It was decided that the recon mission would go to Saber’s base the next day, assuming everyone was in shape to do so. The danger of Servant attacks had diminished for the time being and the wards around the school were holding back attacks from any wandering skeletons. It had become a time to rest.
There was no hot water, and there was no telling how much was left in the school’s water tower, so there was no point in showering. Instead, pots of hot water were heated by Caster for the Chaldea team to clean themselves using washrags. Archer had provided the teens with clean uniforms from the archery clubs lockers to use as night garb while he washed their clothing. And despite all three of the Chaldea team being used to a modern nightlife, they decided to turn in shortly after nightfall when the already dim day turned to complete darkness.
There were only a few minor arguments on Olga Marie’s part about the shared sleeping arrangements with the beds available in the infirmary, not wanting a guy to be sleeping in the same room as her. But the matter was swiftly decided by the fact that there were no other beds available in a high school for Ritsuka to relocate to, and that if Olga Marie was unwilling to share the room with Ritsuka then Rider would force her to sleep outside. Mash also tried to volunteer for night watch duty with the rest of the Servants, finally setting herself to rest after receiving a promise to be woken up for the final watch the next morning. It was in that situation that Olga Marie found herself plagued by fear, doubt, and unable to sleep.
Repeatedly, Olga Marie fingered the bruises on her arm where she struck the side view mirror while running from the first pack of skeletons. The pain was a reassurance that she was there. That she had a real body.
“I mean, you possess high quality magical circuits, yet you don’t have the aptitude to be a Master. Is it a curse?”
Olga Marie had told Caster to cram it, but the words he had offhandedly spoken about Olga Marie on their way to the school repeated over and over in her head.
Olga Marie had known for a long time she had no aptitude to be a Master. She was gifted in many types of magic, she came from a long and refined bloodline for the sake of practicing magecraft. It made sense that she would be an excellent Master candidate. But she had no aptitude. And that was why she hadn’t been a part of the Rayshifting experiment. Because only those with aptitude to be a Master could be Rayshifted.
Olga Marie removed her fingers from her bruised arm and felt the pulse of her artery in her neck, measuring the heartbeats as she stared at the black void where the ceiling was, faintly illuminated by the ceaselessly burning buildings in the distance. Olga Marie had a heartbeat, she had a body, she had bruises on her body and she felt satiated when she ate Archer’s food. So… Olga Marie Animusphere was alive, right?
Romani had screamed when he saw her like he’d seen a ghost. The control room was blasted to bits, no survivors. Olga Marie had been in the control room. She’d been in the control room when the detonation happened. She had to have died, but Olga Marie was there, in the past, Rayshifted when she shouldn’t be able to, with a living body that was injured and fed, and tired and longing for sleep.
So which was it? Was Olga Marie Animusphere alive, in the past. Or was she dead, in the present? Was she both? Or none?
Heartbeat. Pain. Bomb explosion. Hunger. Rayshifting. Cursed. Dead. Alive? When? Where? How? How? How? How? How?
Olga Marie’s eyes began to grow misty, and in that silent darkness she let out a bit of her inner voice, quaking with repressed emotions so quietly that even she could barely hear it as a teardrop fell from each eye to be absorbed by the hair at her temples.
“Am I really here?”
“Fou,” came the light cry from the elusive mascot of Chaldea. Olga Marie looked down and saw the creature sitting on her bed, it’s white fur catching the rusty light of the city fires enough for it’s form to be made clear. It seemed that Olga Marie had been too deep in her looping thoughts to notice the animal having jumped onto her bed. In that moment of astonishment, Fou stood up from it’s seated position and took a few steps forward before nestling itself in the crook of Olga Marie’s arm, laying its head on her chest. Fou’s eyes were locked on Olga Marie, inviting her to interact with it.
Olga Marie was hesitant to move for a bit, the creature had actively shunned her since she’d encountered it for the first time earlier that day, but now it wasn’t retreating from her. Slowly, Olga Marie lifted a hand and started lightly petting Fou. It’s fur was soft and springy, glossy and clean. It felt really nice flowing between her fingers. It was really comforting…
Another big ball of liquid fell from Olga Marie’s eyes as she quavered out the words, “I’m not so pathetic that I need to be comforted by you, you know…”
The animal just gave a light “Fou” as it allowed itself to be petted, while Olga Marie silently cried herself to sleep.
* * * * *
The clothes were hanging in the languid breeze on the fence surrounding the school roof near where Archer had set himself for his watch. He was keeping aware of everything around him… but his eyes were constantly turned in a particular direction.
“You’re pretty distracted for a sentinel, huh, aren’t ‘cha, Red Archer?”
“Not so distracted that I can overlook a nuisance,” retorted Archer back to Caster without turning to look at the man. “What do you want?”
Caster sighed and said, “I’ll take over your watch, so just go out and do what you gotta.”
That made Archer turn around. His eyes were questioning, but Archer didn’t actually say anything. Instead, it was Caster who spoke.
“You’ve been distracted since dinner. It’s easy enough to see. There’s something out there you wanna confirm with your own eyes, but your duty is keeping you here. I’m saying I’ll take on that duty for you long enough for you to take care of what’s buggin’ ya.”
It wasn’t a question, but a jaded statement that Archer asked. Caster didn’t take offense, but just kept talking with a voice filled with nostalgia.
“When I was alive I would see a lot of guys with eyes like yours before the bigger battles. They were usually the first to die. Their heads were too filled with this or that, so they couldn’t move when they needed to. In any normal Holy Grail War I’d just leave you be, but we’re allies now and my life might hang on you and those kids you’re taking care of. Since I have the chance, I’d rather have you go and clear your mind so you can go into the final battle tomorrow refreshed.”
Half a dozen snarky comments went through Archer’s mind, and under any other circumstance he would have voiced them aloud. But Archer was receiving a favor, so he simply said, “Thanks. But I won’t be owing you anything for this.”
“Ha! As if I’d want to be owed a favor by you. Get outta here, ya bastard. Shoo-shoo.”
Archer left while Caster was making dismissive motions with his hand, like he was repelling a stray cat.
It took only a few minutes for Archer to reach his destination traveling at his full speed, going over rooftops. But Archer’s natural care and paranoia had the journey take extra time. He wanted to make sure nothing was following him, including the Blue Caster. But if Caster was scrying on him there was little Archer could do. Eventually, desire overcame Archer’s caution and he arrived at his destination.
Standing at the front entrance to a single story old fashioned Japanese manor, Archer read the intact nameplate on the front as belonging to the Emiya family. The wards around the place were much like he remembered, but in addition to the warm and inviting ones there were vestiges of older and more cruel wards etched into the foundation of the magic surrounding the place. Emiya entered without difficulty, despite the older wards putting some of his neck hairs on end.
Archer entered the house without removing his shoes, since battle readiness always trumped civility, entering the main hall and on to the living room. Archer’s first impression of the place was that a woman was definitely living there instead of it being the bachelor pad he knew the place to be from his own memories. The reason being, simply put, was that there were decorations. Not many, but they were there and they possessed a bit of cuteness to them that Archer would have never attributed to Emiya Kiritsugu.
Archer continued to look around the room and found an old photo of a three member household in it. Archer instantly recognized the man standing in the back with eyes that seemed as dead as those of a fish in the market. After a moment of feeling that there was something out of place about the man, Archer realized it was because one of the sleeves to the man’s suit was empty. The man was missing his right arm at the shoulder. The woman in the photo to the left of the dead eyed and spikey haired man was a black haired woman with emotionless and sharp eyes that made Archer believe that she was definitely a trained killer despite having never laid eyes on her before that moment. And like Kiritsugu, it appeared she was missing a limb. Her right leg, to be exact, as the reason the woman was sitting in the photo was because she was in a wheelchair.
The third person was a purple haired girl of about seven years old. Archer knew her name as Sakura. But in the timeline he knew, she was Matou Sakura, a girl that had been hidden for her own survival but was victimized by the family she was shuffled into. The girl was standing next to these two seasoned killers, pretending to be family with them, with lonely eyes. Far from being a happy family, it seemed like one that was taking a photo out of obligation, as though they knew that a normal family was supposed to do something like that, but did not know the emotions that should have been playing behind the scenes. Archer set the picture back down onto the shelf he had picked it up from and moved onto the next framed photo.
The second photo was much like the first, but obviously taken many years later. Emiya Kiritsugu seemed to have mellowed in this more recent image and had a smile that actually touched his eyes, despite a melancholy sadness still residing in them. Like he was bearing up against his own failures while taking solace in what little success he could achieve. It was a look that Archer was familiar with in the man. The unnamed woman likewise had aged, but her growth seemed more emotionally healthy. She was standing on a prosthetic limb and had her hand on Sakura’s shoulder, and neither of the women seemed uncomfortable with it. The woman had a gentle smile that seemed genuine despite her eyes still retaining a bit of edge that likely could never leave her, like a scar on a person’s soul. And Sakura had a smile that… seemed genuine and comfortable.
Archer set the picture down and moved to the back yard, feeling like he needed a breath of air to cleanse his lungs and his mind. Moving from the back yard, Archer entered the dojo on the side of the house. It was clean, well maintained… and there were some photos on the wall. In those photos, Archer was able to place a small group of students that had apparently been under the tutelage of Emiya Kiritsugu. They were wearing kendo garb, and a few of the pictures had young men and women holding certificates and trophies showing their wins in amateur and school competitions. One particularly happy young woman had short light brown hair and an enormous smile on her face. And in a photo of a junior class… was a boy of about ten years old with spiky red hair and yellowish eyes.
Archer left the dojo like he was fleeing a fated encounter with someone he never wished to see again, and found himself entering the work shed in the back end of the yard. The shed was clean, with just a few items stored away and an old motorcycle standing on a tarp with a few tools nearby. It seemed… plausible enough, but Archer never remembered the man named Kiritsugu as having a hobby with motorcycle repair. Archer moved closer, and laid a hand on the vehicle, while saying the words, “Trace. On.”
Archer mentally scanned the structure of the bike and found that there were no problems with it, except that the spark plugs were intentionally removed. His suspicion having been raised, Archer moved the bike to one side and lifted the tarp underneath it. What was there in the cement ground was a trap door with a sunken lock in it. One that was sealed by magecraft.
It didn’t take long for Archer to blast the trap door away, and he descended a ladder to a small alcove with a larger and more secure door in front of him. The wards on it were heavy with power and concealment spells. There was no way Archer was going to be able to open the door himself without being invited by the man who formed the wards, but after shifting into his intangible spirit form there was no need to and Archer simply walked through the wards meant to keep people and prying eyes away.
Inside the door Archer found a large training facility that had been carved out of the stone beneath the foundations of the home above and then reinforced with concrete pillars. It would have taken years to make such a base without alerting anyone to its existence… but Archer could comprehend it if it was that man, though just barely. The man Archer knew had allowed his abilities to atrophy after having his heart and will broken.
Looking further, Archer found a few emergency power supplies including one powered entirely by battery. Turning it on, dim emergency lights lit the training room, allowing Archer to look through the place more carefully.
There were grappling training mats with old blood stains on them. There were straw dummies with slices and stab wounds on them. There were targets with gashes in them, seemingly used for knife throwing practice. There were tightropes and netted ropes for agility training. A table with various bladed weapons on it, some with handles so small they look like they were intended for use by a child. There was a wall of pistols and rifles hanging in organized categories. And at a work desk with a laptop computer pushed to the side on it, was an eerie looking suitcase of black brushed metal with words emblazoned in white, “Einzbern Prototype Hybrid Arm Mk. 3.”
Archer flipped the lid open and saw an empty space inside that looked like it could be a perfect match for a grown man’s right arm.
Archer’s eyes looked over the hidden lair once more before his shoulders slumped in defeat as he said aloud, “It seems like Sakura is destined to never have a peaceful life…”
Archer turned off the lights and departed the assassin training den with the intention of leaving the place for good. He’d confirmed everything he wished to. But Archer walked past a room with an open door, and the inside was that of a girl that was no different to any other in their first year of high school. Despite himself, despite knowing he was only going to experience heartbreak again, Archer made the mistake of stepping into the room to investigate a little further, since he knew he would never have the chance to return to this place again.
Some frilly things. Some clothes hanging neatly in the closet. Light romance manga resting next to study material. A stuffed animal that seemed like it was old, precious, and won from a cheap amusement park attraction. And an old photo framed and left on her study desk that showed a summer day where three children were playing while the adults sat and watched the cherry blossoms. The three children were the purple haired girl, the red haired boy, and a black haired and blue eyed girl in twin tails, all about middle school age. There was the tomboy girl with light brown hair running as though desperate to get into position before the camera timer went off. And behind all of them at a table watching the cherry blossoms were the parents. Emiya Kiritsugu, the unidentified dark haired woman, a man in a red suit with immaculate grooming, a beautiful but sad eyed woman sitting next to him and-
Archer dropped the picture he was gazing at. After a moment of shock so great that Archer stopped breathing, he hurriedly stooped down to pick the photo up again, the glass cover having broken and the picture slipping out to be frameless and bare in Archer’s hands.
At the table with the other parents… were a man and a woman that Archer almost couldn’t recognize. But after studying their features, he could place them as being the parents of the red haired boy.
Archer collapsed into a chair from the implication this knowledge held and was left stunned like that for who knows how long since there were no operable clocks in the disaster zone that was once Fuyuki City. Eventually, Archer had finished gathering his wits and automatically slipped the photo into an internal pocket of his small red jacket where another item of importance was kept. Archer then left the Emiya house, never to return, and made his way straight back to the high school, stopping briefly in the archery club’s boys locker room.
Archer stood in front of the locker he’d raided for a uniform to give to Fujimaru Ritsuka for the night… and slowly closed the door. On the front of that locker door was a name he’d not recognized before, since the last time he’d seen it was in faded memories from the year 1994. Archer stared at the name for a full minute before hanging his head with a half chuckle and turned his back on it to head back to the high school’s roof to resume his shift at standing guard. Upon arriving there, Caster met him with the overly friendly words of, “Well you look a lot better. Find what you were looking for?”
Archer’s simple answer of “Yeah” seemed to spark the desire for a follow up as Caster asked, “And what was it you found?”
“That this is a world that’s worth fighting for.”