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Unlucky Gambler

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It was a meeting that, unlike a lot of other ones, left him feeling like something had been painted onto his back, center his shoulder blades, like a big red target. Somehow, he had become the mark, some kind of landing point, for the same singular figure to bounce off of. Again he'd find himself right under the eye of that particular servant. That particular one who seemed to be constant whenever he made a trip to this world—in whatever form he was summoned in, in whatever time, in whatever place.

This fragmentary meeting and beating that passed in little blips of a jumbled history where time was a little less than the stable straight line he might have otherwise assumed it to be. In that scattered mess there was one near consistent element—a face he'd see again—going by no name of his own. At this point he could feel him moving in just by the sort of energy he dragged with him on the battlefield—like the sort of baggage that came out in a couple years and put a strain on something that could have lasted longer. That's sort of what the red Archer was like: baggage personified.

Of course this dirtbag would come in flying—descending like some kind of angelic wolf-in-sheep's-clothing deal, his eyes always so focused forward. Lancer himself didn't miss the way his shots hit his marks, his higher ground leaving him obvious but unchallengeable. Even getting in range was dangerous. He tore through the remaining ranks that were holding Mash, himself, and the rest back.

It pissed him off. All of it pissed him off so much.

There was not going to be one conflict he could step into where the red Archer didn't show himself. Without fail, he seemed to appear, always with the same attitude. The same problem attitude with a little smugness that waned and waxed with the cycle of the moon—or his mood upon being summoned—or some other vague shit Lancer couldn't suss out. Lancer wasn't even sure he wanted to do the dance that it took to work out what his mood was right then. There were bigger problems to deal with first—namely, way too many dragons. He could deal with that bastard being summoned too later. He would have to reprimand his master. How could they both be summoned at once? Again?

Despite all of this, despite hating seeing that flare of red on the battlefield, things were going smoothly—more than before with the added hands. He would have accepted other hands, but it was a little late now. And there didn't seem to be much of a choice in who was summoned. It was all pointless inner grumbling that he didn't have much of a chance to vocalize. They would take a break on the road and obviously travel from battle to battle, but Archer seemed to be making a point not to cross paths with him then. A piece of Lancer wanted to track him and give him a good shake down but he had a feeling he knew where that would go. It tended to go one way. Just the one.

So for the time being, they stayed dodgy of each other—working plenty well as a team, but neither said a word to the other—stubbornly cinched into their unwillingness to be the first to “give up.”

It took some self-assuring of course, “if it has to be this way,” and “like this is new,” or more commonly “he started it.” It only took the entirety of resolving the dragon issue and wrapping up the singularity for all of the excuses to bubble up to something much worse. This asshole had time to shoot out dragons, but no time for a “hello.” It seemed like a stretch. The more Lancer thought on it, the more he wanted to sort Archer out. He let himself stew on it—he knew that, but that didn't make him any less angry with it all. Once things were closed up he could afford to take the time. That was when it seemed appropriate—or at least as appropriate as it was going to get in this mess.

Back at Chaldea headquarters there was a little celebration of their success and a small piece of time carved out for rest after, but nothing that held Lancer for long. That downtime left him mostly with space to wander the facility or lay around. In either state he didn't last long. It didn't take much to convince him of the need to seriously track down that red Archer bastard.

The glum repetitive hallways took awhile for him to be able to navigate—not that knowing where he was himself helped. Staff were little help in tracking the man he needed down—it seemed he was still keeping to himself. It seemed so typical. So annoying. So exactly what he would do this time. That he was making this harder on purpose (because of course Archer would get in the way despite being unaware) only served to leave Lancer more steamed as he made his way down the halls.

Shoulders tensed, he could sense his own irrationality. Why get so worked up? What did it matter? That he was too good to even seriously acknowledge him? There was no way he forgot—more likely he knew something even Lancer couldn't yet. He couldn't even afford him a smug look about it?

The piling questions plagued his head as he sought the source of his mounting frustrations. It seemed like each bend in the hall was only another hurdle in his way. This man had to be somewhere—he had to be. It wasn't until that frustration started to hit a frantic point that a hall door opened and a familiar form stepped out. Lancer halted dead a few paces from the open door, the servant cloaked in red stepping out casually—as if he hadn't been hiding (and, perhaps, he had not been). Archer's gaze turned toward Lancer as soon as he scanned that direction. Somewhere wavy between casual and tense, he finished closing the door behind himself. That done, his full attention fixed on Lancer who had somehow forgotten the first thing he wanted to say.

“Fancy meeting you here,” Archer got away with saying first, only partially as smug as Lancer had anticipated.

“That's it? How long have we been seeing each other already?” he blurted back at him, already more immediately annoyed with him.

“I'm trying to avoid tracking that at this point,” was Archer's snappy answer as he shrugged one shoulder.

“I meant since you got summoned here,” Lancer corrected him quickly, not willing to let that hang. He actually wasn't sure what they were at either—also for the same reason. Whenever they wound up together in the same time and place they couldn't avoid one another. It was like some sick twist of fate that edged on Lancer's nerves in a way he didn't quite like and didn't have a good word for.

Archer didn't answer so fast this time. His gaze averted, his stance a bit more tense now. He always seemed tense, but this was noticeably more so. A straight posture and a clenched fist gave him away. “A few days then. But I've been focused on the mission. It seemed like the best idea to leave you to that. Better than letting you get distracted and angry.”

“Who says I was gonna be angry?” Lancer shot back.

“You're angry now. It was wise to put it off.”

Of course that was the reality but that didn't mean Lancer had to sit back and just take that. He straightened up in place, not quite ready to call his spear, but he could have been. He had enough cool to hold back for the time being. Getting angrier played into Archer's game—he just needed a moment. He had time for a breath before Archer kept talking.

“If you just want to be acknowledged, I know you're here. Was that as satisfying as you hoped it would be?”

Plans about keeping cool could go to hell.

Lancer strode up a few steps closer, now only a pace away from the red Archer—their eyes nearly level as both refused to back down or show a shred of weakness. There was enough macho posturing in the hall that it could probably have been felt from across the facility. Chances were high that someone was going to pick up on the fight starting to simmer. They would have to make it quick. It was like the both of them sensed it and braced, but neither made the first move.

“You're still the same no-pride bastard you started as, aren't you?” Lancer said through a strained grin, his eyes still fixed on Archer's—waiting for any signal that he might make a move.

Archer didn't flinch. “Maybe. But I already know you came here for one thing. You're an easy read, Lancer. You're just an old dog who's hungry for a fight.”

Lancer wasn't sure if he heard a hint of affection in that latter part or if he just hallucinated it in the midst of his own stewing. There was kind of a look in Archer's eyes he had a hard time reading. For some reason he seemed pretty amused with all this. Did he plan for this or did he want it? Or was it he got off on pissing other people off?

The grin on Lancer's face split a little wider, just crooked enough to show gritted teeth before he answered. “If that's the case you seem pretty eager to feed me. Are you any better?”

“I never claimed to have any higher moral ground here.”

“Like you ever have any higher moral ground.”

Their gazes parted as Archer looked away. His shift in tone was somehow something Lancer anticipated and yet it still struck him. So offhandedly he replied, “So that's the case. Shouldn't you give up on me already?” A part of him was playing surely, but the rest was pessimistic enough Lancer couldn't tell for sure. He wasn't sure exactly which half of the story Archer really believed. Maybe he didn't know which version of the question suited him himself.

It dug into something deeper than Lancer wanted to go. He wanted to let out the bottled frustration—to take this to blows. Another question rattled the inside of his skull and blurred his goals.

Boiling over, Lancer grabbed at Archer's collar—just to do anything besides fumbling through words in his head. Inevitably his mouth opened too. “Why the hell's it always gotta be you? You with the same damn attitude problem!”

Archer stayed within Lancer's grip, not moving or retaliating. A strange smile settled on his lips and toyed along with a tone so sardonic it made Lancer uneasy. “It must be some kind of sick destiny someone likes to see played over and over. Maybe someone has fun watching you get riled up over nothing.”

“It's not nothing! You can't just ignore me and pretend we're cool like that!”

“Humanity is basically doomed right now. It's not really the first thing we need to deal with,” came Archer's flat answer. He remained unphased by Lancer's grip, hardly acknowledging it. Lancer's hand twisted slightly—that too going unnoticed.

“I know that! Whatever you're thinking, I'm not that stupid! But the last time you were—hell...! You're not gonna say anything to me?” Lancer said back, the words seeming to spill out on their own before he really had the time to process what he'd said. Much of that he might have wished to hold back. Most of it even. Too late now.

Archer's expression turned darker, eyes narrowed. “...I don't know what you're expecting to hear. I'm here now. I have no excuse. Are you any better?” he challenged instead—likely to shift attention.

“I'm...! I'm here too. It's the same as always. This is just what we do—that's not gonna change,” Lancer said with some struggle. Prying into “here” and “now” was always a good way to unearth something a little more unpleasant. The both of them had been summoned more than once at the same “here” and “now.” So no version of either felt permanent—existence in this way was a transitory thing. A series of blinks that would come and go and come again—but always with this Archer. This same bastard who didn't even bat an eye when Lancer's shoulders tensed up.

“No. I guess it isn't.” A long pause punctuated that fact as it hung over the both of them. “I will tell you what I intend to do this time, Lancer. If it'll calm you down anyway. I'm going to see our master to the end of this mission—whatever it takes. You want this job done too, don't you? We shouldn't see any trouble with each other this way. You should be grateful,” Archer finished and straightened up himself. His hand reached slowly for Lancer's, intending to pry his fist away from his collar. His fingertips met Lancer's knuckle before he could pull his hand away himself. That faint sensation that came with skin-to-skin contact lingered on Lancer's hand after, the feeling something of a distraction.

“Fine. This is the last time I show you any concern. That's all you're getting,” Lancer eventually said, taking a step back, less ready to fight it out now.

“You're showing me concern?”

“Oh shut up. I'd have to be a real ass not to at least make sure you're not summoned more messed up than usual.” Lancer paused as he realized something about their last outing. That did make sense in the end didn't it? “Besides, You had to have been out there covering my back for some reason. You think I got weaker this time around or something?”

Archer looked honestly surprised with the assessment, guilty for a flash even. “We're working as a team right now. I've merely been doing my part.”

“Yeah? I can't really recall taking any hits, even when I was surrounded. I had someone sniping off my problems. I know I'm pretty good, but it was a little too easy out there,” Lancer continued, looking progressively more smug as it became more obvious that Archer was being called out and couldn't hide it. The accusation obviously ruffled him up just enough Lancer could catch it. There was something kind of endearing about it—seeing that facade of not giving a shit fall as Archer did in fact have a shit to give.

“You're pulling this out of your ass. I have better things to do,” Archer started, looking like he might turn away.

Lancer stepped back in, stopping Archer from getting far from the door by placing his hand on the door's face, his arm effectively blocking him from backing out. It left them a little too close and an outside viewer would probably jump to conclusions, but Lancer wasn't one to back down or worry about optics too much. The suddenness and casual way Lancer leaned in left Archer wide eyed. It was clearly a battlefield he didn't know how to navigate quite as well. A surge of confidence cracked open a grin on Lancer's face. It was good to know he could best him here too.

“What's better that you're gonna do? Why not chat for a minute?” he said in a lower voice, eyes narrowed. That seemed to be just enough to stall Archer for longer, especially now that his back was literally against the wall.

“This isn't much of a chat. What would you even want to talk to me about?” Archer asked back. It was a fair enough question, but it wasn't like they'd never shared company. As far as Lancer was concerned once they'd fought enough it was basically a sort of companionship—even if it were a rocky one. That was at least how Lancer was rationalizing it. He didn't like thinking that hard to begin with.

“Tell me about you. Let's actually talk. You're not so afraid of me you can't do it, right? I don't bite,” Lancer said, leaning in just a hair closer. All of it was enough to seemingly unnerve Archer quite a bit more than he anticipated. Was it the biting comment? It was definitely the biting part. A little bit of glee sparks in Lancer as he realized he could add onto that. “Too hard anyway.”

He tried to hold Archer's gaze, just to see him squirm—and squirm he did—the effort and somewhat juvenile addition just enough to do the trick. Uncomfortable wasn't how Lancer would describe Archer right then, but maybe more on the side of “Surprised-and-Unsure-How-to-Handle-That.” It only lasted a moment as Archer was smart enough to turn his gaze away and straighten up a little. If it put him closer, so be it. Giving Lancer any kind of edge was a mistake. He could try to play it cool , but it did come at the cost of meeting that unwavering grin again.

“There's nothing to say,” was Archer's rather flat answer.

“Oh, colder than ever, huh? Then tell me why you were protecting me out there,” Lancer said to counter the freeze, leaning a bit more into his hand still on the wall near Archer's shoulder.

“I have less to say about that. It's my job. There shouldn't be any questions.”

“Oh? Then I want to go back to the other question. Take that one, Archer...Oh that's a problem isn't it?” Lancer paused for effect, even letting that grin slip to throw Archer off. It seemed to work. “There's a couple other Archers around. I can't keep calling you that.”

“You can just fine.”

“What? And confuse them? Just say your true name. You know mine, what's the problem? You don't want to admit it?”

Lancer could admit to himself he kind of enjoyed getting on Archer's nerves like this. Of course he wanted to hear the answer for himself, but he couldn't get that, he could enjoy that twinge of annoyance in his face, the twitch at his lips, the slight way his eyes would avert away leaving Lancer the opportunity to really look over those features in a little distress. Even if it were small, it was a look that paired well with the focused battling sort of look he usually saw on him. Maybe he was too much fun to play around with.

“That's a different matter. 'Archer' is fine. You shouldn't need to call me so much anyway,” Archer answered after a second of searching. It did seem to make him uneasy though. He wasn't one to use names much as it was. It didn't seem fair that he could leverage Lancer's own name over him so easily. Was he really the last to say it? Maybe it just left an impression on him.

In all honesty, he just wanted to hear it from Archer's own mouth. Some kind of stake rode on this, one he couldn't articulate very well.

“Maybe I want to call you sometime. It might be important you know.”

Archer looked a little confused with that answer, the slight soften of his usually intense look was a small victory again. Lancer wasn't sure he had the patience to keep whittling away, but curiosity kept him fixed for now. He'd not found himself drawn anywhere else at least.

“What would be 'important' to you?”

Lancer let his gears turn, actually trying to think about his answer for once. “If I was looking for you. Or something was coming for you on the battlefield. Those are pretty good reasons, right?”

“You can call me Archer then too,” he said in the end, the question a bait all along.

“You and every other Archer! Come on!”

An odd grin spread at Archer's lips as Lancer was groaning about the answer. “Very well. Red Archer.”

“Color coded now? Shit, that makes sense...until another red one pops up. Then what?”

Archer set one hand at his chin, his brow furrowed. It seemed like he honestly hadn't considered that possibility. It didn't even seem like he was willing to answer that very soon either. When an answer did come, the power of it nearly threw Lancer to the floor.

“One of us is going to have to change,” Archer said, completely deadpan.

“What? No, just use your name! It's not gonna kill you here. You make yourself infamous fast enough it's not even gonna matter when we fight other servants,” Lancer explain rather rapidly, hardly believing this conversation was real. There had to be a way out of it. And he couldn't exactly back away from Archer after all of this too. They were still stuck in each other's faces. No retreat though, not like this.

“Infamous? I'm not the one always running out to create a problem,” Archer countered his voice raised just a hair to match where Lancer was reacting from. He didn't seem phased by his own comment before, but that was perhaps to be expected.

The both of them froze for a split second as they heard footsteps coming from down the hall. In unison they panicked. They were too close together, yelling about something no one would believe if they explained it. In that moment of fear, each grabbed at the other and tried to open the door and pull one another into the room Archer had come from. It took an extra second of fumbling, but since they did have the same idea, they made it inside, Lancer with his back to the tail of the door now shut behind them. The room within was the same sort of sterile room normal to HQ—the lights out since Archer had left. The pair didn't really breathe or move for a few moments; each was listening to hear the footsteps eventually go past their position and on further into the depths of the halls.

Only once that was over they both sighed and glanced at the other. Archer still had his hand on Lancer's wrist, Lancer's free hand still grasping at Archer's shoulder. With some awkwardness, they let each other go, glancing aside.

“I don't want to explain this to our master is all,” Archer began before the question was ever posed.

“What? That you want to just be 'the red bastard' for the rest of this? And who even said that was them?”

“I don't want that. And frankly with your luck it would have been.”

Lancer crossed his arms over his chest, an offended tone clear in his words. “My luck? You're gonna blame it on me?” Something struck him before he let Archer tear into him. “And even if it is crap, your lot is cast in with mine, you might as well get used to it.”

A bewildered pair of eyes met Lancer's like he'd said something unbelievable. “Cast with your's...? How exactly?”

“Well we always see each other. I'm basically stuck with you. So you're stuck with me.”

“I don't have to be 'stuck' with you. Why would I even want to be?”

At that moment, Lancer felt himself much more prepared to strike. He didn't have the advantage of pinning Archer to the wall anymore, but he did have a few more tricks up his sleeve. He shifted to set one hand on his own hip, the other hand free to playfully tease a finger along and under Archer's chin. It was worth it for the look that was greeted with.

“You're not gonna find another servant who's better than I am. You might be a red bastard, but you can see that much, right? Why else would you cover my ass out there? Unless you were into the view?” he said smoothly, almost overwhelmingly so.

Or at least Archer's reaction could have been called overwhelmed. He looked like he'd been backed into a corner, trapped in some sort of horrible web spun by an idiot. It probably wasn't that often he managed to play himself, but there he was—caged by his own stupid off-hand question.

That was not precisely what Lancer was anticipating. He expected some backlash, to have his hand slapped away or something. It wasn't that unusual. Not every hit landed in that way. He'd get that figured out someday, but he didn't expect it to be the day he dragged another man into a dark room in a fit of desperation to avoid a sliver of shame. Especially a guy he told everyone he hated.

Archer was kind of an annoying shit.

And he called him names earlier—egged him on on purpose.

But here Archer was anyway, his face obviously burning as he tried to deny it. “I didn't say anything about that. You're...just drawing your own conclusions out of nothing.”

Lancer leaned over Archer's way from his side, a shit-eating grin on his face. “Yeah? You sure? I don't blame you, you know, if you're taken with me. I get it enough. It's alright. I'm just a big heartbreak waiting to happen,” he chatters on, managing to further drive Archer up the wall.

Just to finish him off, Lancer added one more thing. He gave Archer a grin and a wink, oozing with all the charm he had. “Sorry if you're next, Red.”

It was kind of a impure heart, but it seemed like Lancer had hit his mark. He marveled at the great unraveling of Archer's cool, all of that broken by a little flirting and pushing his buttons. He had to admit he had fun doing it too. It left him feeling like there was something more he could still have however.

Best not to dwell.

Archer, in that time, had managed to take a few defensive steps back, one hand up as if it would stop all this. Eventually his frustration prevailed and he straightened up, his glare more unfriendly than usual. Lancer missed the playful smirk already.

“I don't appreciate being messed with.”

“I bet you don't.”

When Archer looked his way expecting more, Lancer only shrugged one shoulder. The red bastard shook his head and sighed away his flustered lapse. Still just a hint of the heat in his cheeks lingered in such a way that Lancer couldn't glance away. He didn't need to be this cute.

“I don't get what you're saying, but if you're done...we should go,” Archer said eventually, a sort of dismissive inevitability sounding from his voice that led Lancer to tougher questions.

“Just messing with you is too much huh?”

Archer didn't answer right away, giving the side wall a good glare. There was a tension in his shoulders Lancer could trace across the rest of his body—an uncomfortable look, to be sure.

“You're a flirt. I simply didn't anticipate being a target of that. That was my mistake.”

“It was. You're about cute enough.” Lancer hardly blinked through his own answer, but it was enough to toss Archer right back into his own chaos—stewing in his own inability to believe this was still going.

“Since when was this the case? And 'about?' What does that even mean?” Archer snapped at him.

A bigger laugh got away from Lancer before he could manage any words. The reaction didn't seem to ease Archer's nasty look. “Since whenever. I don't get the chance a lot. You and me one on one and we're not killing each other? I mean, this has gotta be a better outcome, right? Although I'm not gonna lose at this either.”

“You didn't even answer all of that. And it doesn't take much to be better than killing each other.”

“Even if it's fun?”

“For you,” Archer answered bluntly, faster than he had before too.

“So you definitely prefer the flirting,” Lancer said, his assurance set.

The speedy answer to be snappy was perhaps not helping him in most cases. Lancer was fine speaking off the cuff. Whatever happened, happened. If Archer melted into a puddle right there he was fine with scooping him up. If he got pissed and stormed out that wouldn't be much different from their usual so that was fine too. He was a little more invested in Puddle Archer however.

Archer groaned and turned away, unable to really stand the face and source of this angst much longer.

“I can't believe you're still this much of a dense idiot...”

Sensing an opportunity Lancer slipped in closer, putting an arm around Archer's shoulders and leaning into him just enough he could speak in his ear. “You wanna spell it out for me then?”

The few seconds of pause were enough to leave Lancer lowering his guard. That down, Archer turned his head and shoulders enough he could catch Lancer's chin in his hand. He only peeked at Archer's look long enough to be surprised by it—a determined, if a little embarrassed look that immediately hit him square in the face. That impact deepened by the moment he felt his lips—Was that a shaky anxiety touch or purposely light to tease the idea?—by the end he couldn't tell which way he was supposed to be getting pulled except that he was definitely being dragged into it.

That same look lingered on Archer's face in a way that froze Lancer in place. “I don't want you so sure you're not going to lose.”

That look and touch told him a thousand other stories, but the words accompanying them were so very much what he should have expected he couldn't help a laugh. This kind of conversation turned to quicksand around them. Retreating to this room was part of the plan too, wasn't it? It seemed like he was going to trip up and slip in eventually. Might as well go in face first.

“If it's a challenge...then show me. If you can do it,” Lancer said in a lowered voice, somewhere between coaxing him and making it a fight. Somehow it felt like both. That kind of familiarity felt good in a strange room.

Archer's fingers slipped away from Lancer's face, brushing the length of his arm to go for his wrist once more. This grip was different, especially as he turned and started to lead him back toward the bed. He knew exactly what this signaled, he wasn't an idiot. Maybe he was, but he at least got this, he just wasn't going to worry about it. If Archer wanted to play this game, he could play along. Where that would put them in the end, he couldn't even guess. He didn't want to. He had a feeling he'd know in a couple hours.