Fujimaru Ritsuka does not dream.
Or maybe it's more accurate to say that her dreams aren't her own, and they have not been for over a year. Sometimes the Servant in question is apologetic about it; sometimes they're smug; sometimes they look at her sidelong and there are things in their expressions that she deliberately avoids understanding. There is a wall she has gently put in place, because that's what she needs to be: a friend, an understanding ear, a witness to the things that these little pieces of history and mythology wish to share, wrapped up and held in their stories and the ways those shape every soul that sleeps within the Throne of Heroes. They aren't for her -- they're borrowed souls, borrowed time, and Ritsuka is not in the business of courting heartache. It will be strange enough when the last of the cleanup is done, when all of the remaining Pillars have been dealt with, and new management steps into Chaldea.
Someday soon, she will no longer be Fujimaru Ritsuka, Master of Chaldea, Last Human -- she'll be just Fujimaru Ritsuka, everyday human. Part of her is looking forward to it, even as part of her mourns letting go.
The point is, she knows that soon, her dreams will be her own again. Someday, there will be nothing in her head but her own consciousness, nothing else. But that isn't yet, so when she opens her eyes and sees she's in some strange room, she's not terribly surprised or alarmed. She's lying on a bed, larger and softer and more luxurious than anything she's ever experienced in her life, with soft gauzy curtains drawn closed, cocooning her inside. They're thin enough that she can see through them -- or she would be able to, if there weren't only a single source of light: a softly glowing golden circle, which she discovers is an oil lamp, when she brushes the curtains aside. Everything smells faintly of incense, present enough to be noticed, faint enough to be unidentifiable. Something about the room in general is familiar, though she can't place it. It feels like a sneeze itching the back of her throat, or a word trapped on the tip of her tongue.
Ritsuka gets to her feet and crosses to pick the lantern up, holding it so she can look around the room. There is a doorway that stands open, and a window that looks out into an even heavier darkness. Everything is lavish and beautiful; the colors are muted and softened in the lamp's glow, but she can pick out actual lines of gold in the embroidery of the bedding and the curtains. This is a king's bedroom, she knows through experience, though which king, she can't tell yet. There aren't enough clues for her to guess just yet.
After another look around the room, she takes the one door, which leads into a long hallway with high arched ceilings. The smell of incense is stronger here, and there's something under that which, again, is naggingly familiar. Ritsuka knows she knows whose dream this is, but she still can't tell exactly who. There's no way for her to go but forward, so she does. Her feet make soft tapping noises against the marble flooring, the sound catching and echoing in the high ceilings, until it almost sounds like she's leading a whole army.
Well sure, metaphorically, she thinks, and doesn't laugh as she steps out into what is unmistakably a throne room.
It is one she recognizes, even if it's been half a year since that day -- even if it's far more intact than the one time she had seen it. In her hand, the oil lamp flickers and goes out, but there's a bright diffused light that fills the whole place. She can't tell exactly where it's coming from, only that it leaves the whole place illuminated, so that even the shadows are softened and faint. The white throne is magnificent when whole, the dais stretching across nearly the whole length of the room. The spires and embellishments of the throne spread out wide, like wings, haloing the man who sits upon it. For just a moment, her heart seizes in her chest -- but his hair is bright instead of pale, and the markings on the exposed bare stretch of his arms also glitters gold. He sits with a coiled laziness; she has no doubt that he could spring to his feet and across the room in an instant, if provoked. His eyes are half-lidded, but focused directly on her, as if he'd only been waiting for her to step into the room this whole time.
"What the hell," she says.
The Beast I, the King of Men, Goetia, only laughs. His voice is deep and booming as she remembers, and it puts her hackles up, though she refuses to back up or approach. This isn't the first time she's faced him alone, but she's very aware that she's even less armed than the last time. There's no shield for her here; there's no near-literal deus ex machina. There's only her and the oil lamp in her hands. It no longer even feels warm to the touch.
But even as she mulls over this, Goetia rises to his feet and holds out his hand to her. The gesture is as imperious, imperial, and she wonders for just a moment if Roman had ever done the same.
"Welcome, Ritsuka Fujimaru!" he says. "I had wondered if you would come."
"Okay, but seriously, what the hell," she says.
It only makes him laugh again, and he descends the stairs of the dais in bold confident steps; just as she'd expected, he crosses the room in a matter of a few seconds, until he's before her again. Unlike the last time, his body and face appear to be hole; there's none of the inky blackness where parts of him had been ripped away, laced through with the bleeding red of torn magical circuits. The smile on his face is a familiar one -- she's seen similar on her Servants, wide and brilliant and sharp enough to bleed, for all that this face is still relatively unknown to her -- but it's a surprise regardless. They're close enough that her body could brush his, if she breathes deeply enough. Ritsuka has to lean back a little just to be able to look up into his face, but other than that, she refuses to step back. It's probably testing her luck, but she's reluctant to yield any ground to him.
They stare at each other for long seconds. Ritsuka is embarrassed to blink first.
"You still haven't answered me," she says.
His eyes narrow. Quick as thought, quick as breathing, his hand comes out and up, catching her chin in his long fingers. She can feel the strength he isn't trying to use in the pressure of them, though he's more gentle than she expects in the process. There's a thoughtful expression on his face, like she represents some kind of riddle he hasn't yet figured out.
"Do you know," he says at last, "that in my time, you would have been beaten for daring to speak to a king in this manner? You would have been dragged outside, stripped, and lashed thrice for every impertinent word."
"Yikes," Ritsuka says, because it's the first thing that pops to mind. Mash isn't here to soften her conversation for her.
Goetia's eyes narrow again, and then he throws back his head and laughs again. His hand doesn't let go, but it slides from her chin to rest against the base of her throat, his long fingers almost enough to fully encircle her neck.
"Indeed!" he says. "For a child of your modern era, that might seem harsh. But that was the way of the world, in our time." His eyes narrow, and for a moment his smile is too wide for his face, all sharp edges and teeth, sharp enough to tear through the void. A blink, and it's gone again. "Your beloved Solomon would have done the same, and thought nothing of it."
In spite of herself, her breath hitches. Six months, and she and Mash have done their best to keep Roman's room exactly as he left it -- she has the sinking suspicion that he spent less time in it than she'd ever guessed -- but there's still a strange falling sensation in her stomach every time the door opens, and she finds it untouched. Even if she has grown used to his absence in the Command Room, and of Mash's voice in her ear instead of his, six months doesn't really feel like enough time. She lets that sick feeling curl in her chest, and then she takes a deep breath and--
Lets it go.
"Maybe he would have then," she says. "But he wasn't that kind of guy when I knew him. Society moved past stuff like that."
Goetia's eyes spark. His fingers tighten further on her throat, just enough that her breath catches again. It's only for that second and no longer, but it's a reminder. She lifts her chin and stares at him straight on. To her surprise, he blinks first.
"So it has," he says. His voice lowers to a murmur, but he seems incapable of true quiet; even softer-spoken, his words echo in the throne room. The thought flashes through her mind, there and gone and whimsical, that the stone itself is responding to him, vibrating in answer to its master's voice. His thumb sweeps up the length of her neck, tracing the line of her pulse. It's the sort of touch that seems better suited for a romance heroine than her, and Ritsuka finally steps back, her hand catching his wrist. He lets it happen, and she has no doubt that it is a letting, but doesn't let that stop her.
"How are you here?" she says. "You were..."
"Perhaps you're dreaming, Ritsuka Fujimaru," he says, "and this is nothing but the fevered fantasies of your own mind."
"Do you have to put it like that?" she asks, and then, "Why would I do that?"
"That is hardly a question I can answer for you," he says. "My wisdom -- Solomon's wisdom -- is lost. But even if it were not, the hearts of humans were never something either of us could understand, until the end." His hand twists in her grip, but even as he pulls free, he simply catches her again, this time with his long fingers sliding through hers. The tips press to the Seals against the back of her hand, and she feels a jolt run all the way down to her elbow, leaving it tingling and hot for a couple of seconds. It's not unlike the feeling that accompanies a contract with a Servant, but it isn't quite right, either. It almost hurts, the pins and neelds in her arm stinging before they fade away. Goetia's eyes are steady, staring at her, and this time he does not blink.
"If I had to dream about anyone on my own," she says, "it wouldn't be you."
Goetia laughs again. It's still softer, something closer to intimate rather than boisterous. Ritsuka tugs at her hand, but he refuses to let go. "And yet, here I am," he says. "I think, Ritsuka Fujimaru, that when you know why, you will know whether this is truly a dream or not."
Yes, because that's so helpful and informative and not at all more cryptic bullshit. Is it possible to get a headache in a dream? Even if it isn't, Ritsuka's used to pulling off the impossible, and boy does she feel it, throbbing in her temples in time with her heartbeat. It's one thing to be put off when she's on the job, when Servants who don't know her play coy and cagey with what they want to tell her. Some of it is just her own unfamiliarity with the (sometimes very literal, it feels) smoke and daggers of mages. Maybe if she'd paid a little more attention to Roman's lectures, she'd be less lost, but -- the point is that there's a lot that she lets slide in the name of expediency. Right here and now, in this bubble that might be dream and might be a strange shared thing with a man who can no longer exist in the world she knows, she can't gather much of her usual patience.
"If you've got something to say, then say it clearly, to my face," she snaps. "At this point, I think you owe me that much."
This time, it's her voice that echoes. Goetia's fingers are still heavy against the Seals on her hand. There's a smile on his face, small and yet still smug, an uptick at the corner of his mouth that makes her fists itch. For a moment, she recalls the weight of Mash's shield in her hands, the weight and impact shock that went up her arms with each blow.
And like that time, when it had been her alone, she sees the crack in his facade. His grip gentles on hers, though he doesn't let go, only shifts his grip, so that he holds her hand cupped in his, his thumb and forefinger circling her wrist.
He says, "There will be a time, Ritsuka, when I will repay everything that is owed to you. Until that day comes, wait. Keep yourself alive."
She says, because Mash is not there to be gentle and diplomatic for her, "I'm not going to just because you told me to."
Goetia laughs once more. It sounds fond now. There's the same sort of softness that she heard in his voice when he spoke his last words. So this is what a human life is like. He brings her hand up, presses his lips to her knuckles in something that is less a kiss and more just insistent pressure -- a promise, it feels like a promise -- and then the world around her begins to blur and run, like overly-wet paint. She instinctively tries to grab onto him this time, but her grasp catches nothing but air, and then--
--Fujimaru Ritsuka wakes.
She's in her own bed, hanging half off of it, the toes of one foot brushing against the floor. Her blankets are mostly kicked off, and she feels a chill that does not seem to be from Chaldea's meticulous climate control. Her hand is lifted above her head, and even in the darkness, it feels like she can see it clearly: the spread of her long thin fingers, the sharp red lines of her Command Seals. She thinks about the look on his face, and wonders what that even means. There are only a couple of Pillars left. Once they're taken care of, there's nothing that will hold her here. She tries to picture the face of the poor sap that accidentally might end up summoning him, through whatever bizarre twist of fate it will take, and then she has to cover her face and laugh.
In a few more months, she won't be a Master any longer. And until that day comes--
She thinks: I'm not going to survive this just because of you. I'm going to do it because I want to. Come and find me, you jerk, and tell me that to my face.
Ritsuka closes her eyes again, and waits for her morning alarm to go off.