on her heel. “Saber will kill you for sure.”

Shirou scowls toward Lancer. “And you want Lancer to face Saber alone?”

“Of course.” The young lady tilts her head to one side curiously. “He already did once before. Right?” She bares her teeth in a determined smile. “And I refuse to have my student die cheaply, Emiya.”

Illya peers down her nose at the young lady, despite reaching her waist. “And where’ll you be, Rin?”

“Pulling my weight and keeping Shirou out of trouble. You know, the usual.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Shirou grumbles, his fists clenched. “If Saber knows you’re here, she’ll suspect Archer and come chasing after him anyway!”

Lancer struggles not to tap his foot in impatience. “Archer had his fun last night. I’d like a turn against Saber.”

The young lady smiles and calls “What do you think, Archer? Can Lancer take your spot today?”

Silence.

“…Wait,” she says slowly. “Where is Archer?”

“I thought he was with you, Tohsaka.” Shirou glances around aimlessly. “I mean, he wouldn’t just go off on his own, right?”

Of course he did.

Lancer curses and runs for the door. “You three, get out of here,” he yells over his shoulder. “I’ll go get Archer!”

The door bangs off its hinges as he bursts through it, jumping over the stone steps and leaving another crater when he hits the ground running. He senses Archer’s at the forest’s center, with Saber close by. Not good. Why the hell didn’t he wait?!

Lancer knows the answers to that question.

Because: Lancer treated him well last night.

Because: his Master and Illya will die if he doesn’t act.

Because: Shirou is not a warrior, but a maker.

Because: Archer is a Hero of Justice.

You damned idiot—!

Lancer snarls, races as fast as he can. The forest blurs into a thousand shades of gray and brown without a hint of red. He kicks up leaves with every step, and the fog drenches his skin and hair in winter chill.

Just when he’s about to give up, he brushes against something that shouldn’t exist.

He draws to a stop, breathing heavily, and reaches out to touch it. His palm presses against an invisible wall, lukewarm to the touch. Not a Bounded Field, but rather the hint of another reality. Is this…Archer’s Noble Phantasm—?

Lancer steps back reflexively and summons Gae Bolg. There’s no way past this wall that he can see—not that he wants to try. Who knows what’s hiding in it. If it’s a Reality Marble, then it won’t last long before the World tears it down. All I have to do is wait.

Shifting his weight from foot to foot, he probes the forest for any other presences. The Masters are making good time, having left the castle by now. Hopefully the young lady will keep her promise to drag Shirou out of harms’ way.

The invisible wall gives a small shudder; Lancer gives it his full attention. Near the ground, he can see flecks of silver breaking free of the wall. They fill the air like sparks from a forge.

“Come on,” Lancer mutters, pointing the tip of Gae Bolg at the wall. “Come on…!”

As if answering Lancer’s order, the Reality Marble shatters like glass, bringing Archer and Saber back to the forest.

Neither Servant is in good shape. Saber’s armor is repairing, but her right leg’s bleeding heavily, if the dark stain on her battle-gown is anything to go by. Archer is clutching an arm that’s shattered like a broken spear—his breastplate held up, but something’s wrong with his legs…

Lancer looks closer and instantly regrets it. That wasn’t shrapnel in the dream. Swords. Those are sword tips growing out of him.

“Archer!” He runs up to him, tries to hold him steady. “…That’s one hell of a condition you got there, buddy.”

“Don’t,” Archer rasps, his eyes clouded with pain. “You were supposed to…escape. Idiot.

“Shut up.” Lancer ignores the pain scraping against his armored legs, ignores everything but the enemy in front of him. “Your Master’s worried sick about you, Archer. Go to her.”

Archer lets out a hiss of breath. “In…this state? Your jokes need work, Lancer.”

“Oh.” He stares at the swords, even as his stomach clenches in protest. “Then what’s the plan?”

“Hmm. Good question. I used every weapon I had against her—save the one that would kill me.”

Lancer boggles. “What d’you call this, then?”

Archer gives a shaky grin. “Good question.”

I could kill you right now…

Saber stares transfixed at Archer’s wounds, her eyes wide in horror. “What are you, Archer? Nothing about you makes sense. You knew my identity from the start, including my Noble Phantasm. You have Durandal and Hrunting, yet neither is truly yours. And that Reality Marble…I have never seen a realm like that.”

“Good.” Archer sighs, slowly straightens to his full height. “I’ll take your advice after all, Lancer. So take your time, and enjoy yourself.” His smile toward Saber may be cynical, but there’s a hint of something sweet. “The King of Knights is a foe worthy of you. Or should it be the other way around?”

Lancer chuckles and claps him on the back. “Move your ass, or she’ll really kill you this time.”

“Heh. Very well.”

Lancer doesn’t shame Archer by watching him limp away. It won’t take long for him to heal, even with that…problem. Instead, Lancer refocuses on Saber. Let’s shoo out the elephant first.

Lancer whistles through his teeth. “Pretty spooky, huh? No wonder he fought you alone last night.”

Saber’s back in king-mode again. It’s hard to tell if her leg’s healing or not. “Make your choice, Lancer: flee or fall.”

Gae Bolg’s heat warms his palm, and he gives it another spin for the hell of it. “Thanks for the offer—but I’ll take a third option.”

He braces his heels against the ground and leaps.

While a spear has better reach, Saber’s swordsmanship isn’t something to sneeze at. It’s not unfamiliar, like Assassin’s, but familiarity won’t help here.

Saber is the strongest Servant Class. Whether it’s recovery time, strength or mana consumption, the Heroic Spirit of the Sword isn’t one to take on without a plan. And Lancer’s running on empty on that front.

Saber ducks Lancer’s first blow; her sword misses his knees at the last second. The hot wind swirling around the blade scalds his armor—it doesn’t break through.

Lancer’s forced to roll to his feet. There’s no time for planning. A flurry of blows rains down on him, unending.

Lancer’s breath hitches as his foot slips in an unseen dip. He blocks Saber’s kick with Gae Bolg. His spear and arms shudder with the impact.

The trees surrounding them won’t help: they’re either rotting or broken. There’s nowhere to hide, and no place to ambush. All he can do is not lose. Well, I’ve done it before…!

The world becomes sparks in fog, the clang and crunch of weapons. Saber makes Assassin look like a turtle by comparison.

A blink, and Lancer will die.

A breath, and Saber will force him back.

No, she’s already forcing him back. Shoving herself forward, she slams her blade into his hands. The smell of burning skin hits Lancer’s nose. He grips Gae Bolg tighter. Want me to drop my spear? Nice try.

Saber grunts. “Foolish. Do you wish to lose your fingers?”

“Not really,” Lancer manages, as his knuckles threaten to char. “Shirou likes them almost as much as I do—”

As usual, Saber doesn’t let him finish. Does she even know what a joke is?

When they dance into a patch of fog, Lancer sees his chance. He slips out of sight, deeper into the morning mist. If I get just enough distance, I can use my Noble Phantasm. There’s no way she can dodge that!

He’s so focused on Saber that he forgets to check behind him—until someone’s shoulder crashes into his back. He whips around, aims Gae Bolg…and groans.

“Hi, Lancer!” Illya says cheerily, clinging to Shirou’s arm.

The young lady puts a finger to her lips and jerks her chin toward the clearing. Illya pouts and does as she’s told.

Lancer doesn’t have that restraint. “Seriously, Shirou? You’re supposed to be out of here by now!”

Shirou nods, holding a slightly crooked bow in his hand. It looks like Archer’s. “I know, and I’m sorry. That aside…” He stands firm. “…I won’t leave you.”

“I’m touched and all, but—”

In the distance, armored boots clank. Lancer has no choice but to shoo out the peanut gallery before Saber gets here.

“Get going already!”

“Come on,” the young lady says, dragging Illya and Shirou away.

The forest stills.

There’s only the faintest sign of Saber. That’s not enough to go on. Right now it’s all he has; he’ll have to make this quick.

Lancer braces himself for a sprint. In the eerie silence, only the pitch-thick fog is visible. Holding Gae Bolg in one hand, he takes a deep breath, exhales.

Then he runs.

He makes it three steps before an unearthly wind shreds the fog into wisps. Saber bursts through, using an explosion of mana to rocket forward.

Lancer wills his feet to slow down, but there’s no time. Saber’s blade moves in slow motion toward his neck. Gold flickers through the invisible shield around it—is it a blade, or ancient magic?

Whatever it is, I don’t want it!

By some miracle, he manages to evade her.

It’s an awkward, wobbly jump that forces the world upside-down, but it’s better than a beheading. He flips over in midair. His vision swirls and rights itself. This is as good as it gets—better make it a final blow!

Down below, he can see Saber turn. Her posture's different than before, with her blade down by her side. Even from a distance, he can see the wind on her sword warping and roiling like a living thing.

Crimson flames shoot along Gae Bolg, blindingly bright in the pale morning sky.

“Now, I’ll take your heart.” Lancer angles his arm back, even as gravity threatens to slam him back down. “Gae—Bolg!

Gae Bolg soars through the air in a dizzying, jagged beam of red straight for Saber.

The ground rushes up to meet Lancer. He lands neatly in a crouch, one hand held out to catch Gae Bolg. If Assassin couldn’t block it, this is a done deal.

One second ticks by. Then two.

…Something’s wrong.

To a human’s eyes, it goes like this: a beam of light rockets toward Saber, becomes a spear, and zips back to Lancer’s hand. The attack worked, because Gae Bolg never misses.

But Lancer sees it in high definition: Saber’s blade blocking Gae Bolg, forcing it to rewrite reality not once, but twice. How she shoved it out of the way then rushed toward Lancer, no, rushing toward him right this second—

—“Invisible Air!”

In that instant.

Something like a concentrated whirlwind slams into his body. He teeters on his feet, gets knocked back. Air won’t fill his lungs.

Am I…hitting something…?

The world goes black for an instant too long. He wakes with flickering vision to the sound of screaming.

Shirou…?

He tries to focus. Felled trees are all around him like a mound of corpses. Clammy, rotted wood and dead leaves cling to his back and neck. I didn’t go far. Just outside the clearing. He tries to get up, and he bites back a scream as his shoulder slops about, dragging its dislocated weight before him. The world shouldn’t be this blurred either.

Saber is two steps away from him, sword raised. Three shattered arrows lie in pieces at her feet. So much for Shirou’s bow…

Saber doesn’t even ask for his last words. The Grail must be important to her, for her to ignore fair play so easily.

“Hey, Saber!”

The young lady’s voice coming from the side stops Saber temporarily. She prepares to block without a hint of tension.

Through his blurred vision, Lancer can barely see the young lady. She’s placed a huge tree trunk between her and Saber—maybe she thinks it’ll protect her vitals. Or Archer didn’t leave after all.

The young lady throws something with a flick of her wrist. “Neun, Acht, Sieben! Stil, schießt Beschießen, Erschie Ssung!

Blue lights as beautiful as shooting stars arc through the air. No, they’re not stars—they’re gems!

Saber blocks the first gem, the stone shattering against her blade. The others hit their mark. Saber’s arms burst into flame, and her high-pitched scream chills Lancer’s blood.

Move, he tells his body. It sluggishly responds. Fighting past the pain, he drags himself over to a felled tree in front of him. He breathes deep. The extra weight of his shoulder beats down on him; he stumbles and hits the tree. His shoulder burns in agony. Pain lances through him, making bitter bile rise to his throat.

The wind stirs. He hears rather than sees Saber lunge for the young lady, hears the crunch—

“Tohsaka!” Shirou’s voice pierces the air, roughened with horror.

Shirou’s voice snaps Lancer free of his shock. Now adrenaline has the wheel, and with a dizzying kind of madness Lancer gets an idea.

Bracing himself against the fallen tree, he does what only a Servant can do: he grabs his arm and sets his shoulder back in its socket. There’s one quick push. A chunky noise like a doorknob turning against a slab of meat. And—

Vertigo hits him like a shield to the head. The world wobbles and spins faster than he can comprehend. Oh yeah, that was a plan for the ages… He groans and rolls his shoulder as the healing kicks in—or maybe it’s bloodlust.

Then he realizes: he can’t find Gae Bolg. It must’ve vanished when I got knocked out. Damn it…!

Lancer will worry about that later. He shambles toward the middle of the clearing, where Saber’s standing over Illya and the young lady. The fog is coming back, shrouding them in lifeless gray.

“Illyasviel, do not prolong this skirmish. If you wish to protect your companions, come with me.”

A wretched sob fills the air. “Rin…? Rin, wake up already!”

Saber’s arms tense, but her sword doesn’t tremble. “She should have expected her gems wouldn’t fell me, but I must admire her bravery regardless.”

“Lancer. Lancer!” Shirou’s hoarse voice echoes in the soundless forest.

Lancer struggles to stand tall, for Shirou’s sake. Pain ravages his still-healing shoulder.

Saber turns to look at him with lightless eyes. She shifts her weight slightly, ready to kill him. She won’t get distracted this time.

As he tries to summon Gae Bolg again, Saber lunges for him.

She’s too quick. Her blade slashes down, aiming for his legs, and he rolls away just in time. The ground shakes with the impact, as if the wind is drilling through the earth.

He can hear Illya dragging the young lady away. It’ll be difficult for a girl her size—he can’t help right now.

Lancer’s gaze flicks from Saber to where he guesses Illya to be. “Illya, run!” He blocks another swing with his arm over his ribs.

He needs a weapon, needs one now.

Saber gives him no quarter. Her sword’s pommel bashes his solar plexus, sending him reeling and crashing down.

As soon as he hits the freezing wet ground, Saber’s on him, one boot pressing down hard on his throat. No beheading this time.

He can’t breathe. A wet noise hisses from him. He can’t breathe. Heavy. Cold. The world is going white.

No.

Lancer uses the last of his strength to grab Saber’s boot and wrench it up. Off balance, she shakes him off and jumps back. Now’s my chance!

There’s a bestial, desperate roar—and Shirou smashes his bow into Saber’s back.

The bow splinters. Saber rocks slightly to one side, taken aback. Then she slams the pommel of her sword into Shirou’s chest, sending him flying across the clearing.

Lancer clutches his throat and lurches back a few measly inches. It’s delaying the inevitable, but so what? Air feebly passes through his lungs, bringing him back from the edge. With each breath, he feels his mana scrambling to repair the damage—there’s got to be enough. For starters, if I can get on my feet again…

When he tries to summon Gae Bolg again, a Command Seal latches onto his heart like a vise. Lancer’s chest expands in a ragged breath. What the hell?! You’re wasting them on this?

“Don’t, Lancer!” Shirou’s hidden by the fog. “She’ll just block it again!”

Lancer grits his teeth. He can guess what Shirou means underneath that: I don’t want to lose you. Not now, not to Saber. It’s a nice sentiment, but it won’t help them win. For that to happen, they need Archer in full health…or a suicidal charge.

Huh. Maybe that’ll work.

He rests his hands and feet on the clammy ground, ready to push himself up.

Saber’s head turns to look at him, as if daring him to try it.

Making the attempt gets Lancer’s face kicked for his trouble. Half his vision’s obscured by a blooming black eye. It throbs in time with his racing heart.

Saber’s sword sings through the air.

The only thing preventing it from skewering Lancer’s heart is his own palm, stretched out in desperation.

This can’t be it. Not like this. This isn’t the battle I wanted!

But it’s more than that. It’s more than frantically dodging a flurry of death sentences, more than facing a foe without his Teacher’s precious spear.

It’s the knowledge that Archer and Shirou are here to see it. The men he held last night, whose smiles are so precious in their rarity…they will watch him die, helpless to do anything.

Lancer hates that more than any half-assed death.

Holding her blade above her head, Saber’s killing blow descends—

“—Trace. On.

And the forest fills with green light.

Lancer squeezes his eyes shut to keep himself from going blind. In the distance, he can hear Shirou crying out. Is it from pain or triumph?

As the light recedes, Lancer slowly opens his eyes and struggles to his feet. He wants to see what Shirou Strengthened this time. If it’ll keep Saber at bay, that's all that matters.

Shirou comes into view, dragging his body through the ghostly fog. His eyes burn with rage, focused only on Saber. One thing becomes clear: the weapon in his hands isn’t just a Strengthened stick, or a shoe. It’s a sword.

And it’s a sword Lancer knows well.

He could never forget it. The blade shaped like a candle flame, which shined as brightly in the dark; the hilt crafted from a giant’s femur, marked with Fair Folk letters; the spiked pommel. “Cruaidin Catutchenn”, he called it, though its more common name was The Sword of Light. Galantine’s inspiration, forged by the Fair Folk, wielded by Eire’s greatest heroes—that is the sword in Shirou’s hands.

Lancer wants to congratulate him, but the words freeze in his throat. The fight isn’t over yet. And according to Shirou, Projected weapons can’t last long.

Saber grits her teeth and stands her ground. If she knows what Cruaidin is, she doesn’t let it show.

Shirou yells again and charges forward, glare fixed on Saber.

The two swords clash. The discordant melody of steel warps the air around them, rippling through the sound barrier.

Lancer’s forced to cover his ears. His pulse beats against his palms. Just seeing the fight is incredible: somehow, Shirou’s matching Saber blow for blow.

No, that’s not right. Cruaidin is matching Saber. Shirou’s just following its lead.

Hemmed in like this, Saber’s forced on the defensive. Her eyes are trained on Shirou’s arms, always able to block at just the right time. It’s like she can see the future—no, it’s an Instinct skill, Lancer’s sure of it.

On the second clash, the heat of Cruaidin’s blade burns through the wind around Saber’s. Steam hisses. For an instant Lancer can see the sword in its entirety: golden light in the shape of a broadsword, a blue hilt and gold pommel.

Shirou mouths Excalibur before jumping back out of range.

Then.

Agh!” Cruaidin shatters, and Saber’s next blow sends Shirou sprawling.

Lancer doesn’t bother attacking Saber: he lunges after his Master, catching him inches from a jagged rock.

They skid together, their lungs fighting for breath. He can feel his Master's strange healing Magecraft working on him, soothing his throat and shoulder. It's not enough, but it's a start. 

“You okay, Shirou?” Lancer manages to rasp against Shirou’s hair.

Shirou nods and pushes his back off Lancer’s chest. He straightens up, fists clenched. “Yes. I just have to be faster this time.” His Circuits switch on instantly.

“I’m supposed to protect you, remember?”

Shirou looks back to Lancer and smiles. “I know. I’m counting on you, Lancer.”

Lancer’s anger melts away. Now he understands. Shirou made Cruaidin not for his own pride, but because Lancer needed a weapon and he could provide one.

He grins. “Saber’s coming—you can do it, Shirou!”

All it takes is a second for Cruaidin to be forged in Shirou’s hands.

It trades wielders without a word. There’s nothing to say.

Sweat slicks Cruaidin’s hilt as Lancer stands in front of Shirou. Since he isn’t in a sword-wielding Class, precious seconds trickle by as he struggles to remember the incantation. Is there one? Did I lose my brains when Saber nearly throttled me?

A few feet away, Saber stance changes: one foot in front of the other, Excalibur raised high. Now that they know her Noble Phantasm there’s nothing for her to lose. Orbs of light rise up from the ground, from the trees, beautiful and eerie to behold.

He growls under his breath and prepares to swing. Screw it. I’ll make something up!

He closes his eyes and thinks of a spark in a forest of shadows. The spark glows to life, becomes a flame that finally roars into a wildfire. The flames will sear all despair.

Eire’s light will never fade, as long as this sword rests in my hand.

He opens his eyes: his blade is wreathed in flames as bright as the coming dawn.

In a split second, Excalibur will be fully charged. He won’t let that happen.

His arms swing down—

“—We shall protect our people. Cruaidin Catutchenn!

And a wall of white flame bursts from the blade toward Saber.

FWOOSH.

Through the sea of fire, Lancer sees Excalibur falter, its own light vanish. It’s difficult to make out Saber, or hear her screams; perhaps she doesn’t have the chance to feel pain. Perhaps she escaped.

The most important point is that only Saber could get hurt: not the trees, not Illya and the young lady, not Shirou. That’s the Sword of Light’s secret, as Eire’s premier heroic sword. Its flames will only harm the wielder’s enemies, not their loved ones.

Cruaidin Catutchenn fades in Lancer’s hands, leaving only a faint tingling in his palms behind.

“Let’s go,” he calls, grabbing Shirou’s hand and breaking into a sprint.

While it’d make sense to check to see if Saber’s still alive, dawdling would waste time (and give Saber a chance to fight back.) For now, it’s best to head back to Fuyuki while the adrenaline’s high. Lancer’s sure that his shoulder will hate him in an hour or so, but that can wait.

He can sense Archer up ahead with Illya and the young lady. He must’ve taken the chance to whisk them away. It’s likely they never saw Shirou’s Projection.

Lancer hears Shirou gasping for breath beside him. He tightens his grip on Shirou’s arm—he won’t lose him now.

After what feels like ages, the trees part. The morning fog lifts. They’re finally out of the forest.

Lancer’s feet churn up dust as he stops, officially exhausted.

Archer stands before them beside the conscious young lady and Illya. Shirou lets go of Lancer’s arm, his body swaying and caked in sweat. The clearing fills with the sounds of four pairs of lungs sucking in air. (As usual, Archer refuses to show “weakness” like that.)

Looks like Saber’s too injured to hunt for them after all. No, that doesn’t feel right. There’s something else…but it’ll have to wait.

“You guys okay?” Lancer asks, once everyone gets their breath back. He still sounds like he has an army of frogs in his throat, but at least he can talk now. 

“We will manage.” Archer rolls his shoulders, as if he can just shoo weariness away. Maybe he can.

The young lady rubs the back of her head gingerly. “No blood,” she murmurs.

Illya lets go of Archer’s mantle and stares emotionlessly at the forest. A chill breeze plays with her hair. “…Liz and Sella won’t meet us here. We should keep going.”

“Why not?” Shirou asks, his brows pinched in concern.

“Can’t you tell?” Illya says, her voice quiet and worn out. “They’re dead.”

The young lady’s face softens. “Are you sure, Illyasviel?”

Illya turns to look at her. Lancer can’t see what she looks like, but the young lady grits her teeth and nods.

“Are you sure you’re all right, Tohsaka?”

The young lady nods. “Of course, it’s just a bump. But Emiya, you’re the one who put yourself in the most danger—are you okay?”

Shirou flexes his fingers and smiles. “Your medicine didn’t go to waste.”

Lancer glances up at the sky, the clouds flushed pink and cream with dawn. “So now what?”

“I want to go with Shirou,” Illya says sullenly, lowering her head. “But I know Rin has the stronger Bounded Field, so…can I stay with you for a day, Rin?”

The young lady smiles as if understanding something. “That’s fine. Archer needs to rest, and he’ll need someone to keep him company. Which reminds me…” She scowls and glares at Archer. “…You didn’t have to go this far, Archer. Look at how much Saber hurt you!”

Lancer doesn’t get it—can’t she see the swords going out of Archer? Then he notices that the swords are gone, but the wounds are still there. Can’t have your Master ‘worry about nothing’, huh? Idiot.

Archer sighs and shakes his head. “I spared you wasted time…that was the plan.” A ghost of a smile flickers across his lips. “And think of it this way: you can start your morning off right with a well-worded lecture. That is your preferred way to wake up, if I recall.”

The young lady tosses her hair and takes Illya’s hand, already in a fine temper. “Fine, let’s go then!”

Illya nods excitedly. “Yeah, I want to see Rin’s house. Don’t be so slow, Archer!”

“Yes, yes,” Archer grumbles, and with a single wave to Lancer departs with his Master.

Shirou isn’t watching them leave. “I messed up with the Command Seal this time.” There’re convicted criminals less chastised than him right now. “I’m really sorry, Lancer.”

Lancer flicks his forehead with a feather-light touch. “There, you’re punished. I'll let you off easy today.”

Shirou doesn’t know what to say at first. In the end, he nods silently. Then he gets down to molly-coddling; he takes Lancer’s hand in his and inspects it carefully.

“I should have asked about you first,” he mutters, clearly annoyed about it. 

Lancer lets out an explosive sigh. “I dragged you all the way here, right? And I can breathe. That’s proof I’m mostly okay. My shoulder…not so much.”

“Let me see, then.” Shirou goes behind Lancer’s back expectantly.

He takes the hint and gets rid of his pauldrons.  

Shirou delicately feels around Lancer’s shoulders, nodding as he goes. “Your left shoulder isn’t injured. Your right—rotate it for me, thanks—your right’s sore, I can feel the bruising even under your armor.”

Lancer twitches at the dull throb. “So quit poking it.”

“Sorry.” Shirou’s hands leave Lancer’s skin. He clicks his tongue. “Actually, since your armor clings to your skin, it’d be best to change to your casual clothes.”

“Got it.” His shoulder does feel a little better now.

The adrenaline rush’s wearing off, and weariness starts to cling to his arms and legs like bog mud. Taking a long nap at Shirou’s place sounds like a grand plan. ‘Course, we have to get there first. And there’s one more thing I need to do…

“…Hey, Shirou. There’s something I want to tell you.”

“What is it?” He comes back around to face Lancer, smiling.

Lancer can’t hold it in any longer. “That was awesome!” He claps Shirou on the back and pulls him close for a one-armed hug. “Your Projection stuff is so cool, the way you passed Cruaidin Catutchenn to me was—”

“—But you’re the one who used it.”

“Sure, but you’re the Master who made it.” He pauses. “Just so we’re clear here: if a Servant comes around, I’m the one who kicks their ass.”

Shirou winces. “I know. Saber barely noticed me.” Then he looks up at Lancer hopefully. “But I can make a weapon for you, if you need one…right?”

Lancer laughs and loops an arm around Shirou’s waist. “You could make a mop and I’d use it, Master.”

“Thanks. I think.” 

“Let’s head back,” Lancer says, looking toward Fuyuki. “We’ll have to take the long way around, in case Saber’s tailing us. That okay with you?”

Shirou nods, smiling gently. “Alright.”

As they start shuffling homeward, Shirou suddenly breaks the silence. “Hey, Lancer…does Saber seem the type to let herself get hurt?”

That takes some thought. Lancer watches a crow wheel overhead in search of carrion. “I don’t know. It’s possible.” He looks back at Shirou. “You think she went easy on us too?”

Shirou doesn’t answer. He looks back toward the Einzbern Forest, his whole body tense.

What Lancer hoped would be a victory march instead becomes two men scuttling through Fuyuki like mice fleeing a cat. When the “cat” fails to show, it only frays Lancer’s nerves further. There’s nothing he can do but guard Shirou’s back and hope he’s healed enough for another fight.

Chapter Text

Lancer takes one last furtive look around before heading through the front door after Shirou.

Free-floating anxiousness still gnaws at Lancer’s nerves. Even after he gives a quick search of the house from top to bottom, it feels like they’re being watched. The only comfort is hearing Shirou bustling in the kitchen, cooking breakfast.

Lancer pokes his head outside into the lukewarm air and checks the Bounded Field. No changes there. He steps onto the porch, glaring at the lawn. With the snow melting and the ground beneath hard as a rock, it’s hard to tell if anyone besides him and Shirou has left footprints behind.

Two cars rumble by, disturbing the morning stillness. With the high walls around the house and the Bounded Field, humans pass this place by all the time without incident. So what’s the problem here?

…It’s hard to say.

“Don’t bother,” he grumbles to himself, stepping back inside and shutting the sliding door behind him. “It’s morning. Who’d attack now?”

Tenderly rubbing his aching shoulder, he shuffles back inside and heads to the kitchen.

The kitchen is toasty when Lancer gets there—looks like Shirou turned on the wood stove instead of the heater.

“You should be in bed, Lancer,” Shirou chides, bustling over to the table with a steaming kettle and empty teacup. “But I suppose we can reverse things today.”

Lancer eases down onto his usual cushion and folds his legs. “Sure thing. We’ll need to get our rhythm back somehow.”

Shirou sets kettle and cup down carefully on the table, looking thoughtful. “One of the cupboards was ajar.”

It seems Lancer’s not the only one uneasy.

“Nothing gets by you, huh. What—or who—d’you think did it?”

Shirou straightens up. The oven mitts make his forearms look smaller than they really are. “Hmm…maybe the wood is finally warped? They normally don’t take much effort to close, after all.”

“Makes sense.” Lancer pours himself a cup of tea, the earthy scent filling his nose. “Eh, let’s check it later. What’s for breakfast?”

“…Good question. I could make a traditional breakfast, but that could take time. How about fried egg on toast?”

Lancer’s mouth waters, and he nods enthusiastically.

“All right, egg on toast it is.” With that settled, Shirou confidently reenters his domain.

After the tea cools, Lancer sips it carefully. It’s a good temperature, warm without being mouth-burningly hot. He takes a bigger sip, enjoying the mellow yet bitter flavor. Mm, it’s good…

Lancer catches Shirou watching him at one point; Shirou glances away with red ears and doesn’t say anything.

That’s right. They’re alone again, like last night…

“…Lancer, I’m going to learn all the places you feel good.” 

It’s official: his libido wants to kill him. It seems convinced he can make love with a sore shoulder and a Master who can’t spare mana right now. Sure, it’d be great to have Shirou in his arms again, basking in the afterglow. Better to do that later, when they’re not dead on their feet. Yeah, that’s it. We’d be in bed. Or in the bath, slippery with soap…wait, no, focus!

And then he chokes on his tea.

Shirou whips around, all concern. “A-Are you okay? Your face is red!”

You don’t look any better. “I’m fine!” he croaks. Another cough. “The tea went down the wrong way.”

Shirou sighs in relief and resumes cooking.

It’s not long before Shirou comes back over with two full plates. Once everything’s set, he sits beside Lancer, bows his head and presses his hands together reverently. “Thanks for the food.”

“Thanks for the food!” Lancer’s getting good at this ritual, too.

After this morning, this “simple” breakfast is more like a feast. The egg yolk seeps into the golden-brown toast when Lancer bites into it, giving it a savory blend. Eating takes priority, so they don’t chat for a while.

Lancer licks a breadcrumb from the corner of his mouth. “Why don’t you make stuff like this more often, Shirou?”

Shirou glances off to one side sheepishly. “…I like making elaborate dishes. I suppose it’s like sculpting—the materials used and how they're presented says something about the cook's intent.”

“Huh, I guess so.” Lancer takes another bite of egg, thinking it over. “What d’you want the food to ‘say’?”

“Eh? I didn’t catch that.”

Oh, right, my mouth’s full. Lancer swallows and asks again.

Shirou blinks in surprise at the question like he hasn’t thought of it before. He looks off into the distance. The remaining egg threatens to fall to his plate; he presses it down firmly with his thumbs.

“I guess,” Shirou says softly, his smile fainter than usual, “I want to say ‘welcome home’.”

Those gentle words get Lancer’s attention. They don’t sound like they’re meant for anyone else but him.

Shirou catches Lancer’s reaction and quickly changes subjects. “How’s the egg? Mine was a little watery in the middle.”

“Mine’s solid enough.” Lancer takes another bite to make sure. “Mm-hmm.”

“That’s a relief; then I haven’t lost my touch.”

Lancer chuckles. “We were only gone one night!”

“True. That said, you need a thousand hours of practice before you can master a skill.”

“That so? I never counted.”

Shirou smiles wryly. “…You probably didn’t have to.”

Conversation stops as they continue eating.  

Shirou finishes breakfast first, wiping his hands on a napkin. “Hey, Lancer, can you sense anything strange?”

“Hmm. Nope. Things still seem fine.” He pops the last bit of toast in his mouth and chews thoughtfully.

“…But you aren’t sure.”

He nods, swallows.

“Well, I suppose that’s good enough.” Shirou doesn’t look convinced. He yawns and stretches; his whole body shivers and strains. “We should sleep.”

Lancer nods and gets to his feet. He moves to pick up his plate—but Shirou heads him off.

“You should wait until your shoulder’s healed. Let me take care of the dishes for now, alright?”

It’s tempting to argue back, but Shirou’s got a point. “Ugh, fine, you do that.”

Shirou smiles gently and picks up the dishes one after another. Once they’re all stacked, he carries them into the kitchen, humming all the while.

Lancer finds he’s too tired to bother walking all the way to his room. And the stove’s right here anyway. After giving his hands a quick wash (no greasy hair for him), he lies down on the cushions and listens to Shirou work. Soft murmuring and the burble of running water lull Lancer to sleep better than any lullaby.

---

A shard of sunlight pierces Lancer’s eye and wrenches him awake. The always-ticking clock says it’s noon—not bad.

He sits up and rolls his shoulder experimentally, braced for more pain. Nothing happens. Everything’s in order again. Good thing too. It’d be boring if I had to sit things out this late in the War.

Something soft and plump rustles against his waist. Looking down, he sees it’s a blue-and-yellow-striped blanket stuffed with cotton; it's perfect for weather like today's. 

There’s no sign of Shirou. He must be sleeping too—he should be after this morning. When he’s up, I’ll thank him. 

Lancer lifts his arms over his head and stretches. Outside, it’s quiet. He must’ve slept through the commuters. Okay, so…what now? He slumps forward, resting his elbow on his knee. It’s boring just lazing around, but nobody’s going to fight this early. All he can do is wait.

Something on the table catches his eye—it’s a yellow sticky note, damp at the bottom. In blue ink, it reads: Gone to visit the Overseer. Then underneath in black ink: Back from the Overseer. The last kanji stroke is stained by the dampness. Looks like the visit was useless.

Sighing, Lancer gets to his feet and ambles off to find Shirou.

It doesn’t take long before Lancer finds him in the sunlit dojo. His Magic Circuits must still be recovering; otherwise he’d be in the shed. It's a little surreal seeing him in his usual clothes again; compared to what he wore yesterday he looks almost plain. Sweat glistens on his face and arms with each pushup.

He’s so focused he doesn’t notice Lancer watching him. “One thousand-one…one thousand-two…”

Lancer’s eyebrows rise at that. Did he start right when he came back? Or is he showing off?

Shirou grunts as his bare feet threaten to slip. “…One-thousand-three…”

Muscles tense and shudder, answering Lancer’s question. Shirou is near his breaking point. (Whether he’ll admit it is something else.)

Lancer doesn’t speak up—it’s best if Shirou figures it out on his own. He rests his forearm on the doorframe and waits.

Around pushup one thousand-five Shirou grumbles and rolls onto his back, too tired to continue. He chest rises and falls with each breath. The sound is sharp and loud in the quiet dojo.

“Not bad,” Lancer says, and smiles at Shirou’s surprised jolt. “Don’t worry, I just got here!”

Shirou takes it in stride and sits up. He’s breathing easier now. “Did I wake you, Lancer?”

“Nope, just got up on my own. I didn’t know you used the dojo for things other than sparring.”

“That's right, I exercise every morning. A Mage can’t just use his mind—physical strength is important too.” There’s an unpleasant hint of forced cheer.

I’ll ignore it for now. 

Shirou wipes his brow with the back of his hand sluggishly. “…Hey, Lancer. Can I ask you something?”

Lancer strolls over and sits cross-legged at his side. “Sure. What’s up?”

Shirou’s eyes go hazy in thought for a moment; there’s a subtle tightness in his jaw. “Well. Servants need a wish to fight in the Grail War, right? So—when the gold Servant asked you about your wish, was your answer a lie?”

“Nope, it’s the truth: I want good fights, good spoils, and a good Master.” Lancer reaches out and ruffles Shirou’s hair playfully. “Don’t worry, you fit the bill!”

That doesn’t soothe Shirou. He grabs Lancer’s wrist and pushes it away in annoyance. “Don’t be ridiculous. If that’s what you want, then…”

Lancer pulls back his hand, his mood souring. “You don’t get it, huh? I’m happy like this.”

As soon as the words leave his mouth, he itches to take them back.

Not because they’re wrong, but because they’re not quite true. It’s something that has bothered him since his first fight against Assassin, something he’s ignored until now. In short, it’s not “worthy of a hero”.

“That can’t be right.” Shirou’s voice shivers slightly, holding something back. “It can’t be.”

A cruel flash of teeth. “Oh, you wanted me to say ‘world peace’?” It hurts, kicking Shirou’s hope in the teeth like this.

“No!” Hands ball up into white-knuckled fists. “I just—I don’t want you to pretend that’s all you want.”

“What makes you think I’d want the Grail?”

Shirou’s voice explodes: “Because you deserve to be happy!”

“…We’re doing this again, huh.”

“I’m serious!”

I know. I’m not blind. This was bound to happen eventually. Those thrice-damned dreams will paint a picture that anybody could understand. And if the dreamer has it bad for the leading man…

“…Ugh. Like hell I’m pretending. I’m Ulster’s greatest warrior—”

“—You were.

The words cut the air like a sword.

At first they don’t make sense. How could they? It feels like only yesterday that Lancer was staining those golden fields with blood, fishing in those sparkling clear rivers, watching the sunrise over emerald hills capped with snow.

Then it hits him: Shirou’s seen him die. He knows exactly how his legend ends, how many oaths he had to break.

Hot anger surges through him, makes his head throb in pain.

While Shirou’s eyes show that he knows he screwed up, his face turns hard, impassive. He’s not going to back down.

“I don’t need advice from a Mage like you! You didn’t want those Command Seals to begin with—”

“—But I kept them,” Shirou says hoarsely. “I wanted to help you!”

Lancer can’t tell if this is an argument or a love confession. He folds his arms across his chest and glares at his Master. “What d’you think I’ve been doing then?”

Shirou lowers his head, his eyes hidden by his hair. “Saving me. You constantly, constantly save me, and the whole time…I…!”

Now Lancer remembers his starting plan: to keep Shirou out of the battlefield. He still doesn’t belong there; there’s no way he’ll share Lancer’s happiness. At the same time, what has Lancer achieved, aside from dragging Shirou into one near-death experience after another?

“Lancer…you protected Ulster to the end. You’re still famous centuries later.” Shirou’s voice jolts up an octave. “Isn’t that enough?”

That’s right. This was a fool’s errand from the start.

“That’s not why I’m here,” Lancer growls, aware that they’re too close and fencing each other in. “A hero like me doesn’t need a second life.”

“‘Doesn’t need a’…!” Shirou is pale and shaking like a tree in a storm. He struggles to breathe deep and even.

Lancer finds it in him to speak softly. “That’s right. You’ve granted my wish, Shirou.”

Unfortunately, like everything else so far, this does the opposite of what Lancer wanted.

Shirou sways to his feet, his eyes dull and downcast. “…Fine,” he mutters.

And in a sudden burst of energy he storms out of the dojo. The door bangs behind him like a gunshot.

Lancer stares dumbly at the space where Shirou just stood. Then a snarl escapes his throat. What the hell did the Overseer say to him?!

It would be easy to chase Shirou down and ask what’s wrong. It would be equally easy to go hunting for the gold Servant and Saber. Their Masters might be sitting ducks now. Instead…Lancer seethes. He wants to lash out at everything: the Overseer, the Servants, Shirou, himself. He stands and paces back and forth, his head pounding with each stomp.

He pauses. Takes a deep, steadying breath. …There’s one thing I can do.

Gae Bolg appears in his hands. He doesn’t need to practice with it anymore, but that familiar weight and power is what he needs right now. As he strikes down hordes of imagined enemies, he thinks things through.

Maybe I’ll let Shirou clear his head. Yeah, it’s still daytime, he’ll be fine.

Lancer thrusts Gae Bolg upwards, imagining thick arterial blood spilling down the spear onto the floor. And while Shirou’s out…

Chuckling humorlessly, he looks toward the Church.

---

Cold winter air blows back Lancer’s hair as he runs. Clouds thicken above his head, turning the sky a dreary gray.

The hill may be steep, but Lancer crests it anyway. Saber isn’t on lookout this time—if she is, he can’t sense her. Not that I’d let her stop me in the first place.

This plan’s a fool’s errand too; he knows that. Attacking the Overseer’s against the rules. But if he pressured Shirou to want the Grail instead of letting Shirou make up his own mind? He’s a shit Overseer. I won’t let you get away with that, bastard!

Reaching the hilltop, Lancer slows to a walk. There’s no one at the Church today. Light filters out the stained glass windows, but it feels mocking more than comforting. The huge doors are slightly ajar, propped open with marble doorjambs. An unspoken invitation: Come in, if you worship our god.

What else can it be but a trap?

…Or that’s Lancer’s bias talking. This isn’t about gods, this is about Shirou.

Gritting his teeth, Lancer searches for another way in.

At least, that was the plan.

Something cold and heavy wraps around his right arm and yanks him up to the trees. He struggles to get free—but Gae Bolg isn’t helping. The chain holding him clinks and jingles mockingly.

He chances to look up. Above his head, a gold portal looms. He’s being reeled in like a fish.

“I considered allowing you some small amusement,” the gold Servant calls out from the trees, “but that would waste yet more of my precious time.” He sighs. “Allowing your Master to come here, what was she thinking…?”

Lancer snarls and thrashes. “Bastard, I thought we had a truce!”

“We did.” The gold Servant’s voice turns to cold steel. “Until you placed your filthy hands on her.”

“Who’re you—”

Lancer's back slams into a frozen tree with a sickening crack. Pain explodes behind his head.

The world turns dark.

---

It takes Lancer forever to fully wake up. His stomach clenches as he lurches to his feet. Where…am I? Little by little, his blurry vision clears. Hold on, this is a basement somewhere. It’s a start, I guess. It's hard to breathe; the air tastes stale and metallic all at once. 

A series of bar-shaped overhead lights cast the floor in a ghostly glare. Just a glance forces him to turn away, clutching his pounding head. The concrete floor sways.

Looking around, he can tell this much: behind him are metal stairs leading up, and just looking at them makes him sick. Ahead of him is a short hallway with only one wood door. Boxes of tableware and napkins line the floor like guards before a king’s chambers. Smells like silver polish…huh. I can’t sense any humans around. He can feel cars rumbling nearby, which means this place must be in the business side of Fuyuki.

Lancer groans and leans against a nearby wall. It’s cool and soothing, if rough to the touch. He means just to get his breath back, but that gesture’s a blessing: he hears something faint through the concrete.

Pressing his ear to the wall, he listens carefully. At first he thinks it’s more passing cars, but the sound’s too rhythmic and familiar for that. He quickly figures it out. A smile quirks his lips. It’s the river. The gold Servant’s using that restaurant again!

He senses the gold Servant’s gaudy mana signature close by, and stumbles down the hallway toward the door. Each step feels like he’s walking on a rolling ball of jelly.

It can’t just be because he got knocked out; there’s something else at work here.

Lancer gropes around for the door’s handle, willing his stomach not to puke. Clammy fingers curl around the handle and give a noodle-limbed shove.

Lancer’s shadow enters the harshly-lit storeroom before he does. The place is full of boxes, some opened, others taped shut, and a huge wool rug covers the middle of the floor. And on that rug…

Lancer’s breath catches, his heartbeat jolting in his chest.

“How unexpected,” the gold Servant says, glancing up at Lancer for a second before looking back to the too-still body on the floor. Despite standing at a distance, his white coat is almost blinding. “The drug I administered should last for another hour; yet here you stand. A pity.”

“That is fine,” Saber says, her skin rippling as it heals. She doesn't rise from her spot on the rug; Lancer may as well be paint drying on a wall. “The damage is nearly repaired.”

Elegant fingers press into torn flesh.

In front of Saber, Shirou’s body doesn't react at her touch. He’s on his back, his soft belly exposed. 

The gold Servant glances toward Saber curiously, paying their victim no mind. “What of Avalon?”

“He has it. Of that I’m certain. However…” Saber frowns and digs deeper. “…It may be too deeply fused with his body. In that case, retrieval is impossible.”

Shirou breath is painfully slow as patches of silver thread struggle to repair the damage done to his body. There’s a leather gag in his mouth to bite down on—out of kindness, or for amusement? There's no blood to be seen—which only makes Lancer's skin crawl with dread. 

Why are you just sitting there? Fight back!

“As it happens,” the gold Servant says conversationally, “I found a method to keep both ends of our agreement. You should be overjoyed, mongrel.”

That can’t be the only reason. There’s something else at play here.

“…Shirou?” Lancer’s voice sounds muted, strangled. He can barely stand; his shoulder hits the doorframe. It’s too much to take in.

Saber looks up, her voice surprisingly soft. “He’s drugged as well. It is a simple potion, meant to numb and erase all memory of pain.”

The gold Servant bends down. Smiling, he strokes Shirou’s eyelids with a finger, making them twitch. “If Lancer had stayed down like a good mongrel, he could have remained ignorant.”

Shirou grunts past the gag, his upper body arching up. He’s so feeble Saber can force his chest back onto the rug with her free hand. The one inside Shirou’s chest doesn’t move an inch.

“You mustn’t exert yourself,” Saber warns. “The drug will wear off eventually…”

Drool leaks from Shirou’s mouth onto the tarp, turning the rug beneath him gray. 

A growl bursts from Lancer’s throat. “Let us go.

“Ha! You dare to threaten us in your condition? You must yearn for the whip, mongrel.” The gold Servant stands, leaving Shirou and Saber on the floor to heal. “That is fine; both Master and Servant are to blame.”

“Blame, huh.” Did Lancer miss something just now? “…Look. I don’t know what you’re after, but—”

A gold portal opens.

He can’t block the chains that shoot out, wrapping around his arms, wrenching his shoulders up over his head. His toes strain to touch the floor. They just make it.

“You think this’ll hold me?!” Lancer manages a laugh. But no matter how hard he struggles, all he does is send pain from his shoulders down his back.

The gold Servant nods in satisfaction. “According to Saber, you were an opponent worth her full attention, mongrel. Even if you were meant to win, I shall praise your efforts...and restrain you accordingly.”

A prickling foreboding creeps down Lancer’s back. “What d’you mean, ‘meant to win’?”

“Exactly what I say,” the gold Servant says, another portal opening by his hand. “The Grail will be claimed one way or another. But that mysterious power your Master holds—that is more difficult to obtain.”

Saber removes her hand from Shirou’s gut with a sickening squelch. There’s not a trace of gore on her fingers. “It’s called Avalon—the sheath of Excalibur. It rightfully belonged to me, however…”

Lancer knows he should be surprised, but considering Archer's existence and the danger Shirou's in right now, he might as well accept it. Besides, this explains how he survived the fire... 

The gold Servant’s voice turns gentle—considering how he's acted up until now, it sounds off. “What is past is past, Saber.”

Saber smiles sadly. “Yes. Perhaps Avalon residing here is proof of ‘that woman’s’ kindness.”

“In that case, treat your wounds for now. Hold out hope: there may yet be another way to retrieve it.”

Lancer bares his teeth in a bitter grin. “So that’s it. You used Illya as bait to lure us into fighting Saber. If we lost, she'd take Avalon. Since we made it back, it’s your turn to work us over.”

“Indeed. For a mongrel, you can be rather clever.”

The portal contracts, and a three-tongued whip slides out for him to take.

“…Wow. You weren’t kidding about the whip, huh?”

The gold Servant smiles cruelly. “Play the confident hero as much as you wish—you’ll betray it soon enough.”

Lancer scoffs, even as his shoulders and feet ache. “Try me.”

“Archer,” Saber says, and for a moment Lancer feels a burst of hope. Then she innocently squashes it: “You needn’t use such cruel methods.”

“…Ha! Indeed, you are even crueler from time to time.” The whip hangs limp in his hand. “Come now, why not call me by my True Name? Lancer has no hope of defeating the King of Heroes, regardless if he knows my identity or not.”

Saber looks to one side and bites her lip, thinking it over. Finally she sighs and says “Very well, Gilgamesh.”

“Suits you,” Lancer mocks without thinking. “It’s fancier than it needs to be.”

Gilgamesh barely bats an eye at that. With a small smile he steps forward, the whip’s tongues hissing against the floor as he walks.

Shirou spits out the gag, rolling slowly onto his side. It’s hard to tell from here if his wounds are healed yet. For a long, agonizing moment, he tries to get to his feet.

“Don’t, Shirou,” Lancer says as gently as he can. “Just stay there, okay?”

Gilgamesh steps back a pace to look between them. There’s no emotion in his face or eyes.

“Hmm…are your burns soothed, Saber?”

Saber touches her face carefully and nods.

After a slow blink, Gilgamesh smiles, wide and wickedly.

“Good. Then you will join your Servant, mongrel.”

Gilgamesh turns on his heel and heads back to Shirou, the whip tongues swaying like a pendulum in his hand. He grabs Shirou by the hair and drags him over to Lancer, not caring how much it might hurt.

Rage burns through Lancer’s head. He thrashes from side-to-side, the chains jangling mockingly in his ears. “Let him go!”

Shirou is dropped at Lancer's feet like he's nothing more than garbage. Those eyes that should be bright and warm are dull, empty. His chest and gut hurt to look at, a mangled nightmare Avalon can’t heal fast enough.

“There. That’s the appropriate distance for your punishment.”

Lancer thinks he gets it. If Gilgamesh and Saber have a team-up going on, then he’s pissed at Saber getting hurt—maybe it works both ways, it’s hard to tell with Saber. It’s the same with Archer and his Master, and with Lancer and Shirou. I guess that’s the one thing we have in common…

Gilgamesh chuckles. “Ah, I almost forgot. One last piece to put in place…”

Another small portal opens where Lancer can't see. Two fingers pinch his nose shut, forcing his mouth open. Something that smells like leather and bronze gets shoved inside, and a thick cord wraps around the back of his head. It’s a bit gag, meant for ornery horses.

Gilgamesh’s eyes are all iris, red and glittering. “Well, well. You do have a certain crude charm after all. You merely require your tongue stilled first.”

With that he strolls behind Lancer’s back, the sound muffled by the blood roaring in Lancer’s ears.

Gilgamesh’s feet shift. He’s going to crack the whip any second. “How many lashes does Lancer require, Saber?”

“Two,” Saber says sternly. “One for each of the injuries he gave me.”

That’s a low estimate if Lancer ever heard one. But he won’t turn away a good word.

“I would prefer four. The third for your shoulder, the fourth for my broken accord.”

Saber has no more mercy to give. “Very well.”  

Lancer breathes out; he won’t give Gilgamesh the fun of hearing him scream. He steels his mind for what's to come, racing through the options. My back's the target, it's the obvious choice.

Leather whistles through the air—

Crack.

There’s just enough of a pause for the first lash to burn across his thighs.

His body, shocked by the heavy impact, arches forward. Air hisses past the bitter gag. Despite the pain, he can’t take his eyes off Shirou’s. He wonders how long that drug will last.

Gilgamesh is laughing, the sound harsh as steel through bone. “You see, Lancer’s Master? Your Servant may boast, but in the end he cringes like a child.”

Shirou audibly sucks in a breath, his eyes brightening bit by bit.

“Yes, this is far better than wasting my precious treasures. You see, Saber? Their victories were an accident from the start.”

Lancer’s vision goes red.

He wants nothing more than to kill this oath-breaker King, to shatter Gilgamesh’s heart and make him regret joining the Grail War.

But Lancer knows it’s useless. Gae Bolg won’t come to him. Shirou’s too drugged to fight back. And even if they could…what’s Gilgamesh hiding in these portals of his?

So I’ll bear it. I’ll survive and bring Shirou home—!

Gilgamesh is still talking. Why wouldn't he be? “…And to think, this is what the gods produced after my passing. A wild beast playing the knight, who left his Master to the lions!”

He's impossible to tune out, and there's nothing Lancer wants more than to spit in his eye. Since that's not doable, Lancer snorts derisively instead. 

He hears rather than sees Gilgamesh’s arm arc farther back. Of course: every hit needs to hurt worse than the last.

But the pain’s not meant for him.

Crack.

Lancer can’t help a grunt of shock this time, as the second lash lands perfectly across the first. The sound echoes in the clammy stillness of the basement.

“What was that, mongrel?” Gilgamesh's voice bounces happily. “You need to speak up, so your Master can hear you!”

Saber sighs in disappointment. “At this rate, this will take all night. Stop your mockery and finish the punishment.”

“Hmph. Have you always been so easily moved? Is it Avalon’s doing—”

At that moment, Shirou seems to come to his senses. His foggy vision clears. “…Lancer…?”

Lancer tries to spit out the gag and snarls uselessly at his failure. Thanks to that bastard Gilgamesh, once again he can’t tell Shirou to look away—better, to run away. Lancer’s ignored pain before, he’ll get through this fine.

This is different. Having to watch Shirou struggle to sit up, his fingers pressing against Lancer’s armored legs as he slowly realizes what’s happening—

Crack.

Lancer’s ready for the pain and lets it roll against him like a gentle breeze. He can feel blood seeping through his armor—the skin’s broken. That’s fine. As long as he doesn’t look at Shirou, as long as he pretends he can’t see those eyes, he can take this.

“Enough…” Shirou lurches to his feet, breathing harshly.

He can barely stand. A human against one Servant’s a dead man walking, let alone two. And yet, here he is, red-rimmed eyes bright with anger and Circuits flickering to life.

“Hmm. ‘Enough’, you say? Not quite.” Gilgamesh might as well be having tea. “However, if you wish to end his suffering, it’s simple.”

“I know.”

Then Shirou’s arms spasm like they’re ready to break. The drug’s still in him. And the other wounds will need time to heal.

“Ugh!” Shirou hunches over, one hand clamped down on another to steady it. “I won’t…let you…!”

Lancer shakes his head frantically, but it’s a lost cause.

Little by little, Shirou’s hands stop trembling. He fumbles around for the cord and rips Lancer’s gag free. Just as he throws the gag to the floor like it’s garbage, it vanishes in a burst of gold flecks.

Lancer’s jaw throbs dully; he ignores it. “Shirou, it’s a trick!”

“…Lancer.” Shirou’s never sounded more like Archer. “Sorry, but don’t talk for now.”

Then he’ll keep talking out of spite. “I know what you’re thinking, but it’s not worth it! Just—”

Shirou drags a hand through his hair in exasperation. “You don’t even know what my plan is!”

“’Course I do. It’s to heal me and kick Gilgamesh’s ass, right? That’s what he wants you to do!” Lancer jerks his head toward the door, and the stairs beyond it. “There’s a way out back there. Go! I’ll catch up with you.”

Silence. Looks like Gilgamesh isn’t up for a snide comment for once.

Shirou glares past Lancer to where Gilgamesh stands. “I went with you because we had a truce,” he says with bitter resentment. “If anyone broke their word, it’s you!”

Lancer can’t believe his ears. “You what?

“…I’m sorry, Lancer.” His eyes show he means it. “We’ll talk about it later.”

“That truce only existed while Caster lived, mongrel.” A lazy chuckle. “You’re well aware of that, I see.”

“I won’t let you hurt Lancer,” Shirou growls, moving to stand between Lancer and the whip.

Gilgamesh laughs outright, a grating and high-pitched sound. “In the end, you recognize your shared guilt. Very well, I acknowledge your request.”

Lancer tenses as he hears Gilgamesh lift the whip again. Just as it’s about to fall—

“—Stop, Gilgamesh.” Saber stands and strides toward them, her jaw clenched. “My Master bids me return; our current course of action disrupts his own.”

Lancer rolls his eyes. “You’re kidding me. What are you, his squire?”

Saber doesn’t take the bait.

Shirou stares at Saber expectantly, like a student toward his teacher. “…So, what’s the plan?”

Saber suddenly looks more human, resting her hands on her hips and cocking her head to one side. “What nonsense. Why should I tell you, our enemy?”

Shirou shrugs. “It just seemed like you wanted to explain, that’s all.”

The half-lidded stare Saber gives them deserves to be framed. “Lancer.”

“Yeah?”

“Your Master is a madman.”

Lancer bites back a laugh. “Nah, you’re just not used to him yet.”

Gilgamesh’s anger seeps outward, staining what could've been a light-hearted moment. “To leave the fight undone is cowardly; does your Master’s hypocrisy know no bounds?”

“Guess not,” Lancer chimes in, eager to get out of these chains. “Hey, if you get the chance—ask him if he’ll let you off your leash some time this era, will you?”

Saber turns away with a bitter expression. 

The chains vanish from Lancer’s arms, sending him crashing to the floor. Cold concrete scrapes his knees and elbows. With a weary grunt he rolls onto his side, suddenly very tired.

“Count yourselves fortunate, mongrels,” Gilgamesh says, back in control again. “Our next meeting will not end so mercifully.”

With that, Saber and Gilgamesh vanish in a wisp of gold.

As soon as they’re gone Shirou collapses at Lancer’s side. For a long time he doesn’t say anything. There’s just the faint rasp of their ragged breaths.

Then.

Two arms, gentle and warm, pull Lancer close. His head rests on Shirou’s shoulder as a floating sensation fills him. It doesn’t matter if it’s from Avalon or Shirou’s touch: it’s the only good thing that’s happened tonight.

Something wet hits Lancer’s forehead, and he flinches at how it stings. He knows what it is even as it slides down his face. Stupid…wasting tears on me…

“Shirou, hey.” Lancer lifts his numb hand and reaches for Shirou’s wet face. “What’re you crying about?”

“…I was stupid.” There’s an embarrassed groan as Shirou wipes his eyes with his sleeve.

“No kidding!” Lancer’s anger shrinks a little. “Sorry. You need a minute?”

“No, I’m fine! Ugh, I look so childish now…”

“Not to me.”

As Lancer expects, it doesn’t take long for Shirou to collect himself. He's had too much practice. 

“Okay, so what happened?”

Shirou’s chest rises and falls against Lancer’s as he sighs. “When you were asleep, I visited the Overseer.” He glances away then slowly looks back. “I—I asked him about whether Servants could stay after the War. I’m sorry.”

Lancer keeps his emotions on lockdown. Waits.

“The Overseer said that it’s possible to keep a Servant as a Familiar, but…we’d need the Grail.” Shirou’s eyes blaze with anger; it’s a wonder he didn’t come back with the Overseer’s blood on his hands.

“Which you don’t want.” Lancer’s starting to get it. “And then we had a fight…”

“…And I ran into Gilgamesh.” A bitter chuckle. “I thought I could solve everything if I faced him alone. Of course, he had other ideas. Well, he was right about that drug: everything between when I took it and when I woke up is a blank. And the pain’s not that bad.”

“Why’d you take it in the first place?” Lancer grumbles.

“I didn’t want you to be miserable when you found me.”

“…Heh. Should’ve known you’d say that.” The gashes reopen when Lancer moves even a little; it feels like his legs are catching fire. “Still…I’m glad you’re okay.”

Shirou stares at the gashes, his face pale and drawn. “What about you? Were you caught?”

Lancer’s heart sinks. “…Yeah. I was stupid too. Those two played me for a chump.” His hands clench into fists, ignoring the fire running up his arms and back.

Shirou flashes a determined smile. “They didn’t kill you though.” His hands stroke Lancer’s wounds tentatively. “See? These are already scabbing over.”

Lancer manages to laugh. “Let’s get home before we check that.”

Shirou looks at him in disbelief. “…Home?”

There’s nothing he can to but bluff.

“Sure! It’s your home, and you’re my Master, so for now it’s my home too.” Lancer grins sheepishly. “Guess I lost a bit of blood just now if I’m babbling like this, huh?”

Shirou doesn’t look any happier. Instead he sinks further into himself, his eyes dark and wet at the corners again. It’s obvious what he wants to tell him: I don’t want you to leave, Lancer. But what’s here to make you stay?

It’s true. A boy named Setanta wanted to run through life like a comet, leaving behind a legend all his own, for the fun of it. Even when friends became foes, who then became corpses, Lancer doesn’t regret anything. There’s no wish he wants granted.

And yet.

This Grail War’s shown him more than just a good fight or two. He met Shirou. And through Shirou, he’s worked a steady service job, visited an aquarium, played at an arcade, ate food Eire didn’t know existed, met two versions of the same guy and cared for them in different ways. And that’s just off the top of his head. Somehow, he’s found fun in a leisurely life.

Still…it feels hypocritical. A hero like me doesn’t fit a world like this.

Again, the thought gnaws at him. He grinds his teeth and looks away from Shirou toward the bone-white tarp. “I need to think it over—what I want out of all this. There’s no way I can answer you now.”

Shirou nods, looking tired but relieved. “That’s what I thought. Take your time, Lancer. My feelings won’t change.”

Lancer looks back at him and offers a smile. “So let’s ditch this place already!”

“…Alright. Maybe Illya will come by to visit. If she does, we have a lot to talk about.”

Lancer struggles to his feet, feeling battered and raw; not a normal experience for him. “It’ll take awhile to get back,” he grudgingly admits.

Shirou wobbles on his feet, threatening to fall. “Um, Lancer…I’m sorry, I think you need to carry me…” His voice sounds far away.

“It’s no trouble.”

With a grunt Lancer scoops Shirou up in his arms, cradling him close. At first Shirou flushes and fidgets at the contact—his cheek’s pressed against Lancer’s chest—until exhaustion wins out and his body goes limp.  

They travel in silence. Humiliation licks at Lancer’s heels like fire as he dashes up the stairs and leaves the lifeless restaurant, Gilgamesh’s words and the sound of chains ringing in his ears. His injured pride can’t forget what happened tonight.

Chapter Text

Saber shakes Gilgamesh’s hand off her shoulder as soon as they reach the Church. He doesn’t seem to notice—he glowers at his right arm, no doubt envisioning their Master’s Command Seal.  

The lights are still on, casting a feeble glow on the Church’s entrance. A gust of wind blows over the hill, chilling her bones and making her cough. It may snow again tonight. Below, Fuyuki illuminates the clouded night in a sickly pale green, as if the city is infected.  

“Come in from the cold, Saber,” Gilgamesh says, ambling over to the double doors. “Kotomine no doubt has his own business to attend to. Should you be hungry, there may be food of some edibility awaiting us.”

Saber hunches over as she walks, trying to shield herself from the bitter cold. “I doubt that. Master rarely eats.”

“I’m well aware.” Gilgamesh’s scowl deepens. “He never truly changed, did he…?”

Saber has no idea what to say to that, so she ignores him and passes through the door without comment. Warm air cocoons her, more stagnant than welcoming.

Much to her surprise no one is standing at the pulpit. Her Master must be further inside, perhaps at his study. If he needed my assistance, he would be here. If nothing else I have time to eat.

Hearing footsteps, she looks back to Gilgamesh. He’s staring at the altar, his expression unreadable. Despite that, she can sense his anger hasn’t abated. If anything, it’s stronger than before.

“Gilgamesh, is something the matter?” She asks out of courtesy rather than concern.

After a long, ominous pause, Gilgamesh’s gaze turns to hers. Then his lips curve into something close to a kind smile. “Oh, nothing in particular.”

“I see.” Saber doesn’t believe that for a second. “When you punished Lancer…you were still bored.” She allows herself a small smile at Gilgamesh’s surprised face. “You’re easier to read than you realize.”

“…Humph. Torture loses its appeal quicker than some might have you believe. And besides, it rarely works—you saw that well enough tonight.”

Saber decides to probe a little. “Avalon aside, what did you expect?”

“Respite, however brief,” Gilgamesh says simply. His features settle into a disquieting blank. “I have something that requires tending to; I shall join you for dinner shortly.”

Saber nods and watches Gilgamesh stroll off, no doubt toward their Master’s study. Yes, it would be best if he explained what happened. They have a strange rapport…though it appears strained lately.

She can’t deny her stomach any longer, so she makes her way to the kitchen. As she walks, she thinks.

She isn’t surprised that Avalon was irretrievable—she lost the right to it long ago. However, it is disappointing. Gilgamesh made a good point while outlining yesterday’s scheme: Lancer’s Gae Bolg is a formidable weapon. And now she knows Archer’s Reality Marble could cause severe damage under the right conditions. She won't repeat her mistakes from the last Grail War. This time, I will see my wish granted. If my last act as King of Britain is the eradication of a few lives in place of thousands, it will be worth it.  

That’s right. She hated Kiritsugu’s methods not merely because of her chivalric code, but because they reminded her too much of her own actions as King Arthur. Ransack villages for their food to feed her army. Fight the enemy in little-populated areas, to ensure contained destruction. Above all, the King carries the people’s burden.

…Yes, this is for the best.

Before she’s realized it, she reaches the doorway to the kitchen. Pushing it open and finding only darkness, she flicks on the light.

The kitchen is a small and austere room, priding functionality over comfort. The wood table in the center and the stainless steel refrigerator are the only luxuries. Through the curtained window she can see snowflakes beginning to fall.

Opening the refrigerator, her heart sinks. It’s empty again, whether out of malice or ignorance. Gritting her teeth, she slams the steel door hard enough to make the stucco walls shake.

“Temper, temper,” her Master says with dry amusement, stepping into the room with his hands clasped behind his back. “If I recall, you deemed food unnecessary for a Servant. What changed?”

Saber glares at him without restraint. “You wasted a Command Seal on me.”

Her Master’s tepid smile remains. “Was it truly wasted? You came when summoned.”

Saber looks him over carefully, from his slightly open jacket to the hint of red on his cheeks. “You have been drinking.”

“Gilgamesh discovered a fine vintage just now. Even a man of God can indulge his senses on occasion. Isn't that right?”

She can’t recall if her Master was intoxicated mildly or otherwise in her presence before. Eyes never leaving him, she carefully puts the table between them. Much to her annoyance, Gilgamesh hasn’t joined them yet. Where is he? Is this some sort of trap?

Her Master’s senses aren’t dulled in the slightest—his gaze follows her movements like a predator tracking prey. “While you were away, I decided that you deserve a reward for your efforts.”

Saber straightens her back. “I only seek the Grail.”

His smile widens the smallest bit. “Exactly. I know its secret.”

Something in his tone gives her pause. “…Then speak.”

“If you insist. In short, the Holy Grail is not as divine as some would like to believe. While it began as a ‘colorless’, neutral wish-granting device, at some point in the past it changed. Rather, it blackened.”

Saber furrows her brows. “‘Blackened’? You mean, it’s been corrupted?” She recalls Diarmuid’s final words and fights back a shiver.

Her Master nods. “Indeed. The Einzbern woman that you knew was subsumed by that corruption—intimately. And who do you think was the cause of it?”

It’s a simple solution. “Kiritsugu Emiya.” But something feels wrong. “Kiritsugu was a powerful Mage, to be sure, but tampering with a soul…that seems beyond his reach.”

And yet, a doubtful thought whispers, Avalon tampered with that young man’s soul…and who last held Avalon?

“I cannot say.” There’s a hint of disappointment in her Master’s voice. “Regardless, the destruction of Fuyuki came about from the Grail overflowing with darkness. We must not allow a repeat of that...tragedy.”

“Of course.” Saber suspects where this is going. “You wish me to kill the new Einzbern Master.”

A nod. “Think of it as a mercy killing. After all, if the mother was corrupted, the daughter must suffer the same fate. This time, you can keep your pledge.”

Saber gasps. “You mean…she is Irisviel’s daughter?”

That can’t be possible. Illyasviel should have just turned twenty. Is this also Kiritsugu’s doing? No, it must be the Einzbern’s…

Her Master chuckles, the sound coarser than normal. “Oh, did I not mention that before? My apologies.” The smile falls from his face, and he looks off to the side in thought. “Perhaps the Grail’s corruption is a blessing.”

“Why?” she snaps, though she knows she shouldn’t ask. “Because it’s amusing to you?!”

“That is part of it, yes,” he says idly, still not looking at her. The moon’s sickly light can’t hide the red splotches covering his face. “Your wish is far more important.”

He doesn’t elaborate. There’s no need to. If the Grail is corrupted, and Saber wishes on it anyway…

She can see it clearly: a tyrant claims Caliburn. Britain succumbs to endless war and famine. The dead and dying choke the land and bloat the rivers with their unending number.

Her Master’s chuckle distorts into a cough. “There could be no better end for the King of Knights.”

Saber considers leaving—but what good would that do? Now that he’s spoken, the thought will gnaw at her no matter where she goes.

“I find your will inspiring, Saber,” her Master says, looking back at her now. He clears his throat. “After all, you have no qualms about murdering children for the sake of your dream. No wonder Kiritsugu summoned you.”

She bows her head, shaking with impotent rage. “You claimed it a mercy killing!”

He coughs again. “You should know better than anyone that a ‘suggestion’ and an ‘order’ aren’t identical. And why use a Command Seal when you freely debase yourself?”

Saber’s blood boils. Breaths coming hot in her throat, she summons Excalibur without thinking.

Her Master looks on with sincere enjoyment—he must have expected this. “Placing a blade at your own Master’s throat…chivalry is dead after all.”

The damn table is in her way. She cleaves it in half with one stroke, rushing through the debris with a wordless scream. At this moment, all she cares about is taking that man’s head—

—Of which he’s well aware.

It only takes a second.

Bladeless red hilts slip from his sleeves. With a simple movement black blades form on the hilts, giving him six weapons to fight back with.

Even inebriated, it’s clear her Master is no amateur. He matches Saber’s strikes easily, if not without injury: his wrists shudder with each impact. Still, he treats this as a game. Always smiling. Always protecting his vitals. Savoring her anger like a rare vintage.

In the distance she hears someone rushing upstairs. A voice calls out, rough with anger. Whoever it is, they can wait.

The more Saber fights on, the more she realizes something is wrong with her Master. It’s a collection of small details: the hitching way his throat bobs, how he hunches over with increasing frequency, the growing ruddy flush around his throat and chest.

When he falters and fails to dodge her feint at his left wrist, spattering blood across the floor, her theory’s confirmed.

Black blades fall from her Master’s destroyed hand. He doesn’t seem to notice. Cursing his drunken state, he stumbles forward, Command Seals raised. They glow to life without his saying a word. He looks on her one last time, as an artist adding one final touch to his creation. 

"'Your sword creates my destiny'," he whispers with the last of his strength, "so allow me to borrow it." 

The horrid weight of his will digs into Saber's chest, forcing her to act as a second hand. He traces the blade from her chest to her throat. No. Her feet can't move. No!

Even as his wrist bleeds out, her Master smiles like a child at play. He planned to kill her from the start—she just gave him an excuse.

Somewhere far away, someone is calling for her.

The world around her slows to a crawl. No matter how much she struggles, she can’t stop Excalibur’s hilt from drawing back, its aim true. Just like in the last Grail War, there’s no use resisting her Master's control. Why bother in the first place? She'll wake up in Camlann once again, awaiting the Grail's summons.

…I see. So this is the end. If nothing else, I avenged Irisviel and Bazett…

She closes her eyes. Her heart sinks in icy resignation.

Then.

“…Saber.”

Firm hands grasp Excalibur’s hilt, finally prying it from her fingers. In her self-imposed darkness, its dematerialization looks like dancing fireflies.

As the seconds tick by, her body starts to shudder with the strain of keeping the Command Seal at bay. The hands clasping hers give a gentle squeeze. Just when it becomes too much, she feels the crushing weight in her chest subside.

Those gentle hands reach out and cup her cheeks, and their warmth coaxes her eyes open.

If Gilgamesh was annoyed before, he’s furious now. His pallor’s ashen and beads of sweat form at his forehead. He’s bent at the waist, completely ignoring their Master lying motionless on the floor. Once he sees that she’s focusing on him, the hot fury vanishes from his eyes, replaced with cool triumph.

“This time I fear it is I who kept you waiting, Saber,” Gilgamesh says, promptly fussing over her. His fingers search her neck, her shoulders. “That mongrel dared to—”

Saber finds her voice and manages to lie. “Yes, but I’m fine. What happened?”

“I underestimated that mongrel’s tolerance for poison.” He glances back toward their Master. His expression hardens again. “He should have never made it down the hall.”

Silence.

Saber’s knees threaten to buckle. “…What do you…?”

“I ensured he still lives, if you consider a coma ‘living’.” Gilgamesh moves closer to the body. “Hmm…I see he offended you. The wound needs to be cauterized to keep that meager flow of mana.”

True to his word, Gilgamesh summons a matchbox and lights one. In seconds the kitchen is filled with the putrid stink of burning flesh.

“Kotomine almost understood me.” Gilgamesh almost sounds regretful. “Ah well, it was a fool’s errand from the start.”

“What was?” Saber finds herself asking. Her body feels far away.

A bitter chuckle. “Finding worth in this era.”

With that, the matchbox and her Master’s body vanish into golden portals like the mere objects they are.

“However, I have achieved something on this frustrating night.” Gilgamesh’s gaze returns to hers, the gentleness in his eyes beyond Saber’s comprehension. “No one shall harm you anymore.”

“You betrayed him,” she whispers, her mind reeling.

“No, my dear Saber,” Gilgamesh croons, “Kotomine betrayed us.

Before Saber knows what’s happening, Gilgamesh gently takes her hands. Her pale fingers are small and calloused compared to his.

Gilgamesh’s thumbs stroke her knuckles in slow, soothing circles. “Before Kotomine died, he spoke to you. What caused you to kill him?”

“He claimed the Grail is corrupted.” She narrows her eyes in suspicion. “Is that true, Gilgamesh?”

“Even a blackened Grail may have its uses.” A pause. “Do you still desire it?”

Saber’s lips quirk humorlessly. “What choice do I have?”

“Ridiculous. Of course you have a choice; each Servant joins the Grail War of their accord. If Lancer of all mongrels can join…”

“True.” Something occurs to her. “What do you want out of this?”

Gilgamesh’s thumbs stop their stroking. He cocks his head to one side. “Was it not clear? I only want you, Saber.”  

Saber well remembers the last Grail War—and the insult Gilgamesh hurled at her. Truly, this man is a fool to desire a failed King.

She jerks her hands away. “You still believe such utter nonsense?!”

He grins knowingly. “Indeed. Our fight in that ocean of fire proved your worth. And what is eleven years compared to a hero’s heart? My wealth, my strength, my mana…I’ll gladly part with them, if you gain joy from it.”

She’s alone with a madman.

Saber backs away from him, her heart pounding in her chest. “Stay back!”

The smile falls from Gilgamesh’s face. He stands still as if struck to the core. “You…do you think me a coward? A mad dog in heat?”

Saber holds her ground. “You take what you want—you said so yourself, with the King of Conquerors.”

“…Is that so.” Gilgamesh looks on coldly. “And what would I gain from ‘taking’ you?”

“You already know the answer.” Quickly gauging the distance, she thinks she can make it through the door at a run. If not, she can use the window. “To master me, in other words.”

Gilgamesh closes his eyes. At first, there’s nothing in his body language to show if he’s offended or not. Then she sees the slight crease in his brow, the hard set of his jaw.

“Yet again, I frighten you,” he mutters bitterly. “Why…?”

It’s the best time to run—

“—Oh.” Opening his eyes, Gilgamesh chuckles and shakes his head. “I see now, Saber! My impulsive actions tonight are to blame. Yes, I deserve that look on your face.”

Saber has no idea what to do. She can only nod—it’s the truth, after all.

Gilgamesh’s expression turns serious. “Very well. I apologize.”

Is this some sort of joke? To think he would act this way…he must be desperate for entertainment.

Saber braces herself. “What will you do now?”

“Eat.”

She watches dumbfounded as Gilgamesh summons a strange bolt of white linen, which unrolls onto the floor. It looks ordinary at first glance, but a quiet thrum of magic flowing from it changes her mind. The linen must be shielded from blood and debris—which means that Gilgamesh can sit without being “sullied”.

“On that subject: I shall forgive your table-destroying scuffle with Kotomine. You needed the respite.” He looks up at her expectantly. “What would you like to eat, Saber?”

“I don’t follow.”

“We can discuss private matters another time.” Gilgamesh shrugs one shoulder in a leisurely roll of muscle. “The Grail is more important, is it not?”

There’s a hint of testiness in his voice. Despite the annoyance simmering behind his eyes, he doesn’t look inclined to harm her. It must have more to do with the Grail War itself.

“…Yes.” Reluctantly, Saber kneels opposite him. The linen is very fine, as expected.

“You must give your order in a certain way.” Gilgamesh demonstrates: “A cup of mulled wine, sweetened with honey.” It’s a rhythmic lilt, not quite singing but not quite speaking either.

Saber nearly jumps back in shock as the linen glows beneath her knees, and Gilgamesh’s request is granted. In the middle of the cloth, steam rises from the silver cup, carrying a sweet scent with it. She watches in silence as Gilgamesh picks up the cup and takes a languid sip.

Gilgamesh lowers the cup slightly. “I used Kotomine’s own wine to poison him, by the way.”

Saber understands what he’s driving at. After a chant of her own, she finds a steaming array of mulled wine, roast chicken, buttered potatoes and sliced carrots before her on silver platters. The scents wafting through the air makes her mouth water.

The first savory bite of chicken is a shock to her system—other than blood, what else has she eaten since her summoning? The chicken is so tender it melts in her mouth; indeed every dish is cooked to her tastes. After so long without eating, it’s nearly impossible to keep her manners in check.

Gilgamesh chuckles and takes another sip of wine. “Well, well. You can enjoy yourself after all. Feast without fear!”

Saber shoots him a look and swallows. “To business then. If the Grail is truly corrupted, we cannot allow it into others’ hands.”

Gilgamesh hums curiously. “Do you intend to destroy it?”

Saber saws through a potato with her knife; she hesitates to answer. If the Grail is both omnipotent and corrupted, who knows if it’s been monitoring them this whole time?

“…In the past, one Grail War never had a victor. Perhaps that will occur again.”

Gilgamesh gives her a long, searching look. “Interesting. You admit defeat?”

That gives her pause. If she does give up, she’ll leave Gilgamesh to fight two powerful foes—she knows he’s arrogant enough to take them both on. He could even win. However, he’s been her ally since the start…and he betrayed their Master with ease. Much as she doesn’t trust him (he could betray her too), abandoning him to his fate sullies her honor.

And Gilgamesh wants nothing more than to see her honor destroyed.

“No,” she finally says, gazing at him straight on. “Someone needs to ensure the Grail War ends as it should. If I can help avoid a repetition of the Fourth War, I will stay until the end.” 

As she expected, he’s pleased with her answer. There’s a hint of something else in his eyes that’s easily ignored. “That is fine. We need to teach those mongrels what their foes are capable of.”

“You must be glad,” Saber says before taking a sip of wine.

Gilgamesh looks at her with mild curiosity. “Oh? And why is that?”

Saber allows herself a small smile. “Freedom is within our grasp.”  

Chapter Text

Lancer stares at the locked front gate, Shirou still out like a light in his arms. …Uh-oh. How do we get in? Then it hits him. Since he can’t smack his forehead without dropping Shirou, he makes a face instead. We jump, obviously!

Bending at the knees, he hops over the gate in one smooth motion. Snowy wind playfully rustles his hair and Shirou’s jacket as he moves. The Bounded Field has no problem letting him in. Landing on the opposite side, his feet nearly slip on the wet cobblestones. Looks like there’s another flurry tonight.

Lancer glances down to check if Shirou woke up, and grins as Shirou huddles closer to his chest in sleep. It’s shut-eye well deserved, in Lancer’s opinion.

Shielding his Master from the cold as best he can, Lancer makes his way to the front door. One quick and awkward search through Shirou’s pockets later, he finds the keys. The metal’s so cold it burns his fingers. His breath raw in his throat, Lancer carefully props Shirou up against the wall and puts the keys to work.

Luck’s on his side: it only takes one try to get the door open. It’s a small victory, but he’ll take it.

Closing and locking the door behind him, Lancer carries Shirou through the dark house. His room sounds good, but maybe he’d like a bath…nah, I’ll let him decide.

He knows this house by heart. When he reaches Shirou’s room, he lowers Shirou down onto the futon like the priceless treasure he is. Dim light from the window falls on Shirou’s face, turning his twitching eyelashes silver.

Now comes the hard part: tending his wounds without waking him up. Lancer’s no healer, but he gets the basics. Avalon can do the rest. Avalon, huh...well, if anybody's over-prepared enough to keep a magic sheath in their son's gut, it's Shirou's old man.

In the time between getting a towel and bowl of water ready, Lancer flicks on the hallway lights—more for peace of mind than anything. It’s a reminder that for the moment they’re safe. Not that that matters if Gilgamesh and Saber attack them now. They won’t, though. Not while their Masters have their leash.

Lancer stops in the hallway. The water he’s carrying threatens to slop over the bowl. …Wait. Hold on.

He starts walking again. Then he runs over the night’s events: getting cornered at the Church, Saber’s Command Seal, Gilgamesh’s rage. One thing doesn’t add up. Why did a guy like Gilgamesh obey Saber’s Master?

His lips curl into a grin. They made a hell of a mistake just now. Well, what d’you know. There’s a Master with two Servants!

That said, that knowledge doesn’t solve the problem of fighting two powerful Servants. He should mention it tomorrow, when the young lady and Archer come over. His Master needs tending to—that’s more important.

Lancer slips into Shirou’s room, finding him still on his back. Good. He won’t reopen his wound that way. Kneeling at Shirou’s side and placing the washbowl close by, Lancer gets to work.

---

When Shirou’s eyes flutter open, Lancer’s in the middle of wiping his belly. Avalon finished its repairs—now all that’s left is to keep him from getting feverish.

Shirou flinches at the cool sensation. “L-Lancer!”

Lancer grins. “Oh, hey, you’re up. How’re you feeling?”

Shirou lifts his head and peers over his hiked-up shirt to his bared skin. “Well, nothing hurts.” His head hits the pillow. “What time is it?”

“Not that late—around dinner. Funny, I didn’t notice until now.”

“…Did you bring me all the way back home?”

“Sure did.” Lancer soaks the towel in the bowl and rings it out, letting the excess drops flow back into the water. “Don’t worry, you’re light as a feather to me!”

“I suppose I’ll take that as a compliment.”

Lancer laughs under his breath and slides the towel over Shirou’s belly, noting that his skin’s cooling down. “Go back to sleep again, if you want. It’ll be morning before we know it.”

Shirou glances meaningfully toward Lancer’s hands. “What about you? Your hands will get chapped if you don’t dry them off soon.”

“Really?” Sure enough, Lancer’s wrists are covered in red, bristly splotches. “Point taken.” He puts the washcloth down and stands, looking toward the door. “Still, I’m not in the mood to crash just yet.”

“Is that so?” There’s something suspicious about Shirou’s tone. He’s already on his feet, and with a surprisingly intense expression. Slowly, his hands reach out.

Just as Lancer registers this…

…Shirou’s fingers crawl like spiders up his sides.

While Lancer expected, even hoped, for this indulgent response, he’s still taken off guard. It starts off like an itch, more unpleasant than anything.

Shirou furrows his brows, focused completely on trying to get a laugh out of Lancer. He tries a harder touch, his fingers skittering from Lancer’s sides to his armpits.

Lancer can’t hold back a laugh—no, it’s a giggle—and his knees almost buckle at the touch. Damn it, Shirou’s too good at this! He throws back his head as the ticklish sensation rushes through his nerves. His head feels like it’s floating.

“Sh-Shirou, hey…!”

“If you don’t like it, go and rest,” Shirou says, his eyes glittering.

Already Lancer’s belly hurts from laughing. He finds the strength to nod in agreement. Shirou moves his hands down to Lancer’s less-ticklish sides to accept his surrender.

He gives Shirou a second to work out that his hands are empty; fair is fair. Once that second is up however…

Shirou gasps as Lancer gets his revenge. Looks like the armpits are a shared weak spot; his belly hops up and down as he holds back his laughter.

Now Lancer just has to hear that. It’s a phenomenon so rare it may as well be a myth. So as Shirou’s legs start to give out onto the futon, Lancer follows him down, crouched over his waist. He doesn’t let up his tickling for a moment, not that Shirou seems to mind much. His ponytail pools down onto Shirou’s neck—which of course makes Shirou angle his head away, biting his lip desperately.

“Want me to stop?” Lancer asks, his fingers already slowing.

Shirou looks up at him, lines forming between his eyes. “…Not particularly. It’s just been awhile since someone tickled me—not since I was a kid.”

“Oh. Well, if it helps, I don’t see you as a kid.”

“Oh, that’s right.” Shirou grins and wriggles his fingers menacingly. “Then keep going, or else I’ll counterattack!”

“Yes sir,” Lancer singsongs, and his fingers march down to Shirou’s belly.

As soon as he makes contact, he gets what he wanted: Shirou bursts into laughter, the sound so honest and wild it could warm Archer’s heart. He feels rather than sees Shirou’s legs flailing against the mattress. His eyes are focused entirely on the flush blooming across Shirou’s cheeks, the tears of mirth beading at the corners of his eyes. From any other person, Shirou’s laugh might sound villainous—but it’s impossible for Lancer to see it that way. Yeah. “Sweet” is more like it.

He bends his head down to Shirou’s ear and whispers “Is this spot ticklish too?”

“Ah! L-Lancer…enough…!” A shaking hand grabs Lancer’s wrist and strains to move it.

As relaxing as it could be to keep playing around, Lancer knows how annoying it is to be at someone’s mercy. So he gives up and eases onto his side, giving Shirou room to breathe.

Shirou’s chest rises and falls rapidly, his laughter trailing off bit by bit. The flush begins to fade from his cheeks. “Well,” he finally murmurs, “you defeated me.” Then his smile falters.

“What’s wrong?”

“Well…” Shirou gazes off to the side. “Tomorrow might be the end of the Grail War. For lack of a better way to put it…I’m not sure what we should do tonight. There’s plenty of choices; it all depends on what you feel like.”

“‘What I feel like’, huh.”

It’s hard to make a choice. Lying so close to Shirou, cocooned in the warmth of his body—Lancer’s heart refuses to slow down. At the same time, they’re both exhausted. Shirou’s wound might be healed, but who’s to say he can handle anything strenuous right now?

“Y’know what,” Lancer says, embracing Shirou and bringing him close, “let’s just sleep. Those are tomorrow’s problems.”

“But…mm.” Shirou’s head nestles against Lancer’s chest. His hair tickles Lancer’s chin. “Drink my blood, if you want.” A sleepy smile. “I have plenty to spare…”

“I hope so.” Lancer’s words morph into a yawn as he drifts off.

---

Around the witching hour, Lancer takes Shirou up on his offer.

The light of the moon pierces through the curtains, drenching the room in soothing blue and white. A stray wind swirls and rattles the shutters, like it’s a ghost begging for a haunting-home. Everything turns still again. For the moment, he’s alone. The spot beside him is still warm to the touch, flattened by Shirou’s body, so he hasn’t left long. The sound of the water pipes churning overhead confirms it.

He listens to Shirou shuffle back from the bathroom and takes his time sitting up.

“Sorry I woke you,” Shirou mumbles, rubbing the sleep-crust from his eyes.

“Nah, you didn’t.” Lancer gives an inch to let Shirou slip back under the covers. “You up for mana transfer?”

Shirou gets comfortable, his loose hands brushing against Lancer’s fingertips. “Sure. It’ll take time for me to go back to sleep, anyway.”

“Good.” Lancer gently runs his fingers along Shirou’s knuckles, figuring the hand is best tonight, only for Shirou to hold up his forearm instead. “Why here?”

Shirou shrugs. “Archer used this way—it seemed only fair.”

“…Oh, that makes sense.” Lancer props himself up on his elbow and grins. “Want me to let my hair down, too?”

The responding humph is impressive, considering how Shirou’s voice is rough with sleep. “D-Don’t act ridiculous. Your hair’ll just get in the way.”

Lancer snickers and moves his head toward Shirou’s arm. “Here. I’ll get this done quick, so we can sleep.”

Shirou nods. “…Alright.”

The veins snaking beneath Shirou’s skin pulse lazily, like a river in summer. There’s something soothing about it. It’s a reminder that despite Gilgamesh and Saber’s best efforts, their enemy is determined to see this through to the end. In short: a nostalgic, “Ulster-like” presence.

You would think he’d be used to this business by now, and he is, but…this feels indulgent, in a quiet sort of way.

Lancer sighs and takes hold of Shirou’s arm with a gentle hand, bringing it to his lips. Smooth salt, tiny ticklish hairs, and heat—he registers each part in an instant. He’s so close to Shirou he can see his image reflected in those half-lidded eyes.

Sharp teeth pierce flesh. This time, the skin opens so easily only a quick bite’s needed. A mana-drenched taste of blood (more metallic than usual) follows after.

There’s a hint of tension in Shirou’s eyes. Just because the pain’s expected doesn’t mean it won’t hurt. It only takes a gentle, slow suckle from Lancer’s lips to calm him. Shirou’s breathing slows, rocking his flesh back and forth against Lancer’s lips and tongue.

On a whim, Lancer reaches out with his free hand and cups the back of Shirou’s head, stroking his fingers from scalp to nape. It’s a slow, steady gesture, a trick learned from previous lovers.

“Hmm…” Shirou leans into the touch, his eyes fluttering shut.

Lancer lifts his head and grins. “You like it?”

A small yawn.

Lancer nods in understanding and gets back to his meal.

Since they’re both half-asleep, time seems to float leisurely around them. The moonlight never gives any hint of minutes passing. With each mouthful of mana, instead of feeling more awake, Lancer’s heartbeat grows calmer, his eyelids weighed down by the need to rest.

He’s had enough blood tonight. With a filmy view, his eyes close and stay that way.

As soon as he lets his guard down, troubling thoughts fill his head. He replays the encounter with Gilgamesh and Saber: how he fell for their plan easily, how those damn chains snared him. Even now Gilgamesh’s mocking words and the lash of the whip sting.

“You see, Lancer’s Master? Your Servant may boast, but in the end he cringes like a child…”

Those chains will find their target no matter what.

“…A wild beast playing the knight…”

He’ll be easy prey for Excalibur—and there’s no way Shirou and the other Masters could run fast and far enough to escape its path.

“Their victories were accidents from the start…”

Lancer’s fingers dig into the pillow, making a low scratching noise in his ear. It doesn’t end the maddening loop of insults and worries.  

Shirou’s voice softened by sleep breaks the silence. “…Lancer.”

“Mm?”

“If you stay awake any longer, I’ll sleep in the shed.” The threat’s harsh, but good-intentioned.

“Heh. Got it.”

Lancer forces his mind toward lighter thoughts, like how warm Shirou’s hand is and the snow drifting down outside. Tomorrow’s problems become background noise. As sleep drags him down into tender darkness, he sees the light of Avalon’s threads behind his eyelids.

---

The next morning, Lancer wakes up to the sound of small feet dashing through the house.

Lancer grunts and slowly sits up, trying not to wake Shirou even with the ruckus. “Mmph, wha’s goin’ on…?”

“Hey, heeey! Shirou, Lancer, are you awake?” It’s Illya, sounding far too energetic this early. “Get up, get up, Rin needs you!”

It doesn’t sound serious. Lancer considers burrowing back under the covers, but it’s too late: Shirou sits up with wide eyes and scrambles out of bed. Warmth leeches out of his side of the futon. Lancer gets a grim feeling he won’t be able to coax Shirou back any time soon.

“What’s wrong, Illya?” Shirou calls, yanking open drawers and grabbing fresh clothes.

Illya stops near the bedroom but doesn’t go any closer. “Rin, Archer and I thought up a plan last night. Since we don’t know when Saber’s going to attack again, we needed you two to come over right away!”

Shirou’s bare feet stroll past Lancer’s view, their steps light. “Couldn’t you just call?”

“We did, an hour ago.” That’s the young lady. “You never answered!”

Lancer winces at all the yelling and covers his ears with Shirou’s pillow. Since Shirou needs to wash his face, that’ll give me time to get a little more sleep. I better

Indeed, things quiet down for a bit. Lancer falls back asleep as soon as Shirou and Illya move down the hall to talk. Every now and then he hears snatches of conversation: stuff about Saber’s Master, where they’re located.

All that’s important, but it’s not like Lancer can take that in right now. He’s too busy floating in a blissful, dreamless void. Ah, yeah, this is nice…

Somewhere outside his literal comfort zone, something tugs at the covers. Lancer yanks them back, still wallowing in the warmth cocooned around his body. It’ll take more than that to get him out of bed. An entire village could do it. Maybe.

Then the tip of something cold as ice wriggles its way into his ear.

What what what what—?!

With a full-body shudder and a gasp Lancer jolts upright. Grabbing the culprit’s wrist, he gives his fiercest glare…and sees that it’s Archer.

“Good morning,” Archer says, his face so collected he must be howling with laughter inside. “Your Master has decided to make breakfast. He says he’ll need help.”

“You didn’t have to wake me with a wet willy, y’know,” Lancer grumbles, wiping his spit-chilled ear with his wrist.

“I know.” A sly smile. “That was Illyasviel's suggestion.”

“…Yeah, that sounds like something she'd cook up.” Lancer shrugs off the covers—if this is really his last day with Shirou, he might as well go help. Judging the clock, it’s still early. He’ll make time to think.

He leaves the bedroom and shuffles toward the bathroom, Archer in tow. “So,” he says, blinking the sunlight from his eyes, “I heard there’s a plan?”

“Yes,” Archer replies, sounding almost wistful. “And as usual, Rin manages to make one complicated yet simple. In short: after doing some investigations of our own, we finally discovered who Saber’s Master is.”

“And Gilgamesh’s too,” Lancer adds, rubbing his eyes.

That makes Archer pause mid-step. “You know the True Name of that Servant?”

“Yeah, he blurted it out right off. Why?”

“…Oh, nothing. That just complicates matters.”

“Sounds normal to me.”

Archer almost smiles. “Good. In any event—the Overseer has overstepped his bounds. Early in the War, he killed a Master and took Saber as his prize.”

It’s so crazy it must be true. This Grail War threw out the idea of “fair play” a long time ago.

“Did he steal Gilgamesh too, you think?” Even as Lancer says so aloud, it doesn’t sound likely. You’d need two armies for that!

Archer shakes his head. “Perhaps Gilgamesh was already his Servant, despite that mentioned breach of conduct.”

They’ve reached the bathroom. Lancer steps in and turns on the sink. “Okay, so what do we do about it?”

Archer leans against the doorframe, arms folded across his chest. “Rin and Illya’s plan was this: first, we go to the Overseer’s base of operations…”

Lancer listens while scrubbing his face. As battle tactics go, it’s quick and dirty—fine by him. But… “…That last part seems pretty risky. Don’t get me wrong: ‘Master against Master’ is a combo I’d bet on. It’s the ‘splitting us up’ part that worries me.”

“Oh, so you noticed. Yes, I argued about that too.” Archer’s brows crease. “Rin insisted that letting the Church of the Sacrament and the Mage’s Association know about what’s going on would be the best option. After all, Caster’s antics caused countless injuries—and the Grail shouldn’t have allowed them in the first place.”

Lancer looks up from the sink, water dripping down his chin. “So something’s screwed up. Is that what you’re saying?”

“Exactly.” Archer’s expression softens slightly. “You’ll note that Rin and Illya took your Master’s goal into account. Even a sociopath would think twice about seeking the Grail with two social and political powers breathing down their neck.”

“What about the Grail, by the way?”

Archer shrugs. “In other circumstances, I would worry about that. But an omnipotent wish-granting device that appears full of flaws, and a man of the cloth who broke his oath twice over seemingly to obtain it?” Smirking, he lifts his chin and looks Lancer in the eye. “As you might say, ‘leave that to the professionals’: exorcists, alchemists, etc. The rest of the Mage world will no doubt agree.”

Lancer’s chuckle sends droplets shivering and falling into porcelain. “Good point! The Mage’s Association has to do their job someday. Besides, I came here for a fight worthy of bards’ songs, not courtly crap.”

Archer’s smirk widens. “Mm. The diplomatic life would have killed you from boredom.”

Before Lancer can retort back, the young lady calls. “Lancer, Archer, hurry or Illyasviel takes your share!”

“Got it,” Lancer calls back, and he and Archer get a move on.

Once they reach the kitchen, they find Shirou already setting up ingredients, while Illya and the young lady sit at the table with a cookbook that Shirou probably doesn’t need. Then again, Illya needs something to keep her busy. The young lady can help her read Japanese.

“So, what’s on the menu?” Lancer asks, as Shirou finishes tying his apron strings.

“Illya wanted a traditional Japanese breakfast.” Shirou turns a little and does a quick headcount. “…Five people in all. Since there’s so many of us, an extra omelet or two would be fine if Illya doesn’t like something.”

Illya looks up from the cookbook and frowns. “I can too try new things, Shirou!”

Shirou hems and haws a bit but doesn’t fully respond. “Anyway, Lancer, would you mind helping with the omelets and fish? I think Archer and I can handle the rest.”

Archer interjects. “Actually, I have another idea: why not give Lancer the miso soup this time? We can see his improvement.”

Shirou doesn’t bat an eye at that. “That sounds good.” Ever generous, he asks “Lancer, what do you think?”

Lancer should’ve expected this. It still takes him by surprise anyway: the sudden knowledge that Archer and Shirou both figure he can learn and grow. That optimism is hardly unwelcome.

“Sure,” Lancer says, since that’s all he can say.

Neither Archer nor Shirou look surprised; the pleased glints in their eyes say that they know him too well for that. Behind Lancer he can hear Illya turning pages excitedly, with the young lady translating for her.

Taking the only remaining aprons (black for Lancer, pale brown for Archer), the cooks get to work.

Lancer half-listens to Illya’s instructions while he gets everything set: the pots and pans, stock, and solid ingredients. That seaweed’s getting a lot of use. Good thing I trusted Shirou. He remembers most of the recipe, but considering his past tries it can’t hurt to double-check.

“Shirou,” Illya asks, “what does ‘ml’ mean?”

“Milliliters,” he replies, cracking an egg over a bowl. “Usually it’s in cups.”

“…Huh. Okay. Lancer, you need seven-hundred cups of water!”

Lancer stifles a laugh. “A bit much, don’t you think?”

“But—but that’s what it says…”

The young lady gently corrects her: “Seven-hundred-twenty milliliters comes out to three cups, Illya.”

“Oh! Sorry Lancer, it’s three cups of water.”

Lancer grins over his shoulder at her. “Got it!”

On Lancer’s right, he overhears Archer critiquing Shirou’s cooking with surprising gentleness, while Shirou grumbles back but listens anyway. A metal whisk carefully scrapes a plastic bowl, sloshing raw egg about. Archer’s sun-warmed shoulder brushes Lancer’s as he cleans rice by hand, letting the excess water seep past the gaps in his fingers. Water froths to a boil, casting the world in dreamlike steam. Something the young lady says makes Illya laugh, the sound soft and sweet.

“See, Archer,” Lancer says proudly, adding stock to the boiling water and readying his whisk, “I didn’t forget this time!”

Archer looks over and gives a nod of approval. “That should improve the taste. Make sure to try it yourself to ensure it isn’t overly salty.”

That seems fair. After the soup stock dissolves, Lancer finds a spoon and takes a quick sip. Yep, tastes right. Now…the soup’s supposed to simmer, not boil.

While that’s being taken care of, Lancer places a soft block of tofu on the cutting board and gets chopping. Even now, it’s funny watching the tofu wobble about with each slice of the knife. Eire didn’t have food this naturally soft.

“Hey, how big should I make the cubes, Archer?”

Archer looks up from carefully stirring the rice. “Hmm…keep them small. Ideally they should fit in the spoon’s ladle.”

Lancer takes the advice and gets back to work. But that doesn’t mean he can’t chat a bit. “Why’s that?”

Shirou pipes up from over by the refrigerator: “You could say that’s the best way to get a spoonful of broth and tofu.” He closes the door with a clunk. “That’s my theory.”

A hum of amusement escapes Archer’s lips. He’s too focused on the boiling rice before him to needle Shirou any more than that.

As Lancer finishes chopping the tofu cubes and pouring them into the now-simmering pot, followed by minced seaweed strips, he feels something that’s hard to place.

It’s hard to tell if it’s a “feeling” at all: he’s never been this slow moving, or his mind so warmly free-floating. The sounds of the kitchen and the people in it glide through his ears and nestle somewhere deep and quiet in his chest. It creeps him out a bit.

“Your soup should be done soon,” Shirou murmurs, peering over Lancer’s shoulder to check the pot. His gentle smile cuts whatever’s left of the moorings holding Lancer’s mind in place, sets him loose toward this strange feeling.

“Shirooou,” Illya whines, “I’m getting hungry!”

And I’m saved.

“We’ll eat in a moment, Illyasviel,” Archer replies firmly. “You know Emiya Shirou would never let a guest starve.”

Despite Archer’s vague timeframe, “a moment” winds up accurate. Today’s breakfast is hearty and mellow, a good way to end the morning. Illya does her best to try every dish—she clears away the rice and fish all on her own. Easygoing conversation swirls around the table like the steam that curls its way toward the ceiling. With everyone pressed almost shoulder-to-shoulder like this, it should feel cramped; instead it’s plain old comfortable.

After the dishes are cleared away, Archer leans against the doorframe. His gaze travels lazily over the Masters at the table then to Lancer—he could be committing them to memory. Maybe I’m not the only one in a weird mood…

“Unexpectedly, that went well,” Archer says. He almost looks proud…until his expression clouds over. “Now we must look to the battle ahead.”

The warm atmosphere cools.

The young lady nods in agreement, lacing her fingers together on the table. “Right. The Clock Tower will probably find out what’s going on at some point, but we need to make it a certainty. Last night, Illyasviel and I sent letters to the Einzberns, the Church and a colleague of my father’s respectively. Now we just need Kirei as a witness—”

“—And get rid of those two Servants,” Illya adds more solemnly than usual. “If anybody asks, we could call Archer and Lancer familiars…”

“Cross that bridge when you come to it.” Archer makes to leave. “At this point, we’re merely repeating ourselves. It would be best if we act as soon as possible.”

There’s one thing Lancer needs to ask before that. “There’s a time difference between the West and East, right? So we should keep that in mind.”

“It shouldn’t be a problem,” Shirou says, getting to his feet. “Going on foot, it takes an hour to get to the Church. We have time.”

Lancer gives him a thoughtful once-over. He sounds determined enough—until Lancer catches the nervousness and longing in his eyes. Like he said last night, he’ll wait for Lancer’s decision; but now there’s a firm end date in sight. And they may not make it out of this alive.

Lancer brushes his arm against Shirou’s. “That’s right,” he says gently. “We’ll make time.”

---

When they arrive at the Church, the hilltop is silent as the grave. In that stillness, every breath is as loud as thunder. The Church appears empty—which doesn’t feel right. The dark clouds overhead might be a clue; it looks like it’s about to rain. And who’d bother traveling all this way in a downpour? Confession or whatever it is can wait a few hours.

Lancer gets an answer to his unspoken question soon enough: Saber and Gilgamesh stride through the doors, ready for a fight. In this weather, their armor lacks the usual heroic glow. It’s fitting in a way. In Lancer’s opinion, a Hero can stand splattered in mud and blood and inspire all the same.

Saber stares unblinkingly at Archer, keeping her face impassive and emotionless.

“So,” Gilgamesh says, looking Archer and Lancer over with a sneer, “you mongrels finally arrived. I expected such imprudence from this Faker—but not the Hound of Ulster.”

Archer sneers back. “While I could dignify that with a response, I’d rather end this fight quickly.”

Saber lifts her chin, her gaze unwavering. “I agree. This Grail War was a mistake—yet it must end honorably.”

Archer lifts an eyebrow. “I believe that’s what my Master would call ‘a tall order’. I prefer results over honorable conduct.”

“Hence your insistence on stalling,” Gilgamesh interrupts dryly.

Out of the corner of his eye, Lancer sees the Masters loitering. He kicks at a loose pebble, and that gets them on their way. He keeps Shirou’s back in his sights as long as he can. Don’t look back. Just move!

Saber doesn’t look back. “Gilgamesh,” she warns.

“Why thank you, Saber.” Ripples of gold erupt behind his back. The swords and spears they hold point directly at the targets racing for the church doors.

Archer takes that as his cue. “My body is made out of swords.

Archer’s words bring on a sudden stillness. Even Gilgamesh pauses, unable to fire. There’s something peaceful in Archer’s stance, with his hand on his heart and his eyes closed.

Lancer’s neck prickles: this is the key to Archer’s Reality Marble.

My blood is of iron, my heart of glass.

Lancer and the others notice the fire at the same time; each pale flame licks painlessly at their feet, spread out like the five points of a star. It takes all of Lancer’s strength not to take a step back and risk ruining the plan.

Not even once retreating, not even once being understood…”

From far away, he hears the sound of heavy doors slamming shut. This is the only farewell he and Shirou are allowed. He’s had worse.

…I was always alone, intoxicated with victory on a hill of swords.

Lancer grits his teeth. With every second he hates this chant more, hates how cruel and hopeless it is. Even the prophecy he got saddled with had a hint of hope in it. His victories were worthy of joining the other heroes’ songs. Archer’s stuck with a dirge.

And yet…the tales Lancer grew up with could be called the last rites of heroes. Maybe Archer has the right idea after all.

The flames rise up, shrouding the world in blinding white light. It gives Lancer an excuse to cover his stinging eyes. As the glare passes, he hears the last part of Archer’s chant:

So, as I pray: Unlimited Blade Works!

When Lancer opens his eyes…he can only stare.

Thousands upon thousands of gears float in the sky, watching over swords beyond count. The gears churn soundlessly through the clouds, casting their shadows over the rolling dunes below. The distant sunset looks rusty, washed out, like Archer’s only ever seen one in his life. Lancer takes in a breath and wishes he didn’t—now his mouth feels coated in metal. Nothing lives here. Nothing changes. It’s a world designed to churn out weapons, one after another without end.

And yet.

In the distance near that sunset, he can see a hint of blue sky. A fresh breeze passes by, stirring the ground at Lancer’s feet. Little by little, this land is healing.

So of course it's the site of the final battle. 

While Lancer was gawking, Gilgamesh and Saber found the nearest hill and perched atop it like lions overlooking their hunting ground. Shit, now they have the advantage! That needs to change, and fast.

The only clue that Archer’s fazed is the slight pinch of his eyebrows. Otherwise, he looks totally at ease, his twin swords held loosely at his sides. He glances at Lancer and smirks.

“If you see a familiar weapon, feel free to use it.”

“…Hey. That’s not as reassuring as you think.”

Archer turns his attention back to the foes on the hill. He steps forward, his back outlined by the setting sun. From this angle, he looks like a true hero.

Somehow, it feels familiar.

“I shall leave the Faker to you, Saber. Show him the weight of your wish!” With that, Gilgamesh’s portals rearrange themselves and start firing.

Lancer races up the hill to meet him. In an ideal world, he could sit back and watch Archer and Saber’s dustup—but he’s stuck in a world with this ass in it. Whatever. I’ll take my dues by beating the King of Heroes at his own game!

He zigzags through the blades on the ground, knocking away the airborne blades by constantly spinning Gae Bolg. Every clang and crunch satisfies something nostalgic in him.

Gilgamesh barely spares Lancer a glance. His attention is fully on Saber, a pleased grin on his face. In this light, he almost looks approachable.

“Just as a child can never surpass their parents,” he says, his words somehow carrying over the ruckus, “the original sword will always prevail.”

“So your old man was a no-show too,” Lancer calls out, grabbing a sword close to hand. “I guess life would be too easy otherwise!”

Gilgamesh chuckles dryly. “Perhaps. Or perhaps heroes are unsuitable parents by their nature.”

With a flurry of swings Lancer knocks away a spinning axe. It hits the ground behind him with a boom, scattering rubble everywhere. The explosion shoves him forward like an arrow from a bowstring.

Weapons rain down on him like a storm: swords, spears, arrows, magic staffs. Each misses their target. Long-range weapons won’t cut it, King of Heroes. There’s only one thing you can do!

The chains don’t appear. Maybe they’re a last-ditch effort, or only for punishment. Whatever the reason, Lancer isn’t eager to see them again.

Lancer stops halfway up the hill. “Hey, why not come down here and meet me, warrior to warrior?”

“…Humph. A King does not stoop to the level of a mere spearman. Only one man has ever made a battle worth winning or losing. And you will never reach his level.”

His grin widens, relishing hurling insults and weapons alike.

“In fact, you barely warranted the Chains of Heaven. However…your Master needed an unobstructed view.”

With white-knuckles Lancer sticks the sword back into the earth, blade first. Gae Bolg suits his hands anyway. It comes when called, as always.

Spinning Gae Bolg in a wide arc, letting it catch the air in a series of loops, he lets Gilgamesh see his death from every angle.

“Alright,” Lancer says, grinning widely. “I’ll just drag you down to mine.”

Then he presses Gae Bolg’s tip against the dirt, inscribing four runes. Algiz. Nauthiz. Ansuz. Ingwaz. They glow red, carving out a new battlefield. And—because he knows Gilgamesh will pull out some crazy instant-kill weapon if he doesn’t—he lets his spear vanish into the air. For the moment, that is.

Gilgamesh’s eyes widen at the sight. “What…?”

“This is Ath nGabla.” Lancer stands in the rune circle, fists at the ready. “And if you’re a true warrior, you can’t ignore its call.”

Silence.

Then Gilgamesh throws back his head and laughs, hearty and long. It’s genuine enough that Lancer joins him, their joy ringing out into the sunset sky.

“Very well,” Gilgamesh finally says, strolling toward him. “I shall humor your insolence for a time.” His smile is as unforgiving as a midwinter storm. “As requested, you will pay with your life.”

Lancer shrugs. “Wouldn’t be the first time!”

---

How long has it been? It could be hours, even days.

Clouds gray as smog hang overhead, threatening to rain. Now and then the gears’ cogs pierce through, a surreal reminder of where they are. Sweat drips from his face; he wipes it away with the back of his arm. I’ll take the rain any day now, Archer…

He barely has time to think that before Gilgamesh’s fist crashes into his face again.

The world lurches; he falls backward. The ground, brittle with dried blood, burns against his cheek.

At least there’s time to see how Archer’s doing…

From here, the swords dotting the ground look like tiny specks of dim light. He watches as entire armies of weapons rise up into the air, missing the cloud-cloaked gears by inches. Their razor-sharp points are aimed at one spot.

Archer and Saber are struggling against their joined blades. Of the three, Excalibur seems the stronger, pressing Archer’s feet deep into the ground. At the same time, Lancer knows that Archer can make as many twin swords as he likes—and he’s fast enough to never leave an opening.

Saber breaks free, jumping back. In the space of a breath she charges forward, Excalibur poised to lop Archer’s head from his neck—

—Until Archer lifts his hand and drops it, a wordless order.

The mass of weapons rocket down to where Saber stands, hitting their target without fail. Boom. Boom. Boom. The ground shudders with the impact, kicking up dust.

Gilgamesh manages a ragged laugh. “Are you finished at last, mongrel?” Impatience laces his voice. “I have other business to attend to. Die quickly, and you save your betters time.”

Lancer drags to his feet. That’s answer enough. His hot breath comes out in short, ragged bursts.

He has to hand it to the King of Heroes: he’s got a mean swing underneath that smug posturing. And at least now they have matching galaxies of bruises; Lancer particularly likes the way Gilgamesh’s black eye stands out against his skin.

Saber’s battle cry carries over the rain of swords. Archer has a hell of a struggle ahead of him.

The sound of a wild dance of sparks and steel rolls over the hills, lighting Lancer’s blood. He glances over his shoulder to see what’s up.

Then.

“You dare turn your gaze from me?”

Gilgamesh’s hand lashes out and fists in Lancer’s hair. One shove is all it takes: now he’s on a collision course with an armored knee. He struggles, lashes out—

Crunch.

His vision flickers. Black-red-black.

Then he comes to, his head freed from Gilgamesh’s fingers. He nearly passes out again: his right eye throbs and burns, only seeing darkness.

With a bruised and torn hand, Gilgamesh wipes a trickle of blood from his lips. “A truly legendary hero should focus on his own victory. This is another tale to add to your saga, after all.”

Lancer barely has time to roll out of the way as a golden boot nears his head. Its owner continues on as if he never moved. Gravel rasps in his ears with each retreating step. Gritting his teeth, he strains to focus on the sounds of Archer’s fight on the ground below.

Why, though?

Lancer joined the Grail War to fight legends tooth and nail. And the King of Heroes himself should be a fitting final showdown. Yet here he is, more interested in the outcome of a nameless hero. 

Gilgamesh steps out of Ath nGabla’s circle—he’s limping slightly from Lancer kicking his knee earlier. As he should’ve expected, Gilgamesh may have a code of honor, but it’s different from the Knights of the Red Branch. Ulster’s warriors wouldn’t leave the circle until Lancer died at their hands.

“This grows tiresome,” Gilgamesh mutters, pressing his finger and thumb together.

It’s obvious: he’s going to use his Noble Phantasm. And there’s nothing to block him from killing Lancer and Archer in one fell swoop.

What about the young lady and Illya? Gilgamesh will kill them too. As for Shirou—he might be spared thanks to Avalon, but there’s no way his mind will take seeing more people die to save him. (Because Illya and the young lady will try. They will use every ounce of Magecraft left in them, because the mansion isn’t just Shirou’s home anymore.)

That strange, floating warmth pierces Lancer’s heart, driving air back into his lungs. There’s somewhere he wants to be, and it sure as hell isn’t here.

Now—in this split second—Lancer finally gets it.

Muscles straining, burning with exertion, he lurches to his feet. One slapdash plan later, he gets into position: on one knee, with the other leg stretched out behind him, Gae Bolg heating his hand. He needs to have faith—in Shirou, in Archer, in his legend.

So he runs.

As he leaves Ath nGabla, golden portals explode in front of his eyes. Whatever. They’re not important. That’s one good thing about dying once before: pain doesn't matter.

Even when swords slice his flesh—

Even when he wrenches a bloodstained stone axe from his shoulder—

Even when Caladbolg itself explodes the ground beneath his feet, launching him up into the sky—

—Lancer keeps his eye on his prey: the King of Heroes watching him with a disdainful smile.

From this bird’s-eye view, he watches Archer knocking a familiar silvery arrow to his bowstring. A rainbow of sparks burst from the fletching; each is swept up in the wind, traveling over the hills and beyond. Archer stands before the ever-rolling gears, surrounded by the blades that make up his life’s work: a humble blacksmith, facing off against the King of Knights in single combat.

Saber lifts Excalibur, holy light wreathing her body like fireflies on a summer night. Together, she and Archer cut two lonely figures, each on their last legs ready for one final blow.

Archer’s Noble Phantasm flies first—a spiraling comet of blue that warps the air. It reminds Lancer of a comet he saw as a boy, fleeting and brilliant. The spiral slices through the clouds, staining them with its colors. Even Excalibur’s light can’t compare.

Bards would call this “The Last Moment of the Iron-Wrought Hero”.

Lancer looks down on Gilgamesh and grins back. Reaching into the depths of his mana stores, he angles his arm.

You were wrong, King of Heroes. This isn’t my story.

“Now, I’ll take your heart,” Lancer growls, his vision seared in red flames. “Gae…Bolg!

Portals surround him, ready to summon the Chains of Heaven—but it’s too late.

Gae Bolg flies from his hand, a crimson streak roaring through the air.

A wall of gold meets it in midair: amulets and shields, each one a Noble Phantasm. Each one could protect its owner from death a thousand times over…and this time, each one fails. Over and over again Gae Bolg zigzags through their defenses, battering and ricocheting against wood and metal and jewels.

Lancer hits the ground, wobbling on his feet.

The shining wall grows, circling Gilgamesh in ever-closer quarters. Thousands of shields spring up to replace the ruined ones—some of them are so ancient they’re like webs of Magecraft.

Gae Bolg travels on.

The Chains of Heaven coil around it on all sides, a tangle of gold; Gae Bolg slips through its grasp as easy as breathing.

Weirdly, Excalibur’s light isn’t looming in the sky anymore. Lancer shuffles over to the hill’s ridge and slumps down to get a better look. Where’d it go?

The answer is simple: Archer’s arrow struck home.

Using blood-smeared Excalibur as a cane, Saber limps toward Gilgamesh. Her blood soaks the ground in a thick trail as she walks, clutching her side.

That sight proves Gilgamesh’s undoing. Shields still up, he races full-tilt to meet her. Dirt crumbles beneath his feet. Gae Bolg doesn’t stop battering his defenses, waiting for an opening.

Clang. Clang. Clang.

At the bottom of the hill, Gilgamesh draws to a stop. He’s figured it out: if he reaches Saber, she’ll be in Gae Bolg’s path. If he doesn’t reach her, she will die alone.

“Damn you, Saber, stay still!”

“No,” Saber rasps, her voice carrying. “I owe you a debt, Gilgamesh, and I will repay it.”

That simple answer makes Lancer’s mind freeze. It's an ideal so simple and noble, the Grail War itself tarnishes it.

"Foolish woman," Gilgamesh growls. "Forget that childish nonsense and run...!" 

Of course she doesn’t run. She keeps limping forward, keeps trying to protect her fellow King. Somehow, the two of them are determined to stick together till the end. Nothing for it: he accepts these well-intentioned enemies and their part in Emiya Shirou’s story.

Gilgamesh’s hand reaches out to Saber. Then it pulls back to his side.

“I see. This is…the ending you chose.” A weary breath of a laugh. “Your presence made this battle entertaining. Very well. Defeat, too, has worth on occasion.”

“Wait—!” Saber reaches for him, even as her knees buckle.

Gae Bolg breaks through Gilgamesh’s shields and casts its curse.

Maybe Gilgamesh lowered his guard on purpose. Maybe he meant to shield Saber. This is most likely: despite his taunts, he enjoyed his last moments in the Grail War to their fullest. For once, he wasn't bored. 

Either way. Gae Bolg spins back to Lancer’s hand; mana withdrawal and blood loss claim him. Just before he falls unconscious, the Reality Marble crumbles beneath his feet.

---

Prickling numbness seeps through Lancer’s body. There’s nothing to feel, see, smell, or touch. It’s just like after he fought Rider, only he’s not sick to his stomach this time. (Small comfort.)

Somewhere far away, somebody’s talking in that low, somber tone a healer has when they explain how much time their patient has left. Usually the answer is “not much”.

Which is stupid. Lancer’s figured out exactly what he wants to say to Shirou, and now he’s going to fade away from blood loss? Screw that. Back in Ulster, he tied his own guts to a boulder to prove he could die on his feet (and did). By comparison, this is easy.

Come on, come on, wake up! He may as well try to push a mountain with his eyelashes. It’s hard to tell if he’s moving with this suffocating blanket of nothingness over him.

“Shirou,” Lancer chokes out, hoping his words reach him. “Stay. I’ll—stay.”

What if he’s fading? He must be. The Grail War is done, after all, and he never learned of a Servant staying after the fighting ended. Hell, he never stuck around Ulster after the fighting ended; there was always more to do. But that warmth, that quiet, constant light that Shirou always seems to carry with him—he won’t leave it yet.

Let me stay. Please, let me stay.

If the Throne of Heroes rips him from this era, he’ll fight his way back. Never mind if it’s “impossible”. Shirou (and the young lady, and Illya) will be fighting just as hard on the other side of time.

Lancer already died once before—that prophecy has no power over him now. This time, he’s not going to leave someone precious behind with only tales for comfort.

I’m—staying—here!

Using the last of his strength, he clings to Fuyuki’s pulsing, vein-like clusters of Leylines, dragging raw mana into the core of his being. He's not leaving. Even as Throne of Heroes calls him back, sawing at his tethers, he holds his form together, from his ruined eye to his heart beating fast as war-drums. He doesn’t need to be a Servant. Right now he doesn’t need a war either. What he wants, more than anything, is to experience life with Shirou.

I’ll take whatever time I’m given, as long as I get that chance.  

As if acknowledging his oath, the numbness gives way. Something warm and smooth presses against his chest. A sheath.

Wait…is it…?

The weight of the sheath eases Lancer’s eye open, and Shirou blurrily comes into focus. He’s placed Lancer’s head on his lap, with Archer holding Avalon in place. The shared body heat of both men nestles against Lancer’s skin. The clear, clean scent of rain fills the air, proving that this isn’t a dream.

Lancer moves to lift his hand to Shirou’s face, but his arm won’t budge.

“Don’t talk,” Shirou murmurs, his smile so gentle it hurts. “There’s not much time.”

Archer speaks up. “Indeed. We have no way of knowing if Avalon will still be active once Saber dies, and those two are fading fast.”

Lancer slowly turns his head and catches a glimpse of matching gold flecks. Perhaps it’s fitting that Gilgamesh and Saber have their own final moment together. It’s tempting, but I won’t eavesdrop. Too tired…

Then he remembers what they came here for.

“Rin and Illyasviel completed their mission,” Archer assures him. “Now they need to awaken the Overseer. Gilgamesh put Kotomine in a coma—Saber convinced him to hand Kotomine over as proof of our victory.”

“They fought you to the bitter end, huh.” Shirou’s voice doesn’t tremble, but his eyes are dark with pain. “Was it what you hoped it’d be?”

Lancer manages a small nod. “Archer…deserves a song.”

Archer’s ears turn red as tomatoes—he didn’t expect that. He glances away awkwardly. “You and I have different criteria for such things.” Despite his words, there’s a hint of a sincere smile on his lips.

Shirou’s brows pinch. “That’s your ‘speaking quota’, Lancer. If I’m going to save you—no, I will save you—I need to focus.”

Not that long ago, Lancer would have scoffed at that. A Master saving a Servant was ridiculous, impossible. Shirou’s eyes bright with determination tell him otherwise. If he can remake Cruaidin from a few memories, creating Avalon is easy.

Avalon seeps into his flesh. As easy and gentle as a loved one’s touch, it passes through his muscles, his bones, all the way down to his core. His body twitches and stretches to accommodate it, yet doesn’t push it back out.

Shirou closes his eyes, deep in trance. Green light surrounds them, the brilliance pulsing like a thousand glowing veins. The soothing rhythm settles behind Lancer’s eyes, lulling him to sleep.

“Rest,” Archer murmurs, his expression unexpectedly gentle. “We won.” He takes Lancer’s hand and gives it a soft squeeze, the only tenderness he allows himself.

Then Archer rises to his feet, and Lancer knows this is the end.

He holds Archer’s hand in a firm grip, trying to convey without words Don’t go. He knows the answer he’ll get; he can’t help hoping. They’ve been through this sham of a Grail War together—the least he can do is buy him a drink. And besides, the young lady will miss her Servant.

Archer slowly shakes his head and lets go. His body is already turning to white flecks, shining like stars against the soft purples and reds of dusk. It’s time. He's not the type for drawn-out goodbyes anyway. Lancer commits Archer’s form to memory as best he can: the way his red shroud flutters in the breeze, his relaxed posture, the lidded satisfaction in his grey eyes. He's come a long way from the cold and bitter man he was before. Even if he wasn't Saber's knight in her time, he's an honorary one in Lancer's book. 

“Take care of yourselves,” Archer says softly, a slight rasp in his voice. Then his lips curl upwards in a hopeful smile from the heart. “And thank you.”

Then he turns his back and fades away, having the last word till the end.

…Lancer’s eye is stinging again. The air is too cold, something like that.

Shirou must sense it; he reaches out with his free hand and glides his fingers over Lancer’s eyelids, closing them.

Darkness falls.

“Rest, Lancer. Let me save you.” Shirou’s voice catches. He pushes on: “If it’s just our happiness, then…I’ll grant that wish.” 

I know you can. Lancer allows sleep to claim him, a bittersweet spark of hope flaring to life in his chest.

Chapter Text

Rain drums on the roof, easing Lancer awake. It’s hard to tell what time it is, due to gray clouds cocooning the sky outside—but that doesn’t matter. First he needs to check something.

Lancer sits up, pushing the blankets down to his waist. As he expected, Shirou’s already up and about, even though by all rights he should be enjoying his new high school diploma in bed. Modern ‘graduation ceremonies’ aren’t as dramatic as Ulster’s were…but I guess that’s a good thing. Less messy.

There was one disappointing thing, though: the cherry blossoms won’t be out for a few weeks yet. Which means that he didn’t get to see Shirou surrounded by flower petals yesterday, as you’d expect of a triumphant graduation.

Still…seeing Shirou holding his diploma as delicately as lace had its perks. He kept checking to see if it was his. Good thing Sakura got that on tape!

Lancer stretches and gets up, listening for the sounds of Fuji-nee, Sakura or Illya wandering around. (It wouldn’t do to walk around buck-naked when they’re nearby.) Fortunately, only the hum of the heater travels down the halls, so he’s safe. They won’t come visit in this weather anyway—it’s too cold and wet.

So, it’s just Lancer and Shirou today. After the past few weeks of nonstop motion (the young lady and Illya dealing with the Grail War fallout, Fuji-nee prepping Shirou for graduation, etc.), it’s a welcome change of pace.

Humming jauntily, Lancer grabs his white t-shirt and leather trousers before heading off for the bathroom. I know exactly how to celebrate our day off. We’ve only had one hug since I woke up!

Once he’s in the bathroom—and the bath—he goes all-out. That is, by Ulster standards. Shampoo and conditioner weren’t around back then, so the young lady and Sakura helped him pick some out at the convenience store. These not only smell nice (lilac and vanilla), Shirou claims they make Lancer’s hair shine like sapphires.

Bit by bit, the hot water wakes him up, lapping against his knees and frothing with suds. Mm…maybe I’ll stay in here and wait for Shirou… He sighs. Nah, that won’t work, it could take awhile for him to come here. Might as well get out before it gets cold.

Once he rinses his hair, he stands. The cool air hits him straight in the chest, making him shiver and rub his arms frantically. So much for staying warm. Oh come on, cut a guy some slack! A towel, a towel—

He grabs the fresh towel hanging on the glass door and dries off just fast enough that he doesn’t shred it. The world narrows down to the whumph-whumph sound of soft fabric running over his head and ears, since most of it is hanging over his face. After everything’s dry enough, he finishes it off with a quick blow-dry and gets dressed.

Catching a glimpse of himself in the mirror, he pauses. While he could tie his hair back like always, it’d make one hell of an impression if he kept it down. He runs his fingers through the thick strands and grins. This way, he looks wilder than usual. Shirou only ever saw it like this once, so…

Nodding in satisfaction, Lancer ambles down the hall toward the first place to look—the kitchen. Outside, the rain is soaking the grass, turning the ground to mud. The worms must be partying in this weather. It’s strange, knowing winter’s already come and gone; he’s used to waiting longer than this.

Illya was surprised too. Fuji-nee and Sakura taught her how to navigate the town in this new, snowless light, and since then they’ve been inseparable. The young lady still takes care of Illya from time to time, since they’re working together with the new priest. (It must be going well, since he isn’t dead yet. But that’s not Lancer’s business.)

In between all that, Illya figured out her revenge scheme. She’s been claiming Shirou has to “share” Lancer with her as payback for beating Berserker. Sounds fair. Playing with her every so often would be fun. And it’d give everyone else a break too…

Would Sakura want a break? Illya’s really cheered her up these past few weeks. Her smile is warmer now, less reserved. Maybe he’ll act as Illya’s left-hand man, rather than her right.

…Anyway.  

Lancer cups his hands over his mouth and calls “Shirou, you here?”

“I’m in the attic,” Shirou replies from overhead, his words muffled by wood flooring. “Come up after you eat.”

Huh. So he’s not too far. Hmm, breakfast sounds good…oh yeah, my hair. Guess I’ll tie it back so it doesn’t get in the way. I can let it back down again after.

A simple meal of fried egg on toast waits for Lancer in the kitchen. After making himself some tea, Lancer savors this meal just as much as the ones before. The crispy toast makes a satisfying crunch when he bites into it, and the egg—well, the egg threatens to slop onto the plate unless his teeth wrestle it into submission. Still tastes good, though. Whoa, get back here!

His stomach gets it eventually. It just takes a little acrobatics to get there.

---

After putting the dishes away and brushing his teeth, Lancer finally heads off to the attic.

Lancer ambles over to the stairs, the steps barely making a sound beneath his feet. Rain rumbles against the roof; maybe that explains it.

Turns out, there is one downside to leaving his hair loose: it falls in his eyes with each step. He catches himself on the stairwell more than once, clutching the railing like a drowning man to driftwood. Only his natural speed keeps him from smacking his head on the ceiling or steps. Good thing, too. Shirou’s fussed over him enough lately.

As he stops to brush his hair back over his shoulder again, sounds of Shirou rummaging through the attic float down to meet him. Is he getting a head start on spring-cleaning?

Finally reaching the attic, Lancer pokes his head around the doorway.

At first glance, the attic isn’t much different from the bedrooms, just smaller. No dust either. Bits and bobs that couldn’t fit in the shed line the corners and walls. Specifically: old clothes, tea sets and paintings. A walk-in closet takes up a whole side of the room. Its sliding door is open, revealing neatly stacked piles of futons on the top shelf, and cardboard boxes on the bottom.

Shirou’s kneeling before the closet like it’s an altar, his head bowed. Interesting. Either he found something or he’s putting something away.

“What’s up?” Lancer asks, strolling toward him.

Shirou jolts and tries to hide whatever it is he’s found. “N-Nothing! I just, uh…” He pauses, turning his whole body around to face Lancer. His eyes trace the gentle slope of Lancer’s hair. “…Why is your hair down?”

Lancer toys with a few strands and grins. “Oh, no reason. We just have the house to ourselves…”

At first, Shirou doesn’t get it. Then his face flushes and his lips curl into a smile. “You noticed too, huh.”  

Rain lashes against the window, droplets racing down the paper pane.

“Huh. So that’s why you came up here?”

Shirou rubs the back of his head. “Not exactly. It’s too cold here for mana transfer. I was just cleaning house.”

Lancer glances around at the boxes and starts to get the idea. “This stuff was your old man’s?”

Shirou lowers his hand and absently lets it rest on a nearby box. “That’s right. Most of its unimportant, but sometimes…you find things like this.”

Reaching behind his back, Shirou brings out his discovery. It’s a long black jacket that still carries the scent of ash. It’s high quality, if a little threadbare in places. Shirou would drown in it. On Archer, it would almost fit perfectly.

Lancer sits down across from Shirou, hands on his folded knees. “He wore that when he rescued you, huh.”

A nod. “I should have sold this ages ago. But…I kept it around anyway, thinking it might fit me one day.” Shirou holds it up to his chest and smiles wryly. “I don’t know what I expected.”

“No big deal,” Lancer says, suspecting this isn’t quite about the jacket. “You can always find something like it in your size.”

“Mm. I’ll patch this up and donate it. He would like that.” Shirou starts folding the jacket, but the sleeves spill awkwardly over his hands. “…Ah. Could you lend me a hand?”

“Sure thing.”

Working together, they fold the jacket small enough that it can fit back in the box with the other clothes. Lancer spots a blue kimono and black tie, both haphazardly stuffed atop each other. He can imagine Kiritsugu shoving the evidence of the fire out of sight, thinking that Shirou would forget about it in time. No such luck.

“…Hey, Lancer.”

“Yeah?”

“Illya wants to visit my father’s grave with Fuji-nee tomorrow. I’m thinking of going too—would you like to come?”

Lancer smiles and gives Shirou’s shoulder a reassuring pat. “Sure! It’ll give your old man a change of pace.” He chuckles conspiratorially. “After all, I’m supposed to meet him eventually, right?”

Shirou tilts his head to one side and blinks. Then he turns red as his hair, muttering something disparaging and sweet under his breath.

“Heh. Sorry, was that too much?”

“…It was close to that.” Shirou smiles. “Everything’s set, by the way. Since college is in the shopping district, I can live at home with you and bike to school.”

Lancer rests his chin in his hand. “You sure you’ll want to cook after a whole day’s worth of it?”

“Of course. Why not? I can show you what I learned.”

“Oh yeah. That’s a good point!”

Perhaps it’s to be expected. While Shirou considered becoming a lawyer or policeman, higher learning had other ideas. In the end, the culinary arts/home economics school he applied to on a lark accepted him. His “hobby” must’ve impressed the bigwigs.

A trifling thought floats through Lancer’s head.

Somewhere far away, sitting on a hill of swords, a nameless hero must be smiling wryly.

Shirou looks out the rain-slick window, his expression serene. “April 7th…that’s when the entrance ceremony starts. It feels farther away than I expected.”

“Maybe that’s a good thing. Gives you more time to think, y’know?”

Shirou looks back at him with a warm smile. “And more time to spend with you.” He leans forward, a playful glint in his eyes. “Which reminds me. I don’t think I mentioned before…you look beautiful with your hair down, Lancer.”

The honesty and faint hint of embarrassment in Shirou’s voice and face makes Lancer want to pull him close. Shirou beats him to it, slipping his hands through Lancer’s hair. His parted lips brush against Lancer’s, sharing breath, before breaking that inch of distance with a gentle kiss.

Rain drums against the window.

Lancer breaks the kiss, grinning. “What happened to ‘the attic’s too cold’?”

“I couldn’t help it,” Shirou grumbles good-naturedly into his neck. “You overpowered me.”

Lancer chuckles and lifts Shirou’s chin between thumb and forefinger. “Don’t worry, I’ll keep you warm.”

Shirou groans at the pun—then softens as Lancer dips his head and deepens the kiss.

He takes his time, enjoying the small sounds Shirou makes at this simple contact. Things will mellow out eventually. Right now, they haven’t stopped longing for each other’s touch.

Lancer wraps his arms around Shirou’s back, enjoying the slight tremble against his fingertips. Their body heat melts together with each caress. It’s as if they just woke up from a lonely dream.

Shirou breaks off the kiss, murmuring “Sometimes, I still can’t believe it. That I saved you, I mean.”

“Really?” Lancer strokes his fingers along Shirou’s spine, back and forth. “I figured you’d do it just to prove you could. It’s small-scale enough, and it’s as close to a fair trade as we can get.”

Shirou hums, his eyes already fogged over. “A fair trade…Kiritsugu thought that wasn’t possible.” His smile turns slightly proud. “Then again, he thought Projection was a waste of time, and that helped heal you.”

“Hmm…maybe it’s a really small wish and really specific tools that does the trick?”

Shirou raises an eyebrow. “Shouldn’t it be something, well, grander?”

Lancer chuckles and lets his hand rest at Shirou’s waist. “Nah. Then things get complicated. And besides…”

“…‘Besides’?”

Lancer leans in to whisper in Shirou’s ear “I’d rather carry you downstairs and get back to the fun. Sound good?”

Shirou’s shoulders bob as he chuckles softly. “Alright. I’ll hold your hair for you, so you don’t trip and break our necks.”

Lancer winces and rubs the back of his neck. “Ah. You heard that after all. Well then—”

As “revenge”, he gathers Shirou up over his shoulder like a sack of wheat and heads for the stairs.

“What the hell?! Lancer, I thought you meant something romantic!” Shirou squirms but doesn’t let Lancer let go of his waist.

Lancer struggles to hold in his laughter. “You’d be embarrassed otherwise, right?” He bends slightly as he passes under the hanging light—no burns allowed for either party. “If you want to be carried like a prince, I’m happy to oblige.”

Shirou’s hands grope about Lancer’s back for purchase before choosing to dangle. He must have guessed (correctly) that playing grab-ass while heading downstairs is a disaster waiting to happen. (Always the gentleman, he even remembered to hold Lancer’s hair in a makeshift ponytail.)

“You’ll pay for this. I won’t hold back when we’re in bed, understand?”

“That’s the spirit,” Lancer purrs, adjusting his grip slightly and picking up the pace.

Today, they can take their time enjoying each other’s pleasure. When they get tired of that, they can figure out what they’ll do in this weird world of peace. Tomorrow, Lancer will go pay his respects to the man who saved Shirou. As for the day after that…who knows? Lancer’s not one for long-term planning.

Let things happen. Hell, let him have a boring day where nothing happens. Let things change, little by little, in that quiet way he’s only heard about. Let them share the same time, under the same sky that seems to stretch on forever.

With Shirou at his side, these peaceful days will be as fun as any battle.