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Vagrant Grail Cadenza

Chapter Text

            —This is the story of someone dear to me.

            The land that was silent in suffering began to whisper, a susurrus like the wind.
            Those days of fair blue skies and of deep red evenings were about to change, and everyone who could smell smoke on the air understood that.

            First.
            The young captain and his army had begun to take on greater targets very suddenly.
            What had once been a three-man vigilante band was now a splendid and well-trained force that was enough to frighten the corrupt into behaving just by appearing before them.
            They were able to conclusively secure peace on the mountain paths to the capital of the empire that had always been covered in bandits, were able to expose a major money-laundering scandal by a noble who had unlawfully raised the tax on salt.
            The young captain himself had even achieved a notable prize at an imperial tournament, and caught the emperor’s eye in doing so.
            …Even the young captain was willing to admit that by now he and his soldiers had begun to amass the kind of power that really meant something.
            Their name ran throughout the people of the country like hope.

            …And.
            The once-glorious resistance movement that had degenerated into a pack of wild dogs was also amassing firepower and great numbers.
            But no matter what they called themselves, the young captain and the people of the empire knew that this was no cause for rejoicing.
            He’d crossed blades with those people a few times.
            The rebels proclaimed that they acted in the best interests of the weak while oppressing the powerless with malice even more active than the government.
            They stole goods for themselves and exploited the people, and acted out of greed rather than compassion.
            It was bad enough that people like them paraded themselves about under the claim that they were the saviors of the weak, but to top it off the rebels who had always been decentralized and unskilled began to act cohesively, as if given direction by someone who knew what they were doing.
            …That was the truth.
            In one battle, the young captain saw it.
            The disillusioned knight he had once met had apparently been hired by the rebel leader to train their forces, and knowing of the conflict and only desiring to avenge his loss, the knight fought with the rebels.
            …That blindness to all but one’s own pain.
            Most likely, the rebel leader had shrewdly taken advantage of it and was simply pointing the knight’s madness in a direction that best suited his purposes.

            The air of the empire was permeated with ozone, and the scent of an impending thunderstorm was strong enough to be suffocating.
            Late summer like a pressure cooker.
            Everyone went about their daily lives in the oppressive atmosphere, understanding subconsciously that the world around them was a powder keg and the spark that would change it irrevocably would inevitably light very soon.

            It was an unremarkable gray day.
            The young captain and his forces had just returned from taking part in a military exhibition at the capital, a stressful battle where they had obtained the acknowledgement and approval of the top general of the nation, but at the potential cost of the emperor’s suspicion.
            …And.
            In that fretful afternoon, as the sun fell and stained the world madder red—
            The emperor’s right-hand knight appeared there.
            She demanded that the army’s landgrave employer and the entire army itself accompany her to the capital on orders of the emperor, and she would not explain the cause.
            Indeed, her demeanor proclaimed that this was nearly an arrest.
            And if they failed to comply with her orders, she threatened that they would all be executed for treason.

            Amidst the voices raised in frustration and distress, surely only the prophet heard it.
            —The sound of timber popping with the crackle of fire, and the clash of swords.

            When the argument was interrupted by a scout, the fuse was lit.
            Irrevocably.
            The western half of the town—the young captain’s birthplace, the slums that were the only refuge left for the poor and the powerless—was under attack by the rebels.

            The emperor’s messenger knight assured the private army that there was no need to worry.
            …That her soldiers were stationed on the bridge leading to the nobles’ quarter, and that no matter the power that the rebel army had, it would be insufficient to break through their guard.
            …That an order was an order, and no matter the circumstances they must depart.

            The young captain’s outrage, and that of his men, was explosive and uncontrollable.
            It couldn’t be helped.
            To be told so bluntly and as if it were a natural thing that only the rich were worth saving, that whatever self-centered plans the emperor had were more important than protecting the people right before their eyes.
            …No matter how they had fought, the ugly truth was that they still could not reach far enough to change the minds of those in the capital, those with real power in the empire.
            And when it came to this place—no amount of reason or threats could suppress his desire to protect it.
            The people who had put themselves at risk to shelter him and his two first friends during the time when they had nothing.
            What was his power for, then, if he could not protect them when they were in danger—?

            Luckily.
            The landgrave cut in just before battle could erupt between his army and the knights, and he forcefully explained things to the emperor’s messenger in such a way that she had to accept their putting higher priority on the people than on her mission.
            …But that didn’t do anything to diffuse the young captain’s rage.
            That anyone would dare to put a hand on the people so dear to him.
            He bore down on the soldiers hired to delay him from reaching the slums like a great divine wind, furious enough that his mere presence became oppressive.
            It was the state that people would refer to as cold wrath.
            His heart was on fire, the light of his eyes became like flame, the air around him seemed as though it would ignite with just one more spark, and yet he blazed so hotly that it manifested as a chill that terrified any who would dare to stand in his way.

            The night fell.
            The rebels had set the slums ablaze, and a great amount of smoke and flame rose from the westernmost quarter as the poor fled into the district of the rich.
            As the landgrave made preparations to accept and shelter the refugees, the young captain and his men stood on the bridge.
            There was not time to go in and assess the situation, but even so—
            Even as his men stood struck dumb by the senseless cruelty of the rebels, his body shook.
            His mind was empty but for one thought.

            —Punish them.

            …But, at that moment, when all the others amongst his cadre were paralyzed with grief and fear and shock, one pair of small hands held him back.
            Gentle and steady.
            The prophet, the only one in the entire army who had remained perfectly calm, spoke.
            He said that the rebels could not possibly have anything to gain from sacking the slums other than enraging their forces, and that reacting with anger would only play into their hands.
            That if they charged in and fought emotionally, then they would lose their cohesiveness and ability to fight as a team as the price for the extra strength it might grant them.
            …Hearing such rationality was like being dashed in the face with cold water, and at once the young captain was abashed at himself and grateful.
            If not for the prophet’s cautioning him, he surely would have forgotten even his goal of protecting the people in the face of his own rage.

            And so the young captain led his troops into the burning slums, pushed back the rebel soldiers, and shepherded the surviving poor back to safety.
            The rescued poor wept in gratitude, cheered on the hero who had risen from amongst them, and held their hope and pride to their hearts as they watched the battle from the safety of the nobles’ quarter.
            Too, the nobles and the rich allowed the refugees into their town with remarkably little fuss.

            The army returned to battle to find the knight waiting for them.
            …The enemy commander had waited for them to save the poor, avoiding any further persecution of the powerless as the fire had done its job.
            And the young captain acknowledged the vengeful knight’s display of honor in the crossing of their blades.
            But—the stage was not yet set for them to raise the curtains on their rematch.
            The rebel leader, in his cowardice, had taken the opportunity of their battle to mobilize his own personal troops—aiming for his true goal of the nobles’ quarter and the supplies he could steal therein.
            Realizing the twofold trap, the young captain directed his soldiers to ignore the knight and instead prioritize the real threat.
            When the knight protested that their battle was not yet over, the young captain simply said that now was not yet the time.

            —Without mincing words, it was a one-sided rout.
            The army came down upon the rebels with the force of a landslide, like the right arm of a god, swift and righteous in their fury.
            And like so many other enemies who had tried to stand down the young captain’s wrath that day, even the rebel leader himself turned tail and fled in terror.

            Afterward, the enemy knight said it best.
            That a man like that, who made his subordinates drunk on pretty words and promises of personal satisfaction and yet heartlessly manipulated them—without having enough courage to risk his own life—had no right to call himself a revolutionary.
            That the knight himself had been drawn in the same way, drunk on the prospect of avenging his own honor or at least making the young captain too feel loss, tempted into taking the easy way out.
            And in the depths of the night, in the burning city, he demanded that he be allowed to settle his accounts.
            He would fight alone, with no support; only a lance in his hand and the dregs of pride and hatred in his heart.
            Perhaps the young captain saw himself in that pride and that desperation, for he agreed.

            …The battle was quick, and merciless, and honorable.
            The knight who fell was able to acknowledge his loss, and acknowledging it asked to be allowed to rescue a relative from the clutches of the rebels before returning to die.
            …It was the kind of trust born between rivals that’s often told of in chivalric ballads, and knowing that he could believe in the word of his foe, the young captain allowed him to go.
            The rest of the night was spent suppressing the fire, keeping it from spreading, and finally putting it out.
            And in the morning, the girl that the knight had gone to rescue returned alone.
            …She said that her brother had meant to meet up with her sooner.
            She brought the army along with her out of worry.
            And when the young captain and his forces arrived at the rebels’ hideout, there they found the knight surrounded by enemies and about to be executed, blamed for the rebels’ defeat the previous night.
            From what they could see of the knight’s demeanor, he believed that he was going to be killed no matter how he struggled, and was simply attempting to pave his road to death with as many enemies’ corpses as possible for the sake of his own satisfaction.

            What to do in a situation like this.
            …To the young captain, it was obvious.
            He led his troops into the fray, broke through the encirclement, and extended the hand of salvation to his former foe.
            Of course the knight was too proud to passively accept being saved, especially from someone he had considered a rival.
            He bluffed and spurned the young captain’s offer, first claiming that he would only be shamed by pity and didn’t want a handout; when the topic of his sister was brought into the conversation, he claimed that all he wanted was for her to live a life unconnected to battle and that was why he had entrusted her to the army.
            The young captain refused to accept that answer, and the two of them shouted at each other for quite a while, as shameless as little boys.
            As if they were completely unconscious of their audience; like fools.
            But.
            —Perhaps that was precisely why he was able to communicate it.
            … “Because we are the same”—
            And understanding that, the knight joined him in crushing the remaining rebel forces and chasing their leader away.
            Finally.
            He was able to cross that small and impenetrable “distance” separating the two of them.

            Fear and panic; rage and pride; camaraderie, and love—
            The bountiful, uncontrollable emotions that the young captain experienced over the span of those two days were beginning to work a change in him.
            Those chaotic feelings, and the power he obtained when he was able to overcome and harness them, had allowed him to accomplish a feat so great that no amount of personal humility could dim its shine, even in his own eyes.

            In other words, it was far too late to stop the creaking motion of fate’s heavy cogwheels.
            The world around him and the world within him had begun irrevocably to change, and the simple days of hard work and companionship would no longer return—

 

            “—…”
            I wake to the vague feeling of having awakened halfway several times in the night, but not really being able to recall any of it.
            My body is heavy, and I feel overly warm.

            “Mm—hm.”
            Still, I can’t just go back to sleep.
            My internal rhythms tell me quietly and insistently when I close my eyes that I’ve had enough sleep to be getting on with, and that I should get up and be active unless I want to seriously hibernate.
            “That’s bad. I have a war to be fighting, so this is no time to hibernate.”
            But my body is disobedient when I push myself up.
            The joints in my arms feel rather stiff, and especially my shoulders don’t move easily.
            “…?”
            Underneath the covers, my hips seem to have lost a lot of their range of motion, and now that I’m more awake and concentrating it feels as though my legs have turned into dead stumps of wood from the knees down.
            I can’t even feel them.
            …But when I throw back the covers of the bed, my legs are definitely still there.
            From what I can tell by examining them magically, there’s nothing wrong with them.

            “…Either I slept oddly enough that they’ve gone to sleep, or…”
            Things are progressing a bit more quickly than I thought they would.
            It would be a combination of my own unpreparedness, the harshness of living homeless in this weather, and then the sudden acquisition of shelter, I suppose. A bit like the stories of starving people who suddenly receive as much food as they can eat, and stuff themselves to the point where their bodies can’t handle it and become extremely sick from the shock.

            Well, this just means that I’ll have to be careful moving until the feeling returns, since I might hurt myself otherwise.
            I take my time levering myself out of bed so that I can maintain my balance without twisting an ankle.

            “—”
            According to the clock, it’s about ten thirty in the morning.
            It’s odd.
            I definitely feel as though I’ve slept longer than that, since I didn’t go to sleep until fairly late last night…
            At any rate, Gulcasa doesn’t seem to be around here, so I should go downstairs and find him—we need to speak to Roswell about what to do from here as well.
            And it would be good to confirm if I’m free to use the bath at my own leisure.

            I am able to get myself across the room and out the door with no problems.
            Luckily this house is lavishly furnished with a number of tables and ornaments, so there are plenty of things to touch and place a bit of my weight on to take the strain off of my oversleeping ankles.
            But even though I support my weight firmly and carefully with both hands on either banister…

            “Kya—”

            …I manage to place a foot wrong or something along those lines, and before I know it I’m at the bottom of the stairs in an awkward sprawl with my head ringing.

            “Nessiah?!”
            Heavy footsteps shake the floor, and when I look up, Gulcasa is there.
            “—Ouch—”
            “Are you okay? Jeez, don’t think so hard when you’re walking down stairs, it’s easier to slip when you space out.”
            …Unless my ears are deceiving me, Gulcasa’s voice has some modicum of relief even as he scolds me. I’m not sure why that is.
            “…I wasn’t thinking particularly hard. My senses are just a bit dull from sleeping too much, and because this place is relaxing.”
            Gulcasa shakes his head and kneels down.
            “Here, I’ll help you up.”
            And he carefully supports my arms in order to raise me to my feet.

            “—Ahh—”
            But when I’m set onto my feet, even with Gulcasa supporting me—pain shoots up my whole left side through the leg that’s otherwise devoid of feeling, intense enough to make me gasp and to cause my vision to double.

            “…It’s a very light sprain.”
            Roswell says so afterward, his hands wrapped around my ankle, the palms glowing slightly.
            His demeanor is very much like a professional doctor’s as he assesses my injury sharply, and with Gulcasa hovering anxiously in the background I really do feel as though I’ve been transported into some doctor or healer’s examination room.
            “With this healing, you should be back to perfect condition in less than twenty-four hours, but until then it’s best that you stay off your feet as much as possible.
            “You said that you don’t have much feeling in your lower legs as it is, so it’s possible that you could make things even worse with another misstep if you don’t.
            “Whatever the case, you two are definitely staying indoors and resting all of today.”

            Worried faces.
            Roswell’s doctor-like practicality is coupled with definite concern, perfectly befitting his position as our ally and his personality as a healer.
            I can read Gulcasa’s closed expression well enough to be able to tell that he’s barely suppressing anxiety akin to panic.
            And even Saber, keeping her distance as usual, emits no hostility at all as she watches us with intensity.
            Damn it.
            This is what I was hoping to avoid, and it will only get worse if I actually try to explain things at this late date.
            Unfortunately, there’s some degree of clumsiness and apparent sickness that I won’t be able to help on the downswing of these kinds of events.
            Until my body stabilizes, I can expect all kinds of side effects such as pain and dizziness and fever, and even loss of sensation like today.
            …But the fact that we have obtained shelter and allies is a greater boon than anything else, as it buys more time for me to rest and become stable once again. It’s all extremely simple.
            I just hate being looked at with those worried faces.
            There’s no use panicking on my account, not over this degree of hindrance, but there’s no way for me to explain without causing an even greater uproar.

            “…All we can really do is just eat breakfast.
            “Nessiah, you need nutrition so that you can get your energy back.”
            Gulcasa looks at the floor and says so while tightly holding on to the hem of his shirt.
            His brow is creased and his knuckles are white, and he’s biting his lip.
            ……Damn it.
            I don’t like that he’s got that expression on his face at all, let alone on my account.
            Gulcasa’s days of having to worry about others to the point of heartsickness should be so far behind him, after all.

 

            The morning is gray.
            Roswell makes a show of energy in the kitchen and alternately has Gulcasa and his contentious princess help him make a large breakfast, but I can tell from my seat at the table that the atmosphere is lifeless.
            Perhaps it’s that sensation, but the breakfast itself seems to lack taste a bit.
            I try to eat what I can anyway so that Gulcasa won’t look at me so anxiously, but in the end it’s difficult to force food down when the overall air of the house is so listless.
            I know I should eat, but my hunger itself is being sapped away.

            “…At any rate.
            “I was wondering if I could use the bath for a bit. Aside from just getting clean, being able to sit in warm water would be good for my body.”
            Roswell nods.
            “Try to keep your ankle raised, and have Gulcasa help you with picking things up.
            “Also, just make sure to rest easy until you’re feeling more fit. I’ve already said this, but with nine Servants summoned, only seven need to be defeated in order to complete the Holy Grail.
            “With Saber and Berserker on our side, there is no need for us to compete at all, and unless we specifically need the power of both Servants to defeat a foe, it should be all right for you two to stay in reserve and recuperate instead of actively participating.
            “…We’ll be heading out again tonight to gather information, as we decided last night. But I believe that it would be best for the two of us to go alone, and for you two to keep resting.
            “Pushing you in your condition would be far too counterproductive.”

            Roswell sighs and leans back in his chair with an air of finality.
            The only sound is the noise of Yggdra quietly doing the dishes.
            …She’s barely spoken since arguing with Gulcasa over food. I suppose that makes some things a lot easier to deal with, but it does feel awkward.
            Gulcasa doesn’t venture anything either, and I certainly can’t argue.
            Being told to stay put is a bit frustrating, but I highly doubt I’ll be of much use the way that I am, and anyway with Team Saber investigating the city we’ll still be able to retrieve information at the usual rate.
            So, it would be best to stay here in hopes that it will allow me to recover more quickly.

            “—We should hold a strategy conference when you get back, at least. I want to learn anything that you find out.”
            When I say so, Roswell lets out a breath as if relieved by my acquiescence.
            “All right.
            “Yggdra and I will be heading out before dinner, a little earlier than usual. But we should definitely be back before midnight even if we run into an unexpected combat situation.
            “You can use anything in the house freely until then, as long as you don’t make a big mess and then don’t clean it up.”

            “I’ll partake of the bath with thanks, then.”

            The conversation ends like that.
            Because I shouldn’t walk on my own according to our resident doctor, Gulcasa carefully raises me up into his arms in order to carry me up to the bathroom.

            It’s awkward.
            Gulcasa sets me down on a stool and digs out the different things that he deems I might need to bathe, like washcloths and soap.
            “…”
            And it doesn’t take me very long to discover the main problem with this scenario.
            “—Gulcasa.”
            He stops when I call his name, looking at me blankly.
            “What is it? You’ve got a really weird expression.”
            …I don’t think I’m making that strange of a face.
            This is normal for people who feel distaste at having to make a request.

            “I require assistance.
            “—You heard Roswell, I shouldn’t be on my feet.
            “And… without standing, these clothes are somewhat difficult to remove.”
            “Oh.”
            Gulcasa blinks, then breathes out and smiles almost apologetically.
            “Excuse me, then.”

            His footsteps ring on the floor, echoing with his oddly formal words as he comes to kneel behind me.
            Carefully.
            I untie the front of the dress, and Gulcasa’s hands run over my shoulders to push the straps down.
            His hands are warm, gentle, and a bit rough because of the thick callusing along his palms.
            He supports my weight and lifts me slightly in order for me to push the clothes I’m wearing down past my hips, and then sets me down to extricate my legs from the soft fabric.
            His hair, soft from recent washings, brushes lightly against my naked skin as he works.
            And his hands continue to touch against my body in various places.
            …It’s exhausting.
            It’s the gentle touch of the person most important to me in the world, but it underscores my own helplessness.
            And above and beyond all of that, because of my still uncertain physical condition, his touch is vaguely irritating against my skin.
            Ordinarily being in a position like this—that is to say, being undressed should be arousing.
            But because of the situation, it just makes me irritated and anxious, and having those feelings under these circumstances is tiresome.

            “…I can at least wash my own body, though.”
            Perhaps because of that, I can’t keep the annoyance out of my voice when Gulcasa turns on the mobile showerhead and begins to run warm water along my bare skin.
            Still.
            “All right.
            “Then, I’ll wash your hair and your back and leave the rest to you.”
            When Gulcasa responds, his voice is warm and extremely gentle.
            …I wonder what he’s thinking.
            If this is just his usual patience, or whether seeing my ruined back revives his feelings of sympathy so that he’s more tolerant than usual.
            Or if he understands my reasoning and feels like in my place he would act the same.
            Whatever the case.
            …I clumsily run a soap-covered washcloth over my body and rinse away the dirt and sweat of the past few days while Gulcasa’s fingertips dance through my hair and at the nape of my neck.
            As expected of someone who’s sensitive about such things himself, he takes care not to yank on my short hair while working shampoo into it, and he warns me to close my eyes when he appropriates the showerhead to rinse it out.
            He does not flinch from the ugly scars that cover me from just beneath my shoulders to my waist, but still touches them with extreme tenderness as he washes them.
            …And that.
            His methodical consideration of my disabled and mutilated body is an irritation to me.
            Because he’s caring for me as he would for anyone.
            …Or maybe it’s just that I’m contrary and I don’t like being cared for.
            The position of helplessness and Gulcasa’s kind silence.
            I swallow the sharp feelings of frustration and anger and hold them in a ball of prickles like a fat sea urchin in the pit of my stomach.
            Painful and constant.
            That I feel like this towards someone that I love is also an annoyance.

            “—Hah.”
            I let out my breath in a sigh as Gulcasa fills the bathtub.
            Being able to sit in silence and relaxation should undo the knots inside me.

            “…All right.
            “I’ll help you get settled, and you’re already clean, so you can stay in as much as you like.
            “—I’ll tidy up, too. You’re the only one using the bath, so there’s nothing to really worry about here.”

            Gulcasa speaks casually as he lifts my body with obvious care and sets me into the water.
            The tub is wide and deep, allowing me to stretch out and stay submerged up to my shoulders while putting my injured ankle up on the step built into the tub’s side.

            The water is warm.
            I close my eyes for a moment and listen as Gulcasa makes needless amounts of noise trying to figure out where the bathing tools go.
            If there is time to relax, then I should

 

 

                        “—hear me?”

            “—”
            It makes me gasp in shock.
            Instantaneously.
            I was sitting still and cradling my dissatisfaction, and Gulcasa was on the other side of the room making a useless din.
            …But instantaneously, he is here at the side of the tub, holding my face in his hands as he yells in a panicked voice.
            “—Eh?”
            “Nessiah.
            “Can you understand me?”
            “…Eh, eh—?”
            My mind can’t keep up, but—
            There is no color in Gulcasa’s face.

            “Nessiah, I’m asking if you can h— — — —e?”
            Static bursts next to my ear for a moment.
            I can see Gulcasa’s lips moving, but I can’t hear anything.

            “—”
            I raise a hand and touch my forehead.
            My feelings of disorientation are all to do with the oddness of the situation, not physical.
            “Nessiah.”
            Gulcasa asks insistently once again.

            “—I can hear you.
            “I can hear you, so calm down.”

            With that.
            Gulcasa releases an immense sigh and lets go of me, collapsing onto his backside on the floor.
            “That’s a fine time to space out.”
            He complains.

            “…No.”
            I shake my head in a vain attempt to clear it.
            There’s a window, high up in the wall, just a few rectangular panes of glass.
            …And the light from that window is definitely in a different place than it was just a moment ago, because there is a faint patch of brightness in the direction I’m looking where there was none before.
            …Stop thinking and just confirm it.
            Otherwise I might panic, which will only agitate Gulcasa more.

            “—Gulcasa, how long have I been sitting here?”
            “Huh?
            “Something like an hour or an hour and a half.
            “Jeez, you’re so bad about getting randomly lost in thought. I thought you’d either fallen asleep or you were relapsing, but your eyes were wide open and you actually replied.”
            “—”
            I lost—that much time.
            That’s the only explanation.
            The time passed, but for whatever reason it was not recorded in my memory.

            “Nessiah?!”
            I realize that my hands are vaguely trembling.
            …I realize that I am breathing too hard and too quickly.
            “Nessiah, here—”
            Gulcasa immediately plunges his clothed arms into the water to lift me out of it, and sets me down and flings a towel around my shoulders.

            “Damn it, I thought you were doing better, but if you’re getting sick because of running out like an idiot yesterday—”
            The words catch at my mind.
            “Gulcasa, what are you talking about?”
            “I’m talking about you deciding to take a little stroll in the rain last night—don’t tell me you were feverish enough that you don’t remember it at all?”
            …I don’t.
            Last night, I properly went to bed after our strategy meeting, and even if I feel as though I woke up a few times momentarily, I certainly should remember a sharp physical shock like being rained on.
            I don’t like this.

            “…Gulcasa.
            “This is just to confirm, but will you recount the events of the past two days to me?”
            For a moment, my Servant simply looks at me with baffled eyes.
            I understand. I’d be confused if I were asked something like this out of the blue, as well.
            But I want to know if my bad feeling is correct before I actually start talking about it and make Gulcasa’s habitual worrying go into overdrive.

            “—Well, two days ago we didn’t do very much.
            “You woke up and I introduced this situation to you, you got mad, I made dinner here and we decided to partner up with Roswell at night.
            “Yesterday you were sick again, and so not much happened then either except your wandering outside in a daze. I think aside from that you were mostly either asleep or delirious.”
            All I can do is sigh.
            “—It figures as much.
            “Gulcasa.
            “All of the events of yesterday that you’ve mentioned just now don’t exist for me.”

            “—What are you talking about?”
            He continues to stare at me, perplexed.

            “It’s simple.
            “The last thing I can remember before I woke up this morning was speaking to you before I went to sleep—what you describe as being two nights ago.
            “You have no reason to lie to me, and so the conclusion I’m forced to draw is that I lost an entire day’s worth of time. Yesterday surely happened, but I cannot remember it whatsoever.
            “And it happened again just now.
            “Since getting into the water, I lost a full hour or so.
            “It’s not the same as simply spacing out and losing track of time, there’s a gap in my memories so that one second you were banging around the cabinets and the next you were shaking me in a panic.”

            Gulcasa is pale.
            The look on his face is a mix of concern and horror as he stares at me silently.
            “…This is what Roswell said would happen, I guess.
            “When you were delirious yesterday, he said that—that as long as your body had too much prana in it, if things got too out of control then you’d start to lose your human functionality, that your senses would shut down or something like that.”
            “—I see.
            “So, rather than just keep me in an impossible state of fever all the time, my body has decided selfishly on its own to start shutting itself off for self-preservation.
            “And that’s why my sense of touch and my memory are flawed.”

            Gulcasa doesn’t reply.
            We just face each other in silence, him kneeling on the floor, me naked and dripping and shielded only by a towel.

            “…It’s turned into a race as to whether I can adapt and stabilize, or whether things will progress to the point that my body won’t be able to keep up… huh.”
            Well, I do think that given enough time I would get used to it and be able to cope well enough to go about my business as usual.
            …It’s just that I may not have the convenience of as much time as I need.
            “And, if we’re sure that things will get worse every time a Servant is defeated…
            “Honestly, how troublesome.
            “I could easily adapt and keep abreast of the fluctuations in my condition if this weren’t a two-week-long war.
            “Even if I’m not physically suited for such things, I know that I have a sturdy enough constitution to be able to bear this.
            “But two weeks may simply be too close to be sure.”

            “—”
            Gulcasa’s eyes narrow slightly.
            The only sound is the faint patter of water against the floor.
            “…I don’t understand complicated things.
            “All I know is that you can’t keep pushing yourself like this.
            “—It’s too dangerous, Nessiah.”

            “I’m not pushing myself.
            “At least, I’m not doing so by choice. This is a position I was thrust into without having any say in the matter.
            “As long as it’s a matter of simply bearing it as it runs its course—then especially since we’ve been granted shelter, that shouldn’t be a problem. I’m experienced at that kind of thing, you see.”
            “—Still.
            “I can’t tell you what to do when I don’t know what’s going on yet, but this much is within my power.
            “I’m getting you back upstairs; you should lie down and rest. There’s your twisted ankle too and all, so at least while Roswell and the princess are off scouting around, you ought to stay in bed.”

            There’s not much that I can do to argue.
            Well, in the first place, Gulcasa is probably correct.
            At a time like this when my body still cannot decide how to cope with the influx of prana and the extreme fullness of my crowded flesh, I must rest rather than aggravate my condition further.
            …All I can do is doze, and wait for my body to stop panicking all on its own—

(interlude 9-1)

            The town is gray.
            It’s only eight o’clock, and the sun is still going down.
            Rather than painting the world madder red, the sunset has progressed to the point where everything is a dull metallic blue.

            “It’s a little bit depressing.”
            The magus says so idly as he walks with his Servant.
            “—Not having any color in the sky always makes me feel a bit listless.”

            They walk throughout the gray town together.
            …This is an early patrol.
            Even though this is a point in time when people should be running about, in Miyama it is still extremely quiet.
            Perhaps it’s because of the recent report of the death of Assassin’s Master.
            This land remembers the scars of the last war five years ago, with the high death toll.
            Therefore, it is not unreasonable to assume that the people of Miyama have retreated into their homes at the appearance of another inexplicable and cruel death.

            “—The fire fifteen years ago at the end of the fourth war, the masses of civilian casualties in the fifth, and now this violent death.
            “It’s like the ritual itself is cursed.”
            “Are you regretting it?”
            From beside him, Saber asks quietly.
            “There’s nothing for me to regret.
            “I’ve already gone and been chosen, and I have to uphold the honor of the Branthèse family—no, the entire Valois clan, win or lose.
            “There was everything with Rosary too, after all.”

            The world of magi is like that.
            But even so, Saber’s Master hesitates.

            “It’s just that everything about this ritual is strange once you think about it.
            “We don’t know anything about the ritual aside from the information recorded by the Magic Association. We don’t know why the gaps between the cycles have sped up, and we don’t know why the ritual itself is continuing on like this even now that none of the three founding families is participating.
            “I don’t have enough knowledge of the history to proclaim it unusual or suspicious.
            “But even though I’m just a chess piece playing my part in the grand scheme of things—I can’t help but feel uneasy.”

            A grand ritual like this shouldn’t just continue to occur all by itself like a clock that keeps going once it’s started.
            Clocks by themselves need winding.
            This war has all the necessary structure aside from the absence of Einzbern, Tohsaka, and Makiri, even possessing a supervisor dispatched by the Magic Association.

            Perhaps it’s because their ally, the Master of Berserker, speaks of that supervisor with such enmity and fear.
            …Perhaps it’s because of the look on that magus’ face when they spoke two nights ago that he feels this oppressive anxiety.

            “—I hope I’m overthinking things.
            “I have a pessimistic personality to begin with, so I hope it’s just that.”

            Saber listens and does not reply, and the two of them continue to walk through the dead streets of the gray town.

 

            They walk, and after turning a corner into a niche tucked out of sight, Saber’s Master feels the distinct sense of walking through a wet membrane.
            “—”
            The mark on his hand throbs.
            He does not speak, but communicates to Saber with a glance.
            She nods.
            Her form changes softly, and she tightly grips her holy sword, the great Noble Phantasm of her family.

            And.
            In the grassy garden overgrown with thick clover.
            In the place touched by the first glow of moonlight as the sun goes down, stands a pair of young girls and a gallant woman in armor.

            The woman holds her Noble Phantasm in her hands.
            It is a heavy spear.
            …She is not Lancer, whom Saber’s group and Berserker’s have both met and confirmed as a male Servant.
            “—Rider.”
            And so, she fits the description well enough that he can tell which Servant she is.
            With two young magi at her back, she could hardly be anything else.

            “—”
            “Master, stand back.”
            Saber lifts her sword.
            “You can sense it too, I’m sure.
            “—Alone, she isn’t any match for me.”

            “I’d like for you to refrain from making hasty judgments.”
            Rider replies to her foe in a mild tone of voice befitting a knight.
            “You do a dishonor to both of our status as Servants.”

            Saber simply narrows her eyes.
            “—It’s brave of you to face me down, but I know that everyone standing here can tell the difference in our strength.”
            She isn’t lying, either.
            It is the entirely ordinary distance between a “ruler” and a “knight”.

            Rider closes her eyes.
            The knight who surely understands that she has lost her advantage now that she has been separated from her partner does not react to Saber’s boldness.
            Her legend is one legend out of a hundred.
            Even without the greater popularity of Saber’s tale in this time period, she would be at a disadvantage because of her relative anonymity.
            But Rider’s actions don’t seem to curse her natural disadvantage.
            She simply closes her eyes and lets Saber’s remark roll off her armor as if to suggest that Saber’s having said so is arrogance unbefitting of a Heroic Spirit.

            “Nevertheless.
            “—I am Primea’s Servant.
            “My lady and her sister both stand at my back, and as a knight I will show you how I crush that possibility.
            “Lady Knight Silvanoier gave her life so that we might still win this war, and I will not shame that sacrifice.”

            In contrast to the calm words of the knight, the two girls simply stare at Roswell Branthèse with harsh eyes.
            Primea, the girl who always danced and taunted like a little child, is quiet.
            And—there is something odd about the way that Nana, she who had always been timid, stands.
            Like the knight, she has placed herself between her sister and the enemy.
            And when the clouds part and let the starlight and moonlight through, her auburn hair becomes tipped with gold.

            Light shines down.
            Rider lifts her heavy spiraled lance to the heavens, and a great wind erupts around her.
            It is too intense, and Roswell must shield his face for a moment to protect his eyes from being pierced by debris.
            When he is again able to look, Rider sits astride a tall armored charger, a great horse with proud bearing.

            …He understands that this isn’t good.
            Although Saber’s sword itself is large, Rider is taller and has much greater range.
            Now mounted, she will have still greater range and be harder to hit.

            But Saber’s back tells him that he mustn’t worry about such things.

            “I will decide this in a single strike.
            “—Stand back, Master.”

            And in the next moment, the two clash.
            At the border of the road and the garden, leaves of clover fly through the air like cherry blossom petals.
            Like a tournament joust, Rider on her horse clatters into the street, wheeling around for another blow.
            Saber simply pivots on one foot and readies her sword once more.

            “—”
            Seeing them clash like that gives strength to Roswell’s belief.
            Truly, Saber is stronger than their opponent.
            Neither of them has particularly been damaged.
            …Perhaps that’s why he suddenly has certainty.
            Rider, who has superior reach and locomotion, was not able to land a decisive blow on Saber even so.
            When they reveal their Noble Phantasms and strike at each other, surely Saber’s light will shine the brighter, and lead her to victory.

            “—Kuh.”
            Rider’s Master, the pink-haired girl dressed in cute frills, bites her lip as if she understands this as well.
            Faced with the gravity of the situation, Rider’s Master shows a rare serious face.

            “Primea.
            “It’s fine.”
            “—Nana-chan.”

            Even as Rider’s Master looks at her sister dumbfoundedly, Roswell can only do the same.

            “If we can’t win like that, there’s always the other way.
            “—I’ll thank you for saving me from that monster of a Servant by cutting this guy’s guts out, okay—?”

            Relaxed and casual.
            The former Master steps into the moonlight, and when she opens her eyes they burn red.
            It’s not a trick of the light at all.
            Her hair has been turned blinding gold by the light of the moon, and the girl named Nana raises her arm.
            …Roswell can see the line of her Magic Circuit light up through her skin.
            Blood erupts out of the corners.
            Compared to his Magic Circuits, hers is of poor quality, and her body is truly unfit for magical study just as Nessiah proclaimed.
            But.

            “Trace, on—”
            She proclaims an unusual spell, and something like a simulacrum of Lancer’s lance appears in her hand.
            A jagged spear—no, a halberd.
            Detached fragments of blue and white, of some kind of substance that looks flat and hurts Roswell’s eyes.
            It’s not at all on the level of a Noble Phantasm.
            But it is a powerful weapon nonetheless, and not the kind of thing that a “human” should ever wield.

            …He has an ominous premonition.
            As with the time that Nessiah easily overcame his attacks with impossible feats of magecraft.
            This girl is a monster.
            This girl is a monster beyond him, especially as his means of melee combat are very limited.
            The house of Valois is not like the Tohsaka or the Edelfelt.
            It is much more like the Einzbern in that Valois magi, no matter their family, pour their all into the magical arts that suit them rather than seeking to support them with modern battle techniques.
            If every long-standing house of magi is mad to the point of foolishness, then that is the fatal flaw of Valois’ descendants.
            In one-on-one close combat, Roswell is next to helpless, and Saber is his only means of defending his body physically.

            So he can’t let her get close.
            He would prefer not to stain his hands.
            …But allowing that girl to get close to him would mean his own death.

            The girl—the former Master with a peculiar madness in her eyes leans forward and begins to run towards him with her weapon in her hands.

            “—”
            Roswell leaps backwards.
            He leaps backwards, calls prana into his hands, and releases it in sharp bursts with crawling shadows that slip out of the earth to catch at her feet.

            But the girl—Nana simply slows her pace slightly and slashes at his released spells, deflecting them with her blade.
            …He can tell from that action.
            This thing he’s facing isn’t really a magus.
            It’s something far different.

            If Nessiah is close to a magician or a beast, then she is a magic user or a beast.
            The Magic Circuits that lit up in her body when she projected the axe in her hands were poor quality and very few in number, far too few to support a true magus.
            …So she is something different, something more suited for combat.
            She has limited ability to use magecraft, but it appears as though attacking him like she is now is what her true purpose is.

            “Roswell—”
            Saber calls out to him in a concerned voice.
            “It’s all right.
            “—Just focus on Rider, you can’t get distracted—”

 

            Saber is the only weapon available to him.
            And she is occupied with having to fend off the most dangerous opponent.
            She is only a single sword, and cannot protect him while fighting her own battle.
            So Roswell’s battle is simple.
            He will have difficulty winning if he cannot do so from a distance, and must therefore endure.

            As holy weapons clash further down the road, Roswell retreats to the other side of the sidewalk across the street.
            This is a dead sector of Fuyuki.
            …Therefore, even if they make a great deal of noise, it’s not like anyone will come.

            “—”
            He doesn’t have many catalysts on him, but he came prepared to use them all up to keep himself alive.
            So, Roswell ignites and sets loose three large-scale fire spells in succession.

            She slows.
            Nana, the great clump of murderous intent that calls itself a former Master, stops and staggers backward with the effort of blocking all the fire.
            Her weapon is aligned with water and ice, and so maintaining it in the face of an opposing element is likely very difficult.
            But she must counter the fire if she does not wish for her body to be burnt.

            “Ha—ah.”
            She staggers.
            It’s not as though she has tripped.
            When she launched herself back towards him, her left knee buckled and she had to support herself with her weapon or fall.
            Her clothing is dark, but Roswell can still see it in the moonlight where the pale blue light turns the leg of her pants gray.
            …There’s a seeping black stain at her knee as though she is a robot with an oil leak.

            “Stop getting in my way—”
            Her breathing is hot and rowdy as she lunges at him.
            It reminds Roswell of his limited experiences in transferring prana, and the perverse breathing of the girl before him as though her pain and his desperation are giving her pleasure makes him wary.

            But even though her movements are limp and erratic, she continues to charge at him in straight lines, and swings her weapon from side to side rather than thrusting it.
            It causes her attacks to be easy to avoid.

            …Yes.
            The odd changes in this girl’s demeanor are something to worry about after the fact.
            There are no other Masters present, and so Roswell must simply evade her to his heart’s content until Saber is finished.

            “You—!!”

            Narrowly.
            He avoids her wild strike and moves backward, but she continues to raise her weapon and chase after him.

 

            And.

            “Gran—”

            …Truly, it is decided in an instant.

            “—Centurio—!!”

 

            “Ahh—”
            Rider disappears without a sound.
            The faint noise comes from the Master still standing in the garden.
            The girl called Primea falls with a thud, her consciousness dissipating with the tension.

            “Eh, Primea—”
            Nana halts.
            She runs as if to turn to her sister’s aid.

            “—”
            And Roswell raises his right hand.
            Just when the girl reaches the threshold of the garden, he fires one Gandr shot off his extended index finger.

            “Hyau—”
            She makes a sudden, surprised noise like a squeal, and she drops.

            Further down the street, Saber is already lowering her sword.
            The battle is complete.

            “—”
            Roswell lets out his breath and looks into the garden.
            On the soft cushion of clover, the sleeping bodies of two girls lie.
            Their Command Spells have disappeared.
            With those and their Servants gone, they have no means to fight any longer other than their own bodies.

            “—If they come after us again—well, I suppose that we shall deal with that when the time comes.
            “Until then, they can go ahead and dream.”
            His soliloquy is swallowed by the night.
            It is nine o’clock and the sun has set.
            In the empty streets, the master of Saber turns to his Servant.
            “—Let’s go home. If we run into another combat situation it will only tire you, and our allies are waiting for us—”

            She nods.
            The sword vanishes.
            The two turn and head back the way they came in silence.

(9-1 interlude out.)

            “Wait here.”
            At the sound of the door, Gulcasa leaves my side.

            “…Hah.”
            I breathe out in a sigh and close my eyes.
            …Really.
            He’s had me lying down since that time, and I’ve had little to do but doze off, but I’ve neither been able to sleep nor had any other lapses in consciousness.
            On the other hand, because I have nothing else to concentrate on, I’ve been able to sense the change.
            My already overly heavy body soaks up the spilled energy slowly and inevitably as I focus on my breathing.
            No matter how much I think that I can’t bear anymore, my body simply takes it in because it can, and I feel ill and dirty.
            My bones hurt as the prana worms its way through my flesh in search of a place to fit.
            But as it is, my chest and my stomach and the miniscule gaps between my organs are already completely filled.
            So the prana with nowhere to go tries to pack itself further into the container and recklessly violates my nerves.
            I lie still and breathe as sharp needles of pain investigate the hollows of my bones and the tiny spaces between the tendons in my joints.
            The energy nestles together and knits itself closely before parting like cells splitting, and I’m so overly aware of it that my head hurts.
            …More and more prana packs itself into my heart, and the glyphs under my skin feel as though they’re constricting my body like snakes.
            I know better, but the fear that my heart will simply burst from being unable to take the strain is difficult to bear.
            “—”

            “…Nessiah?”
            “—I already know. They’ve defeated another Servant.”

            Gulcasa doesn’t say anything.
            He doesn’t attempt to ask me how I know this.

            “…Is it hard on you?”
            I breathe out.
            “—A bit.
            “It’s not as bad as the last time, probably because I’ve been relaxing all day and was able to sense it coming. When things don’t come as a shock they’re much easier to prepare for, after all.”
            “Nessiah.”
            “…It’s painful, but I’ll be all right for a while.
            “Help me get downstairs. I suppose that for now all I can do is eat and then continue to rest; I do need to keep my strength up.”

            “…Yeah.”
            It’s dark, so I can’t see Gulcasa’s expression very well as he lifts me up.
            And.
            I have a feeling that his profile will be gloomy if I look up, so I just close my eyes as we emerge into the corridor, illuminated by the downstairs lights.

            “—”
            “—”
            Which leads us to the current situation.

            “This is my chance to show you up for last time, so make sure that you clear your plate.”
            Yggdra announces this and lays out a series of what appear to be fruit-based dishes on the table with a superior-looking smile.
            I don’t have any comments to make, but Roswell gives her a gentle and supportive expression.
            “—The slices of kiwi are done very evenly. You’ve certainly improved.”
            Yggdra’s superiority transcends a level, and she folds her arms smugly.
            Gulcasa just looks at her blandly.
            “Making it look good on the outside is certainly one thing.
            “But no matter how pretty a dish is, it’s never going to be any good unless you’re able to coordinate the actual contents with care.
            “—So I’m withholding judgment until I’m done eating.
            “You don’t look like you’d know the secret ingredient that will make every dish complete, anyway.”
            And just like that, she’s back to sulking.

            …The food is, I can say with certainty, nowhere near as good as anything Gulcasa would cook.
            But then, that’s normal for humans.
            It’s not terrible either, which I suppose is equally relevant.
            There’s no meat in tonight’s dinner, but there’s peanut butter included in at least one of the dishes from its taste, and so there’s still protein.
            It’s nothing I’ve ever eaten before, but that may work in the princess’ favor as I can’t compare it to Gulcasa’s skill level and automatically hate her handiwork.

            …Unfortunately.
            I don’t reach the salad in time to provide a warning.

            As it is, Gulcasa goes pale in the middle of eating and covers his mouth with a hand.
            He closes his eyes and his brow is creased almost as if he’s in pain.
            It takes him a lot of visible effort, but he manages to swallow whatever it is he took a bite of, and then carefully sets his utensils down.

            “W-what?”
            From the other end of the table, Yggdra glowers at him as if in apprehension.

            “This salad.”
            Gulcasa says only that before going for a drink of water.
            …I bring my own bowl closer to me for inspection and carefully move the leaves of lettuce aside, and as I suspected—there are slices of fruit as red as fresh blood hidden deep within.
            “What about it?”
            Yggdra is already bristling, and as neither Roswell nor I venture any comments, there is a tense silence until Gulcasa sets his empty glass back on the table.

            “—It’s crap. I’m going to throw up if I eat any more of that. I was about to throw up just now, but that would have been an insult to the rest of the food and everyone at the table besides, so I restrained myself. Be grateful.
            “It’s a shame, because I was just about to change my opinion of you from ‘idiot noble with no idea what she’s doing’ to ‘not completely hopeless’. Yep, it was idiotic of me to even expect anything from your little display of hubris after all.”
            “Wha—”
            At Gulcasa’s merciless words, Yggdra lets her mouth flap open like a fish.
            She stares at him in astonishment, apparently at a loss to come up with any retort to what any normal person would have extreme difficulty saying.
            “I might have understood you not liking some of the side dishes, but how can you say that about the salad?!
            “That’s the centerpiece of the dinner! I was going to put strawberries in the other dishes as well, but I decided to pour them all into the salad just to impress you!
            “You must be lying. I’ll have you take those words back, right now, with interest!”

            “—Ah.
            “I get it, so you’re purposely trying to piss me off then.”
            It appears as though a shadow has been cast over the upper half of Gulcasa’s face, and a vein seems to be standing out in his cheek.
            Thunder crashes above the table as the two’s intent to kill rages back and forth.

            “You’re both energetic today, as well.”
            When I remark on it, the two of them both jump in their seats as if they forgot for the second time around that they’re not alone in the room.

            “—Likes and dislikes aren’t something that people can help.
            “Princess.
            “It was accidental this time, but from now on don’t cook things that people can’t eat. They’ll take it as a deliberate insult and cause a big scene.
            “And Gulcasa, this is a case of bad affinity, so just give the salad to someone else and forgive her for this time. It’s exhausting just watching the pair of you being ridiculous like this.”

            “Hmph.”
            Gulcasa pushes his bowl into the center of the table as if saying that anyone can have it, then gets up and goes over to the refrigerator.
            “What are you looking for?”
            Roswell watches after him curiously.
            “—You don’t have ginger anywhere, do you?
            “If I can’t have something as a palate cleanser I’m going to have that awful taste in the back of my throat all night, I can just tell.”

            “Mu—”
            Yggdra sulks with her cheeks puffed out.

            But at least neither of them argues about the food any more.

            “Thank you for the food.”
            In the end, Roswell is the only one who says it, because Gulcasa is still angry about the strawberries and I have to watch him in order to keep him from getting snippy again.
            And, as can be expected, Yggdra is displeased.
            “—I’ll make you acknowledge me.
            “This is a matter of pride now, so I will definitely make you acknowledge me next time.”
            She burns with the fires of stubbornness and glowers across the table.
            “Learn to cook meat. Or better yet, just learn to grill.
            “Then practice at that for ten or twenty years every day without stopping, and maybe then you’ll be able to make something that I can acknowledge as being worth letting Nessiah eat.”
            “But he ate it without complaints.”
            “—Please stop trying to drag me into this.”
            And they both sulk again.

            “…Nessiah, your face is red.
            “Is your fever getting worse again? Say something if you’d like to lie down.”
            Roswell speaks to me gently and politely, as if making a deliberate attempt to defuse the situation by attempting to remind everyone of our actual purposes.
            …If I thank him aloud, it will probably ruin things, but I try to communicate the same thing with a glance anyhow.
            “…It’s not particularly getting worse, but it is going down.
            “If it’s not too much trouble, I would prefer to go back to my room and postpone the strategy meeting and recap until tomorrow.”

            “Then, I’ll take you.
            “Say something if you’re in pain.”
            Gulcasa volunteers himself immediately.

            …I don’t know if “in pain” is the right thing to call what I’m feeling.
            Discomfort at a higher level than a natural fever, yes.
            But the sensations that I’m experiencing aren’t as intense as before, and I know that it could get much worse if I’m not careful.
            “I’m all right.
            “Staying in a relaxed state and meditating to take my mind off it is keeping things from being as bad as they were before, at any rate.”

            “…I see.
            “Well, I’ll examine you again tomorrow morning before we discuss business.
            “And both of you, call for me if you need help sooner than that.”
            Roswell nods, then turns to Yggdra.
            “Let’s take care of the dishes.”

            Gulcasa picks me up then, and I close my eyes to rest my head on his shoulder.
            …Waiting endlessly for respite is boring and irritating.
            But for now, that is all I can do—

(interlude 9-2)

            “—Hah, ah—”
            And.
            Several miles from the battlefield they have deserted, his legs lose their ability to move so quickly at last.

            “—Ein, come on.”
            As expected of her.
            Rose isn’t even winded.
            She stares with eyes that pierce the night.

            “I can’t—just let me rest for a little bit… okay?”
            He gasps.
            They have been running for nearly thirty minutes.
            It is a wonder that he has not collapsed sooner.
            …But, there is at least adrenaline to spur him on.
            The Command Spell on his arm still throbs continually, and his heart beats heavily at the thought he might falter and cause a problem in the plan.

            “…Well, okay.”
            She groans and massages her forehead.
            “Just a minute, though.
            “—Lancer’s buying us time, but this plan’s not going to work if we can’t circle back around in time to call him.
            “And we sure as hell don’t want to just run straight back. If she can trace us, we’re in trouble.”

            He knows.
            …He knows even without her telling him.
            No, he knows even better than she.

            That thing is a guardian angel.
            That Servant, whose identity he wasn’t able to glean just from the short amount of battle it took him to assess the situation as hopeless, has a defensive capability of equal to or greater than Lancer’s offensive capabilities.
            And her offensive powers are almost certainly enough to overwhelm Lancer’s defenses.
            The only way out of this kind of situation is surely to have Lancer break down her defensive Noble Phantasm barrier by use of his own Noble Phantasm.
            Even her powers cannot compete with that.
            …But Lancer’s Noble Phantasm is too destructive.
            In a place like this, it can’t be used for fear of causing damage and civilian casualties, and it will almost certainly call other enemies to them.

            So until they find a suitable place.
            …Their best strategy is just to retreat, and call Lancer back to them with a Command Spell.
            Getting away alive means that one Command Spell isn’t such a terrible price to pay.

            “—Come on, Ein.”
            Rose is staring off at the horizon.
            “We’ll get caught by enemy Masters if we dawdle around here for too long.”
            “You’re right.”
            He allows himself to gasp for oxygen just a little more.
            And finally, he straightens up.

            “—Let’s run.
            “It isn’t too much further now.”

            They are off again with a great cracking of pavement.
            Rose is a great magus.
            Her strengthening of their limbs will still hold for a while yet, and that should increase their speed greatly.
            …All he can do, is believe that Lancer will be able to hold out until they make it safely inside their bounded field—

(9-2 interlude out.)

            It is probably near midnight.

            “Ha—ah.”
            My breathing is pained.
            My body is hot.
            My body is very hot.
            …It won’t be very long until I can subdue this feeling.
            It should subside by dawn at the very latest.
            “Mn—ah.”
            But honestly.
            …I am approaching my limit.

            The pain and discomfort are small.
            They are small, but they are continuous.
            It hurts.
            There is no room for me in my body, my Magic Circuits are clogged with prana, and all I can do is breathe dazedly.

            And.
            …To make matters worse.
            Gulcasa is staring at me intently from the side of the bed, and has been for a while.

            It is just the two of us.
            He hasn’t called Roswell yet.
            The door is closed, the lights are on at their dimmest setting, and I’m lying on the messy bedsheets that have become rumpled by my trying to get comfortable.
            I am out of energy.
            …Or perhaps it’s just that I have so much energy I conversely can’t even move.
            But the point stands.
            I’ve given up on squirming about to make things easier on my body, especially as Gulcasa told me that I will just wind up hurting my almost-healed ankle again.
            …I can’t even feel the injury.
            But my body is so hot that I’m going to go crazy.
            I can’t suppress my shivering.
            My lower belly feels bloated and heavy.
            I feel as if my spine is going to break.
            But if I let go to the pain and surrender, I’ll probably start hallucinating and convulsing again—which is an experience I would rather not repeat.
            I don’t want to see any more nightmares like that.
            Give me a dreamless sleep, or let me stay awake like this until dawn—

            But really.
            Gulcasa’s stare is intense.
            He looks at me as if he’s arguing with himself.
            His teeth tease his lower lip between them, chewing at it so lightly that there’s only the faintest impression whenever he lets go and goes back to simply staring.

            I don’t know how long his eyes have been on me anymore.
            I could drown in that amber.
            …I’d prefer it.
            Let me melt into that color like the sun, until I can’t feel anything anymore—

            “…Nessiah.”
            Finally.
            He speaks in a hesitant voice.
            “I want to try something, if you’ll hear me out.”

            “Ah, ah—go on.”
            Pained voices make their way out when I go to reply.
            …It’s frustrating.
            For so long I’ve been able to keep pain of this degree inside.

            “—”
            He takes a deep breath.
            His crimson hair flutters slightly, and he closes his eyes.

            “I want to—try to steal your cold.”

            He looks at me.
            …His face is slightly red.
            His gaze is unbearably intense, and even though we’re not touching I can all but feel his heart beating against my skin through the air.

            “—It’s not a cold or anything you could steal.”
            I breathe the words out and close my eyes.

            “I know.
            “—But if part of the problem is that you’ve got too much prana in the system, I might at least be able to make it so that you can sleep soundly if I can take it away.
            “…With your body the way that it is, and with how long it’s been, I’m well aware that our options are limited right now.
            “But if it’s okay, then I—I want to do the only thing I can to make you feel better.”

            …Is that, no good.
            He doesn’t say so, but I can hear the question in his tone of voice.

            My heated-up body beats with blood.
            …Maybe I’ve been waiting for him to say this.
            My breathing was already wild, and it quickens.

            “……Nessiah.”
            Perhaps because of my silence, he sounds uneasy.
            When I look back up, Gulcasa averts his gaze with a shyness I haven’t seen from him in a very long while.
            …I feel almost as if I say anything too harsh at a time like this, he might run away and cry.
            How unfair.
            It’s when he shows these unexpected flashes of his old lack of confidence that he’s the most charming.
            ……I wonder what he would say if I told him so to his face? If I did that, he might be shocked and cry for real.

            “…My body’s burning hot and it’s a bit painful.
            “And you already know that it’s difficult for me to move, so I only worry that I wouldn’t be able to do anything for you—”

            “Ah.”
            Gulcasa sits straight up with a serious face and goes red.
            “—You don’t have to worry about that.
            “I’m selfishly stealing your cold by myself, so there isn’t any need for you to push yourself, especially in your condition.
            “Uh, in any case if you do anything too involved you’ll just hurt yourself, so we can save anything that needs more exertion for another time.”

            “Hmm.”
            I should probably protest.
            …I don’t think it’s good for me to be the only one in pleasure, but Gulcasa’s and my tastes are different when it comes to sensuality.
            I’m not as altruistic.
            ……And, even though it’s selfish of me—I know that even if this doesn’t work as he intends, this will help me to relax physically.

            “…You know.”
            “—What?”
            “I’ve missed holding you.
            “If you hadn’t teased me about it earlier, I probably would’ve gone on the offensive a lot earlier than this.
            “…So, Gulcasa.
            “If you want to take responsibility, then you can do your best to steal my cold if you’d really like to try doing so.
            “…I’ll apologize in advance for letting myself get to the point where it’s this one-sided.
            “I’ll do something nice for you some other time, so I’ll leave things up to you.
            “—I’m, all right with it.”

                        …So, touch me the way you always did.

            “—”
            Gulcasa looks at me for a while.
            …He doesn’t smile, but there is great tenderness in his expression.

            “…Okay.
            “I’ll, make you feel better now—”

            “—”
            And.
            His hands come to rest on my shoulders lightly as he kisses me.
            I close my eyes.
            …Oh.
            If my body was hot before, it’s on fire now.
            Just this touch, and the warm presence of Gulcasa’s body above mine, is enough to arouse me hopelessly.
            …I can’t help it.
            It’s just been a very long time since anyone has held me this gently.
            And—the natural delayed reaction to my body being so overcharged with prana, the reaction that I’ve been suppressing—
            There’s no use in fighting it anymore.
            My breathing goes out of control, and when Gulcasa’s hands shift down to my chest I can’t suppress my voice.

            “Ah—”
            It’s so clear that I should be embarrassed.
            My vision’s gone blurry.
            Beneath his hands, my nipples are starting to stand up.
            He deepens the kiss slowly and with care, and I can feel vaguely that his body is shaking as he suppresses his own desire.

            “Ah—ha, ah—”
            I can’t kill my voice.
            My desire to do so is rapidly vanishing.
            Gulcasa’s hands run over my skin through my clothes, his fingertips circling sensitive places.
            The brush of his tongue against mine is making the inside of my head go white.
            I want to cling on to his clothes or to the sheets, but I don’t have the energy to make fists.
            And so, I can’t suppress the intense pleasure I feel.
            The muscles of my thighs tighten, and my erection throbs as hard as my heart beats.
            It’s enough to make me worry whether I can really hold on for any longer already.

            “—Ah.”
            Gulcasa pulls back from the kiss, and I suck in air desperately.
            …Just looking at him is so unbearable right now.
            His eyes are lidded with arousal, the pupils dilated so much that the color of his irises seems almost brown, and he pants open-mouthed with an unfocused stare.

            “—Wow, you seem pretty worked-up already.”
            His hands trace down my chest, and when the pads of his index fingers run over my nipples I can’t choke back the urgent whining that rises up from the back of my throat.
            …Everything is because it’s been so long, and because of the state I’m in.
            Even though I know I shouldn’t be, I’m almost ashamed to be so open about my own arousal in front of Gulcasa.
            …I want to seem a little more composed than this.

            But he smiles.
            A disordered, tender smile.
            That gentle expression eases just a little of my anxiety about my own helplessness.

            “—You’re one…, to talk.
            “Just—listen to yourself.”

            “—Mm.”
            He leans back in and presses a kiss like velvet to the base of my throat.
            “I’ve wanted to do this again for so long, I’m even nervous about where to start.
            “Isn’t that strange?”

            “—No.”
            I want to just embrace him already.
            But my exhausted body won’t respond to me.
            All I can do is move my lips and control my voice.
            “—I know that—I’m the same.”

            “…Heheh.
            “Then—I guess we’re just both being stupid.”
            His hands move lightly to my waist and pull my skirts up so that they don’t chafe against the sensitive shaft of my penis.
            “If we’re both being dumb together, then it’s not such a thing to be ashamed of.”

            My back arches as he presses a wet and open-mouthed kiss to my stomach.
            “Ah—ah, ahh—”
            The uncontrollable sounds of pleasure don’t stop.

            “Nessiah—your voice.”
            Gulcasa’s words are breathy, and they catch on a note like a moan.
            “Let me—keep hearing that voice.”

            He raises himself up one last time, and moves so that the angle will be more natural.
            …One hand settles on my hip to keep me from moving too harshly, and the other splays out against my lower stomach and makes me want to squirm.
            The first two fingers and thumb settle against the root of my cock, and in the same movement Gulcasa leans down to take the head with a soft sound.

            “—”
            The wordless noise that escapes my lungs at the gentle wet sensation isn’t anything I could possibly control.
            The fever in my head boils up hopelessly and I struggle to keep from ejaculating, breathing painfully.
            Gulcasa bows his head a bit further, unconcerned as if he hasn’t a care in the world.
            Even though the rough warmth of his tongue seeks out the most sensitive places under the head with experienced grace, the sensation feels completely new.
            …This is bad.
            “—Ah—mm—”
            I can’t suppress my voice or my desire.
            I was already hard, but the soft feeling of light suckling on the very tip of the head makes my already-stiff arousal swell with even more blood.
            And—

            “Ah.”
            Gulcasa lifts his head for just a moment and swallows visibly.
            “You’re already getting wet, aren’t you—”
            Idiot, don’t say such things in such an aroused-sounding voice!
            …I can’t say it.
            I don’t have the self-control to reprimand him, and precome keeps beading up at the tip.
            He raises his right hand to hold the shaft lightly, and licks it away matter-of-factly.

            …I can’t keep watching this.
            It’s not even that he lacks hesitance or restraint whatsoever, or that there are very few things more erotic than watching myself be kissed and cradled with this amount of love and desire.
            …It’s that Gulcasa is so red-faced that I am simultaneously terribly embarrassed for his shyness and assaulted with the desire to just let go and cover his face with my come—

            “—,—”
            I’m getting dizzy.
            I can’t do that, but the mental picture of it is tantalizing, and that is the number one reason why I absolutely cannot do that.
            …It would be crude, and dirtying his beautiful hair would be awful of me considering how long it would take to clean.
            The way that I am now, I couldn’t even help do that.
            So, right now I have to endure no matter how strong the temptation.

            “—”
            Gulcasa’s breathing is deep and rhythmic and intense.
            He’s taking in too much air.
            That, his reddened face, and his overly-dilated pupils tell me that he is at least as aroused as I am, which is some comfort to know.

            “Nessiah, don’t hold back.
            “When you can’t stand it anymore and need to come, go ahead and do it—”
            He says something ridiculous and moves his hand again, so that the side of his thumb is just grazing my balls as he leans down to swallow as much of the shaft as he can.
            Rather than stroking the shaft with his fingers and continuing to knead at the base of the head with his tongue, he slowly raises his head and bows it.
            Every time I feel the head reach the back of his mouth, my vision fades more and more.
            It’s not just that his entire mouth is caressing me with warmth and wetness.
            …His tongue continues to work and knead at the underside of my cock, and he makes faint moans as he moves.
            Even though the voice I’ve given up on controlling drowns out the lewd wet noises and Gulcasa’s low cries of desire, the vibration of the sound is still transmitted through my penis and drives me near mad with arousal.

            “—Gulcasa—Gulcasa, Gulcasa, I can’t—”
            So you need to let go.
            …You need to let go of me, or else I won’t be able to hold back anymore.
            It feels so intensely good that I can’t help but tear up.
            And even though there’s no way he hasn’t heard me, he just pulls back enough to suck intensely on the head.
            His fingertips touch against my balls in an effort to please me that makes me sob, and he attacks my whole penis with his mouth and tongue while making low urgent noises.

            “Gulcasa—Gulcasa, no, I’m going to—”

            And.
            He opens his eyes to stare up at me.
            Intensely.
            …Unfairly.

            “—It’s all right.
            “Ah—mm. Go ahead and give yourself to me—”

            He leans in.
            He leans in, greedy and selfless, and sucks so hard that the last of my self-control crumbles.

            “—,—……!!”
            My whole body contracts and arcs up off the bed.
            My muscles tremble and I shiver with the force and length of the orgasm.
            Gulcasa holds on to my hips and doesn’t let go.
            His eyes closed and a beseeching expression on his face, his throat moves visibly.
            And again, and again.
            He makes one short pained noise when it’s too much and threads of milky white semen mixed with clear saliva run down from the corner of his lips and dirty his face.
            “Ah—hah.”
            His lips finally let go as my penis relaxes, and he breathes heavily with clouded eyes as come forms threads from his mouth to the head.

            “—”
            I can’t take it anymore, and close my eyes as my body collapses.
            The sound of Gulcasa’s strained breathing rings in the room along with my deeper and more relaxed breaths.
            …My whole body feels loose and incredible.
            It’s been so long since I’ve felt this way that I don’t even want to think of how long it’s been.

            “Ah—hah.”
            Gulcasa’s intoxicated breathing entices me to open my eyes.
            He wipes his face awkwardly with the back of his hand, and still panting, he smiles at me.
            …He smiles at me with love and devotion so intense that I want to look away but can’t.
            He’s blushed bright red with arousal and embarrassment, and he was too clumsy to actually clean his face completely, so there are still drips of come and trails of saliva along the edge of his jaw.
            He looks at me with disheveled hair and honey-colored eyes, and he smiles.

            “Are you—feeling any better now—?”
            …I think I manage to nod.
            “—Good. That’s good, I’m really glad—”

            …Oh.
            I want to stay awake.
            I want to pay him back for his kindness and make him feel as good as he did for me, but I’m completely worn out.
            …I’ve worked too hard to bear everything up until now, and such a long and intense orgasm has sapped away all the energy I had left.
            ……I’m sorry, Gulcasa.
            I’ll make you feel twice as good as this next time.
            You always push yourself to swallow it when I come, no matter how many times I tell you there isn’t any need to go so far.
            This isn’t something that I could ever do for you, but—
            I’ll make sure you know that I appreciate it later, so…

            “—It’s okay.
            “You don’t have to make that face like you’re worrying about me.
            “I can take care of the rest myself, so you just go ahead and go to sleep—”

            All I can do is close my eyes.
            I feel him touch my forehead gently and run his fingers through my hair.
            “—I love you.”

            I think I’m able to say so in return.
            …But the world around me is so hazy.
            …Next time.
            I fall asleep thinking of vague promises like that, feeling more relieved and at ease than I have in an impossibly long time—

(interlude 9-3)

            “—Ah.”

            …Nessiah’s voice.
            His voice, the taste of him and the heat of his body…

            “Ah. Ah—nn.”

            It was really all that he was able to do to stop there.
            …At a time like this, there wouldn’t be any meaning in continuing having sex.

            “Ahh.”

            Because even if Gulcasa has accepted the burden of his excess prana for now, Nessiah was bearing up under so much pain for so long.
            Even relaxed, even with his fever broken, he is still ill and weak.
            …Trying to continue into further lovemaking would most likely hurt him.

            “Ah—ahh—”

            So.
            Letting him go ahead to sleep was, unquestionably, the right decision.

            “Nessiah—I—!!”

            …Gulcasa swallows his own scream.
            Even in the narrow closet-like space of the shower stall, his voice will reverberate.
            With the hot water beating down on his body like heavy rain, he shudders and bears it.

            “Ah—hah.”
            His breathing is ragged and his vision is heavily blurred.
            He supports himself with both arms against the tiled wall as his hair clings heavily against his back.
            …It isn’t even anywhere near enough.
            Just thinking about Nessiah’s slender body flushed and limp with pleasure makes his arousal threaten to build up again.
            The wall and the floor of the shower are stained with thick white, and just looking at it makes him feel ashamed.
            …He should be able to bear his own physical reactions so much better than this, no matter how he tries to excuse it by saying that it’s just been so long.
            For now, the most important thing is that he was able to relieve Nessiah’s pain.
            Seeking pleasure and mutual fulfillment with his Master can always come at some later date, when Nessiah is physically able to bear it.

            But logic isn’t enough to dampen the way that he feels.
            His body shudders powerlessly under the heavy spray of water.

            “I want to… with him.”
            He says so half-consciously in a dreaming tone.
            …He knows that he could wind up staying here the entire night, until the hot water runs out.
            If he just stands here and dwells on it, he’ll keep getting hopelessly aroused like an idiot.

            So he swallows his breath and grits his teeth.
            He needs to be able to return to Nessiah’s side.
            Right now, the demands of his body are in the way of that, and so without hesitation he turns the knob on the wall to change the water temperature.

            “—Shit, that’s cold.”
            The shock causes his body to jump and curl into itself.
            …It’s miserable, but it’s also a relief.
            Eyes shut tightly, he hugs himself and shivers underneath the cold shower as if in penance.
            Like he’s punishing himself, he waits until the traces of his guilty self-indulgence have all washed down the drain.
            And only then does he turn the shower off and step back into the wide bathroom as a whole.
            Shaking with the sudden chill of the outside air, he materializes his clothes and leaves the room with his hair still dripping with the cold water.

            …His priorities, watching over his sleeping Master in case of anything happening—he needs to be able to take care of things like that.
            “…As usual, you’re a handful. And you don’t have any shame, either.”
            Nessiah sleeps soundly, stretched out against the mattress.
            He touches the pale cheek briefly, pulls up a chair, and rests his arms on the bed so that he might lean forward upon them.
            …Until the sun rises.
            ……Until this trial is over, and the next day can finally begin—

(9-3 interlude out.)