"Hello! We're here!" Taiga traipsed into the dining room, her guest a few paces behind her like a huge, looming shadow. "Shirou, Sakura, this is Joohn Samite!" She said the name as though she was announcing a professional wrestler.

Samite, for his part, bowed respectfully. "Thank you for your hospitality. You are very welcoming, to let a stranger into your house on such short notice."

The meal went on from there as normal. Samite proved to be a very polite and knowledgeable guest, although he ate very little, which another host might have taken offense at. His Japanese vocabulary and grammar were impressive, but his pronunciation and diction were clearly unpracticed. Overall, Shirou found himself enjoying the company of the man.

Still, Shirou could not bring himself to trust the man. He was affable in the sense that he kept the conversation focused on others, which was pleasant, but it also meant that after several hours of eating, he hardly knew anything about the man. Nonetheless, Taiga seemed happy with him, which as far as Shirou was concerned meant that he had to be at least an ok sort of person.

"I understand that you were something of a phenomenon at archery?" Samite stated, partway through the meal. "Taiga was saying that the head of the club nearly lost her mind when you left."

"Ah, don't say that, it makes me feel all guilty. I was decent, but I never felt like I was getting better, so there was no point in practicing. The clubs are competitive, but the whole point is to learn things, right?"

"You were the best person there, Senpai." Sakura protested mildly. "Your form was almost perfect from day one."

Samite raised an eyebrow. "Remarkable. She is right, you know. There's no reason to sell yourself short if you are genuinely talented at something. Sakura," He added, as though a particularly brilliant thought had struck him. "Would you please pass me the rice?"

Shirou just shrugged. How could you feel proud of something you had never worked to accomplish?

After an hour or so, Sakura got up to leave for home at the usual time. Taiga and Samite got up to leave as well, but just as he was leaving, Samite turned to face him. "Shirou," he stated, as though we were carefully weighing his words. "I must escort Taiga home, of course, but I would be interested in speaking with you sometime regarding your repair work. The principal showed me some of you handiwork. I've some interest in the topic of maintenance, and your… technique intrigued me."

Shirou felt a cold shiver run up his spine. The man was a magus. There was no other explanation. If Samite had genuinely been a maintenance afficianado (if there was such a thing) he would have brought it up during dinner.

"I'm not in town for very long, so if possible, I would like to meet soon." Samite's eyes were full of implication.

Shirou shrugged. "Sure, you can stop by anytime. Come by after you say goodbye to Taiga?"

Taiga glared at him furiously. Shirou felt his face grow hot. "Or… or whenever."

Samite waved him off distractedly as he walked out. "I'll be back here in half an hour."

To say that Shirou was perturbed by this turn of events was to put it mildly. A magus? In Fuyuki? He had been nearly certain that he was the only one. No, this magus must have travelled to Fuyuki specifically to see him, unless there was something larger going on at the school that he did not know about. There had been reports of strange weather in the vicinity of the school, but surely there would be larger signs than that.

In the end, though, it seemed likely that Samite was non-hostile. He had not harmed Taiga or himself during the entire encounter. Contact with the larger world of Magi was something that Shirou was cautiously curious about. He knew that his skills were incomplete. Even if Magi would despise a spellcaster like him, he could maybe learn some useful things.

Taiga drove them back to her house, and he walked her to the door. "Ahh! I feel like we're just getting started!" Taiga exclaimed. "Why did you have to decide to go talk to Shirou about maintenance, yeah? It's going to be a real drag for him when you cancel!"

He raised an eyebrow. "I made that appointment because I figured our date would be over by then."

She whirled on him, her mind frozen with conflicting emotions. He was so cool, but… he was TOO cool. It was super attractive how he just took everything as it came, but come on, she was Taiga Fujimura! People did not simply take the Tiger of Fuyuki in stride! He acted a perfect gentleman, sure, but maybe he was just a dumb jerk. Actually, no, this is where the dumb jerk would be all over her, whereas this guy was just… rudely polite. Was this a British thing? She almost snorted. No way this guy was a typical Brit. More like... A typical robot assassin, sent from the future.

"Idiot," She punched him in the shoulder. "That's no way to treat a lady. You agreed to go on a date with me, and I'm the one who gets to say when it's over, got it?"

"So you just state rules and everyone's got to follow along? I bet that's nice."

"What? How rude can you get, yeah? You were all polite before, but now you're ditching me with some lame-ass excuse?" Taiga crossed her arms. It was lucky for this guy that he was so incredibly good-looking and cool and also so polite, otherwise she might have already walked out of his life and that would leave him sorry for sure.

Waver sighed. This was the part he had dreaded. This lady was a decent sort of person when you got down to it, and he had used her for his own ends. Well, he had taken her on a date and paid for arcade games and made sure that she had a good time. That was just the responsibility you took on when you asked someone out, after all, no matter what your reasons were. But he had gotten what he needed now, so continuing the facade would be no kindness.

He sighed. "Taiga, In my day-to-day life, I don't get many chances to just play video games with people or take fast car trips or have fun in general. So thanks for that. But once again, that's not my day-to-day life. I've got other commitments, and I couldn't keep up with you even if I wanted to. And that's it, really. I don't want to. The thing with Shirou… it's not an excuse. I have a genuine question for the guy, and I'm only calling things off here because this date has become pointless."

"You… You..." Taiga was at a loss for words. How could somebody so cool also be so incredibly lame? "You clearly are older than I thought if you're seriously that shriveled up on the inside." Her confidence building, she put her hands on her hips and smiled. No way was this guy going to get away with being so lame. "I don't know what it is you do that you don't have time for a date, but you have time to talk maintenance with a kid, but you need to make a change! But don't fear! I'm not going to let you off so easily. The arcades are still open, and you're going to have more fun yet today whether you want to or not!"

Oh, fuck being nice already, this was going nowhere. He was a magus, and this was ridiculous! He stooped down, looked into the windows of her soul, kissed her gently on the lips, and without a scrap of emotion, stated: "I'm getting into the car now and leaving. Let me know when the date's over."

He was halfway to his car by the time she realized what he was doing. Was it bad that he felt his lip twitch in a slight grin when she growled in frustration and stormed inside?

Waver stepped into the Cadillac and pulled away at a leisurely pace.

"I like her." Rider materialized in the back, a massive smile across her face.

"I assumed so, or else you would have left to do something else with your time."

Rider shrugged. "It's true. But what can I say, you two were amusing! You could learn a thing or two from her."

"Mmmhh." Waver couldn't help but smile at Rider's antics. "I wonder what it is you have in mind? Do you think that I should be more open and trusting? Or perhaps you think that I should exercise more?"

"No, no..." Rider chuckled. "I merely think that whatever life throws at that woman, she embraces it and enjoys it or detests it to her fullest capability, and places that spectacle for all the world to see!"

Waver frowned. "Well, you must be critiquing me on the second half, then. I have been called many things, but a man of excessive moderation was never one of them."

"Perhaps with some things. But so many other things you close yourself off from. You ate only sparingly of a feast fit for kings! You settled for a simple kiss from a woman who would have ravished you until the sun came up!"

"That woman is more trouble than she's worth." Waver replied sharply. "Besides, for us mere mortals, hedonism has limits. Isn't that what killed you?"

Rider clutched at his heart with one hand. "And I was not so hurt in that moment as I am now. Fortunately I discovered a remedy for such pains long ago!" He reached under the seat and produced a bottle of wine, which he immediately pressed to his lips.

When Gray entered the vehicle several minutes later, they were still in good spirits. Gray was surprised by how jovial her master had become during what should arguably a very stressful time for him. Perhaps she did not really know him that well after all? Her master was a very private man with many acquaintances and few friends. Indeed, she felt hard pressed to name anyone that she could safely say was a friend. Could it be that he felt at ease only in the company of a Heroic Spirit?

In any case, The jovial mood did not seem to abate as she climbed into the passenger's seat.

" think that she's such a fine lady, you are welcome to her." Her master's voice and face were those of a man heavily put upon, but Gray recognized the spark of humor in his eyes. "I know better than to stand in the way of the conquest of my king. Or should I conquer her heart on your behalf? I confess to not being aware of the customs of the Macedonians."

Rider snorted. "I'm hardly one who is given things, Waver. I am one who takes. If I desired her so much, she would already be mine, heart and soul, and you would have very little say in the matter." He stretched. "The same goes for anyone. Everything I want, I conquer, be it a country, a riddle, or a human heart. Your heart, or Gray's. Persia, or Egypt… anything I choose to set my will to becomes mine!"

Gray's ears reddened. This was not the sort of conversation she had expected between master and servant!

Waver seemed unperturbed. "Obviously, If you cared to have a bedmate you already would have one. The fact that you haven't means that you're in the same boat as I am." He choked out a short laugh. "Hell, I have negative interest in pursuing that woman, but if I was going to go after her I'd do it properly, not half-assed in the middle of a war zone. I'm sure you feel the same."

They passed the rest of the way to the Emiya residence in happy spirits. Gray always remembered her master speaking of the Grail war with a mix of loathing and fondness. She supposed this was the part he was fond of.

"So what is the plan?" Rider wondered aloud as they approached the low building.

"I would have expected you to take the lead on this, normally." Waver replied. "You're the master strategist, after all."

Rider shrugged. "Magi are not my area of expertise. Their hearts are cold and their interests are narrow."

Waver frowned. "I don't think that his bounded field does much of anything, really. It probably just wards off bad luck or detects ill intent or something like that. I'll ask if Gray can come in, and you can follow her. I don't think he has a servant yet; I saw the bruising on his wrist but not the command seals." He thought for a moment more, and then nodded. "He should not have any way of detecting your presence."

Gray could already taste the color of the strange boy's aura, just as tantalizing and faint as it was before. Master walked to the front of the building and knocked. The impossible boy opened the door, and her heart started racing. Now that she was prepared for it, the effect was much diminished, but even so it was like looking into a kaleidoscope of glass… or maybe it was more like have someone carve a picture into your teeth? The sensation was fascinating and uncomfortable, and she attempted to fortify herself with defensive meditation.

Presently, her Master waved her to follow him and so she did. The bounded field surrounding the ancient structure felt… unforced. The sensation was pleasant, even, as though it were a bubble against all the cares of the world. Rider was not far behind her, she knew, but the boy either did not notice or did not care, which meant that her Master had been right again.

Shirou locked eyes with this 'bodyguard' that the foreign magus wanted to bring in with him. He had not objected to her joining them inside, since with the way his bounded field worked, there really was no way he could deny them entrance anyway. She was… well, beautiful did not seem like the right word. She had beautiful features, but they only served to highlight her deeply unsettling appearance. Is this a familiar? He questioned. However, neither of them showed any ill intent and so he allowed them inside.

Shirou poured tea for both of them, and crouched down on the other side of the table. Shirou took a moment to appreciate the tea. If a fight broke out here, he was likely dead in any case, but nonetheless he kept a shinai within arm's reach.

"To begin with, you have no idea why I'm here, right?" the tall Magus took the lead in the conversation.

Shirou nodded. "You called me a magus, earlier, but that's not really true. My only guess is that you knew my dad somehow." His dad had been an international traveller and a magus. Presumably, he had hundreds of contacts.

The magus' expression intensified, and Shirou momentarily worried if he had said something wrong. "That's as good a lead-in as any. My real name is Lord El Melloi II, and I'm a magus from the Association. There's a ritual that occurs in this city periodically. It's called the Holy Grail War, or the Heaven's Feel Ritual. Your father and I were both participants in it last time, although we never met in person. It's large scale, and tends to be violent. The conceit is pretty simple. Seven magi, or 'masters' summon seven heroic spirits, or 'servants.' The spirits battle until only one remains, and then the ritual is completed and winners 'obtain the holy grail.' Ostensibly, the winning master and servant each get to make a wish. As it was originally conceived, it was an orderly collaboration between friendly magi. In practice, it is the most spectacularly violent ritual I have ever observed."

Shirou's eyes never left El Melloi's face. "So the last one was ten years ago, right?" The unknown cause of the Great Fuyuki Fire, his father's presence at the scene of the fire… it all smelled of some troublesome conspiracy on the part of magi. A ritual such as this El Melloi was describing present a perfect explanation.

El Melloi nodded. "Correct."

"How did you know that I was ignorant of the ritual?"

"The ritual wasn't scheduled to occur for another fifty years. Everyone was caught by surprise." A pained expression passed over El Melloi's face. "My theory was that your father would not want to make you feel as though this was something that you needed to spend your whole life preparing for. In his position, I would have left behind a note or something, telling you to leave the city in advance of the bloodshed." El Melloi considered his next words carefully. "That you were not in contact with any of the magi in this city was more of an educated guess. Magi are reclusive, particularly this far from the Clocktower. When you showed up to this meeting without backup, that confirmed my guess. "

"Other magi, in Fuyuki?" Shirou had always believed himself to be the only magus in Fuyuki since Kiritsugu died.

"Well, since you aren't really a magus yourself, you can't really call them 'other magi,' now can you? But yes, two of the families that created the ritual still live here."

Shirou paused, pulling his shoulders back uncomfortably in an attempt to hide the bruising on his right hand. "How do they pick the masters?"

"The ritual picks them." The magus displayed a winged sword tattooed in red on the back of his hand. "There's ways to cheat the system, of course, but generally people are chosen based off of their proximity to the ritual, their magical ability, and the intensity of their wish. So, I ask you, Shirou, is there a single thing you desire, more than anything in the world?"

Shirou frowned. If the ritual measured people by the earnestness of their desire… "Are you here to kill me then?" His hand drifted towards the shinai. "It's easy enough to guess what you mean when you say that the ritual gets pretty violent."

"Who do you think is harder to kill, a legendary hero, or a magus?" El Melloi paused. "It is a distasteful truth that killing all of the enemy masters is an effective strategy. It is not one that I intend to employ, but even if it was, the ritual would just pick someone in your stead. So in addition to being distasteful, there's no point."

Shirou relaxed and pointed his chin at the quiet girl at the end of the table. "Is she your heroic spirit?" She certainly did not look human.

"No!" The word was spoken with all the delicacy of a cannon shot. "She's his bodyguard." The largest man Shirou had even seen materialized out of thin air before him. A huge, rough face framed with angry red sideburns grinned down at him. "I'm the legendary hero here. You've heard of me, I'm sure. I am Iskander, King of Conquerors and in this Holy Grail War, I'm class Rider."

Shirou steadied his breathing and relaxed his grip on the shinai. "So what is it you want, then?" He wracked his brain for everything his father had told him about magi. It wasn't much, but none of it was favorable. "You're surely not here out of the goodness of your heart."

"Well, I will offer you some advice that's purely disinterested, I doubt you will take advantage of it. You're an outsider. This war is not yours, and you are not equipped for it. There's a supervisor to the war. He's incredibly untrustworthy, but you can go to him and opt out of the ritual."

"That's unacceptable." Shirou stated. "Magi aren't the only people at risk in this ritual. I was a bystander last time, and my birth family was killed along with hundreds of other people. What kind of person would I be if I turned my back on this whole process?"

"And what if you die, saving no one?"

Shirou shrugged. "Everyone dies someday. If I died without ever risking myself for others, I'd regret that."

"Ah, you're the kind of magus I like." Rider leaned heavily on the low table. "Come on then. You wish to prevent a needless loss of life? Excellent! As it happens, my master is not evil. We have already settled upon a strategy designed to minimize the loss of life; let us help you summon a servant, parlay with him, and together win the Holy Grail!"

Shirou blinked. It was an incredibly tempting offer. He knew barely anything about how this grail was going to work, and these foreigners seemed so far to be forthright. However… "What is your wish for the grail, El Melloi?"

"-It's El Melloi II actually, my predecessor died in the last Grail War." El Melloi adjusted his collar. "I actually don't anticipate that I will get to make a wish. No wish has been made in the past four wars. I'm here on behalf of my house and the mage association. My wish… well, it wouldn't be terribly interesting to you. Suffice to say that I wish to clear some debts and fulfil some obligations of mine. I don't know, do you have a wish for the grail?" He paused again. "I would be willing to consider letting you have it outright… with certain conditions."

Shirou shook his head. "You said that the grail picks people based off of the intensity of their wish. I don't have a wish for the grail, but I do have something I want to accomplish." He thought about his wording a moment. "It's so weird to say it out loud, but… I want to be a hero of justice. I'm totally committed to this goal, but truthfully the grail has no interest for me. He locked eyes with the giant.

"What about you, Iskander?"

"I want nothing but a second chance." The giant rumbled. "I died before I could complete my dream in the last life… I would ask the Grail for a second life, that I might once again try to conquer the world!"

Shirou blanched.

Rider laughed. "Do you want to save lives, boy? How many petty, pointless struggles cover this world? One nation takes a strip of land, and another takes it back, with thousands dying. I would end them, all at once. Saving human lives is not my goal, but I will save more in my dream than you ever could in yours!" Rider held up one huge hand as though he held the world within his grasp. "Your dream is encapsulated in mine."

Shirou's heart leapt in his chest at Iskander's words. To stop all wars everywhere? It was something that was above and beyond what he had ever even conceived of. And yet... would he doom hundreds of thousands to save millions? How was he even supposed to evaluate loss of life on the order of magnitude? And then too, there was no guarantee that Iskander would succeed. No, more than likely, they would wage some great war, thousands would die, and like before he would fall short. Frankly, at this point in history, with nuclear weaponry, was conquest on such a scale even practical?

He sighed. "No. I can't sign up for that. Sorry. You seem like a good person El Melloi, but I will have to find my own way."

El Melloi frowned. "Then we shall part ways. When we next meet we will likely be enemies."

"Hold on." Shirou held up a hand. "There's still something to cover here."

El Melloi raised an eyebrow. "It is not in my best interest to give you information, Shirou."

"This isn't about the Grail War. This is about Taiga. You used her to get a look at me, right?"

"Ha!" Rider barked. "The kid's got his priorities straight at least."

Waver nodded. "I have no intention of contacting her again, nor do I intend to use her as leverage over you."

"So long as we're clear."

They parted ways shortly thereafter.

Waver, Rider, and Gray piled back into the Cadillac, Rider taking the driver's seat this time. Surprisingly, Gray was the first to speak. "He's getting easier to look at."

Waver took a full second to ponder the import of that particular declaration. "It's unfortunate that he did not agree to work with us."

Rider shrugged. "I like his attitude, but I can recruit him after I defeat him. The boy barely knows anything, surely you don't think that he's a threat?"

"Unfortunately, I do." Waver lit a cigar. "He's a spellcaster and a country bumpkin, to be sure. But consider: he was raised and trained by a professional killer, he's got some kind of bizarre origin that's fucking with Gray's senses, and he's supremely confident in his ability to fight in the war. His bounded field is childishly simple, but it's functionally perfect if you're confident that they only way you'll lose is to a surprise attack. I hope you didn't miss that part about him and archery." He paused to take a drag on his cigar.

Rider grinned at him. "So, the Grail War begins in earnest soon, yes? All the masters are accounted for?"

Waver smiled. "All that remains to be seen, is who will make the first move."