His Master sent him out to find the Archer, but it was the woman king Diarmuid met first. He felt her before he saw her. This, he'd half-known would be so, the same way he half-knew the jagged faultline of history and the purpose of the roaring contraptions on the street. It still came as a shock to his senses: will I die here, already? crossed his thoughts, faced with the presence of a Servant he knew to be stronger. Fear did not follow. If he died here, then he died in service and with no chance to dishonor himself. All the better.
He could smell the waterfront as he walked. His Master's hold was a long, strange, reassuring tether that weakened as he went; but his instructions were clear and his bearings good enough. If he was scattered, he would return.
She had her back to him when he found her and he recognized her armored silhouette as a woman's. He steeled himself against inevitability.
Then she turned to face him and he doubted himself. A boy? No, a woman--but no thunderstruck enchantment passed over her face, nor even animosity. She hefted an unseen weight in gauntleted hands and he thought, a weapon, and made note. She looked readier than he felt. There was an impassive resignation in the crease of her eyebrows, as if to say, I've been expecting you, though they were strangers. He supposed they'd been expecting one another all the same.
"You are unaffected," he said in way of conversation, lightly--testing his stance, his grip, waiting for her to kill him. "I'm pleased to see that. ... I suppose you may not have any idea what I'm talking about. I'm afraid I can't tell you more. The rules of this combat," Diarmuid gestured, "are restrictive. But know that I am glad to face you."
Half a lifetime of battle had taught him what to expect from his enemies, and he expected her to lunge wordlessly--and indeed, the temptation showed on her face. She halted, though, invisible sword upraised; she said, "No need. I know who you are. Honor demands that I admit that much."
"So it does," said Diarmuid, surprised; "And I'm grateful that you would. But I am sure that I've never met you, my lady Saber."
"I am not your lady, Diarmuid ua Duibhne," she said with a look almost pained, and a tilt of her head to one side: listening to the wind, or to her Master, perhaps. Whatever she heard, she ignored. "I am King Arthur Pendragon of Britain. And that is all that I can say to you."
He laughed, not mocking but half-disbelieving: "King Arthur Pendragon! Would that we both could survive this honor--" He doubted her, of course he doubted her, and then she glanced at him again and he was abashed. "I must admit that I came here on another errand. But I'd be delighted to delay it on your account." Diarmuid smiled. "How did you know me? Am I so infamous now?"
"Nothing of that sort," said the Servant Saber, "I'm afraid." She indicated the city behind her with a nod. "Be on your way. I have no quarrel with you today."
Diarmuid spun Gáe Dearg between his fingers, idle and thoughtful; "By all means, Arthur Pendragon. But I was under the impression that we had a quarrel with one another every day. Surely you'd prefer to settle this now, while we can?"
"I would not. Be on your way and I'll face you another time."
The rudeness surprised him, and might've affronted him had he not heard something else in her voice. He peered at her. "If you wish," he said. "I won't pursue an uninterested rival. But I must know," he said, "do I know you? Have I offended you in some other time?"
"You have not," Saber said. "I'm sorry. I must go." True to his word, he let her.
Called back to the church on the hill, he materialized at the altar, kneeling. His Master smiled down beneficently. "Well? Did you find what you sought, little Lancer?"
Diarmuid was no judge of character and aware of that much. Moreover, he was not a curious man, at least not when he could help it. Curiosity had once had a tendency to fray the hems of his world. Good sense told him he was the son of the Dark One, the way the women always said he was, gifted to his mother; curiosity asked what unspeakable thing she might have been hiding with the tale. Knowing this, he chose to believe what he was told. Kotomine Kirei told Diarmuid that he was a holy man; that the modern world venerated one God, Arthur Pendragon's God; that Diarmuid would too, if he lived to touch the Grail and know its miracles; that everything that transpired between himself and Diarmuid must remain a secret.
"I did not, Master," said Diarmuid. He hesitated.
I met a different Servant, his conscience prompted.
"If I may ask--" he said instead. "What am I looking for, in the Archer? A man with a bow?"
Kirei shrugged and passed his hand over the cloth that covered the altar--checking for dust, maybe. "Not necessarily. Or rather, an Archer need not string his weapon and let fly with his own hand. Magic may be involved. I would be wary of any Servant that takes aim from afar. But most warriors of your ilk are likely to name themselves, are they not? At least their class. Something of your warrior's honor. We used to call it bushidō."
He had no idea if there was suspicion in the question. Kirei shaded his mood well; then again, Diarmuid supposed that was the way of priests. "Why did you not summon a warrior of your own land?" He winced. "Forgive me, I speak out of turn."
"You do not. At ease, Lancer," said Kirei, almost absently. "Why? Because you were the strongest."
Diarmuid smiled a little, unguarded: but in doing so, guarded his guilt. He did not know why he kept the secret. No, he did--he and Saber had some manner of business unfinished, in a prior time, between knights. That would have to be settled outside of the demands of the War. There was no need to involve his Master. So he told himself, but at the same time he thought: the Dark One was his father, and the stitching of the world ended where the sea met the horizon. And so he was uneasy. Gráinne had left him more than a geas; as well she had given him incentive to lie.
The second time, he was still not truly seeking her out. There was no seeking what left no trail: King Arthur Pendragon was not a beast trampling the undergrowth. He was lucky to find her.
It was next to the school. Only the Grail's knowledge told him that it was a school at all, as the cluster of buildings was ugly and foreign to him. You need prana, Lancer, his Master had murmured. There are three ways you can get it. And then he seemed to take pity on Diarmuid and said, This is one, and laid his hand on Diarmuid's forehead. So when he met Saber again he was keyed up and nervous with power.
She was walking in a black suit behind a child in a white winter coat. When he took physical shape again, they both turned to look at him. The girl-child pointed. "Saber," she said. "Your friend from the other day?"
Saber stared, unmoved, at Diarmuid. She didn't seem to notice what had to be her Master; after a moment she was impassive again, as usual, but Diarmuid hadn't missed the first look on her face. It was dismay.
"Yes," she said after a while without looking at the girl.
Diarmuid greeted her with a bow and a flourish, and with a grin he did not feel. "I'm afraid I still haven't met with my Archer," he said. "Have you had any more luck?"
She didn't answer. Her Master looked pensive and flexed her small fingers; she looked at Saber as if to say, well? Still Saber didn't summon her sword or her armor. Diarmuid glanced at the girl--Saber narrowed her eyes--and he added, "Not to worry. I have no intention of ever attacking anyone's Master. It wouldn't be sporting."
This drew half a smile from Saber, but a very grim one. "No, it wouldn't," she said, "would it?"
"Saber--" The girl cleared her throat.
"We should finish our duel," said Diarmuid promptly.
Saber shook her head.
"Gáe Dearg," she said, "it causes unhealing wounds, does it not?"
She indicated the yellow spear next. "And Gáe Buidhe pierces magic."
He half-laughed, but his heart had beaten to alarm; "Why, yes," he said. "Do I know you?"
"Yes." Next to her, the little Master shifted on her feet and looked more than uncomfortable; Saber continued, "Then it wouldn't be sporting either for me to face you with that knowledge, would it? I've no interest in being your foe, unless my Master commands me otherwise. Does my Master command me otherwise?"
Here she turned her head to face the girl. The girl looked to be considering it, in truth, and Diarmuid wondered if he'd live to see a Command Seal deployed--but she seemed to decide against it, and shrugged her shoulders and walked away. Her footfalls were loud in the nighttime and soon she was around the edge of a building and gone. Diarmuid gripped both spears in one hand. "Who are you?" he said.
"I've told you who I am," she said. "Where is your Master, Lancer?"
Diarmuid said nothing.
Again that pained smile. "Always the pawn of dishonorable men," she said. "Very well. I'm afraid this is all."
"No." He surprised himself with the shortness of his own demand.
She turned her back on him. At no point had she brought her armor into being. "You are a stubborn creature. I am leaving. Do not pursue my Master, or I will have to kill you, and I will not tell you anything."
He might've, just to spite her, but he meant what he'd said about the little girl. So he left in the other direction, to the west where he thought he'd felt the traces of another's power; he wanted to bring home a victory, to justify his wanderings. Besides, he was in a temper.
He did not sleep--Kirei merely dismissed him from consciousness when he had no more need of him--but once, Kirei did take him to a restaurant. He gave Diarmuid clothes for the occasion, stretchy things with curious fastenings. It was a peculiar decision and Diarmuid wondered at his motives. His place was not to speculate, though, and he trailed after his Master.
The food was oddly, vividly spiced. ("The chili pepper," Kirei explained. "From a faraway place. You wouldn't be accustomed to it, would you? Poor Lancer.") Diarmuid didn't care for it, but he had no idea how much of that was the time and how much the place.
Afterward Kirei took him home and left him be for a while, and Diarmuid discovered something more alarming than the chili pepper: a deeply wrought scar. It sat raised on his skin underneath his shirt and he had absolutely no memory of it. Frowning, he sought a mirror; then he sat ashen for a while.
When Kirei returned he had composed himself. "Ready for the hunt, Lancer?" Diarmuid ducked his head in a facsimile of a nod, and to hide his expression. He was a novice at deception, certainly, but no stranger to being deceived.
That night, he found another Servant. She was a beast of some kind, a black bruise on the skyline when he spotted her crouched on the edge of a building; to his relief, she fought blind. She did not speak to him, and in fact did not speak at all except to an unseen Master--shield your eyes, she said--and he was pleased, at least briefly, for the chance for a fight.
It was fast. She was fast. There were no feints, no circling; they lunged exhaustingly for each other and she drew his blood once, twice, thrice. In battle he never presumed he would live, or die--he just existed, like the long moment after the oracle threw the bones into the air--and in the end Gáe Buidhe served him true, as it always had. The spear went in hard with a crunch as he twisted it, shattering Rider's sternum: human after all, maybe. He withdrew it and watched her vanish, breathing hard and bleeding from his arms and neck.
He was dizzy. It occurred to him that there was a Master, and he squinted looking for them (her, he supposed, given Rider's warning). But she was gone, if she'd ever been near in the first place, and he was of no mind to pursue her.
Diarmuid pressed his hand to his throat. It came up wet. Soon it would be sticky. He was not dying, by any measure. Still the sensible thing would be to get home to his Master, who never did follow him out: get home and be healed, and be praised, perhaps. It was the last that tempted him. He had not yet seen Kirei delighted.
The city was thick with battle. He could feel other Servants at the edge of his perception; accordingly, he knew they could feel him. He was weak. His mind told him he needed to retreat. Still the edge of familiarity dogged him, and when he realized what he felt he gathered up his spears and walked onward, a red trace to his footprints.
She had been fighting another Servant too. He could hear their battle by the water--an unmasked grunt of pain from her, a man's voice shouting--but it was over before he saw it, and one Servant faded from his perception. Not Saber. When Diarmuid approached her she was covered in blood and the ground stained and punctured. There was no sign of her enemy: only of the enemy Master, a crumpled form yards away.
She had lowered the point of her sword to the ground. She did not look up at him.
"Did you kill her?" said Diarmuid.
"She was a magus. She exhausted her own circuits trying to protect her Servant," came Saber's answer--and, he'd be damned, she wasn't breathless. "But I would have. You misunderstand the rules of this War, Lancer."
"What a pity. If only someone would see fit to enlighten me."
Maybe the sarcasm made her look up. It was the first look of surprise he'd seen cross her face. "I mean you no dishonor," she said.
Anger made him more uncomfortable than bloodthirst; petty bitterness was even worse, as a stranger to him except at the borders of his person when he thought of Fionn, which he always pushed out of himself. "No one is concerned with your intentions," he said. "Who was he? The one you killed?"
"Archer," she said simply. "I didn't know his name."
"Ah, and it was a Rider I met with." He smiled, but it was a calculated, unpleasant expression that he practiced upon his enemies; she narrowed her eyes in reaction to it. "Shall we, your majesty?"
"You are not at your best," she countered, but he could see she was on guard; "I won't fight an injured man."
"You've no choice in the matter. Face me, Saber."
She anticipated his first swing, and sidestepped it; but even wounded, he was quick, quicker than her in her armor, and she had to parry Gáe Dearg. The clash rang out and he felt the thrill, like he hadn't against Rider. He wondered why. Then he knew--it was the first time he'd really known he might die.
He struck again and she parried: again, and the spear clattered off her armor. She was grim, unmoved, and that was worse than anything: "What is this to you?" he shouted as they sprang apart. "Is this a game, Saber?"
"What?" She stared at him. "Never. I--"
"Then why do you toy with me?" He lunged for her again. It was exhausting her to stay on the defensive, he could tell, and that made him furious, and the fury drove him--"Why? Answer me."
"I wouldn't. I don't." This through her teeth.
Diarmuid raised his voice: "Who am I to you? What am I?"
Gáe Buidhe ripped through the edge of her breastplate and he scored blood. She stumbled. He was losing his wind, though, and getting more lightheaded; wild-eyed, he leaned on both spears and was about to challenge her again when she spat out: "My friend. I thought you were my friend."
"What did I do?"
In that moment she looked heartbroken. "Nothing," she said. "I--nothing. You don't understand."
"I don't." Diarmuid hefted Gáe Dearg.
"You've been summoned before," said Saber, "and I betrayed you. I can't let that happen again. This place--this thing--" She shook her head. "It's no place for alliance. It doesn't work. They always destroy us."
He was, and must've looked, incredulous; still he paused--"I didn't ask you for an alliance, Arthur Pendragon," he said. "I wanted the honor of being faced as an equal. Which you deny me still."
She was silent. Absently, she touched her armor where he'd struck her. "I'm sorry," she said. "I am truly sorry."
"I don't care. You won't kill me. You won't tell me the truth. What am I supposed to do?"
"I don't want to see you," she said, blunt; "I don't think we should go near each other. That's the best we can do."
He laughed, high, dizzier than ever: "Do we have a choice?"
Strangely, it was this that got through to her. In the next moment Saber shuddered and her armor dematerialized, and she was in a bloodied suit, her hair in disarray. She looked around herself.
"Where should we talk?" she asked. She sounded plaintive.
"I have no idea," said Diarmuid, shocked. "Aren't you the one who's been here before?"
He shook his head.
"Come," she said after a moment's thought. "I know a place mine won't go."
Fuyuki Church was where she chose to take him. "This is neutral ground," she said of it; and if his own deception showed itself plain on his face, as he wondered if it did, she didn't acknowledge it. Kirei was somewhere else tonight, anyway--he supposed it wasn't his place to question where--and they were alone. They walked among the pews, both of them slowed and exhausted, until she picked a seat and dropped down into it. He leaned against the wooden back.
"You need healing," she said.
He quirked his mouth. "So do you."
"At some point," she said and the dismissiveness in her tone made him grin, suddenly fond. It was almost familiar. But what could be familiar, of something he didn't remember? Probably past and present were throwing themselves together: one life and another. Arthur and Fionn. He grimaced and ducked his head.
Saber was peering at him. "May I?" she said.
He didn't know what she was asking. After a pause she held out her gloved hand and brought it near his face--no, not his face, the tips of his hair. Her fingers just brushed it and then came away. "You are how I remember you," she said. "We--we didn't part well."
"You betrayed me." He put it as a dubious statement of fact, turned up at the end like a question. He turned his face permissively, but she didn't touch him again. "How long ago?"
She hesitated. "Ten years, I think," she said. "You were the Servant of a mage. A blue-blooded lord. You were loyal to him, but he did not treat you kindly. Your current Master, is he--or she--kind?"
Diarmuid remembered Kirei's pitying hand on his shoulder. Then he remembered the lie that Kirei made him tell. "It is not my place to demand kindness," he said, weary. "Only the chance to redeem myself."
"You've already redeemed yourself." She looked stricken, looked away. "I have not. For what I did to my kingdom. And to you."
In spite of himself, he gave a tired smile; there was something so utterly earnest about her, so unselfconscious and brooding, that he wondered if her knights saw her the same way. "Are all Christians like you?"
"What?" Saber blinked.
"So endlessly self-punishing?" The smile broadened. "Is there anything you don't feel bad about?"
She looked deeply affronted. "You wouldn't understand," she said--then clearly regretted it, and appended, "I'm sorry. I know you have your own burden."
"I do," he agreed, "but it isn't the same. I dishonored myself when I took my lord's bride to wife. But there's no use in constantly thinking about it. What you think you've done wrong," he said, "it's always with you, isn't it?"
Saber's suit fit her well, he thought absently; it must have been bespoke. Her Master spared no expense. Blood bloomed over it now, though: it would have to be replaced. Her long yellow hair was pulled back unceremoniously, and dark with sweat around her temples. She opened her mouth to reply and then shut it again, and narrowed her eyes. "You have more cheek than I remember," she said.
Something tugged at her mouth: perhaps a smile, threatening. "Well. A little."
It occurred to him that they should part ways before Kirei came back, and that he'd have to feign somewhere else to go. It took him a short while to construct the lie, and once he did he stood, still a little dizzy from blood loss and exertion, and bowed crisply to her. "I must go," he said. "Can I see you again?"
This surprised her. He pressed on: "By the water? Will your Master let you go?"
"I don't know," she said, drawing back into her shell again; "I can't promise you anything." And he supposed he had to settle for that.
His Master was a Christian too, but it was difficult to think of him and Saber in the same breath: he had a bottomless dark serenity to him, and he hummed under his breath as he attended to the sacristy. Diarmuid knelt next to him, afraid to touch anything. "Master?" he ventured after a while.
"May I ask you a question about your faith?"
"Haven't I told you?" Kirei smiled. "You don't have to ask my permission to ask questions."
Diarmuid nodded. "I'm sorry, Master." Then he half expected Kirei to upbraid him for apologizing, but Kirei merely turned back to his work. "I--I was wondering how long you've held your faith."
"When did you become a pagan, little Lancer? For as long as I can remember," said Kirei easily, "since I was a boy, at least. It is the way the world is put together."
Diarmuid had also thought he'd known how the world was put together, he considered: but he did not say this to Kirei. "Is that why you desire the Grail?" he said. "Because it belongs to your God?"
This caught Kirei's attention. He turned his head to look down at Diarmuid through half-lidded eyes. He was a large man and well-built. He took a moment to choose his words. In that moment his little smile sharpened oddly. He seemed to be weighing more than one option.
"I wish to bring peace to mankind," he said: and there was delight, strangely, in his words.
"My people do not expect peace, Master," said Diarmuid: "I mean, we did not. We cherished it while it lasted, but we always readied ourselves for war."
"I know. It is in your nature," said Kirei. "Stand, Lancer; I would look you in the eye."
Diarmuid got to his feet, doubtfully, and flinched when Kirei tipped his chin up with his fingers. "Look at me," he repeated, and Diarmuid forced himself to meet his gaze.
Kirei looked at him searchingly. Diarmuid wondered at, and feared, what he was looking for. But he did not seem to find it; he said, "Love is God's plan for us, little Lancer. Fear will tear us apart."
It was on the waterfront the following night that Diarmuid encountered the young man: he thought he sensed another Servant, but when he went searching it was just a figure stumbling home drunk, a pale-headed creature in dark colors who ignored him and took unsteady steps in the other direction. Diarmuid paid him little mind at first; it was not him he was waiting for, half-daring to hope, half-resigning himself to the possibility that he would never see Saber again. But she came, striding step by step in immaculate black, and Diarmuid brightened. He would not have given the drunk any more thought.
But she stiffened, and the stranger turned his head; she said, "You. What are you doing here?" She glanced at Diarmuid. "What is he doing here?"
Confusion must have written itself on Diarmuid's face, because she shook her head and turned back to the stranger, who drew himself to his full height and arched his eyebrows. "I see we're having a reunion," he said.
Gáe Dearg materialized in Diarmuid's hand. The stranger snorted. "Try it. You damned worthless cur."
"Am I supposed to remember this charming fellow too?" Diarmuid glanced at Saber.
"You aren't missing anything." She fixed her gaze on the strange man again. "What are you doing here? You're not a Servant."
The man laughed, which ended in a hiccup. The air shimmered around him for an instant and Diarmuid tensed; but then the glow faded, and he peered at both of them. "You will always be a Servant," he said. "You don't understand anything."
"What are you doing here?" Saber demanded, Excalibur in her hands, her voice rising--but the man ignored her this time, and his unsteady gaze tracked to Diarmuid.
"Is your Master good to you, Lancer?" he slurred.
It was such an uncanny echo of Saber's words that Diarmuid blinked, taken aback. The man didn't seem to be expecting an answer, though; he tossed his head, uncoordinated and lofty, and regarded them both with contempt--and shook his shoulders out, and vanished. Diarmuid stared.
Saber stared as well after him, not lowering her sword. "That's not right," she said after a while, half to herself.
"Another old friend, I take it," said Diarmuid with more levity than he felt.
He made a philosophical face. "Well, technically--"
"I mean he was a particular nuisance," she snapped. "This isn't good. I don't understand what this means. He shouldn't remember." She shook her head. "This changes--this changes everything. I need to speak with my Master." She turned.
Diarmuid reached out his hand, reflexively: "You came here to speak with me," he said.
"I didn't promise you anything," said Saber, brusque, clearly in the same temper--she hadn't really looked at him since they'd met with the stranger, and she wasn't looking at him now.
He caught her by the arm. She stared at him; he stared too, a little surprised at himself. "You can't do this forever," he pressed.
"I need to speak with my Master." Her expression had darkened. "I need to get rid of him again. You wouldn't understand."
"And I never will," he said, "if you keep doing this. Tell me, Saber, what is going to change if you triumph? What if this all happens again? Am I going to die never understanding? Did this work last time?"
Of all the things he'd thrown out, almost unthinking, it was the last that seemed to stick. She looked wounded and he felt a chill of sorrow; she said, "I'm sorry."
"Of all the things I want from you," said Diarmuid, "that is the only one you're ever willing to give me, Arthur Pendragon."
He let go of her in the next moment, aware that he'd crossed a line. She shivered, her shoulders hunched, and briefly he thought he could see the burden she carried outlined across the span of her back. The suit faded away and she stood there in silver and blue, her eyes unfocused and looking somewhere far away. He was compelled to reach out again, not for the same reason, but he stayed his hand. He thought she might be on the verge of tears. But instead she looked stony and turned her back on him, and said, "Let's go."
They went walking. He sat down next to the river and she told him of the War, of their old Masters' names and of the golden Servant that haunted them now; he picked up a stone and skipped it. She sat in her armor, still wary of attack, but nothing and no one came after them. He wondered how many more nights they could get away with. Sooner or later Saber's little Master would expect results; sooner or later Kirei would.
"So you prevailed," he said.
"After a fashion." She looked out over the water. "My Master forced me to destroy the Grail."
"You destroyed it," he said, "and yet we're still...?"
She shook her head, frustrated and powerless, and conveyed something boundless with the gesture. Diarmuid folded his arms around his knees and glanced at her. "Then there's no point in the contest," he said. "They've lied to us. They've all lied to us. Or close enough to it."
"We are still bound to it," she said.
"By what? Honor? Honor doesn't figure into anything you've said." He was surprised at the force of his own words. "Don't tell me this is something else your God demands."
"No. I mean the Command Seals, and their magic, and everything. And time." He blinked and she was back in her suit again, maybe resigned to something she couldn't face on the field of battle; there was despondency in her voice. "I mean we cannot escape. There is no escape."
He held out his hand. "Maybe your Master--"
"She is as bound to it as I am," said Saber. She didn't elaborate and he didn't ask her to.
The city shimmered reflected on the water. That was a sight to which he hadn't become accustomed: he remembered the darkness of the Irish sea, save the gleam of the sun and the moon. They'd always been at the gods' mercy. Now in the modern world, they harnessed everything, even the light of the sun. Yet maybe something hadn't changed.
Diarmuid smiled, half-ironic. "He told me I was the strongest," he said.
She gave him a quizzical look.
"My Master," he elaborated. "Do they always say that?"
"Every one," she said with a pained laugh. He reached out for her gloved hand and she took his, and they sat that way for a while.
He did not expect to see her again. Part of him wondered if she would fall in battle before he ever did--more of his mind thought that he would, or that Kirei would see through him and bind him with a Seal and she would be forced to kill him too, again, over and over. Kirei was still his Master, the strongest presence he felt in his body, a form that was always gliding through the halls of Fuyuki Church, his touch heavy where Diarmuid remembered it on his skin.
Something burned hot about him, Diarmuid thought; and though he knew him for a liar, he could not bring himself to resent him. Perhaps it was the knowledge that he was his Master. Or perhaps it was something else.
When she came to meet him again by the water, they joined hands and walked back to the church together. He did not know if Kirei would be there and at this point he hardly cared; let the pretense come open, he thought, let it all burn down. But the building was empty and Kirei was elsewhere.
"Is there no way," he said, "that I could be made to remember?"
What he said must have grieved her, from her expression, and briefly he regretted asking. She said: "No. It is a property of Avalon that I can. I cannot transfer it to you."
"Then this is all we have," he said, gesturing to the space around them, meaning something he couldn't express.
He said, "May I ask of you a boon, King of Knights?"
"You may," she said, her eyes shining with uncertainty.
"Take off your glove," said Diarmuid, "so that I may kiss your hand."
Her expression was fathomless. She peeled the black glove off her small hand and cast it aside, and presented it to him. He bent his head and kissed her knuckles.
She raised her bare hand and laid it on his face. Then she leaned up and kissed him.
He did not remember the last time he had kissed a woman under his own power, or a man. He caught his hands in her hair and kissed her back; she put her arms around him and he surrendered finally to it, to the feeling and to the roar in his mind. What they were doing was wrong, he knew--by his measure, because it was in his Master's home, and by hers because it was on holy ground--and it only drove him on. He was desperate. She was even more desperate; he could feel it in the rough, biting way that she kissed, the way her hands moved impatiently across his body to settle on his waist.
She was not like anyone he had ever been with before. She was more: she was strong, and awkward, and certain and uncertain at turns, and she tugged at his clothing with fumbling fingers. She surprised him, once by leaning back and throwing off her suit jacket and unknotting her tie, and letting him work at her buttons. Her skin was hot under his fingers.
When her fingertips traced the scar on his chest her face contorted with misery, and once again he thought she might weep--so he reached up to touch her hair and smiled. She spoke for the first time in what felt like an age. "You do not know what this means," she said.
"I know more than you think," he said, gentle; and he kissed her again.
He was not slow. She didn't let him, and in truth he wasn't inclined to be either. One moment she was touching him and he was kissing her neck, and the next she was naked and she climbed onto him and wrapped her legs around his waist, sliding deep and crying out. He wasn't sure which of them was in pain. They moved together, sometimes too much together, and he had to force himself to be still; she kissed him on the face and on the throat--and, once, on the nose, which made him smile, breathless--and he worked his hand between them until her breath seized up. He thought of nothing else. There was nothing else to think of.
After they were done she shimmered back into her armor, perhaps in lieu of dressing again, and he started to piece together his clothing. It occurred to him that they hadn't lain together afterward. But it wouldn't have seemed right.
When she was done she leaned forward and planted a shaky kiss at his hairline.
Diarmuid caught her hand.
"I'm sorry," he said. His voice echoed in the church. "There is one more thing I might ask of you."
She tilted her head.
"The first thing I ever asked of you," he said with half a smile. "The only thing you can do for me."
He thought, for a moment, that he might have to elaborate--but she looked at him with sudden, deep, terrible understanding, and she looked away. She looked like she was gathering herself back up.
"This is not the place for it," she said after a while.
"No." Diarmuid smiled.
Back at the river, in the very last hour of night, as the sun began to creep back up over the horizon, they faced one another. Diarmuid hefted both of his spears and Saber stared back at him across the expanse of ground.
"Destroy my relic," said Diarmuid, "if you win. I don't want to do this again."
She smiled at him. "You might win," she said. "You came very close."
He grinned. "I did say 'if.'"
They had every reason to hurry--any longer and they risked an audience. Not that it mattered, he supposed. He shivered, perhaps because it was cold.
"Do you know," he said; "I think our Masters wouldn't actually be pleased with us."
"I think you're stalling," she countered.
"Maybe so." He twisted Gáe Buidhe in the air. "What do you want me to do?"
Saber raised her sword. Without her Master's spell, the length of the blade was revealed to the air, and the runes etched on it shone. "I want you to get your wish, Diarmuid ua Duibhne," she said. Then she lunged for him, and they fought.