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A Different Path

By HallowedWizard

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Night of Fate: VS Lancer

The man was a threat. Not to him, but to his Master. His ally. That was all Kirito needed to know about Lancer.

The black swordsman held his drawn blade by his side. The obsidian-colored blade gleamed underneath the dim light.

He gripped the hilt of his other blade, a crystalline turquoise blade, with his left hand and prepared to draw it at a moment's notice.

There was a brief pause as both warriors surveyed the other, the air tense like a taut rope set to snap.

Kirito made the first move. He charged towards Lancer and swung his crystal sword, drawing it from its sheathe, with the obsidian blade following close behind. "Hah!"

Lancer dodged the attack by leaping backwards, putting distance between him and the new Servant.

The black swordsman was undeterred by his foe's action. He advanced, closing the gap in a flash, and attacked again. His blades cut cross the vertical and horizontal planes, seeking Lancer's blood. For a normal human, there would be no escape.

But Lancer was fast, much faster than a normal human could ever hope becoming.

Crystal and obsidian crashed against unyielding crimson in a spray of sparks. As fast as Kirito's last attack had been, Lancer was faster in his defense.

The weapons screeched as both warriors struggled to overpower the other. A brief moment passed, then Lancer yielded and leapt backwards. He spun his long spear behind him and glared at Kirito. "Tch, of all the Servants the kid summons Saber."

The black swordsman cocked his head to the side. "Saber, eh? I guess that's me." He let out a small smile. "And you must be Lancer."

"Of course." Lancer's face twisted in a feral grin. He lowered his stance, crouching like a blue panther, and then pounced. "You'd better live up to your title, Saber!"

The crimson lance flew towards Kirito's heart, unerring in its path to pierce it.

Kirito parried with his crystal blade and a pure note rang through the night air when the weapons clashed. Within the gap created by the parry began his counterattack.

The defending blade was brought back, and the obsidian blade took its place. Kirito swung the black sword towards Lancer's outstretched arm.

The Servant of the Lance narrowed his eyes, and spun his weapon, knocking Kirito's slash wide.

The swordsman allowed it, turning with the force to attack with his crystal blade.

Lancer batted the attack away like the proceeding slash, and the leapt back to gain space. In such close quarters, the swordsman's dual blades held the slightest advantage over his own weapon in terms of attack speed and locked Lancer into defense.

Kirito grinned and waved his black sword. "What's wrong, Lancer? Not fast enough?"

"Hah, you're funny Saber." Lancer grinned and readied his lance once more. "This isn't even half of it!"

Lancer lunged at a speed surpassing that of all attacks before it. He had been fighting at a human speed, although an exceptional one. Now, the thrust was performed at speeds beyond the capability of any human.

Caught off guard at the sudden change in pace, Kirito barely brought his sword up in time to avoid the lethal blow. Even then, the lance still grazed his arm, leaving a shallow wound.

Lancer wasn't finished. He took advantage of the break in the swordsman's rhythm and pulled his lance back to swing at Kirito's head.

The black swordsman bent backwards, causing the lance to miss its target, but then it vanished.

A faint breeze from his right was the only sign Kirito had of the next attack. He thrust his crystal blade into the ground and in the next instant, Lancer swung his spear at Kirito's left side.

The blade strained against the force of the blow, and a vibrant crystalline note sounded out. Kirito ignored it and slashed at Lancer's outstretched weapon.

This time, Lancer was the one unprepared, and he was sent reeling back by the counter.

In the brief lapse that his attack bought, Kirito gauged his foe. Their exchange had been brief, less than a dozen moves, but it was enough for him to analyze his opponent's abilities.

The man was skilled. That was a fact Kirito could not deny. Lancer was eons beyond any opponent he had faced, except for perhaps Kayaba in their final duel. But Kayaba had been manipulating the System to enhance his moves. Lancer did no such thing.

Every of Lancer's strikes were flawless with no wasted movements. They were as perfect as a 'Sword Skill'- No, better than that. Where Sword Skills were a single attack executed with inhuman ability, Lancer's attacks were inhuman in and of themselves.

Kirito pulled Dark Repulsor out of the ground and readied his blades for the continuation of the battle.

That was fine. As skilled as Lancer might be, he was still human, and humans were predictable. Kirito had underestimated the lancer's speed before, but now he could account for it.

Everything had their tells. Every attack was always telegraphed, no matter how skilled the opponent. Speed was of no consequence, since he could compensate for it by reading several moves ahead. The only possible worry Kirito had was Lancer's skill, but that was fine.

Skill and skills were things Kirito possessed in spades.

The light illuminating the ground faded as a cloud passed over the moon. Darkness prevailed as the two Servants prepared their next moves.

A flash, the darkness dispelled by a spray of sparks. Again, the dual blades clashed against the crimson spear.

Lancer stood firm and shifted his stance. The blades moved past him, diverted, and his crimson lance snaked towards Kirito's heart once more.

The black swordsman didn't flinch, knocking it aside to respond with his own offense. In the next beat, his swords flew in a furious pattern.

Up, down. Arcs, diagonals. The blades seemed to be wreathed in light as they launched towards Lancer at a blinding speed.

Despite the overwhelming attack, the only response from Lancer was the widening of his feral grin.

With dazzling skill, he spun his spear and stopped every strike. "Haha! You're good Saber, but not good enough!" Lancer increased his speed, the spear he wielded becoming all but a brief beam of crimson light as he struck.

Kirito managed to defend against the onslaught, but it seemed to be all he could do. His face was stony, locked in a visage of grim concentration.

A stalemate. Kirito stood his ground, but it seemed inevitable that he would fall.

With every passing second, he lost ground. It was a negligible amount that was regained in the next beat, but it was there. Only a matter of time remained before the battle ended, one way or another.


Shirou dashed out after Kirito. There was no way that he could let the black swordsman fight alone. It would be impossible for him to win.

First of all, Kirito had no armor. The black coat he wore, which Shirou admitted was cool, would provide no protection against an edge like a sword or Lancer's spear. A single misstep and he would be torn to shreds.

Secondly, the black swordsman was thinner than Shirou.

It wasn't something he prided himself in, but Shirou was confident in his body's strength. When he had blocked Lancer's blows earlier in the night, his bones felt like they were breaking with each strike.

Kirito, as frail as he was, wouldn't be able to match him. No, if anything he would be annihilated after the first strike.

With that on his mind, Shirou burst from the shed and into the yard, words already on his lips to stop Kirito.

They vanished when he saw the battle between the Servants.

The thin swordsman was weathering Lancer's storm of blows. The exchange of blows between the Servants dazzled Shirou, the sheer skill behind each attack leaving him breathless.

The crimson spear swung like a hammer, rushing towards Kirito with inhuman speed and strength. Yet, it was blocked by a pair of crystal and obsidian blades, Kirito's slim body somehow matching Lancer's force. It wasn't enough to overpower him, but Kirito held Lancer in a deadlock, neither side able to advance.

No, that wasn't right. Kirito was losing ground. It was slow, but it was there. At that rate, it seemed he would fall in the next few blows.

And then the blades increased in speed.

"Haaaa!" With a battle cry, Kirito advanced. His attacks crashed against Lancer's spear in brilliant displays of white light.

With his rhythm broken, Lancer was forced to fall back half a step and recover. His lance whirled in a frenzy as the battle pace accelerated. Faster and faster Kirito's weapons moved, becoming naught but blurs of black and turquoise.

Shirou was stunned. This, this was a battle in the truest sense of the word. Both fighters possessed incredible strength and skill, surpassing that of any human. Either was capable of ending the other in an instant, yet both sides managed to hold their own through sheer prowess.

But it was clear now that Kirito would win. Lancer seemed to have reached his limits in terms of speed, but Kirito was still accelerating. At this point, the swordsman's attacks had gone beyond Shirou's ability to even comprehend them.


Lancer ground his teeth. "Damn...!" He spun his spear yet again to block a chain of slashes from Kirito. "How can you wield two long swords like that?"

The battle should have been determined from the start. Lancer's weapon had a longer reach than Kirito's blades. It should have been impossible for him to approach, let alone defend against every blow.

A single strike, that was all it would take to end it.

"Practice!" Kirito let out that cheeky reply and doubled his efforts.

"Tch!" Lancer took another step back, his lance only just turning aside Kirito's blades.

A lance could attack and defend in a continuous stream of blows. With its longer reach, a lancer could overpower a swordsman, who could only commit to either offense or defense, with ease. Yet, Kirito's dual blades mitigated that effect.

Two swords, one to attack and one to defend. It was a rare style, requiring equal strength in both arms. Not only that, but the mind must be perfectly focused and the body precisely coordinated for the extra blade to become an advantage and not a handicap. The slightest hesitation or delay would leave a vital opening for the opponent to exploit.

The difficulty and discipline needed to master such a style was immense and the reason why so few attempted it, let alone dare to test it in combat. Even then, it was usually attempted with a long sword and a short sword so as to avoid the possibility of the blades clashing.

Kirito defied all those expectations, wielding his dual blades in a seamless stream of attack and defense. The margin of error for each strike should have been less than a hair's width, and yet he succeeded in repelling Lancer without a single mistake.

Lancer roared as he faced Kirito's advance. "Don't you dare underestimate me!" He leapt back, almost vanishing, between the fraction of a second it took for Kirito to alternate blades.

Kirito realized Lancer's action and shifted his stance.

Lancer could not win in direct combat with Kirito. To begin with, both of their weapons cancelled the other's advantages. Therefore, the only thing left for Lancer to do was a single strike with all of his might behind it.

He pounced as soon as his feet touched the ground, spear poised for one fatal thrust. He flew, covering the distance in another fraction of a second.

But Kirito was ready. As soon as Lancer devoted himself to that single charge, Kirito had raised his blades for an unavoidable counter.

Lancer realized his mistake and twisted his body to dodge, but it was too late. Both attacks had been deathblows and escaping unscathed was impossible.

Kirito swung his blades. "Hah!"

Lancer managed to block one with his spear but the other bit through his armor and sent him flying across the yard. Blood dripped from the blue Servant as he stared at Kirito from the newly opened distance.

The black swordsman met his gaze with a silent look. "...Amazing. I didn't think that you would be able to avoid that."

Lancer gave him a feral grin. "I didn't think there was a user of two swords as skilled as you." The blue Servant stood up, ignoring his wounds. "A pity that you're going to die now."

"Oh?" Kirito cocked his head to the side. "I'm not the one bleeding from his chest."

Lancer lowered his lance. "Heh, keep talking Saber."

"What, done fighting already?" Kirito smiled. "I suppose I can't hold it against you with that wound."

Despite his retort, Kirito tensed and readied his blades. His senses screamed at him to not lower his guard. It was the same feeling that he had when fighting Heathcliff all those years ago: the chill of imminent doom.

Lancer's grin faded for once, replaced with a serious look. "I'll ask this since it was an enjoyable match. Do you want to call it even?"

Kirito hesitated. It was a tempting offer. He still didn't know much about the situation he was in.

Lancer nodded and continued. "It's not a bad deal, right? My master happens to be a coward and your master doesn't even know what he's gotten himself into. I think it's in our interests to finish this when we're both better prepared."

Kirito turned back towards Shirou. "What do you think?"

Shirou blinked. "Eh?"

"I'm asking if I should I keep fighting, Master."

Shirou's gaze flicked towards the lancer and locked on the Servant's spear. A pain in his chest brought back his memory of the night's earlier events.

Lancer had taken the same stance against the red Servant. It was the endgame. The sure-shot blow that would kill the opponent no matter what.

He pulled his gaze away from the spear and shook his head. "No, let him go. That next move... it will be fatal."

Lancer grinned. "Oho? It seems like your Master isn't as useless as I thought, Saber. He's right though. This next move will definitely be the end." The blue Servant waved his spear in a nonchalant manner. "Do you still want to continue?"

Kirito lowered his swords. "...Alright. I'll hold you to your word, Lancer. We'll finish this another time."

The hostility in the air faded. The tension that had been present since the beginning of the fight was cut, a sense of relief replacing it.

"Well then Saber, this is it for now." Lancer turned his back on Kirito and moved to the edge of the yard. "I'll be looking forward to the next time."

With a single bound, Lancer jumped over the wall and disappeared.

Once Kirito was sure that Lancer was gone, he let out a sigh. "Man, that was intense." He looked at his crystal sword and clucked his tongue. Hairline cracks could be seen all along the length of the blade, magnifying its beauty but reinforcing its fragility. "Any longer and I would have had to switch."

The swords were replaced in their sheaths and Kirito turned to Shirou.

The red-head took a step back. Despite the fact that this black swordsman had fought the lancer that took his life, he was still a strange being. A dangerous person far surpassing any normal human. Until Shirou confirmed who the swordsman was, he couldn't afford to lower his guard. "Who are you?"

Kirito held up his hands in a non-threatening gesture. "Easy there, Master. I'm not gonna hurt you."

Shirou shook his head and took another step back. "I'm not your Master. I don't even know what a 'Master' is."

The swordsman sighed and scratched his head. "How to explain this...? Well, I guess my introduction was a bit rushed." Kirito held out his hand. "I'm Kirito. You?"

A myriad of emotions flitted through Shirou's mind before settling on confusion. Perplexed, he fell back on his standard reaction to the introduction. "Ah. My name is Emiya Shirou. I live here in this house."

The red head flushed as he realized how stupid his answer sounded, not to mention the fact that he gave away key information about himself. Well, it was obvious that he lived here, but it was the principle that mattered.

On second thought, the swordsman stated his name so it was only polite for Shirou to respond.

After processing those thoughts, another settled in his mind. "Wait, you're Japanese?"

Kirito raised an eyebrow, as if saying 'Out of all the weird things happening, that's what you want to know?'.

"No, wait. I take that back." Shirou gave the swordsman another glance. There were other, more important, matters to discuss. Namely, who Kirito was and why he was here. "You-"

Kirito shook his head. "Let me guess, you're just as confused about this as me."

Out of all the responses the swordsman could have given, Shirou definitely wasn't expecting that one. "Eh?"

"I thought so." Kirito sighed. "Man, Lisbeth was right. I guess I'm just the type to get easily wrapped up in troublesome things."

Shirou was utterly confused.

First he had been killed and then brought back to life. Next, his murderer had returned to take his life again. After that, he summoned Kirito, who had fought and was even beating said murderer. Now he finally had a chance to get some answers from the swordsman... and the man was as clueless Shirou was.

The two looked at each other and let out a long sigh.

Kirito clasped his hands around his head. "Well, I guess we'll just have to share information. We should be able to figure this out between the two of us."

Shirou gave a hesitant nod. "l guess-"

The sentence was left unfinished as Kirito's snapped his head up towards something beyond the walls of the house. "That'll have to wait. We have visitors." The black swordsman raised his hands and grasped his blades. "What do you want to do, Shirou?"

The red-head frowned. "Visitors?" Who would be visiting this late at night?

Kirito nodded. "A Servant and their Master." He frowned in concentration. "They don't seem that strong. I could probably take care of them pretty easily, but it's your call."

Shirou scrambled to gather his thoughts.

Another Servant, and their Master too! Why would they come here? Were they following Lancer and now closing in to finish his job?

Shirou didn't doubt that Kirito could handle any enemy Servants, especially after seeing him fight Lancer. But was that the best decision at the moment? The Servant was unknown and its Master was with it.

With how unfair the Servants were compared to humans, the action showed either complete confidence or foolishness. Even Shirou could see that. Yet, there was also the chance they were coming to talk.

"...Let's wait." Shirou nodded. That was the best course of action. This way, he didn't have to worry about the Master getting caught in the crossfire between the two Servants. And if they were coming to kill him, well at least Shirou wouldn't feel guilty for their deaths. They had decided on that course of action, after all. "This house has a Bounded Field to detect malice from any visitors. We'll know their intentions soon enough."

In less than a minute, a pair of red figures appeared at the gate.

Shirou let out a sigh in relief when he didn't hear the sound of ringing bells. They meant no harm.

He turned towards the black swordsman and smiled. "It's alright Kirito, they're not here to fight. Let's go see what they want."

The swordsman loosened his grip on his blades, but still kept them close. "...If you say so, Shirou."

Shirou headed towards the gate with Kirito shadowing him. He froze when he saw who he was greeting.

Tohsaka Rin. An unapproachable beauty that was the idol in Shirou's school for both her looks and her intelligence. With silky black hair and an elegant figure, as well as consistently ranking at the top in exams, it was no mystery how she earned that title.

That same beauty stood at the gate to his house, wearing a red coat over her clothes and tapping her foot.

"T-tohsaka?! What are you doing here?"

The idol brushed her hair aside and gave Shirou a wide smile. "Good evening Emiya-kun." Her expression faltered when she saw Kirito. "And to you Saber-san."

A contempt-filled voice came from behind her. "...I still say this is a waste of time, Rin."

Shirou pulled his eyes away from Rin and towards the voice. It was the red Servant that Shirou had seen earlier. The man had gray hair and was well-built, wearing form-fitting black armor that emphasized his strength underneath a red cloak of sorts.

The man's arms were crossed, a scornful look on his face. He scoffed when he realized Shirou was staring at him. "An idiot like that doesn't deserve your help."

Rin rounded on her Servant. "Archer! I thought I told you to be quiet!"

The red Servant shook his head and then faded from sight, his gaze lingering a moment on Kirito before he vanished.

Rin, sighed and turned back to Shirou. "Sorry about that. Anyway, let's talk inside. You don't know anything, right Emiya-kun?" She didn't give Shirou time to reply, marching towards the house after her declaration.

"Wait, wait, wait! Tohsaka, you're a Master?"

Before Rin could give her biting retort, Kirito spoke. "Shirou. A pretty girl's offering to come to your house at night and that's what you ask?" The black swordsman laughed as the two flushed red.

"A-anyway, come on Emiya-kun!" Rin dashed ahead leaving Shirou and Kirito at the gate, but not before they heard her mutter. "...Geez, are all Servants like that?"

Shirou sighed and followed her.

After a fixed window and some brief chatter between Rin and Shirou about his lack of magical capability and her musing about why Kirito was summoned to someone like him, the three arrived in Shirou's living room.

"So Emiya-kun," Rin began. "You don't know anything about what kind of situation you're in now, do you?"

Shirou glanced at Kirito and then shook his head. "Only that I'm a 'Master' of some kind and that I summoned Kirito over there."

Rin gave Shirou a pointed look. "Kirito? Geez Emiya-kun, you're not supposed to give your opponents the true name of your Servant." She sighed and shook her head.

"I'm not?"

"Of course not! It's supposed to be the most guarded secret of each Master and Servant!" Rin sighed as she saw Shirou's confused expression and Kirito's nonchalant stance. "Look Emiya-kun. A Servant is a hero of the past given a body. Because of that, if someone knew your Servant's name they could easily find out their weaknesses and exploit them. Although I don't remember any famous hero called Kirito. It's obviously Japanese, so I should, but-" Rin mumbled and shook her head. "Anyway, don't go telling anybody else Saber's name, got it?"

Shirou nodded, although he was contemplating her statement.

It was true, there weren't any mythical or historical figures in Japanese history that went by the name of Kirito. It was possible that it was an alias, but the way he had introduced himself told Shirou that it held some significance to the black swordsman. And his weapons, a pair of long swords... The only person Shirou could remember that used two blades in Japanese history was Miyamoto Musashi. Even then, the man had used a katana and wakizashi, not the European styled blades that Kirito wielded. Although, Kirito did say that he doubted anyone would know his name.

Just who was his Servant...?

Rin tapped her chin. "Now, where was I...? Ah, that's right." Rin nodded as she recovered her train of thought. "Emiya-kun, put simply, you've been dragged into a game."

Shirou saw Kirito stiffen at those words but turned his attention back to Rin. "A game? What do you mean Tohsaka?"

"You've been chosen as a Master in a survival game called the Holy Grail War. A battle royal between seven Masters that won't stop until you kill all the others."

This time, Shirou stiffened. "Kill? Wait, what do you mean Tohsaka?"

She glared at Shirou. "What? You're a magus. Death shouldn't be an unfamiliar concept to you."

"I know, it's just..." Shirou shook his head. "Never mind. So I've been chosen as a 'Master' and Kirito is my 'Servant'?"

Rin sighed at Shirou's casual use of Kirito's name but nodded. "Yes. You should have a holy mark on one of your hands. That's the sign of a Master. Engraved on it are three command spells, absolute orders that you can give to your Servant."

"Absolute orders?"

Rin nodded. "Yes, as long as it doesn't require True Magic, or rather those impossible Sorceries that can't be replicated with science, the use of such an order will force the Servant to obey."

Shirou was silent as he considered the implications of such a thing. Three absolute orders to be obeyed with forced compliance. Absolute orders that could accomplish what was normally impossible, barring True Magic. The thought of it was frightening.

Rin continued. "Anyway, someone who becomes a Master must kill all the other Masters using his Servant summoned by the Holy Grail in order to win the Holy Grail War. Do you get it so far?"

Kirito spoke. "So Shirou's my Master and the 'player' of this game. Meanwhile, I'm his Servant, the 'player character' that he controls. He also has three 'commands' that he can directly give me as long as it doesn't cheat the system. There are seven Masters and seven Servants total, and to win we have to beat all the rest. Is that about right?"

Rin blinked at the unorthodox explanation. "Ah, yes. That's about right. But shouldn't you know that already Saber?"

He shook his head. "I just know that Shirou's my Master, that I'm a Servant, and that I'm somewhat limited in my combat abilities at the moment."

"Eh? So does that mean something went wrong in the summoning ritual?" Rin sighed. "...Geez, if I was your Master you wouldn't have these problems."

Kirito grinned and stepped closer to Rin, whispering in her ear. "I would love to have a cute Master like you."

He leaned back as Rin's hand swept past where his face was. "But Asuna would kill me if that happened, so I'm glad Shirou's my Master."

Shirou smiled at the scene. It was a rare sight to see Tohsaka flustered. Although his image of her as the calm school idol had been shattered forever that night, Kirito teasing her more than made up for it.

"Ahem. Well we're done talking, so let's get going. You still need to register with the supervisor of this war."

"Supervisor?" Shirou frowned. "Do I need to meet him? It's late and I don't want to be out too long." He had promised Sakura that he would stay home for the weekend. With all the events occurring, he had definitely gone against the intent of the promise, but he wanted to uphold it, at least to some extent.

Rin waved off his concerns. "It's only in the neighboring town. If we hurry, we should be back before dawn. Why, are you scared now?"

"I'm not scared."

"Shirou. I think we should go see this supervisor."

He gave Kirito an incredulous look.

Kirito shook his head. "We know what's going on now, but not why." The swordsman turned to Rin. "I'm assuming this supervisor can tell us that?"

"Of course. So it's decided then?"

Shirou grumbled for a moment before conceding. "Fine. Where are we going anyway?"

"Kotomine Church in the neighboring town. Its where the fake priest who's supervising this war lives." She turned and walk towards the exit. "Shall we go?"

Again, Shirou and Kirito followed the fake idol. Inwardly, Shirou sighed as he realized Issei was right. Tohsaka really was a devil.

They walked down the hill through the nighttime town. It was one in the morning so the streets were empty, with only streetlights occupying them.

Shirou was trying his best to keep his composure, despite the uncomfortable conversation occurring behind him. He had mentioned that Rin was nothing like her school self and that had led to a round of teasing by Kirito. It seemed that, as vicious as Rin was, Kirito could give as good as he got.

"...So tell me again why you decided to visit Shirou's house. At night of all times."

"I told you already! I was just worried about him!"

"Oh? And why were you worried about him?" Kirito let out a dramatic gasp. "It can't be...!"

"N-no! It's nothing like that! I don't-! I mean, I'm not-!"

"You forgot your homework assignment!"

"Graaah! Ki-ri-to, you-!"

And so on. It was good to hear that they were getting along, but there was only so much insanity Shirou could take in one day. It was about as draining as making a magic circuit and required just as much concentration to keep walking and not trip over his feet in exasperation.

He sighed and cut through a small side road, the two behind him following without objection. It wasn't until Shirou had led them through the park and across the long bridge to the neighboring town of Shinto that Rin realized where they were.

"Oh, we're here already? I guess I should take over then." With those words, Rin took the lead and led them into the suburbs. After a few more moments of walking, the trio arrived at the Kotomine Church.

Kirito looked up and whistled. "Impressive."

Shirou had to agree with his Servant.

The church was magnificent, its grounds covering the entire top of the hill that the suburbs were on. Though it wasn't large, it loomed over the entire town from its perch.

Rin went on ahead, stopping in front of the church's double doors to look back at them. "Come on you two, we don't have all night." And with that, she pressed through into God's house.

The Master and Servant shared a brief look.

"Ready, Shirou?"

"Yeah."

Kirito nodded. "Then let's go meet the Game Moderator of this war..."

They entered.

It was a grand chapel with an elegant design, and large enough to hold many people. Holy and light, that was the atmosphere conveyed by the architecture in this church.

As if to contradict that, the priest behind the altar stared back at them, exuding a presence around him that made the air itself heavy. Not outright hostility, yet still an undeniable discomfort.

"Rin." He smiled but it didn't reach his empty eyes. "I was beginning to worry. You didn't answer my repeated calls and now you bring a strange guest?" He shook his head. "What would your father think?"

Rin scoffed. "As if. Anyway, this is the seventh master. You said it was required to report here when one became a Master right? It's a rule you invented, but here he is." She sighed. "I suppose I'll follow it as well since I'm already here."

The priest raised his eyebrow. "...Very well." He turned to Shirou and Kirito. "Oh? I did not expect a Master to bring his Servant with him. Hm... I shall allow it this time, but know that the church is a neutral ground. The rules forbid battle here. Regardless, I am Kotomine Kirei, the one entrusted with this church. Tell me seventh Master, what is your name? And who is the Servant that you have summoned?"

Shirou paused, unsettled by the priest's presence. "–Emiya Shirou. And this is..." He turned to Kirito.

"Servant Saber as called forth by the Holy Grail. As the contract states, I have answered my Master's call to fight in this war."

Rin and Shirou looked at Kirito in surprise.

He looked the priest in the eyes and continued. "My Master is curious as to the nature of this conflict. He is not a proper magus and therefore uninformed about the war."

Kirei smirked, an odd expression on the priest's face. "I see. Then let us correct his misunderstandings."

"Emiya Shirou. A Master is not a role that you can transfer, nor one can you stop once you are chosen. Those who have the Command Spells carved into them cannot resign, the holy mark signifying a trial of fate itself." The priest spoke, stopping any of Shirou's questions with his facts. "If you wish to retire from the war, the only option is to obtain the Holy Grail and wish for it. Everything will be as you desire then, Emiya Shirou."

"Your wishes, your desires, even those unseen burns you carry can be healed with the Holy Grail. Therefore you should desire it."

"Wha–" Shirou took a step back. The priest's words didn't make sense, but they pounded in his head and settled like a thick veil.

Kirito frowned. There was something about the priest that bothered him. Something familiar, but he couldn't place it. A feeling he had felt long ago from another person...

He shook the thought away. The priest's words were upsetting Shirou and the man was going on a tangent. "Kotomine Kirei, that was your name right?"

The priest nodded. "Yes Saber, that is indeed my name. Though I suppose I cannot say the same is true for yourself."

"Stay on track. My Master is here for you to teach him the rules. If you're just going to preach, we will leave and be done with you."

"He's right Kirei." Rin cut in. "Stop trying to open up old scars."

Kotomine looked between the two and sighed. "Of course Rin. So let us return to the topic. Emiya Shirou, the war you are in is called the 'Holy Grail War'. It is a bloody struggle between seven masters and their servants for the ultimate goal of the Holy Grail. With it, a single wish may be fulfilled."

At those words, Shirou was finally shaken out of his stupor. "Wait. You keep saying 'Holy Grail'. Do you mean the actual Holy Grail? The one that held the blood of Christ?"

"Does it matter? The Holy Grail that appears in this town is real. You have seen proof of it already in the miracle of summoning the Servants. Such a miracle as close to resurrecting the dead is almost a sorcery. The unreality of an object with that unlimited power is worthless in front of its truth."

Shirou was perplexed. "Then why do we have to kill each other? If something's that powerful, can't we just share it?"

"That is a fair point, Emiya Shirou. However, only one may claim the Holy Grail." Kotomine spread his arms, as if looking towards God for guidance. "The Holy Grail chooses people suitable to obtain it and selects the appropriate owner by making them fight for it. That is the ritual where those chosen by the Holy Grail kill each other to obtain it. That is what is known as the Holy Grail War."

Shirou shook his head. "I'm not convinced. Even though only one person can be chosen, I don't understand why we have to kill the other Masters." He cast a sideline glance at Rin. "There shouldn't be a need for those meaningless deaths."

Rin looked surprised at Shirou's response. "Eh? Hold on Emiya, you're misunderstanding it. You don't have to kill the other Masters."

"You will." Kotomine spoke with a sense of finality.

She shot the priest a dirty look. "You be quiet Kirei. Now Emiya, the Holy Grail in this town is in spirit form. It doesn't have an actual form so we have to materialize it with a ritual. We can call for it, but we can't reach it. Do you understand what that means?"

"Ah... that's why you need the Servants. Only spirits can touch spirits."

Rin nodded. "Exactly. Thus, the goal of the Holy Grail War is to eliminate all the other Servants. There's no rule saying you have to kill the other Masters."

Shirou let out a sigh of relief. He was worried that he would have to kill Rin. So even if he participated, she wouldn't have to die.

Kotomine smiled again and looked at Shirou. "That is true, but let me ask you Emiya Shirou. Do you think you can beat your Servant? Can you match his speed, strength or skill?"

"—Oh."

"Yes, Emiya Shirou. Servants are difficult to defeat even with other Servants. Yet, no matter how strong the Servant is, they will still fade when the Master is dead. So..."

It was a simple solution. Kill the Masters and you didn't have to worry about the Servants. But was it right to do it just because it was easy?

"That won't be a problem." And then Kirito spoke, as if denying that path. "I will be more than a match for any Servants we encounter."

"Is that so?" Kotomine gave the swordsman an amused grin. "Then your Master needn't worry about any deaths." He turned back to Shirou.

"Well then, do you have any other questions? We have covered the basis of the war already. If that is all..."

"Wait. As the supervisor of this war, what would you do if someone with malicious intent obtained the grail? If a person with a wish like 'ending the world' showed up and won, what would happen?"

It was something that troubled Shirou. It could very well be that there was a Master like that who had no problems with killing others, or wanted nothing but violence. And if that happened, innocent people, like Sakura and Fuji-nee, would die. Shirou couldn't accept that.

"That would be problematic, but there is nothing I could do. Even the Church and the Mage's Association would not interfere. We do not have the power to stop a Master who has been chosen by the Holy Grail. After all, it is a grail that makes wishes come true. The winner will do as he pleases. If that troubles you then all you have to do is win it for yourself."

Kotomine looked like he was struggling to restrain his laughter.

"Enough." Kirito stepped forward. "My Master will do just that. I will make sure of it."

"Oh? So you will decide your Master's fate for him?" This time the priest did laugh. "Interesting. Very well then. I shall approve it."

Shirou opened his mouth to protest but shut it when he saw Kirito's eyes. Confidence, determination, and an absolute assurance of victory. There were no doubts there. That was right, Kirito was Saber. His Servant-no, his sword that would carve his path ahead. As long as he was by Kirito's side, Shirou felt like he could defy even fate itself.

"The Holy Grail War is accepted. –I approve of the battle in this town, from now until only one Master remains. Everyone shall follow their pride and compete fully against each other." The declaration was meaningless as only two of the Masters were there to hear it.

Kirito turned his back on the priest as soon as it was done and walked towards the doors. "Come on Shirou. We're done here."

"Ah, wait for me Kirito." Shirou cast a glance back at Rin.

She waved off his concern. "Go ahead Emiya-kun, I'll be right there."

Shirou gave her a brief nod and followed his Servant outside.

It was windy. Kirito stood in the front of the church, his black hair and coat billowing in the breeze.

Shirou sighed and walked next to the swordsman. "Hey, what was that all about Kirito? Tohsaka brought us here to explain the war. Even if that Kotomine guy was unpleasant, you didn't need to hurry outside."

Kirito shook his head. "...It's nothing." He cast another look at the church. "You don't need to worry Shirou. Even if there was something, I'll be here to protect you."

His words only confused Shirou further, but the red-head decided to leave it be for now. "If you say so Kirito."

The swordsman smiled and put his hands behind his head. "So we're in some crazy death game huh? Seven players and seven fighters... Man, it'll be tough."

"Eh? I thought you said you could easily take care of any Servants we meet?"

Kirito grinned. "Well of course. I can't very well let my ally die in front of me can I?"

"Ally...?"

"Yeah, my ally. My partner in arms of this conflict." He locked his gaze on Shirou's eyes. "Aren't you, Master?"

Shirou was someone who would not let another person get hurt for his sake.

Kirito was someone who would not let an ally die as long as he still breathed.

The two were similar, and yet ever so different. One fought for an ideal, an atonement for the sin of living. The other fought to protect, a desire born from a harsh reality of death.

They were different, and yet ever so similar...

Shirou smiled and extended his right hand. "Partners?"

"Partners." Kirito grabbed it and gave him a firm handshake. "We fight together from here on out."

"–Oh? I guess I can leave you two huh?"

Shirou ended the handshake and turned around. There, Rin stood with Archer by his side.

"We won't go easy on you, Emiya, Kirito."

Shirou scratched his head. "Er... What do you mean Tohsaka? I don't intend to fight you and I'm sure Kirito doesn't either."

A nod from the swordsman confirmed that statement.

The red-head pointed at Kirito. "See?"

Rin sighed and slumped her shoulders. "...Man, it's just as I thought. It was meaningless to bring you here after all."

"Rin." The red-clad Servant spoke, fixing his gaze on Shirou. "We will make no progress like this. If there's an enemy we can easily beat, we should do so without holding back."

Kirito stepped in front of Shirou and grasped his blades. "Is that so? We can settle this right now Archer. I'm sure it won't take long."

The knight in red grinned, though it was one filled with venom. "I agree. A fake hero like you would be easy to beat."

The black swordsman didn't respond, only tightening his grip on his blades.

Rin sent a fierce glare at her Servant. "Archer! I thought we promised that you wouldn't talk until it's okay."

Archer held Kirito's gaze for a few more moments. "Fine." The red knight sighed. "You sure are difficult Rin. Call me again when you're finished." And with that, Archer disappeared.

"Come on Emiya. I brought you here so I'll at least walk part of the way back with you." Rin tossed her hair with a flourish and then walked down the hill.

"...She definitely has a crush on you Shirou." Kirito said that with a nod, confirming the fact. "There's no reason for her to do this now that we're definitely enemies. That's not even taking into account the fact that she checked on your house at night to see if you were alright."

Shirou didn't know how to respond to that. Kirito's logic was sound, and yet... he just couldn't believe that Tohsaka saw him like that.

"...Whatever. Let's just go Kirito."

And the two walked down the hill.

It was quiet on their walk back. Rin was a short distance ahead of Shirou and Kirito, maintaining it now that they were officially enemies. Shirou was lost in thought about what Kirito had told him, and so didn't contribute to any conversation. The Servant himself was silent as he maintained a lookout for enemies.

The silence was broken when the trio came to a fork in the road. To the left was the Shinto station, the other path leading towards the big bridge back to Miyama city and Shirou's home.

"Well Emiya, this is where we part." Rin glanced at Shirou. "From here on out we'll be enemies. Don't expect me to go easy on you or Kirito just because of what I did earlier, you hear me?"

"Yeah, I understand." Shirou smiled. "Thanks Tohsaka. You didn't have to help me, but you did."

"I-it was nothing. Anyway, just head to the church if your Servant gets killed. At least your life will be safe."

With those words, Rin turned and walked back up the hill–

"Hey, are you done talking?"

–Only to stop as that fairy-like voice called out.

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