The morning light warms my back as I roll my futon up. My sleep last night was nothing short of bizarre. It felt far too mechanical. It was a dreamless slumber, and I woke up at 6:00 on the dot. And I didn't even set my alarm before I passed out…
Deciding I shouldn't overthink a healthy night's sleep, I finish putting away my futon. As I'm packing it into my closet, I notice my lucky arrow. It's resting atop the Hercules book I took from the library, near my bedroom door.
"…" I keep my eyes locked onto the pair of my belongings while shutting the closet door. I'm so close to finishing the book…
It doesn't take long before I find myself across the room, kneeling down to pick up the text. I seamlessly flip through the pages and onto the spot I left off.
…Breakfast can wait a little while. I must finish this book before we confront him.
My feet aimlessly pace and carry me throughout the house as my eyes cleave through the words on the pages. At some point, I feel like I hear Tohsaka comment something to the effect of "Emiya… what the hell are you doing?"
"Good morning, Shirou. Will breakfast be ready soon?" A voice sounding like Saber inquires to me.
My gaze remains locked onto the pages, and I subconsciously mutter something in response. I alternate my grip on the book in order to hold it with merely my left hand. The feeling of my feet maneuvering through the house soon leads me onto wooden flooring, and I feel the handle of a utensil then occupy my right hand.
The pace at which I read slows as I unknowingly bustle about in the kitchen, deftly preparing our morning meal with just my right hand. The motor function, accompanied by the chatter of women in the neighboring dining room, noticeably hinders my reading speed. However, I manage to arrive at the final few pages detailing the demise of Hercules just as I turn the dial to extinguish the pilot fueling the stove's flames.
…And Philoctetes, being the only man willing to ignite the pyre to engulf and snuff the life of Hercules, was given the legendary bow and arrows of the deific champion. Thus, even with Hercules' departure, his legend would live on and continue to pave glory in his name.
I take a sip of the hot beverage that has possessed my right grip as the final few lines play in my mind. The bitter taste of the drink causes me to aerate my mouth briefly before lifting the mug for another sip. This taste… Whether it was me or one of the girls I'm not sure, but it seems someone prepared me a cup of coffee.
The slapping noise of the book shutting is like music to my ears. I lower the book in my grip and look to the title pensively, one final time. The Legend of Hercules… Having read the entire tale of Hercules, all the way to his untimely demise, I can't seem to shake a forlorn feeling.
Is this… sympathy? No, no, it can't be.
My thoughts, however, betray my heart. I can practically feel it bleeding for the monstrous heroic spirit. It's just… after reading this story… The story of a man who wielded a bow with the greatest of skill and heart; to now see that warrior as a mindless, hulking brute.
My vision reddens. As though someone had just flashed me a picture of it, I see the image of Berserker's gargantuan, stone blade. I see it as clear as day. And it infuriates me.
"Guhhh…!" I can feel my teeth clench and strain as my jaw tightens near to the point of hurting.
"Sh-Shirou?" A timid voice calls to me, and it blows away the haze fogging my mind.
I quickly look to my left to see the concerned gaze of Irisviel. She flinches slightly when I whip my head around to face her. Seeing her worried face, I become more aware and stop myself from tightening my maw any further.
"I-Is the coffee I brewed not to your liking?" She nervously asks, looking a little guilty.
"The coffee…?" I ask while looking to the near-empty mug in my hand. "Oh, no, it's perfect. I just remembered something a little irritating."
I'm surprised to find, as I quickly survey my surroundings, that we're all gathered at the table, eating breakfast. While finishing up the book, I must've prepared the food for everyone. Saber is too busy indulging in the dishes I whipped up, but Tohsaka shares in Irisviel's concerned gaze. Just as I notice her focused attention unto me, she reaches across the table and swipes the book from my hand.
"I didn't realize you got so passionate about Greek mythology, Emiya." Tohsaka whimsically states across the table. "Your nose was so deep in this book; I'm surprised you didn't get a papercut when you finally came up for air."
She holds the book I just finished in her right hand. She wags it in the air like a flag while continuing to eat with her free hand.
"Yeah, well… I guess I didn't really care for the ending." I grumble while finishing the last sip of my coffee.
"Hm, The Legend of Hercules, huh?" she asks in an exaggerated tone while eyeing the title. "I didn't know you were so thorough, Emiya. What made you want to study up on our big bad Berserker so extensively?"
Her words- her questions- carry a tone indicating some underlying meaning. Strange. Tohsaka seems even more nosy and cryptic this morning than usual.
"'To know your enemy, you must become your enemy.'" I sternly respond while meeting her curious gaze.
"Woah there, Sun Tzu. There's no need to try and be so profound, I was merely surprised by your zeal in researching Berserker… Still, snapping back with that quote… interesting choice."
I can feel my brows furrow at her words. What's that supposed to mean? She's being so weird.
"I'm saying that the only reason I read it was to gather intel on Berserker. Only an idiot would try to fight someone without having a thorough understanding of them. The only way to understand your enemy and their weaknesses is to put yourself in their shoes and know their story. What, do you not want to beat Berserker or something?"
"Don't be absurd. You know it's in all of our best interests to defeat him as soon as possible. However, I do not want to beat him. I want our servants, Saber and Archer, to prevail over him. Because I know that even as a mage, I don't have what it takes to defeat that monster."
Tohsaka suddenly points at me from where she's seated across the table.
"So, tell me Emiya! What exactly is it that makes you, a common person, think differently? Why do you seem like you fully intend to slay Berserker yourself? You're not a servant, you're not a master, you're not even a mage! So why are you so much more thoroughly prepared and confident than the rest of us to face him?!"
I simply sit, astonished, at Tohsaka's outburst towards me. It's different from her typical, berating words directed at me. Her angry questions sound as if they embody a confusing, paradoxical swirl of both concern and envy.
"L-Let's not fight, you two." Irisviel sheepishly tries to herald peace.
"Agreed." Saber firmly states while looking to Tohsaka sternly. "There are few things worse than fighting amongst those who've gathered to share a meal together. Please, don't sour the food with your bickering."
"I thought we moved past this, Tohsaka." I defensively shoot back at her, despite the words of Saber. "All it ever is with you is servants and masters. Heroic spirits and mages. What sheltered bubble did your life transpire in to instill such a bland outlook of the world into you?"
"I, i-it's not like that!" Tohsaka fumbles to respond, seemingly caught off guard by my rebuttal. "You've been acing strange lately, Emiya. You magically seem to make it out of any dilemma you find yourself in, sometimes even by winning. Putting aside how you've been doing so, why are you doing so? You must be acute, by now, to the fact that you're incredibly weak and could perish at any moment. In fact, such has already occurred. So, despite that, why? Why are you trying so hard on all fronts?"
Her questions are purposefully leading. She's dancing around the possibility of some hidden attribute or "secret weapon" giving me the confidence to put my life on the line. But that isn't it. It's something I don't think Tohsaka will ever understand. Even if I were stripped bare, empty-handed, standing alone, and with only a single breath of life left for my next action, it would be exactly the same.
I stand from the table while meeting Tohsaka's critical gaze, before continuing. "I hate it when I see someone work so hard, only for their labors to bear no fruit."
Saber opens her mouth, likely to beseech me to engage no further in arguing, but she stops herself. Her eyes look surprised, and her expression indicates she is conflicted about something. Did my statement strike a chord in her?
"And I'm no exception to that sentiment." I continue while maintaining the captured attention of the three seated. "So, I don't know about you, Tohsaka, but I will do everything I can to win. Even if, in the end, that's tantamount to mere specks of dust on the tipping scales. Because, at the very least, I won't ever find myself looking back with regret- thinking I could've done more."
The three of them all look to be affected differently by my words. Saber seems enraptured by the stated ideal, and her eyes give the impression of sparkling in wonder. Tohsaka is having a difficult time maintaining our locked gaze after my biting words. Her grit teeth and her agitated expression clearly indicate she wants to berate me but can't summon the words to do so.
Irisviel's appearance strikes me as the strangest, however. She looks concerned by what I've said, as if me saying that confirmed some sneaking suspicion of hers. But I see something more past that. A trusting resignation in her gaze, informing me that- even more than the other two- she believes what I'm saying. With all her heart.
I turn away from the table while despondently saying one last thing. "I hope, this time, that answer satisfies you."
"Emiya, wait! That's not what I-"
"I need to go." I quickly cut Tohsaka off while walking away. "Enjoy breakfast, everyone."
"Wait, Shirou." I hear Irisviel call to me while standing from the table. "There's no need to just storm off. Where are you going?"
"Groceries." I answer as I exit into the hallway, without stopping or turning around. "We're almost out."
I hurry to the doorway before Irisviel or any of the others can protest further. I slip on my shoes and grab my wallet off the hutch before swiftly exiting the house.
The day is bright and beautiful. There's not a street corner I turn on where I don't see a handful of people bustling about, whether they be commuting, working, or simply chatting with their fellow neighbors. Even the resident stray cats and dogs seem to be peddling the streets together, making their rounds to gather scraps from the local stores and restaurants.
The nice environment manages to ease my troubled mind as I walk the streets, a lot slower than normal. Am I really in over my head? That's the thought gripping my mind as I pace down the sidewalk. I truly did think Tohsaka had begun to have faith in all the work I've been putting in to help them. So why…?
As my slow walking pace lags to a stop, I look across the street while picking up a familiar scent. On the other side of the quiet, urban street is a small café. It's a little hole in the wall joint that I used to frequent back when I first joined archery club. The sparse customers seated on the canopied patio enjoy their morning drinks while quietly reading or conversing.
"It's already hard enough without her putting down on me." I absentmindedly comment while watching the patrons sip on steaming mugs of coffee.
If she thinks I'm super confident and fearless, she's crazy… Every step of the way, I've been terrified. Terrified of these monstrous Heroic Spirits. Terrified of dying. Terrified of the odd changes I've been experiencing.
Despite it all, I still try. I try to help with this predicament, as best I can. Because, there's something I fear far more than anything else. The image of Irisviel smiling at me, on the day she adopted me from the hospital, vividly flashes in my mind- clear as day.
"So, come on guys… *sniff* Give me a break..."
I hear rapid footsteps approaching from behind me, accompanied by a familiar sensation buzzing in my head. Quickly, I wipe my eyes with my sleeve and rub my irritated nose. I regain a somewhat composed expression and turn just as the individual pursuing me arrives.
"Thank goodness, I caught up to you." Saber sighs in relief.
I'm surprised to see the one who tailed me is none other than the sword-wielding spirit. She's wearing her usual at-home attire consisting of the white blouse and blue skirt, accompanied by a blue plaid scarf and some brown suede boots. I grumble while maintaining an unenthusiastic frown.
"What? Does Irisviel not even trust me to get groceries by myself nowadays?" I bitterly ask while kicking a little pebble off the sidewalk.
"Irisviel?" she repeats back while tilting her head. "She didn't send me out here. I left of my own volition, shortly after you."
I find myself surprised as she contradicts me. She wanted to follow me?
"Of course," she continues, "Irisviel wasn't opposed to the idea. However, it was entirely out of my own desire that I came after you. After what you said in that argument… I wanted to hear more about it."
How strange. I thought the Heroic Spirit seemed oddly interested, but I didn't know she was so inclined as to chase me down. I glance across the street at the ample seating available in the veranda of the café.
"How about we discuss it over a drink?" I offer before hopping off the sidewalk to cross the street.
I wait patiently alongside our waitress as Saber nervously scans the menu, over and over again. I ordered a simple cup of the house blend. However, it seems Saber is not well versed in menus pertaining to drinks, not food.
After waiting a minute or two longer, I decide to take a liberty with Saber's order for the sake of our waitress. "She'll have the rainbow parfait, ma'am. With extra whipped cream, if you wouldn't mind."
I hear a quiet sigh of relief from our waitress. Saber looks perplexed at my ordering for her before donning a slightly embarrassed expression and enthusiastically nodding in approval. After handing off her menu to the waitress, Saber and I are soon left to ourselves.
I made sure to choose a table at the furthest corner of the canopied veranda. I'm not sure exactly what it is Saber wishes to discuss, but in case it pertains to the war, it's best to be out of earshot of others.
"So, what's on your mind?" I ask her, straightforward.
"I… I'm not quite sure." She admits after thinking on the question for a moment. "I know I said I wanted to pick your brain more on the matter of your earlier statements. But… I'm not certain exactly what answer it is I'm looking for."
I see that she's pretty engrossed over figuring out what she's trying to ask, so I'm extra considerate in my response. "Well, take your time. We can discuss it at your own pace. The groceries aren't going anywhere."
Saber seems reassured at my reply. She relaxes quite a bit and eases her serious, pondering expression as we sit together.
"After hearing your words," she finally begins, "I was captivated by them. Hearing about your disdain to see hard effort go unrewarded… For whatever reason, it resounded deep within me. I feel those words scratched a locked away feeling I held within my heart, a long time ago."
Her words surprise me, now that I know just who the Heroic Spirit is. "I suppose I should be beyond gratified to hear my words taken so seriously by the greatest king of legend. Arthur Pendragon."
Briefly, she looks surprised. However, it quickly flees her as she nods in understanding.
"So, you've figured it out."
"It'd be hard not to." I plainly admit. "After seeing your glorious, golden sword and hearing the name you evoked to smite Berserker with it. Excalibur…"
"Yes… it's as you've guessed. I was the king of Britain from legend, Arthur Pendragon. I'm surprised you've taken the fact in stride so easily. You've not pointed out me obviously being female nor have you shown surprise that I indeed existed as a historically true king, not a potentially speculated myth."
I shrug my soldiers at her observations. "I suppose I am a bit interested in all of the circumstances of your existence and rule. However, since we first met, I saw that you and Irisviel had a history together and that she trusts you. So, I chose to just accept you as I knew you from then on. Between then, and even now, I guess I've always just seen you as the girl I've known as Saber."
She blushes at my statement and hardens her gaze. "A-And what exactly does that mean? I swear, I've never had to deal with a knight with mannerisms as bizarre as yours!"
"Uh… 'knight'?" As I repeat the strange title she endowed me with, her blush spreads further.
"I-Ignore that. That was merely a slip of the tongue. Don't just go assuming things!"
"R-Right. My bad."
My coffee and Saber's dessert both soon arrive as we continue our conversation. Saber seems thoroughly pleased with what I chose to order her. That is, if her sparkling eyes and carefree humming while she eats is any indicator.
However, I do get a little worried as her eating speed slows and her elated appearance fades the longer we're seated. By the time she's gotten about halfway through the parfait, she's all but stopped eating. Instead, she pokes the fruit-layered yogurt while appearing deep in thought.
Just as I go to inquire what's wrong, she suddenly speaks. "This is the first time I've done something like this…"
She states it in a bland voice. Her tone doesn't necessarily sound sad, but it rather sounds surprised. No, even that doesn't seem an accurate enough description. It'd be more appropriate to say it's like she's making a simple observation after coming to realize something.
"What do you mean by that, Saber? Something like 'this'?"
She nods. "Having an outing with someone at a quaint little establishment like this. Just two people gathering for a treat together, simply to enjoy it over discussion. They weren't hungry, they just wanted something to indulge in for the sake of a better conversation- one-on-one."
"Yeah, I-I guess so. But Saber, there's nothing unordinary about something like that. It happens all the time."
"I see. Such an event, what is it called, Shirou?"
"Uhh…" I scratch the back of my head while taking a drawn-out sip of coffee. "I suppose in layman's terms, it would be called a 'date'. However, it's typically only really considered a date if the two are romantically inclined."
"I see… I never knew."
Surprisingly, Saber isn't embarrassed by hearing what such a scenario is typically reserved for. Instead, she looks even more dispirited.
"I've gathered in merry company for food and drink before." She continues, in a serious tone. "However, it was always in the fellowship of the knights who served me loyally. Typically, in the wake of an important fight or celebration. Aside from that, my meals were had in my room. By myself… Hey Shirou, these 'dates', do you think they existed in my lifetime as well?"
I grow increasingly confused at whatever train of thought it is she's riding, but I still entertain the question after thinking for a moment. "Yes, I'm certain they did. Though, it would've been called 'courting' back then, I believe. I'm not sure why you're asking such a thing. Surely you knew that."
She shakes her head. "The one I married in life, Guinevere, was never courted by me. We were married together, almost immediately after I first encountered her. However, the primary reason for that was to fully establish my right and reign as a true king. For, what king is legitimate if there is no queen to stand with him? As such, I never once had Guinevere's heart. The rest… I'm sure you know."
I feel a pang in my heart. Why would she be dredging up topics like this and pondering on romantic relationships? Such topics as those in the legend of King Arthur… are beyond tragic.
"Yeah… I think I know." I mutter while staring into the wispy cup of warm coffee. Does this mean Saber genuinely never knew of romance? Of love? Did she legitimately not know of the lengths and strides those who lived in her kingdom likely took to win the hearts of those they desired? The beautiful yet deadly dance of intimacy- is she truly unaware of it?
Saber finally takes another bite of her parfait. Perhaps my eyes misconstrued it, but it appeared Saber hesitated ever so briefly before hastily placing the spoonful in her mouth. Then, the content sigh once more.
"Such a simple pleasure." She comments while scooping another bite. "To enjoy such a thing 'all the time', I couldn't imagine."
"You like the parfait that much?" I ask, happy she likes my choice.
She pauses at my question before chuckling a little. "Yes… the parfait. It is quite delicious."
I smile, relieved that I was able to stray us away from the dreary conversation of her past. As soon as I see our waitress making her rounds among the tables outside, I lift my hand and flag her attention to stop by our table.
"Since you like it so much, I'm going to go ahead and order us both a refill. Consider it as thanks, Saber… for how hard you've been trying."
I jump a little in my seat when I hear the clattering of Saber's spoon dropping into her half-empty parfait glass. It somehow slipped from her grip. I grow concerned when I look up to see her gaze locked onto me, stupefied. If I didn't know better, I would say the Heroic Spirit's eyes look just on the verge of tearing up.
"Don't say that, Shirou." She commands me, in a begging tone. "A king does not expect rewards merely for 'trying hard'. They serve their people, expecting nothing in return. As such, I serve Irisviel here and now, not expecting nor wanting any reward for fighting alongside her."
"H-Huh?" I nervously stammer, unsure why she's getting so emotional. "But you've been doing a really good job, Saber. I just wanted to-"
"Only if a king wins," she sharply cuts me off, desperate to kill the words in my throat, "only if a king succeeds! Only then can they think of things such as rewards and recompense!"
I skew my brow at Saber after seeing how emotional and heated she's getting over me just wanting to give her a refill. Luckily, the waitress is still across the courtyard taking the other customers' orders. So, I decide to respond to Saber's tangent quickly and honestly before the waitress makes her way here.
"Huh? Well, that's stupid."
"Ah…?!" Her pupils constrict and her mouth hangs ajar at my simple response.
"Even if a king's role is as you've described, what does that have to do with the two of us right here and now? You haven't been king for a long time, right? Right now, you're just the girl Saber. If you really lived by the strict mindset you just proclaimed, then good grief at least take a break now that you're dead! Just accept the refill!"
"…That's not fair. I cannot accept that. A king is a king to their country always, even if it is ages since their reign, and even if such a kingdom is lost to the tides of time. It rests squarely on her shoulders to ensure the kingdom prospers, now and forever. If her people need saving, then the king must do so, no matter the cost. She has to do everything in her power to serve them. As such, never would that king ever dare think of a reward."
"Such a thing, Saber…" I hesitantly begin. "That's not a king at all. What you're describing is a god. Or an utmost righteous, saint-like savior. Kings relish rewards and victories as a result of their labor, just the same as any other human. If you declare differently, you're either a total liar or utterly disillusioned."
Saber's sorrowful eyes and disheartened frown both harden. She furrows her brows and almost dons a scowl at what I've said. Clearly, I have angered her.
"And what of you?!" she shouts, slapping the tabletop with her hands. "Are you not a hypocrite? Do you not live in the precise manner I just described? You also serve Irisviel, never expecting anything! You throw your life on the line, never seeking a reward! Never once considering victory or loss! If you live as I, you could very well end up dying on a hill of swords one day. With nothing to show for it, harboring in your heart nothing but regret!"
"You're wrong." I confidently deny her claim, maintaining a hard stare with her anguished eyes. "For starters, I don't proclaim to be a king like you. So, such a flawed ideology shouldn't be applicable to me. Secondly, you assume I reap no rewards in fighting for Irisviel- in doing everything I can to protect her. However, there's a reward just over the horizon in my pursuit of such a life. A very tangible reward, that I strive for more devoutly than anything else."
"Oh? And what is that?!"
I finish my last sip of coffee, before looking to the stubborn Saber once more. I see our little argument has captured the attention of the waitress I beckoned earlier, prompting her to begin making way over here. So, I offer my only answer to Saber, while we're still out of earshot.
"Irisviel… lives. She wakes up in the morning. She experiences another day where she gets to smile, eat, laugh. And she gets to rest her head again that night. As long as I can help such a reality persist, that's all the reward I'll ever need."
Saber stares at me wordlessly. I can tell, she wants to deny what I've said. She wants to cast doubt on the legitimacy of such a thing being a "reward". However, she cannot. She can't for the precise reason she wants to deny the premise in the first place. Because she never considered it a reward.
I see. Now I understand. She took no gratification in seeing the lives of her people into the next day. Because, if she took pleasure in that, it would become a selfish desire. Having joy in such a thing would mean having ultimate despair in the alternative, should it happen.
She didn't consider it a reward because she wasn't satisfied with the result. She wanted to create a perfect kingdom where everyone prospered and was "saved". Therefore, merely preventing a number of people from dying was never enough. She chased the dragon, not letting herself rest till she attained that ever-distant utopia. She thought her efforts were meaningless if she didn't reach that end. Efforts aren't commendable. Results are.
Isn't that right, Saber?
My eyes convey my thought processes across the table. Even though it was all unspoken, it seems that Saber somehow understood every thought and refutation that coursed through my mind. Her expression says it all. Surprise is no longer the dominant feeling encroaching upon her face. I dare say, it now looks like realization.
"Yes sir, how may I help you?" the familiar voice of our waitress asks in a chipper tone as she arrives to our table.
"Yes, I think we would both like a refill. Does that sound good to you, Saber?"
She's mad at me. Without a doubt, she's mad at me. She frowns at me and maintains a glare with my gaze. Perhaps she's offended that I overstepped and assumed so much. However, I can tell she feels something else. I can see it in the glint of her eyes. Intrigue.
Wordlessly, Saber nods at my suggestion, prompting the waitress to take my empty cup and leave to prepare our refills.
"Shirou, why is it you chose to live for Irisviel's sake?" I ask Shirou as we exit the café, having finished our refills and paid.
"Mm, well…" He ponders for a moment, apparently trying to pinpoint the reason himself. "I guess if there had to be a reason, it was because she saved me."
"You mean from the Fuyuki fire?"
He nods before elaborating further. "Yeah, mostly for that reason. However, I think there's a bit more substance to it than her just literally saving me from burning to death. For whatever reason, I can't quite put my finger on it… but she saved me in another sense, I think."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, for example, let's say I try to imagine my life now, without Irisviel. It would probably put a hole in me that could never be filled again. We live together, eat together, fight together. She's the closest thing in this world I have left akin to family. We've taken trips out of Japan together, we've both worked to provide for the other financially, and we've relied on each other for everything before this Holy Grail War started. In a way, Irisviel is a core component of my life... Living for her sake isn't as selfless as it might sound."
We continue down the street in silence after he explains this. I can see the market square several blocks down the street, as we walk onwards. His destination. And then, I hear him pipe up once more.
"At the end of the day, looking back on it, the only path for me was dedicating myself to Irisviel."
"So, you believe your fate was to live for her sake…?" I ask, curiously. "Once, I had to choose the path I was to walk in life. There was the life as King Arthur, but there was also another option available to me. As the maiden Arturia. Both of those choices were valid; both of them had merit. At the time, I was only concerned with choosing the one I could be most proud of- the one that would leave me with the least regrets. However, standing here today, I now find myself wondering if the path I chose really bore less regret and heartache. What would have become of the girl Arturia if she never wrapped her hand around the handle of the stone-fettered sword that day?"
I shake my head to halt myself from continuing any further into the rabbit hole that the train of thought was leading me down.
"Regardless," I continue, "I bring that up to pose an idea to you. Is living for Irisviel's sake truly your only path? Would following that ideal bring you fulfillment? Or, will it lead you to an end that leaves you broken and full of regrets? I ask you this because of the life I lived, Shirou. Furthermore, I ask you as a friend."
I keep thinking of what Irisiviel told me, all while I ask Shirou this. About how her body is rapidly failing her, and how it won't be long before she's gone. I'm sure the Holy Grail could fix her condition, but what if we weren't to win? What if we somehow fail? Even if Shirou and Irisviel manage to live despite that, it won't be long before she disappears. Shirou would be forced to watch the woman he dedicated his life to die before his eyes, with nothing he can do to stop it.
"No." He states, without doubt or hesitation. "There is no other path. And questions like 'will it bring fulfillment' or 'will it leave me full of regret' are pointless. I told myself a long time ago… that as long as I live and breathe, Irisviel will be safe. She will be alive and happy, with a smile on her face. The only time that wouldn't be the case would be if I'm no longer here. So, questions pertaining to my fulfillment or regret past that… they are pointless."
I remain silent at his words. I can only find myself wondering why he would go so far.
"You seem confused by my devotion to Irisviel, Saber. You are under the impression that such a thing is akin to your nature as the king of your country, Britain. As if my life is something commendable or even selfless… Just to reiterate, I want to make one thing clear. My striving to live for Irisviel and expending all my power and ableness to protect her- it's not selfless. The exact contrary, actually."
"What do you mean Shirou?" I ask, being genuinely confused by his words. "Any way that you slice it, you are dedicating your life to someone else. Even if it is different from I, in that your devotion is just towards one individual instead of an entire kingdom, you are still concerning yourself with her needs above your own. What else could that be, other than selfless?"
His eyes and expression are unwavering in the wake of my reasoning. It's as though my words were not even heard by him. He does not even turn to face me as he responds, instead keeping his gaze affixed to the road before us.
"I am an irredeemably selfish person."
It was said so matter-of-factly that I find myself almost immediately yielding to the statement. I try to quickly refute him, but he hastily continues before I can get a word out.
"I'm so selfish to the point some would probably say devilishly so. Undoubtedly, there are those who exist in this world who would wish my death for that very selfishness. And, one day, I wouldn't be surprised if that selfishness became the root of my undoing."
I firmly place my hand onto his shoulder and step forward while refuting him. "Enough, Shirou! I cannot abide hearing you be so pessimistically critical on yourself any longer."
He lifts his left hand up and places it on mine. However, he doesn't make an effort to move it or clasp it. Merely, he rests it on my own while addressing me further.
"But it's true, Saber." He answers simply, solemnly.
"How so?!" I shout at him and pull his shoulder, forcing him to turn and face me. "Why exactly do you think you're so selfish? Please, enlighten me. For I may as well be blind to your self-imposed judgement!"
His neutral lips sour into a slight frown at my insistence. His expression clearly tells he doesn't want to dig his hole any deeper. His eyes practically scream "I just wanted to get groceries, why am I being interrogated?". However, this is important. My apologies, Shirou. Normally I wouldn't be so nosy, but I must press for answers just this once. Not just for you, but Irisviel as well.
"It's because I want." He suddenly answers. The way he spoke it- it was reminiscent of a criminal or sinner confessing.
I can see the determination in his eyes. He's decided to explain his supposed selfish nature.
Shirou turns away from me and takes a single step further down the sidewalk. His shoulder escapes my reach, and my hand remains holding the empty space it just occupied. His head tilts upward to look upon the rooftops of the buildings lining the marketplace further down the street.
With his gaze locked onto the concrete platforms cradling the morning sun, he goes on. "I can say confidently, more than anyone else, I want. I want so, so much. My desires and wishes are stronger and more extensive than you could possibly know. That, Saber, is why I am selfish. Because I want. I want so, so much… for Irisviel."
I held my tongue for the entirety of his response, waiting to refute the flawed notions he posed. But then, my response died. My words were lost when I heard the final two words of his explanation.
Such a thing… I cannot refute.
Were we to get into the semantics and tiny details of his claim, it probably wouldn't be called selfishness. However, Shirou Emiya is not a normal man. He said so earlier; Irisviel is a core component of his life.
"Earlier," Shirou suddenly begins while slowly pacing forward, "I said my reason was because she saved me. However, after having that discussion with you… I don't think that's quite right. There's more to it. I never really gave it much consideration, but I believe there was another reason."
His words are strange. They sound whimsical and awed. It strikes me as though he's finally looking at a part of his past from a different angle. Or, perhaps, a memory he'd forgotten somewhere along the way.
"What might that be?" I quietly urge him.
"Back then, when I was just a little child, I had a thought when I met Irisviel. She seemed utterly and completely alone. It wasn't just because she was separated from her family, it was something more. I could tell, it seemed like she was deprived of quite a lot. Her world was incredibly small, for whatever reason.
"Even though she should be a good bit older than me, her eyes that day looked terrified and limitlessly wanting. As though she was just a child herself. Even though she was an adult, she looked even more lost and scared than I did. It was, as if, her being there- it was a malfunction. A mistake. That was the first time in her life where she stood by herself. Where she had to look towards the future, finally giving consideration to things like regret or life post that moment. I think it was when I saw her like that… that I had the thought:
This woman, I do not want to see her so lonely ever again.
"Isolated was she from everyone else. I inexplicably felt that after witnessing everything, from her otherworldly appearance to her childish countenance, her existence was tragically fleeting. Her fate was so expedited and mundane, that she was far removed from true relationships, dreams, pleasant memories, or even a satisfied ending. I'm not sure how or why I felt this, Saber, but I knew no one had ever lived for her sake nor would anyone ever.
"My heart exploded in that moment. I suddenly and passionately desired so much for that woman. Everything she never let herself want or wish for. I wanted her to have a life overflowing with comfort and happiness. I wanted her to have the most loving and reliable family ever seen. Plenty of friends with whom she would share genuine relationships and experiences with. Memories so significant and joyful that they would persist for years and years to come. Money, food, housing, and fun so abundant it would leave her never wanting for more. An end where she found herself having grown old, warm and surrounded by all her many loved ones. A life so full and complete that even if she tried, she wouldn't be able to think of a single regret. When I look back on it today, Saber… that seems like the first time I can recall feeling my own heartbeat."
I stare at Shirou's face as he vocalizes the passionate feelings he held so strongly back then. Without him knowing, he stopped pacing forward while telling me all this. He stands with his fists clenched and his unblinking eyes affixed to the unforeseeable distance- far past the buildings and streets before us. Considering all he said, his expression is surprisingly stoic.
"I…" I finally begin, trying to formulate a response worthy enough to such a slew of emotions. "I never knew what drove your loyalty was so complex. I can't believe you had such a myriad of feelings just from your first meeting with Irisviel."
"Yet, they can all be dumbed down to just one thing, Saber." He quickly corrects me. "A single, selfish desire. I had a thought when I met her: I want to save her."
I find myself conflicted as I stand a short distance away from him. A part of me wishes I never heard the backstory behind Shirou's conviction. I know now he was being truthful; with feelings such as he described, there is no other path than devoting himself to Irisviel. It is therein that I find the dreadful feeling possessing me. When the day Irisviel's body fails her, if it should come to pass, the man Shirou Emiya will be left irreparably broken.
With how he's talking, it seems like there might be a part of him that indeed knows Irisviel could perish at any moment. His words indicate such a realization may have struck him as early as the moment they first met. How such a thing could be possible without Irisviel telling him of her lifespan or even the fact she's an artificial lifeform, I have not the slightest idea. But regardless, I cannot divulge it to him. I can't speak of such a thing, for I will not let an ending like that come to be.
Therefore, I must win this war. I must secure the grail for Irisviel and Shirou. To save her. No matter what, I cannot let a knight so devout find himself losing everything he dedicated himself to! Unbeknownst to me, I labelled him with such a title once more. And my heart found itself adopting it as I stepped forward to address him.
"Shirou!" I shout at his still-stoic figure, suddenly instilling surprise into him and recapturing his attention. "Hear me now: I swear to you that we will win the Holy Grail War. Irisviel will make it safely to the end, as will you. No matter how hard- no matter the stakes- we will triumph and hold the Grail in our hands as the final dawn of this war is cast! Or else my name isn't Arthur Pendragon!"
Oddly, I find no embarrassment in declaring this to him. I find no shame or awkwardness in making this promise to the man. And, when I see a grateful smile adorn his face at my words, I feel… gratified?
"Yeah…" He answers. "I'll be counting on you, Saber."
A reply I did not expect. Yet, it was far better than anything I could've hoped for.
Shirou waves one final time back to me as he walks down the crowded market street. He insisted I return to Irisviel and the others, as the point of this grocery run was, in large part, to have some time alone and clear his head. However, he made sure to thoroughly thank me for the enriching discussion.
I feel a warm smile possess my face as I finish returning the wave and begin walking away from the street to return home. I feel a strong sense of accomplishment in that conversation. For the first time, I think I was able to reach his heart and understand him.
And, at the same time, he seems to have an even deeper understanding of me. His words from back at the café replay in my mind. I find it strange to have been affected so deeply by his opinion on the matter. A myriad of strange, alien feelings welled up in me during that talk, and persist even now…
As I find myself about a block away from the market, I can't help but occupy my mind with one other matter. The incredibly complex feelings Shirou felt upon meeting Irisviel. In his own words, such feelings possessed him after their very first encounter.
Yet, how could that be…?
One of the first things I inquired about from Irisviel after being summoned this time was Shirou, and the circumstances under which they met. She informed me that Kiritsugu managed to pull him from the Fuyuki flames just in time to be healed by her.
Shirou was incredibly weak, and remained sheepish and feeble for the first few days after they saved him. If that wasn't enough, a vehicle accident during the ambulance's transit to the hospital made Shirou's recovery even slower.
It doesn't quite add up. Such a situation- it almost sounds like the reverse of what Shirou said. The one weak, alone, and terrified in that scenario would logically be Shirou, not Irisviel. And even if it were as he detailed, if he was in such dire shape as Irisviel claimed, how could he have been enveloped by such passionate feelings? If he was at death's door, how could he have felt such a swarm of emotions and desires just from meeting Irisviel?
As I ponder on all of this, I suddenly realize something. Wait a minute… the Fuyuki Fire. Did Shirou ever reference it when he discussed all he felt during their first encounter?
When I think back on it, I can't recall him ever mentioning it. The venue of when they first met. Such a thing- surely in his long-winded speech about their initial meeting, it would've been brought up at least once? If he didn't reference it…
I glance back over my shoulder. After a quick survey, I cannot spot Shirou among those bustling about the marketplace. The notion is silly. It is ridiculous to even entertain it. The both of them have already claimed they first met in the aftermath of the Great Fire… So, why can't I help but wonder?