Nero blinked her eyes open and glanced around to the sound of rustling sheets and running water from an aqueduct that ran through her room. From what she remembered from the architect, it was part of the design in order to fill her personal bathhouse.
Wait, her room? Why was she in her room?
A hand pressed over her face, her head spinning from a sudden onset of dizziness that made no sense to her.
Last she remembered; she was just being introduced to a man claiming himself to be Honored Caesar?
Frowning, she blearily opened her eyes and then tried to sit up, but was stopped by a gentle nudge insisting that she remain lying down where she was. Glancing to her shoulders, she saw a hand pressing down over them. Following that had naturally led to an arm, and then to a person who was sitting by her bedside with a relieved expression.
"You're awake, but I don't recommend moving too much just yet," Shirou said, placing his hand back to his side where Nero noted a wet towel and a water bowl lay.
Thoughts swimming in her mind, Nero eventually focused and realized she had likely sweated, and that Shirou had helped wipe the sweat off of her. With Saber Alter acting as Nero, there weren't any maid-servants around to properly dress and clean her.
She was being treated with kindness.
"Don't worry. I only wiped down your forehead while Mash helped with the back and front," Shirou explained when he noticed Nero glance at the wet towel.
"Did I ask?" Nero blinked, her head tilting in a perturbed manner. "I wouldn't have minded even if you saw the back or front. Umu. Think of it as part of the service you offered."
A sunless and depressing aura suddenly flickered from somewhere behind Shirou, causing sweat to bead over his brow.
"...Lady Nero, your words are killing me." Shirou shivered. "Just because you may not mind doesn't mean that others won't."
"Ah? Uhm. sure." Nero let the matter drop in favor of figuring out her situation. "What happened? Why am I in my bed?"
Shirou sighed, shaking his head in a way that made Nero feel like she was being chided.
"You suddenly fainted," he told her.
"You jest." Nero said indignantly, trying to flourish her arms, only to realize they were still stuck beneath her blanket. Pouting, she diverted energy into her voice. "The Rose of Olympia does not fall like a limp woman on stage!"
"Indeed, the Rose of Olympia does not fall like a limp woman on stage." Shirou exasperatedly pinched the bridge of his nose. Only Nero could make something as serious as abruptly fainting into something mild.
At least she still had a healthy set of lungs.
"Ah, you believed m- of course it's true!" Nero coughed, only to flinch when Shirou revealed that he was far from done.
He sighed at her, closing his eyes with a smidgen of vexation only alleviated by the thought that Archer EMIYA might be having just as much 'luck' as him.
With unwavering patience, Shirou opened his eyes and stared at Nero.
"Listen, and listen well. The Rose of Olympia does not fall like a limp woman on stage- She falls like a woman that got blasted through the stomach and thought it a good idea to walk around and reopen her wounds until anemia set in."
Nero slowly began lifting her blanket to cover her face as if a piece of thin fabric could cover her blunder.
Pulling the sheets away, Nero's pouting expression was exposed, making her glare when Shirou wouldn't even let her recede into a hole and escape reality.
"-What a fool."
A new voice spoke up.
"-You even speak like Morgan."
Followed by another.
Nero quickly surveyed her room again and finally noticed that it wasn't just Shirou near her, but Saber Alter and that other Saber that Caesar had in his employ.
Ritsuka and Mash weren't present as they were finding a leyline in Rome to establish Chaldea's summoning circle under Romani's instruction.
When the summoning circle was established, Ritsuka and Shirou would have access to the Spirit Origins of Heroic Spirits registered in Chaldea's database. Rather than going for a random summon, the registered spirit origins could be used to directly summon a Servant already in Chaldea, minimizing the chance of uncertainty.
This Servant pool was one that all Masters of Chaldea could draw from, but not all could be summoned to a Singularity. It would be too taxing on Chaldea's reserves, so the limit was six total per Singularity.
However, Shirou already had Saber and Jeanne Alter who were directly contracted with him. Chaldea supplied him the magic energy for their upkeep, but this didn't mean he couldn't summon. The more help they had, the better, and it would be foolish of him to refuse.
The only difference between Shirou and Ritsuka though, was that Shirou would opt for random summoning. After all, it wasn't as if he'd managed to connect with any of the new Servants from Orleans other than Jeanne Alter. Most of them had come after forming a rapport with either Ritsuka or Olga so he'd hold off for the time being until he could get to know them better.
For now, someone new was more appealing to him.
He just hoped that whoever it was would get along with Saber and Jeanne Alter.
Speaking of Jeanne Alter, she was tasked with protecting Ritsuka and Mash while they did their work.
This left Shirou to look after Nero while Caesar went and reacquainted himself with Rome. Saber Alter naturally followed after Shirou, and this led to the other Saber following Saber Alter on grounds of suspicion.
In truth, Shirou had only asked Jeanne Alter to protect Ritsuka and Mash to prevent adding oil to fire, but to no avail. If Jeanne Alter would be the oil to Saber Alter and the other Saber's fire, then the oil wasn't even needed to light a blaze.
The talk with Caesar was postponed until everyone was in an ideal enough position to participate. Instead, Romani had shared the bare basics of the Grand Order before Shirou brought Nero back to her room to recover.
That was the story until now, but Shirou was doing his best to not react to the constant bickering.
"-My patience grows thin with you."
"-And you have yet to give me an explanation, witch!"
Meanwhile, Nero surmised that this wasn't the first time Shirou was subject to the antics of the two behind him, and he had just given up.
A wise, yet tactical choice.
As long as they weren't killing each other, there was nothing that couldn't be ignored if you put your mind to it.
Just look at Nero herself! She always ignored her paperwork, but in the end, someone else always does it for her. It was the same thing! Truly she was a genius.
Whereas Nero had already cemented into her role of pretending to peruse boring government documents and papers, Shirou wasn't quite to the extent of ignoring everything yet.
"Saber, please. Not now," Shirou requested, trying to focus.
Nero noted that Saber Alter grudgingly acquiesced which caused the other Saber to knit his brows about Saber Alter actually listening.
How curious? But Nero wasn't in a position to be an observer when Shirou's attention was on her, and her injuries.
"What are the chances of you staying and recovering in bed?" He asked tentatively.
"None," Nero answered immediately. There was no way she could just keep still. She'd already tried that and failed.
Thinking deeply to himself, Shirou looked into Nero's stubborn eyes, and eventually gave up trying to keep Nero in a birdhouse.
Romani had explained how Nero's existence was tied to resolving the current singularity and that she couldn't be allowed to die. Her role in history was essential here, and this made it ideal to isolate her for her protection, but what did protection matter if she pushed herself too far and killed herself?
The matter of Nero's injury couldn't be dealt with prior due to how pressing the situation had been with the attacks on Rome.
But now, it is different. There is time, and even a means to give a cure.
Shirou focused within himself, a pulse of magic energy causing circuit-like patterns to briefly flash over his skin.
Nero perked up in interest, looking like a spectator for a party trick.
Shirou tried to ignore how Nero was treating this as a spectacle, and in the end, he managed to do so by ignoring her. Stretching his hand out in front of him, the outline of a sheath began to form as he started his process of Tracing.
The royal blue and gold ornamental design appeared first, followed by Fae inscriptions etched into the scabbard. The other Saber's breath hitched as he started in alarm, blinked, then started again as the sheath fully formed.
Avalon, the Ever-Distant Utopia.
Saber Alter was in no way surprised when Shirou Traced Avalon.
Avalon's potent healing capabilities were unparalleled so long as the user's head was undamaged. Merlin had often warned Saber Alter that her sheath was more important than her sword under certain circumstances. It wasn't lost to her that her rule ended when her sheath disappeared, but more than that she understood what came next.
Shirou could Trace and use Avalon, but its true potency could only be unleashed through 'King Arthur's' magic energy.
"Saber, I'll be needing your help." Shirou said, prompting Saber Alter to nod.
Indeed. She'd been right.
So then what did this oaf think he was doing?
Shirou glanced behind him in the face of a sudden disturbance, and noticed that Saber Alter and the other Saber had moved at his request, freezing simultaneously when they noticed each other's actions.
They stared hard at each other, and then both went gloomy.
The other Saber eventually grunted and skeptically gestured for Saber Alter to go forward, convinced that she'd make a fool of herself.
Saber Alter obliged for the same reason. She had no idea what this man's problem was with her, but that was her sheath, and there was no way it wouldn't react to her.
Walking up to Shirou, Shirou offered Saber Alter Avalon. She took it in her hands, activated her Magic Core, and funneled the energy into the Traced sheath.
Avalon shone with a dull golden hue as her energy increased the potency of its healing properties before Saber Alter passed out back to Shirou.
Grunting at the other Saber, Saber Alter sneered at him; no clue about what the other man was expecting of her. Did he honestly think she'd fail?
The other Saber became muted, lost in thought while scrutinizing what Shirou had just done, and ignoring how Saber Alter tried to rub salt in his defeat…even her personality was similar to Morgan.
The other Saber grumbled, but no one seemed to care at this moment.
Shirou left Saber Alter and the other Saber to settle their differences, and refocused on Nero.
"Here," he said, passing Avalon to Nero who cupped it in her arms bafflement.
"Umu. I already have a sheath?" Nero tilted her head.
"This should heal your injury and get you back on your feet," Shirou explained, but in the end, wouldn't really have to.
The moment Avalon activated, it burst into motes of gold light that were absorbed into Nero's body. The color of her complexion quickly improved while her wound started to itch severely from new cells rapidly forming. She knew better than to scratch at them, but she couldn't help squirming when the soothing feeling came next.
"W-Whoa?" Nero gasped, forgetting there were others watching.
"Right?" Shirou let out a smile in the face of such an innocent reaction. "You should get better in no time. So, rest a bit this time."
Nero flushed in embarrassment, and dodged the hand trying to pat her head.
"Go, you may go!" She shooed them out of the room to hide her shame.
Shirou and the others easily obliged to the request, but it didn't mean it was the end. Rather, it was just the beginning.
They were out of Nero's chambers, but the Saber that Caesar had recruited continued to follow them with a frown. He'd been like that ever since his encounter with Saber and Jeanne Alter, and had been insistent on pursuing answers. Nero's matter had continuously got the subject sidelined again and again, but not this time.
"Alright, we need to talk," the mysterious Saber proposed when they were far enough away from prying ears. "I am willing to help on the issue lady Mash, Sir Ritsuka, and the wizard Romani had explained about the Grand Order, but that is that, and this is this."
As it stood, they ended up stopping at an open forum, or the plaza between the marbled columns of the Roman Forum's government buildings. The mysterious Saber stood across from Saber Alter and Shirou, and looked ready to clash if need be.
"Who are you?" The Saber questioned, focusing more on Saber Alter than Shirou.
"I can say the same to you. One should not ask for the name of another without introducing oneself first." Saber Alter derided.
The other Saber seemed to come to a decision. Rather than speak, the air that shrouded the other Saber's sword abruptly dissipated, allowing it to be seen.
It was a sword that looked different, yet the same.
Wider at the base, the design and blue and gold theme of the sword was not lost on any who bore witness, let alone Shirou and Saber Alter.
Both widened their eyes at the sight, an action not missed by the other Saber.
"If you recognize this sword, then you would naturally know who I am." The other Saber pulled down his hood to reveal blond hair, teal eyes, and features that wouldn't have looked out of place from a male Saber Alter. "I am Arthur Pendragon. King of Knights. Now that you know, will you forsake your honor and remain nameless still, Saber of black?"
Shirou tensed, arguably nervous now that the puzzle was solved.
If there was one thing Shirou inherently understood, it was that the original Arturia and Saber Alter were polar opposites. They may share the same core virtues surrounding order and law, but their approaches and dispositions were the contrast between light and dark.
They would not mix.
The Arthur Pendragon before Shirou's eyes was a male version of the original Saber which meant he likely had similar principles.
Saber Alter was not one to remain silent.
"I am also, 'Arthur Pendragon,'" Saber Alter said stiffly, yet with a hard expression. "My given name is Arturia, and my family name is Pendragon. I am the King of the Wizard's prophecy."
Arthur expected an answer like this ever since Avalon had reacted with Saber Alter, but by virtue of how blackened and murderous Saber Alter had become, it was hard for Arthur to accept.
"You're a version of myself?" Arthur took a deep breath, glaring. "Do you think I'd believe it through your words alone? You resemble Morgan, and I have suffered far too much in her hands not to be careful!"
At this, Saber Alter had no rebuttal. She indeed resembled her older sister, and there was no denying how hateful Morgan could be. She herself was just as wary of Morgan as Arthur was and could relate.
Everything up to here was okay, rather; it was what Arthur asked to show as proof that it would go down hill.
"If you are truly a version of me, then where is your sword?" He insisted, doubtful. "Why do you not reveal it?"
Unlike Arthur, Saber Alter no longer had Invisible Air to cover the radiance of Excalibur. She'd lost that privilege when she fell and darkened. Her sword would be revealed the moment she summoned it.
-And she did without hesitation, knowing that there was no use hiding it.
A Black Excalibur appeared, crackling with tendrils of red lightning.
The energy that exuded from it was no longer a tranquil gold, but an evil red that reeked of the primeval curse that lurks in the British Isles.
The very curse Morgan inherited from King Uther.
Arthur's expression twisted.
"W-What have you done?!"
A fierce wind blew.
Shirou covered his face from the buffeting storm.
Expectedly, first impressions did not go well.
As Nero wasn't 'Arthur,' a day was still required before she was certain that her injuries had healed at least eighty percent. To test this, she'd first tried curling her fingers and toes before moving onto rolling her body over her bed. When she felt no relative discomfort at the movements, the edges of her lips tugged upward as she then threw off her bed sheets and stood onto her feet.
Beaming, she tried walking, and was further pleased at the result. Lifting up her dress to peek at her wound, all she could see was minor discoloration from the new skin that healed over the injury.
What a magical trinket this sheath was!
"Umu. What are the chances of them giving it to me if I asked?" Nero mulled, thinking of the benefits such a sheath could have while expanding Rome's land. "No, no you're getting distracted Nero. The people are waiting! The emperor is back!"
Scuttling over to cloth herself properly, she rummaged through a dresser until she found her favorite red dress and exposed white leotard. Changing into the attire fitting for an emperor such as herself, she eagerly made to leave her room.
Recovering on her own led to her inner demons whispering her inadequacy and insecurities to her ears.
Admittedly, the appearance of other Roman emperors disturbed her. She'd yet to carve out her role as Nero Claudious, and had no choice but to miserably question how her Romans would react to the news. The longer she thought about it, the longer she realized there was nothing to her name other than her beauty and lavishness. For the first time, she felt unconfident.
W-Would she be abandoned? Would her efforts not be enough?
She was mistaken.
She was Rome, and the people adored her.
There was no way they would ever reject her, the Rose of Olympia!
Nero clapped her hands over her cheeks, the sting rousing her spirits. Her back straightened, her shoulders broadened, before she then began strutting out of her room with cheerful bravado.
Her destination was Rome's marketplace where she planned to immerse herself in the hustle and bustle of Rome to relieve her stress. Primarily, it would help settle her mind when meeting with Caesar again.
The shock and bitterness she'd felt then were the cause of her fainting. Her willpower had been what had been keeping her on her feet, and when that crumbled, it was no wonder she'd passed out.
Eager to quell her insecurity through the adoration of her people, her legs carried her swiftly out of the Forum Romanum's vicinity.
Soon enough, she could see them.
Her people of Rome!
The ones nearest to her by the edges of the market place were the very same Roman legionaries who'd marched with her to battle against Caligula's forces.
Yes, yes! Rejoice, her citizens of Rome! The emperor has returned with the likeness of Venus stepping out of her pearl to lead her people once more!
Nero raised her hand, intent on calling out to her soldiers, but froze as she became keenly aware of their voices pricking at her ears. Subconsciously, she hid herself, not knowing what sort of expression she was making.
("-I never knew a dress could change our emperor so much! She was amazing. Not only did she lead us to defend against the attack at the walls, but she suddenly learned how to command without a single one of us dying.")
("Amazing? I thought she was scary.")
("No. That's the aura of a leader. Our Nero has grown up in these hard times!")
Nero flinched, a hand pressing against her chest.
("Are you saying she wasn't before?")
("I, ugh. I guess? If it were before the war, then it would be fine, but I really thought our Rome was gone before Nero stepped up.")
Nero flinched again, feeling as if her heart was being stabbed.
("D-Did you hear about the other bandit leaders Nero said were attacking our Rome? One of them was apparently Honored Caesar, and he's here in Rome right now! Maybe there are even other emperors of Rome out there?")
("Hey? The reconnaissance units Nero sent, rather than being wiped out, what if they just defected?")
("Shut up! You idiot! Our Nero's the best! That might have been the case before, but look how much she's changed for us!")
'No. No. She didn't change at all.' Nero felt her mouth dry, her vision somewhat misty. 'The fake emperor they were talking about wasn't even her.'
("And how much has Honored Caesar done for Rome? If that man truly is who he says he is, then who would you pick over Nero or Caesar?")
Umu?! For a second, Nero's expression brightened, but the moment was short lived.
("How can a fat man be Honored Caesar? There's no comparison.")
("But what if?")
In the end, they did not give a definite answer.
Nero slowly hung her head; her mouth locking shut as the soldiers carried on without noticing her.
She ran right back to her Golden Palace, none knowing that she'd ever left.
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