Fate/Infinite - Game Thread

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Before Sophie could answer Maria's query, a strange voice spoke up and Maria recognized what it said. That boy who sat in front of them somehow began speaking in English for some reason Maria was not aware of - and he was talking to her. His words sounded out of the ordinary and a strong accent was noticeable during his little speech.

" I'm saying...that I find competition very interesting, and I'm eager to know the sort that brings you here.", his words slick and slippery as he danced around the issue. He was certainly trying to look for information about the two of them. A waitress came to the table and added some cups to the table. The boy was acting stranger than ever - he pushed a sugar cube towards the two women and grinned slightly.

" Cream? Sugar?", he asked without even caring to hear an answer. The boy sipped the drink in his cup before continuing with his inquiry.

" This is a very lovely shop. The coffee's good, and the soy sauce is made in-house. I'm in here more often than not. I think I'd miss it if I were to ever leave Fuyuki."

" I'd imagine you have places like this where you come from, right? Something you'd miss?", he was fishing for information, something that was to be expected.

" This competition... must be very important, to make you leave those places behind. Tell me, if you don't mind my asking, what do you hope to gain from this 'competition'?", he was vague as he could in his questions, just another reason not to trust that man.

"He is looking for weaknesses, the cheeky boy", she whispered in German to Sophie. He was obviously bluffing earlier... had he known the language we would have already barged into the conversation, but he was using English instead.

"Does your mummy know you were signing up for a grown up competition, or did she sign the form for you?", Maria mocked the boy slightly. Oh, what joy, it was time for her to see which buttons she needs to press in order to make that other puppet dance.

Dance, little puppet. Dance.

"Or are you that heartless that you can carry the burden of murder on your shoulders on your own, little boy?".

"Does your mummy know you were signing up for a grown up competition, or did she sign the form for you?"

"Or are you that heartless that you can carry the burden of murder on your shoulders on your own, little boy?"

The woman cut right through Dirk's games, getting straight to business.

She's trying to get under my skin, then. A bold move. A move made in error... but bold.

Dirk placed his forefinger and thumb on the bridge of his shades, pulling them down so that he could look at the woman dead-on. His eyes were cold, devoid of any emotion to be read.

"Heart has nothing to do with it," he told her plainly. There was an unnerving calm to his slow, quiet speech. "If it's asked of me, I'll kill every last one of you."

There was no questioning that he meant what he said. He leaned forward, lazily spinning the cup with his fingers.

"But I'd much rather talk, first. I prefer to know my enemies. They're fascinating. Watching them struggle, believing for the briefest moment that they stand a chance." His gaze, for an instant, seem enthralled by the spinning coffee inside the container. "But then, you lay down your hand... and you watch them as they come to understand, that they've been dancing on the ends of your strings all along. I think you and I share that quality."

His eyes bore straight into Maria. The strange woman. You look young... but you speak with authority. Age, superiority. Very interesting. What are you, really?

"You ask me if I could bear that burden. To kill. I won't hesitate. But I wonder, miss... will you?"

The boy responded calmly. He pulled down his sunglasses and glared at Maria with a gaze devoid of any emotion.
" Heart has nothing to do with it... If it's asked of me, I'll kill every last one of you.", his words were much clearer this time around. He was confident in what he said, or so he wanted to convey. After all, little boys shouldn't play those kinds of games.

"A murderer at such a young age", Maria whispered to Sophie in German as she continued to listen to his words. The boy leaned forward and continued.

" But I'd much rather talk, first. I prefer to know my enemies. They're fascinating. Watching them struggle, believing for the briefest moment that they stand a chance... But then, you lay down your hand... and you watch them as they come to understand, that they've been dancing on the ends of your strings all along. I think you and I share that quality". The boy was talking too confidently for it to be a façade. Something was terribly wrong in that boy's head, or perhaps... perhaps it is what it should have been. A little monster like him was more than suited for such a game of deceit. He even dared compare him to her...

" You ask me if I could bear that burden. To kill. I won't hesitate. But I wonder, miss... will you?"

"Children shouldn't feign superiority. It will only serve to embarrass them when time comes for the test", Maria countered the cold advances of the boy rather harshly. She pushed the cup of coffee away from her to the edge of the table to her right.

"I couldn't harm someone like you. A bright future is ahead of you...", Maria glanced to her side and examined Sophie. She wasn't even aware if the girl followed their conversation. "...but the world could cope with missing a sociopath. Lacking empathy is a skill only a person like you can be proud of... Isn't that right, little boy?".

Maria leaned on the table and gave it a little shove so that her cup of coffee would spill over and crash on the floor. She adjusted her pair of glasses before continuing.

"We share nothing", she whispered.

"We share nothing"

Dirk watched the cup fall, smashing against the floor. Hot coffee flowed from the impact site, spreading out in a wide arc. The waitress, Chizuru, was over in an instant with a mop and a bucket to clean the mess. She apologized over and over, never once letting the others getting a word in until she had removed the mess and retreated.

Dirk's eyes lingered where the mug had fallen, a tinge of disappointment on his face.

"You know, these waitresses work very hard, and for little pay. It's not nice to make their jobs harder. You say I'm a sociopath... I'd say a sociopath is the one who doesn't notice the little people and their struggles around them."

His ambling was more or less speaking for the sake of speaking. In his mind, a second, more important thought was playing out.

You're really stuck on the age thing, aren't you? I'd thought you were attempting to get me irritated. Now I'm starting to worry you might actually believe it. But that's strange...

You don't look that much older than me. So bitter, so focused on age, when by appearances we're separated by well under a decade. You couldn't be... ah, but that's the wonder of magecraft. You could.

Dirk brought his eyes back to Maria, full of a very specific purpose.

"How old are you, miss?" he asked calmly.

It didn't take long for a waitress to come running to the table and clean the mess Maria caused. She kept speaking gibberish but she didn't care to hear any of it.

" You know, these waitresses work very hard, and for little pay. It's not nice to make their jobs harder. You say I'm a sociopath... I'd say a sociopath is the one who doesn't notice the little people and their struggles around them."

" How old are you, miss?", he asked curiously. Maria grinned at the boy before raising her hand to cover her smile. She giggled at his silly question and indulged him with an answer.

"You really are inexperienced... Didn't you know it was rude asking a lady for her age?".

Sophie shrunk into her chair as Maria and the young man shot acidic words back and forth. Her English was also barely passable, but the words that she missed were easily intuited by tone. "[stop it...]" She whispered in English without effect as the pair verbally sparred back and forth.

As the pair continued Sophie began to actually feel scared. All the talk of murder and even worse; the looks in the pair's eyes that were just as promising were something that Sophie wasn't used to. Maria was also acting nothing like she had before, almost like she was a totally different person. "[Stop it.]" She repeated again, louder, though she was still ignored.

Sophie could feel a great wave of frustration and anger rise in her as the pair continued their venomous vocal duel. Her hands in her lap began to clench so hard that she could feel her nails begin to bite into her palms. And still they continued on until Sophie couldn't take it anymore.

"[STOP IT!]" She finally screamed at the top of her lungs as she stood up and slammed her hands down on the table with a loud crash. Sophie suddenly realized that she was causing quite the scene, but she still thought it was better then sitting by ineffectually at the cloak and dagger played out in front of her. Quickly seizing the initiative she drew her face close in to the young man's and spoke in a hushed tone, anyone further then the table wouldn't hear a word. "[I'll make this simple to start. Don't attack me or my friend here. If you can't agree, then we'll settle this nice and fast; tonight.]" Unlike before when Sophie's eyes were soft with uncertainty or concern, they now were unblinking, backed by solid steel defiance. "[What's your decision?]" She growled impatiently.

"[What's your decision?]"

Dirk failed to react as Sophie drew up close to his face, speaking far more harshly and heatedly than he'd have expected. For a moment, he did nothing, letting only the silence linger. Then, a force tugged at him, and his lips curled into an unfitting smirk.

So you're that easy to upset? This is a war, girl. What did you expect?

"[My, and your friend calls me 'young'... do you know why this competition is called a war? Because it is a war.]"

He leaned forward, moving his face even closer to hers. The pungent smell of overly-sweet coffee was on his breath. His face was still entirely blank, save that unnerving smile.

"[To win, even to survive, you must be prepared to kill everyone who stands in your path.]"

He then spoke in Japanese, making the conversation between them wholly exclusive to the second woman at their booth.

"Your 'friend', whom you've known... how long exactly? She supports you now. But that fire in her eyes? I recognize it. It's mine. She wants the Grail, and unless you plan to stand aside and let her take it... what do you think she'll do when only you both remain?"

He let out a dry, humorless chuckle. "[There's no lasting truce in a war,]" he said, moving back to English. "[So, I guess...]" Dirk darted forward, moving his head to the right, planting a kiss on Sophie's cheek. "[...I'll see you tonight, mon petit.]"

Orihara slowly leaned back into his booth seat, completely stoic once more now that his message had been delivered. He waved the pair off. "[Have a nice day, young miss, old woman,]" he began. "[there's plenty of daylight for you to take advantage of. Oh!]"

He held up a finger, remembering something and delaying their exit a moment further. "[Before you go, a gift of sorts... the Assassin? His true identity is Brutus. Don't let him use the chaplet.]"

His tidbit of advice given, Dirk returned to his coffee, sipping it idly while he looked at something on his phone. He seemed to be ignoring the women now, as if they'd already left even as they sat across from him.

Sophie stood stock still while the master spoke. Though what he said only caused her to become more angry she held herself to only glaring daggers at him.

"[You are wrong.]" Was the only reply she was able to muster at first. "[I'll show you. I'm going to figure out a different way.]" Sophie wasn't exactly sure when she had come up with that idea, but now there was no way she could take it back.

With that she stood up and huffed angrily. "[Be at Miyamachou park. We begin the second the sun drops below the horizon.]" And without another word she spun around and stormed out of the shop.

"[We are leaving.]" Sophie snapped at berserker who had been resting on a nearby planter. Sophie wondered if the unknown master would actually show up or not, he was definitely a weasel. That also made her wonder though about his 'gift', could she really trust anything he said? Why would he give out information like that? Did he think he could use her against the assassin? But Sophie pushed that out of her mind; one enemy at a time for now. She had a date, and plenty of preparation before it.

"[Mon petit...]" She grumbled as she walked and scraped at the spot where he had kissed her. "[gross.]"

" STOP IT!", the sweet girl screamed at Maria and the boy as they exchanged toxic words in a language she could barely follow. The old hag realized she had taken the little conversation too far perhaps a tad too late. Sophie then continued to speak after the two were silent, keeping her voice down as she went along.

" I'll make this simple to start. Don't attack me or my friend here. If you can't agree, then we'll settle this nice and fast; tonight.", the sweet girl changed for that brief moment and turned into a wild beast.

" What's your decision?".

Then the boy answered, with all of his emotions concealed from sight.

" My, and your friend calls me 'young'... do you know why this competition is called a war? Because it is a war."
" To win, even to survive, you must be prepared to kill everyone who stands in your path."

He continued, only to speak in Japanese to the girl. He finished his sentence with a light chuckle, and so he continued in English.

" There's no lasting truce in a war...So, I guess... ...I'll see you tonight, mon petit"

He kissed Sophie on the cheek before letting her go. A little tip from him might just pop the illusion that was a truce between the two women.

" Have a nice day, young miss, old woman,", he guessed, oh, just a little guess. There was no way he had noticed, or he had known that... Little boy had been throwing darts in the dark, hoping he will hit the target. Keeping quiet was the best alternative.

" Before you go, a gift of sorts... the Assassin? His true identity is Brutus. Don't let him use the chaplet.", he seemed to have given them the identity of their opponent's Servant, or so he said. He could be lying, as the Assassin class could only be one of the famed Hashashins.

The arrogant fool sat in his place without wincing. He had said his part, and he did not care for what the two women had to say.

" You are wrong... I'll show you. I'm going to figure out a different way.", Sophie was adamant in her stance. Her appearance of a sweet girl seemed to fade altogether. Even though a victory only requires the destruction of the servants the masters wield, one can never be too sure of their victory. Verifying the kill is of... the utmost importance.

" Be at Miyamachou park. We begin the second the sun drops below the horizon.", Sophie declared. Oh, the poor girl, she would look for a proper duel for such a war... there is no honor among thieves, and mages are no better than that - not when such power is on the line.

" We are leaving.", she ordered Maria to follow. The old hag didn't feel compelled to trail the girl, but it seemed like there was no other choice to make. She saw her leave the café in a hurry, obviously disturbed by the young man's advances.

"Be careful with your knight", Maria said before standing up and walking away, "There is little he can do against a rabid dog".

Maria ran out to follow Sophie. She caught up to the girl and was careful enough not to bump into her servant.

"He shouldn't have touched you...", Maria spoke in German, "...I will help you. This war only asks you to end his servant - and not the boy's life."

Sophie slowed a little when she heard Maria behind her. For a moment she felt conflicted, bot happy and sad that the older woman had come along. She tried not to dwell on the last thing that had been said in Japanese, or on Maria's previous tone, but it was impossible to completely block them from her mind. To do so would be simple denial, and Sophie didn't consider herself that foolish.

Eventually Sophie came to a stop and slowly half turned to face Maria, her head turning over her shoulder. Now Sophie's face had a smile again, though this one was bittersweet; holding a distant sadness in it's edges.

"[That's not important.]" She said sadly, meaning how the boy had kissed her. She paused for a moment then started again with an apparent non sequitur. "[I'm not stupid you know. Everyone is different. Inside and out I mean. How we all show different sides and layers to different people.]" She continued her small monologue. Though it was now clearer what she was talking about it still wasn't quite clear if she was talking about the boy they had just left, or Maria, or maybe even herself.

"[But, we have to hope that deep down, the bottom layer is that of a good person right? What kind of life could we live if we didn't have that hope?]" With the end of that thought Sophie's eyes began to wander a little unfocused. Then she gave a tiny laugh though it was also sad.

"[Or do you think maybe I am stupid?]"

"Brother, you swore you'd help!"

"I didn't say a damned thing like that. I said you had a right to keep out of the war, if you didn't want a part in it."

Sanosuke glared at his brother. Shinosuke always looked like this to him: sniveling. The frail brother, barely eighteen, was held aloft in the air. The elder Orihara was gripping his shirt collar, and glaring at his eyes even as the boy tried to look away. He shook him, to make it clear that he wouldn't be averting his gaze this time.

"Brother... I'm only in this mess because of you!"

"Bullshit," Sanosuke growled. "I gave up my right to participate on my own. I didn't need someone to cover my ass. What's your excuse?"

"They didn't give a damn if you left!" Shino spat at him, even from his compromised position. "They still had me to heap it all on! But I'm the youngest, there's nobody left! They'd kill me before they let me go."

The brothers locked eyes, wills clashing. Shinosuke's pupils narrowed to minuscule, black daggers.

"What the hell am I supposed to do, Sanosuke?"

The elder brother growled as he exhaled, looking over his younger brother. The frustration in his brow creased it in unseemly ways. His hands released, and Shino collapsed to the floor. Sanosuke turned and walked away, eyes fixed firmly in the opposite direction of the child.

"You stand up, and you make your voice heard. Do what you wish. And if they bog you down, shrug them off."

"Sanosuke? Where are you going? Wait! Brother, wait! Stop! Come back!"

...

Wow, Sanosuke thought. He hadn't had that dream in years. His eyes opened slowly, already hostile to the sterile light trying to break through. Above him, the cold white walls of a hospital presented themselves. The ceiling was all he needed to see; the best he was in felt lumpy and unfamiliar, and the air held a chill to it that only cold professionalism could bring. He'd been here more than once through his illustrious career. The sensation he felt in his chest was new, though.

"Aw, fuck..."

His hand slowly scraped along his torso, gingerly pawing the freshly bandaged area. The memories of the night before were already coming back, though they were rather muddied. Alcohol was not a faithful friend.

"He's waking up, dear."

He recognized the woman speaking, but distantly, as if from a long-forgotten dream. His head flopped to the left. To the left of his bed sat a pair of chairs. Shinosuke and Mira were slumped in the chairs, leaning on one another and seemingly just waking up, themselves. Shino's eyes lit up, seeing his brother finally awake.

"Brother!" he exclaimed, leaning forward. "Are you all right?"

"Urgh, you tell me," Sano commented. His words felt sluggish, and thoroughly unpleasant to push through his lips. "I feel like someone took a buzzsaw to my chest."

The younger brother nodded slowly. "The doctors operated on you through most of the night. It was close, but they were able to save your liver."

The image of a disgusting, cocky little creature from the pits of hell flashed in Sanosuke's mind. An instant later, the image of his boot digging into some ash passed by as well. That alleviated some of the shame.

"...Right. My liver."

"Sanosuke..." Mira asked, hesitant to even bring the matter up. "What the hell DID that to you?"

The old man's eyes narrowed. "We alone?"

Shinosuke and Mira both nodded.

"Shut the door."

Mira moved like a lightning bolt, closing the door to the hall and placing a chair under the knob. She turned back and nodded, prompting Sanosuke to begin.

"Wasn't some punk, if that's what you're thinking," he began. "I'm not that old yet. It was some kinda imp... a demonic-looking thing with a wicked tail, horse legs, and a pitchfork."

The healthy couple's faces soured, both versed enough to know where such a creature would come from.

"So a Servant's found you, then," Shino murmured.

"A Caster, maybe?" Mira suggested. Sano nodded.

"My thoughts exactly."

Shinosuke huffed, pressing his hands together and wringing them. His face was knitted with worry and confusion. "I don't understand, brother, why would a Servant come after you?"

"It didn't," the elder explained. He rolled his head back to look at the ceiling. He tried to push himself up into a sitting position, but the pain was too great. He remained lying flat on his back, silently cursing the nurse that had left him like this. "It was after your son. Kid came to me after he blasted the damn bridge to rubble."

Mira snorted, suppressing a bit of proud laughter. "So, that was him then." Her beaming smile couldn't have been brighter at that moment.

"Brother, does that mean Dirk's staying at your hotel?"

"If he's smart, he's already moved out," he corrected. "But that dumb little shit probably thinks it's a defensible position. So, yeah, I'll bet he's still staying there."

Shinosuke stood, his fists clenched. Mira looked up at him in confusion; while he wasn't in any mood to move, Sano did give an aside glance at his brother.

"And where are you off to in such a hurry?"

Shino bowed his head, and quietly said "I'm going to find my son."

Sano cocked an eyebrow. His little brother hesitated, before explaining.

"The things you said last night..." he began, a grieving frown on his lips. "You were absolutely right. He's my son. And I abandoned him to fend for himself."

Tears were starting to well up in the man's eyes, and his fists were shaking. "I'm a coward, and I'm a failure as a father. But I won't let him pay for my own stupid mistakes. I'll help him however I can."

"Even if it kills you?" Sanosuke asked coldly.

The look in Shino's eyes was resolute. "Yes."

Mira stood, moving to his side with a worried expression. "Shino, I know you're scared... but you're behaving rashly."

"Listen to your wife," Sano added. "There's nothing you can do for him at this point. It's best if you just stay out of the way."

Shino gritted his teeth, and shoved Mira away. "NO!" he screamed. His eyes, full of rage and confusion, darted between his family. All he could see was betrayal. "I won't! I won't just leave him to die, I can fight!"

Sanosuke felt a fire burning in his chest. Rage was his anesthetic as he sat up in his bed, reaching out and grabbing Shinosuke by his shirt. The younger brother swatted his hand away.

"You could barely take me last night, and I was dying at the time! What the hell do you expect to do against a Servant?!"

Shino's eyes narrowed, his tear-streaked face with desperation. "Brother... don't let my sympathy lead you astray. You're my brother. I would never hurt you, if I could avoid it." He clenched his fist tightly. "But there is a reason the Association didn't pursue me. I'm strong! I am... strong..."

The man collapsed to his knees. His shoulders shrugged as his whole body slumped from fatigue.

"I have to be..."

Shinosuke lost control, sobbing uncontrollably in his pathetic state. Mira was at his side in a heartbeat, holding him close and petting his head softly. "Shhhhh, shhhh, it's okay. Let it out, dear."

Sanosuke could barely see them from the angle he was at, but watched them as best as he could.

Look at yourself, Shinosuke. Bawling your eyes out like a baby. Just like when we were young. You'd fall and hurt yourself, or someone would push you down, call you names. And you'd always cry. I never hugged you. Told you that everything was gonna be okay just because you cried about it. You were my brother, and I knew on some level, you were just like me. That made you strong. I thought it would make you stronger to let you do it on your own. To let you stand and take it, like a man.

But now you've got someone to hold you. To tell you all those things I thought would make you weak. You've made a lot of mistakes... but you finally get it now. You finally get just how badly you screwed up. I'd thought my way would make you strong, brother. That's all. But I guess you're always going to be that little kid. This is what you need.

He braced himself for what was coming next. He certainly wasn't looking forward to the sensation. Sanosuke pressed down with his hands, propping himself up in the bed. He wanted to yell, cry, something. But he wouldn't do it. He swung his left leg out from under the bed, letting it flop over the side. The searing pain in his chest felt like a sword had been plunged in, all the way up to the hilt. But he couldn't stop now. He swung his right leg out, leaning over the bed with an expression so disturbed from pain he scarcely looked human.

Like an automaton, his arms reached out and grabbed his brother, wrenching him off of the ground and drawing him up and towards him. Even weakened, Sanosuke's embrace was like a guillotine with the force he managed. Shinosuke was awkwardly bent forward, his head on his brother's shoulder. The younger man's mind was a frenzy of confusion, sniffling and trying to say something, getting nothing but choking sobs. Sanosuke just shushed him, and spoke in his most soothing tone.

"It's all right, little bro. We'll help him. I won't let Dirk die; you hear me?"

"...Mm-hmm..."

"Okay. But we're just gonna be a burden on him if we tail him into every fight. If we're gonna do this, we've gotta do it smart. From the shadows. My way. Understand?"

For a while, they simply sat like that, no one willing to break the perfect silence.

"...Yeah. I understand."

Sanosuke finally released his grip, letting his brother stand back up. His tears were starting to dry, and a hint of a smile was showing. "We'll do it your way, Aniki."

"Good."

That was the last word Sanosuke said before falling back, plopping onto the bed while praying the fire in his chest would die down. "Now could you help me back into the bed?"


The rest of the visit went quickly. After they helped him back into a comfortable position, the Orihara couple decided it'd be best if they went home. Shinosuke claimed to have books that needed to be read, ASAP. Sano gave them a curt goodbye, and relaxed. He may have slept a lot since last night, but he was up for a bit more shuteye.

BRIIIIIIIIIIING

His cell phone scoffed at the notion. Scowling, he picked up the little device and practically screamed into it, "Whaddaya want?!"

"Uncle."


"That you, Dirk?"

"Yeah," the boy said. He remained in the shop, relaxing in his booth. What had to be his fifth cup of coffee was resting in his hand, steam lazily flitting across his face. "I need a favor."

"...What? You're not gonna ask me how I'm doing? Maybe I'm dying, and these are my last minutes to live. Think of that, did ya?"

"I got the news this morning, at the hairdresser," the boy explained. "You're in no more danger of dying than a wolf in a meat locker."

"Sheesh. It ever get boring, trying so hard to sound nonplussed about shit?"

"..."

"Yeah, yeah, what do you want?"

Dirk lowered his voice, and whispered "Your connections. I need equipment."

"And why the hell do you need that?"

"I've been given a chance to take out two teams, tonight. At once. I plan to tip the odds in my favor."

Dirk could hear the old man harrumph. "Always the ambitious one. What do you need in particular?"

"Anything and everything. Explosives, incapacitating devices, rifles--"

"Whoa, hold it, whelp. You're getting ahead of yourself. Rifles aren't the kind of thing one just comes across. If I can do this at all, it's gonna take some time."

"No can do," Dirk responded. "It's happening tonight, immediately after sundown. I need whatever you can get me, let the rest come when it can."

The other end of the line was silent for a moment, as Sanosuke mulled it over. "Yeah, all right. I'll see what I can do. You know the toy store in Miyama? Wonder Carnival? Ask for Sharkey. Tell him I sent ya, I'll make sure he has something on hand."

"Good. Thanks, uncle."

"Don't mention it, sport."

"Oh, and..."

"...Spit it out, kid."

"Have my parents been by to see you?"

He heard a sigh. "Sorry, kid. They left a few minutes ago."

Dirk bowed his head, slightly, a gesture only Saber was around to notice. "Very well. Goodbye."

Dirk hung up his phone, tucking it back into his pocket and returning his attention to the important matter of the coffee he clenched in his hands. Sensing that it was cool enough, he brought it to his lips and took a healthy sip. Once he'd down enough to slake his thirst, he placed his beverage back on the table. He folded his hands, and quietly spoke to his invisible companion.

"So, what do you think, Saber? The younger girl seems rather naive. I think she might even try to play tonight honorably. But that other one... something seemed off about her, would you agree? She seemed to act much older than her appearance would imply. And what she said at the end... 'rabid dog'. We know they're the masters of Archer, Assassin, Berserker, or Caster. And I think we just narrowed one of them down to Berserker."

He raised his drink up, as if in a toast. "Tonight should be an intriguing challenge, wouldn't you agree?"

" That's not important...I'm not stupid you know. Everyone is different. Inside and out I mean. How we all show different sides and layers to different people.". Sophie spoke softly, but her words probed the atmosphere around the two.

" Or do you think maybe I am stupid?"

She was a little confused, that was it. Maria was sure of it. The light conversation turned to be unexpectedly tense, and Maria hoped to defuse that unwanted mistrust that developed between them because of that boy.

"I don't know", Maria answered quickly. She stopped and seemed terrified at the words she blurted out. "I... I don't know you. How could I judge you like that?", Maria hoped she could feign goodwill, if only enough to normalize their relationship again.

"[Maybe you're right.]" she said even more uncertain then before. "[maybe you can't really ever know someone. Not the way you know yourself.]" Sophie knelt down one arm around her legs, the other poking at a bit of old gum stuck to the sidewalk, here eyes fastened to the pink mass like it was the most interesting thing on earth.

"[Maybe I'm just taking what I think about myself and sticking it on other people. Where it doesn't belong.]"

Sophie was silent again for seconds that seemed to stretch out like hours. She continued to pick at the gum listlessly until eventually an attempt to scrape it up failed. Sophie hung her head listlessly so that Maria couldn't see her face at all anymore.

"[I'm sorry Maria. Maybe it would be better for you if I wasn't weighing you down. Maybe at least you could have your wish then. I don't even have one.]" She began to speak faster. "[I'm not a warrior. I'm not a genius. I'm not a snake. I'm not even that good at magic.]" She caught a breath that sounded half like a sob. "[I have no wish to make and a servant I don't even know the name of. I don't know anyone here, and no one I do know could even help if they were here. I don't even know what I'm doing here.]"

Sophia looked up her eyes red and puffy, a bit of mucus leaked form her nose and her eyes shimmered with water though she seemed determined not to actually cry. "[If anything I feel sorry for him.]" She said motioning towards Berserker who was a fair distance away. "[at least you can leave. Have a chance to win. Him though...]" She let the unfinished statement hang in the air.

Maria stood still for a few moments as she was weighing her options. The busy Japanese street had people walk by and periodically stop to stare at the foreign girl as she was about to burst into tears. The girl was aimless... she had lost her way. No direction, no hope, no goals. Maria thought about that - how the young seem lost in front of so many paths ahead. When they realize what they want they are already set on one path or the other. Such was the feeling of youth, but Maria hadn't undergone such troubling times. Her destiny was already predetermined by her family. She was supposed to be a good and obedient wife... and to have his children.

"Do you know yourself?", she asked Sophie in German. Maria stared at the girl as she was hunched over. She shook in desperation.

"Do you know your limitations?", Maria's words were precise. She tried to show no emotions. The old hag knelt down and looked at Sophie at her eye-level, but she was still staring at the ground.

"Do you know your desires? Do you know your morals?", Maria moved a little towards Sophie. He arm landed gently around her back. She slowly rubbed her hand against her right shoulder.

"I knew nothing when I was your age. All I knew for sure...", Maria stopped. "I was alive", she whispered.

"It was enveloped with so much confusion, yet there was so little time to make the right choices... and before you knew it, you were already on your path, unable to get off.", Maria's voice softened slightly. She let some of her emotions out as she tried to comfort Sophie.

"I said I didn't know you, but... what is stopping me from knowing you now?". Maria's hand moved up a little and touched the girl's hair. She gently stroked her hair as she went along.

Sophie's voice came out as a barely audible squeak. "What if... what if I make the wrong choice? What if knowing me makes you hate me?"

"If you don't try, you will never know", she whispered quietly. Sophie slightly tilted her head up; Maria leaned forward and planted a kiss on her forehead. "Do you want to try it with me?", Maria smiled at the girl.

Sophie looked up for a moment as her eyes were about to burst. "Yes! Please yes!" She cried suddenly as she lunged forward and grabbed Maria pulling her close with desperate strength. Maria's furs were quickly soaked with tears as Sophie continued to sob.

"Be brave", Maria whispered in Sophie's ear. The girl burrowed her head in Maria's bosom and cried softly. "...and remember, you will not stand alone.", she continued to gently stroke Sophie hair.

"You can do it, Sophie", Maria tried to encourage the poor girl, "You can do it, and tomorrow you will prove yourself against that arrogant boy. Show him... Show him who you really are, and what you can really do!".

Sophie's sobing eventually came to an end. "You...You're right." She looked up at Maria and while she had stopped crying her face was still a tear streaked mess.

"I told him I'd find another way. I can't screw that up. I have to show him it's posible."
Sophia was smiling again, beaming with genuine hope. "Thank you so much Maria."

She began to pull herself upward. "Now though, I have to go get some things to get ready. Will you come with me?"

Maria nodded in agreement and helped Sophie stand up on her feet. "Gladly", she answered.

Freedom, freedom to plan. His master was busy with inconsequential things and Assassin could make his next moves. People were beginning to notice a ghost wandering around Japan so the best thing to do for a while would be to wander as something else. Assassin puzzled for a moment, empty pizza boxes everywhere around him in the disheveled mess that was the hotel room. Then it hit him, he could deliver pizza!

Transportation was usually given if he lacked it and it would send him everywhere around the city. Recon would be easy, nobody ever questions why a pizza delivery man is running around. On top of that, he could probably find the residencies of all the contestants within days. The more Assassin thought about this, the better the idea seemed. The only problem now was that he didn't own a suit. Oh, and his hands were red, that too.

First step was first then, gather clothes that weren't a tunic. Assassin decided to look around for the nearest clothing store and activated his guise, becoming all but impossible to detect. Leaping out of the hotel, he landed gracefully on a nearby building and quickly scouted the area. He had to admire Japan's store selection, whatever he wanted he could mostly get. The cloaked figure's mind drifted for a moment but quickly came back and he spotted it. The sign translated to Suit and More! We have all!.

"This...is too easy." Assassin thought to himself as he phased into Suit and More. The inside of the store was frankly, gigantic. The blue stained walls were lined with rows and rows of clothes not just for men, but for women. Assassin phased through countless articles looking for what he hoped would fit him. Then he realized the suits came in various sizes with measurements and he sighed. This would actually require a bit of tact.

Assassin took some normal looking clothes and cut the tags and other locator devices off them and when nobody was looking, threw them out the back window into an aley. The robed figure dove down and caught them, landing easily and he quickly hid his normal robes in a secure place behind a dumpster and changed.

Assassin's new duds were a Hawaiian shirt, blue cloth gloves, jeans and some tennis shoes. The look now complete, he entered the area, unmasked and open, yet he blended fairly well despite looking goofy. As he returned to Suit and More, the clerk greeted him and asked if he needed assistance.

"Yes, actually I need you to help me pick out a suit. I want to apply for a job and I admit, I have never bought one before. I apparently need measurements to help so I would appreciate you getting them."

The lady smiled and called over one of the tailors to measure their customer. Assassin sat in the chair nearby and they quickly took them. He was surprised at how many they needed but once it was all done the tailor quickly wrote down the measurements on a receipt and ran off to do more work elsewhere.

The time it took Assassin to find the right suit was minimal. He was in and out and looked entirely different. White cloth gloves, a black blazer, dress pants and shiny new shoes. He was ready to apply for a job.

Going into the Pizza hut, he saw an array of signs advertising one kind of pizza and another. They had apparently put little hotdogs inside the crust now. Assassin was almost watering over all the options, but refocused and filled out the paper work. The lady at the counter was large for a Japanese girl, and seemingly unhappy. She glanced over the paper and stamped it, handing it back to her boss. Voices mumbled for a moment before the paper came back to the girl with another stamp.

"Come back in two hours. We will have your first delivery ready to go. Your car is out in the back, let me show you. Your keys are in your uniform when you come back."

"I'll take that - you tend to Rider's breakfast."

It didn't take much to convince Rider not to stay with Clay in the parlor. The room shook for a moment as the servant kipped himself up onto his feet and jogged to catch up with Maria who was already heading towards the kitchen. While the mysteries of modern day magic intrigued him, he wasn't interested in the boy's banter with whoever was trying to send him messages. It would surely be some boring conversation of veiled threats and pretentious scheming with no chance for him to inspect the marvel Clay held in his hand - Rider would simply need to figure out where the scrolls came out of the handheld page boy another time.

As the behemoth strolled into the kitchen his jaw almost dropped to the floor. Once again modern technology had vastly improved another facet of Rider's existence. Stainless steel cookware, pans with Teflon coatings, appliances galore all buffed to a shine and an oven that Rider could fit in himself all adorned the state of the art cooking station. Maria was finishing tying one of the frilly aprons that belonged to the maids as she walked over to Rider. Her exacerbated expression looked the spirit over before she took a single finger and pushed his mouth closed.

"It's impolite to gawk," she remarked matter-of-factly. "Now what would you like?"

Rider stared at Maria for a moment, lost in a befuddled state as he was taken out of his personal reflections. As the question finally registered his smugness returned in an instant and he began to muse over it.

"I am not certain. The food around these parts is quite familiar; however you are not of these lands from what has been said. I suppose I shall have what you peasants would normally have from which ever backwards empire you come from."

Maria stared at him long and hard for a moment, looking as though she were pressing all of her will to make the servant's head explode but reluctantly accepted the fact he would be around for a few hours longer.

"Very well, an English breakfast it is. Would you please ask Clay if he's regained enough sensibility to have some food as well?"

Rider nodded in affirmation and stuck his head out of the kitchen doorway and into the parlor. Clay was still busy with his phone call but something seemed odd about the conversation. The boy seemed extremely focused, choosing his words very carefully. It must have been incredibly important if the mage was straining over his words.

"Hey, boy, we are making breakfast for you! Is this acceptable!?" he shouted out.

The entirety of the two rooms froze at that proclamation. Clay looked at Rider as if he simply couldn't comprehend the complete lack of manners and subtlety the servant toted proudly. His eyes narrowed as he paused in his conversation to gather his wits again. It was fortunate that the Marks family was so well poised so that Clay recovered his composure so quickly, shooing Rider away in quite an animated manner while responding to his caller.

"Very well. If you want to talk...you will have your wish."

On the other hand, Maria was perturbed with what the servant had just mentioned. Her hands were at her sides, clutched into fists and shaking with rage. Had he seriously just done that? While she could forgive the brute for his complete lack of social graces she certainly couldn't forgive him for what he had just implied. She quickly turned around to see Rider grinning like a buffoon and stormed up to him with a scorn more fiery than the pits of Hell itself.

"He said yes."

"We!?" was the only thing she managed to huff out, her voice slightly raised to inelegance. Her demeanor then calmed what little it needed to as her voice became the icy and calculated tone Rider was familiar with. "What is this 'we' you're speaking of? There is no 'we' in preparing this meal. There is no 'we' in anything you choose to pursue within this house. There is no 'we' ever to be mentioned so long as you're here. Am I making myself clear?"

Rider looked at her for a moment, taken aback by the abrupt verbal lashing he had just been subjected to. He never would have thought his company would have been unwanted. She had seemed quite uncomfortable at their first meeting, however, and he was beginning to think that maybe they had started off on the wrong foot. Maybe it was when he and the maids had barged into her room this morning with their cross-mansion pillow fight. Perhaps it had something to do with him having watched her sleep for two hours straight last night. While her suggestion for guarding her outside of her chambers was certainly more private it did not offer the tactical advantage of direct sight - or so he had protested when she had woken up...

"Does that mean you do not wish to go purchase goods at this bazaar they call a 'mall' with me today?" he questioned, looking quite hurt by the statement. Whether it was genuine or not was something even she couldn't tell.

"Yes, Rider." she said while sighing, rubbing her temples with forefinger and thumb, "Yes it does."

"Well then," the man stated in a sullen manner before rising back into a more cheerful disposition, "it seems as though I must prove my worth to another fine maiden!"

Maria simply stared at him in aggravated disbelief. She couldn't comprehend how someone could be so thick. Could he really not take a hint or did he simply choose to ignore her unimpressed attitude and bulrush forward? Whatever the answer was she resigned herself to defeat. While her womanly wrath could certainly browbeat a man of Rider's stature when he was off his guard, the spirit still had enough gall and determination to advance under a constant barrage. It was best to save her bile for a more suitable moment.

"Fine," she stated, brushing back a loose stand of hair that had been misplaced. "Go fetch a frying pan and fry a few eggs."

Rider rubbed his stomach absent-mindedly at the mention of eggs. While he was a spirit made purely of mana from the Grail, hunger was still an issue in his situation. Normally a spirit would simply consume mana to keep them sustained, eliminating the need for things such as food, drink or sleep but Rider understood Clay's unique situation when summoning him. He consumed vast amounts of mana which limited certain aspects and advantages that other servants could access freely without worry of draining their masters of precious mana reserves. While he did take advantage of being able to forgo sleep - to keep guard of the manor which rarely transpired - Rider had vowed to keep the boy in fighting shape by continuing the ritual of having at least three square meals a day. While the servant's appetite had been more than the family had bargained for it was at least keeping Clay conscious throughout the War.

...That and Rider really liked well prepared food!

With his thoughts on a delicacy of perfectly fried eggs, Rider searched around for a pan that he could heat up. With the kitchen being so organized it was only a matter of seconds before the servant had one of the light-weight Teflon pans. He inspected it with curiosity, marveling at the advancement from the old iron skillets his chefs had been forced to prepare food on. It cut through the air with a 'swish' as he expertly swung it a couple times as he walked over to the oven. Opening the door to the stove, he curiously peered inside, perplexed by the enclosed space.

"Maria!" he cried out like a child asking his mother for assistance. "Your oven is broken."

The woman grumbled her way over to Rider to inspect the oven. She was quick and efficient with her inspection and in a matter of seconds she looked at the servant as if he had two heads.

"It looks fine."

"Then where does the smoke go from the fire inside? It is a fire hazard!"

"Rider," she tried to explain as calmly as possible, "our oven is electrical, like your television and every other appliance in the manor. It doesn't need wood or coal or any other barbaric means of producing energy." By the tone in her voice it had obviously been a conversation they had had plenty of times before this. So with that, Maria left Rider to his own devices once more, busily searching the industrial fridge for the sausages.

Grumbling to himself in a mimicry of Maria's little speech, he inspected the knobs of the oven before turning the appropriate dial for the burner on the stove top. As it heated up he could see it grow red hot, almost instantaneously in terms of what Rider was used to. The servant made a game of it, seeing how long he could keep his finger pressed against the ever hotter glass burner. Though incredibly painful, he delighted in the test of mettle it proved for him. After about nineteen attempts and a personal best of seven seconds, he placed the pan on the now heated surface and began to search for the eggs.

The task proved to be far more daunting then he had first imagined. The fridge was a monster of an appliance with it being just a shade smaller than Rider himself. When Rider opened the door it was more like a chilled pantry than a refrigerator. He frantically searched through a garden of produce he didn't recognize, a cellar's worth of cheeses and a locker of meats before finding the shelf that contained the eggs. He quickly scooped up a half dozen into his massive paw of a hand before stopping and reconsidering the decision. 'I suppose I should fry enough for the others, as well.'

Taking back the entire container of eggs, the confident servant started to crack a pair of eggs into the now sizzling hot pan. His flair was unmatched, cracking the eggs open with a single hand and casually casting the shells aside onto the counter top nearby. The giant scoffed at the pan as the eggs cooked perfectly. It was a wonder how women found this chore so taxing. Or was it simply his great warrior pedigree that found him too perfect to find cooking a couple eggs troublesome?

"Look woman," Rider shouted over to Maria, turning his back to the oven, "my cooking skills are perfect. I do not see why your sex complains about your lot in life. This is simple!"

"Really?" Maria commented smugly, busying herself with some beans and a pot. "Smells like your cooking needs some work."

"Ha! You simply do not wish to admit defea-"

Rider cut himself short as he sniffed the air tentatively. There was a distinct odour of mingled charcoal and eggs that was wafting out from behind him. His eyes went wide as we spun around and bore witness to the horror that was his creation being brutally burned onto the non-stick pan. Quickly pushing it from the heated stove top he looked at the utterly destroyed meal and pan, the eggs cooked right onto the iron beneath the Teflon. Maria walked up behind the massive man, tutting her disapproval at the servant's incompetence. As Rider looked at the pan in dismay, the more experienced cook slipped her hand around him from behind and took the pan. She briskly emptied the contents into the garbage and tossed the pan aside, knowing it was ruined indefinitely. Slapping a pot back onto the currently heated burner on the glass top, she turned down the heat and looked over to Rider with a satisfied smugness.

"Now," she began, sounding like a scolding mother, "I expect you can managed to watch a pot of beans. Just make sure when they start to bubble that you take them off."

Rider snorted with a large exhale as Maria slowly walked off to go prep the tomatoes for slicing. When he noticed the woman wasn't paying attention to his tantrum, the servant immediately spun around to keep an eye on the baked beans. The baked beans didn't seem to be cooking very quickly, a strange contrast to the eggs he had tried to fry. Minutes passed and Rider couldn't see the surface of the thick, saucy surface of the beans. He crouched down low, his eyes becoming level with the lip of the pot, watching the bean patiently. As his eyes narrowed in frustration a single bubble boiled to the top and made a small plop before being sucked back into the thickening sauce. The warrior couldn't stand waiting for the food to cook, wanting breakfast to be finished and at the eating stage of things right now. So he did what any hungry man would do: he turned the dial for the burner to max.

Rider excitedly watched the pot of beans, eagerly awaiting the delicious outcome this would inevitably produce. It was too tantalizing to even imagine how satisfying the meal was going to be. He closed his eyes and visions of a mouth watering breakfast began to enter his head. Fried eggs, sausages, baked beans, crullers and maybe even some savoury congee. Or better yet, jook! Rider could already feel his taste buds salivating when his entrancing daydream was abruptly interrupted.

"Rider you incompetent fool!"

Maria was already emptying the already burnt beans into the garbage when Rider opened his eyes. The look on her face was quite telling as to how frustrated she was beginning to feel. That was two parts of the meal she was going to have to prepare again. The glare she gave Rider would have killed a lesser being it was so terribly poisonous. Setting the pot aside, she took Rider by the arm and brought him over to the toaster. Taking a single slice of bread, she slotted it into the appliance and pressed the button on the front down until it locked in place.

"See? Toast is simple, no?" she mocked, clearly reaching the ends of her patience.

Rider could only sneer and nod at the woman's disdain. While he didn't enjoy her attitude, she did have facts on her side as to his inability to cook. As Maria left to go prepare other food stuffs, Rider made himself busy with watching the toast slowly cook between the heated coils of the toaster. Before too long, the servant was starting to suspect that something might be the matter. While he was no expert on making toast, he was an expert at burning things and the bread felt as though it had been cooking for far too long. His nose twitched in agreement when the first scent of burning bread dance around his nose.

"That better not be burnt toast I smell, Rider!" Maria yelled, not bothering to turn around as she started to fry some new eggs.

"Of course not, woman. Focus upon your own activities, I am too busy making toast to pay attention to the likes of you," Rider retorted, frantically searching for something to pull the toast out with.

Rider then pulled out a fork from the cutlery drawer. The metal prongs seemed as thought hey would be useful for reaching into the appliance and sticking into the bread slice he would have to save. Quickly running over to the sink, Rider ran the fork under cold water, knowing that it would clearly protect the metal from heating up when it touched the heated coils inside. Then, with the surgical precision of a bear mauling its victim, Rider jabbed the fork into the toaster slot and immediately got the fork stuck behind the coils. To say that there was a slight jolt that tickled Rider's molecules and made his hair stand on end would be comparing his ego to that of a modest monk. The current that coursed through Rider body immediately sent him into convulsions, arcing electricity from the toaster onto his arm for the briefest of moments before the entire appliance shorted out and exploded in a puff of black smoke. His hand trembling and twitching from the experience, Rider pulled the charcoal black piece of bread from the toaster and tossed it away into the garbage, already knowing what Maria's reaction would be.

It was the final straw. Maria couldn't trust Rider with anything in this kitchen for fear that the entire manor might go up in flames. Her last nerve was being worked as she quickly scooped up a box of Frosted Flakes and a carton of milk before marching right over to the servant. She set both on the counter in front of him, determined that she would at least get some use out of the buffoon before she kicked him out of the kitchen so she could get on with making breakfast. God help him if he managed to screw this up...

"Here!" she practically screamed, "Diana doesn't eat a full breakfast. I'm sure even you can make cereal, you neanderthal."

Maria scrutinizingly watched the warrior as he carefully poured the cereal into the bowl with absolute care. Next, he poured the milk on top so gingerly you would have sworn he was one of the maids. Both of them beheld the magnificent accomplishment that Rider had performed, one smug as anything, the other letting relief wash over herself. Finally he had done something right!

"Perfect..." Maria said sarcastically with a sigh, turning around to get back to her duties.

Just then, as quickly as that relief had settled in, it came crashing down with a similar noise from behind her. Slowly she turned around, afraid of what she might be subjected to or, worse yet, how she would react to it. As she planted her feet firmly towards the magnificent moron that was Clay's Heroic Spirit, she could only stare in disbelief. There was Rider, fist against the counter, the bowl of cereal broken and leaking all over.

"Why!?" was the only word that managed to escape her mouth, exasperated as anything.

"The cereal was forming unspeakable words as it floated about within the bowl. The insult thing insulted me!"

Something snapped then. Maria's normally poised and calm demeanor gave way to a rage unlike any other. Her entire body was shaking with anger as she slowly stepped towards Rider. Her expression was an absolute terror, her eye twitching with madness. The woman even began to chuckle a little, her thoughts reeling as to what she was going to do about the situation at hand. She had no idea what she was going to do to the servant, but by the time she was through it was very doubtful he would be participating in any Grail Wars.

"Maria, are you alright?"

"Get out, get out, GET OUT!!!"

Rider immediately was pushed out of the kitchen by a fuming Maria. The servant looked dumbfounded by her sudden outburst, unsure of what exactly he had done to be treated this way. He turned to say something but before the first word came out of his gaping mouth a familiar frying pan shot straight into his forehead, bouncing off with a clang! and sent Rider to the floor. After a moment of collecting himself, he sat up straight and for the second tie that morning was looking up at a both puzzled and irritated Clay Marks.

"I believe she is beginning to see how charming I am."

Clay frowned.

* * *

"Master Clay, your breakfast is ready."

Clay nodded an affirmation and followed Alberta to the dining room. It was spacious and luxurious, the central piece a massive table large enough to host two dozen people. The room was further accentuated with chandeliers, portraits of the past heads of the Marks family, and some of the finest silverware Clay had ever seen. The family manor spared no expense, it seemed.

He took a seat at the head of the table, Maria and Rider sitting to the seats adjacent. The maids then carted in their meal - a traditional English breakfast, complete with fried eggs, sausage, and large, steaming pot of tea. Clay couldn't help but smile - he hadn't a proper meal since he'd arrived, being busy preparing Rider's summoning. Politely nodding as Alberta loaded his plate with his course, he dug in.

Casting his vision over the table, he saw Rider devouring his meal in a most uncouth manner, shoveling eggs into his mouth whole and swallowing toast in one bite. Looking up to seeing Clay's disapproving gaze, he scoffed, continuing his crimes against foodstuffs with haste. "It's a meal, not an enemy. You could at least try at some civility."

Again, Rider scoffed, swallowing the sizable portion in his mouth before turning to his Master. "I wouldn't expect a peasant like you to understand the needs of a true warrior. Don't you have a report to give?"

Clay doubted his Servant honestly cared about what he had to say; just that he wanted an excuse to return to his food unopposed. Seeing little point in starting an argument over something so trivial, Clay cleared his throat and stood up, motioning to address both his Servant and sister. "Yes, I do. Einzbern has contacted me. She wishes to meet with me in person before the sun sets. To talk, she says."

Maria suddenly bolted upright, speaking with a voice clearly betraying her alarm. "You did what? And she wants WHAT!? Clay, this is obviously a trap!" Clay made an exaggerated roll of his eyes and continued. "Really? You think it's a trap? Well, sod. I suppose we should just pack up and leave, if you really think it's that dangerous." Sitting down, Clay leveled his gaze at his sister, a smirk evident on his face. "Don't worry, Maria. I, your illustrious mage-brother, know exactly what to do. What's more..." Casting his attention back towards Rider, who was still wolfing his food down as though it were the last meal in the world, he let himself chuckle. Turning back to Maria, he cleared his throat and continued. "You said you wanted to help my efforts in the War in a more... direct manner. I think the time has come to grant that wish."

He poured himself a cup of tea, slowly and deliberately. He could feel his sister's gaze bore a hole in his head as he did so, but he kept firm - this idea was unconventional, to say the least. He could not afford to show weakness, even to his own family. Raising the teacup to his lips, he drank deeply of its contents, savoring its flavor, before setting it down and continuing. "A Master of the Marks family will meet Einzbern... but it will not be me."

He could feel the room itself freeze as he finished that sentence. Even Rider seemed shocked, sitting with his mouth slightly agape before it curled into a wicked smirk, understanding exactly what this meant. Just as well, Maria stood frozen, her mouth opening as though she meant to say something, before closing it again. She took in a deep breath, gathering herself, before taking a seat, clearly shaken. "I... I don't think I heard you correctly."

Clay cocked an eyebrow, puzzled at Maria's response. Apprehension? This wasn't the bold, trailblazing sister he knew and loved. "Perhaps I should make myself clear. I intend to give you one of my Command Seals and send you to this meeting in my ste-"

He hadn't even finished his sentence before Maria bolted out of her chair, running to Clay's side, her face flushed with anger. "CLAY! THIS PLAN... IT... IT'S UTTERLY RECKLESS! SPLITTING YOUR POWER LIKE THAT..."

'There's the Maria I know.' He let her vent, calmly sipping his tea. He cast his gaze over to Rider, who was watching the exchange with a mixture of shock and amusement. "Maria, I'm not doing this because I don't value our lives. In fact, if I didn't have a plan in mind for this little excursion, I wouldn't bother showing up at all." He let his smirk grow a grin, not even bothering to hide his self-satisfaction.

" Oh, no. We're going to spring Einzbern's little trap. And when it fails... her reaction will be telling."
Maria anger, abated by her curiosity, simmered down, though her face still sported a pronounced frown. She crossed her arms, looking at her brother, waiting for an explanation. Taking another sip of tea, he continued, "Einzbern doesn't want to talk. If she desired nothing else, why go through the trouble and risk of a meeting? A conversation on the phone would suffice. I'm well aware she intends to use her magic to influence me."

"Then none of us should go! This is a stupid risk -"

Clay cut her off, his voice firm. "Under most circumstances, I'd agree. But she was... insistent. Determined. She wants to manipulate me before night falls. She has plans, and I don't just want to disrupt them... I want to show her how little they mean." He stood, his composure emitting an aura of confidence. "How pathetic and insignificant her attempts at control truly are. Your Magic Circuits still have their handicap, do they not? Unless you've managed to heal yourself while I wasn't looking, I think Einzbern will find any attempts to use her magic to influence you very, very frustrating."

He extended his right arm towards her, the Command Seals shining crimson against his fair skin. "Maria, I need your help. I cannot win this war alone."

Maria took a step back, her apprehension still clear. "Clay, this is a terrible idea. But if you really think it's best..." She raised her arm in turn, meeting his in a firm handshake. "Then I trust you."

"Excellent!" Clay turned from the table, motioning for Maria to follow. "We have no time to spare. You need to make a pact with Rider before I give you any Seals. You too, Rider. "

The massive Servant shot him a menacing glare, clearly not pleased that his meal was being interrupted, but complied. Leading the two to the study, Clay cleared the space he'd used to summon Rider two days previously. Pleased to see the magic circle was still intact, he turned to his sister and Servant. "I believe this will suffice. Maria, Rider, you know what to do."

Maria nodded and took her position at the outer edge of the circle. Rider strode to its center, standing with his gaze firmly affixed on the young woman before him. "Get on with it, peasant girl. I have breakfast to finish." Maria returned the venom of his glare twofold, visibly bristling at the slight, but managed to keep her temper in check with a huff. "Clay, start the ritual. I want to get this over with."

'The things I put up with...' Clay rolled his eyes and raised his hands, prana gathering at the edges of his mind. "A base of silver and steel. A foundation of stone and the Archduke of Contracts." The traditional first line of all pact spells was uttered, snapping the coalescing prana into a clear shape - an infantile spell.

"By the will of the Grail, I accede to thee - dost thou wish to join the War for the holiest of artifacts?" Maria only nodded in response, her face betraying no emotion. Her gaze was still affixed firmly on Rider, staring him down with absolute focus. The prana now draining from Clay's body swiftly reacted to her affirmation, pouring into the magic circle and causing it to glow with a gentle red light. "By the authority of Schweinorg, Master Amongst Mages, I bestow upon you the title of Master. With my magecraft as your witness, go forth and vanquish that which is evil in the eternal world." The prana swirling through the circle seemed to stop dead as he uttered the next line, but Clay knew better - it was coiling against itself like a clock spring, awaiting release.

"Be the sword of fate in this plane of blood. Head forth, thy Master of Rider, and strike at the wicked clawing at the gates of the Eternal City!" The spell released, flooding Maria with a torrent of eldritch energies. She gasped as it took root, but stood fast, her composure unfazed.

'Something's wrong. This spell brands your soul - it isn't something you shrug off. Unless... Is her handicap hindering its progress? Only one way to find out.'

As the spell abated, Maria's figure relaxed, no longer under the influence of magecraft. She took in a deep breath and let it out, turning her attention to her brother. "Well... that wasn't as unpleasant as I assumed it would." Clay grunted in response, gesturing to Rider. "There might be a reason for that. Try to feed him some prana." She cocked an eyebrow in response, her expression turning to one of amusement. "Already done, little brother. You're better with this magic than you think." Rider flexed his muscles, feeling the power surge through his body as if in affirmation to the statement.

Clay shrugged, turning to leave the study. "I never know with you, sister. I swear, it took seven tries just to place your alarm ward. Your handicap can be most vexing." He motioned to leave the study, but stopped short at the doorway, looking back at Maria. "Before I forget - come see me before you leave to meet with Einzbern. I'll give you some of my Seals. Welcome to the war effort, sister."

* * *

The fellowship of three slowly climbed out of the cab as it crawled to a halt in front of the impound office. Maria was the last to exit, having paid the driver handsomely for his continued silence on the matter of their little trip which he generously accepted. Rider wasn't exactly sure why they had had to bribe the driver of their motorized coach, with the simple expectation that peasants should know their place; Maria had assured him it was for the best. While the middle-eastern gentleman had seemed nice enough, the overly poised lady didn't want to take any chances in case others were just as vehicularly challenged as they were at the moment.

"So now what?" Rider questioned with a hint of disdain. He was clearly upset at the thought of his mount being held against his will in some commoner's corral or stable.

"We go in, file the necessary paperwork, pay any fees that are applicable and leave with the car," Maria explained as if she were talking to a child, which in her opinion, she might as well have been.

"Paperwork?" Rider groaned as they began to file into the building. "Why can we just not demand it from the guard? I am a warrior; a general!"

"Of an era long past," Maria pointed out, raising a single finger in a matter-of-fact manner.

The foul tempered servant didn't seem placated by the response, crossing his arms and huffing quite loudly. Diana simply watched the entire exchange transpire, smiling to herself with her usual morning cheer. While Maria seemed far more spiteful than Rider in her comments for one reason or another, she knew the conversation was simple bickering and nothing more. That fact alone made it far more amusing to listen and watch as the two picked at each other like ravens. It was nice that a little normalcy had returned to their family, even if it had gotten that much larger over the past couple days.

As the group entered the barren office, Maria broke off from their group and addressed the attendant behind the glass. They spoke for a moment before some papers were handed over and the Marks sister deftly began filling them out with an uncanny quickness. Rider and Diana had taken seats in a small waiting corner of the government office, watching internet videos on Diana's phone.

As the minutes rolled by the pair began to become fidgety with their impatience. Maria didn't seem terribly bothered; rather she seemed quite pleased with the long wait as if savouring the delicious order of the bureaucracy. The two younger members, however, looked as thought they had had their fill of the government's ability to stretch any process out to an agonizing length of time. Rider looked up at the haphazardly sprawled Diana, her head resting on the servant's stomach as she lay across three chairs while watching something about local cat breeds. While his upside down position had proven a good stretch, he has decided that a walk would do a much more adequate job.

"Pssst, Diana" Rider whispered ever so carefully to make sure it only carried as far as her ears. "We should search out the motor vehicle from the stables. I tire of waiting for the nobility to deem our credentials worthy."

"I don't think we should," Diana whispered back, her face full of surprise, worry and just a hint of gleeful anxiousness at the prospect of disobeying her sister's wishes. "Maria would be upset if we did. I don't think it'll be that much longer..."

"Very well, young maiden, if you wish to remain here that is your choice..."

Rider shifted a little to indicate he was going to be moving and Diana shot up to a sitting position almost immediately. Her expression was one that was torn, unsure of which side she should take. Maria wouldn't be terribly pleased when she learned they had broken into the impound lot and stolen their car back but Rider was not someone you could leave alone for three seconds without jeopardizing the entire masquerade of the Grail War. She had caught herself looking back and forth between the two parties almost four times before she finally decided to stay with the Heroic Spirit. Maria was distracted with her own mental calculations and lists that she constantly checked and double checked to ensure perfection of any task and the younger sister could only hope her sibling would understand when she told her Rider had decided to go on his little expedition with or without supervision.

By the time Diana had caught up to the wayward servant he had already been inspecting the entrance to the lot at the side of the compound. As she reached him, a thrilling excitement rushing through her, Rider simply cocked an eyebrow and frowned slightly. While he was ecstatic that she had followed her presence came with certain complications. He was a spirit and could easily bypass the meager defenses of the stable by shifting into his ethereal form. Diana did not have such a particularly useful skill for entry into barred areas. So with the absolute tactical genius that the aged warrior possessed he clasped the chain and lock that secured the gate doors and easily crushed it within his grip. As the chain slackened its hold the gate slid open just a crack and Rider forcibly dragged the young woman into the lot with him as they both ducked behind the first row of cars.

Their progress was slow as they kept their profiles low to the ground, obscured by the rows of parked cars. The search was more meticulous than the young woman had imagined though by the looks of things Rider seemed much more adept at the activity. He scanned each car with a removed ruthlessness, searching for his own true pride and joy within the thousands of what he call the 'commoner's rabble'. She could only imagine how many times the warrior had partaken in midnight excursions on the battlefield by the way he was instinctively acting with methodical efficiency.

It was on their fourth row of vehicles that their first obstacle presented itself. A single guard, armed with a nightstick that he was casually twirling, was making his rounds up and down the lot to ensure the safety of their charges. He was moving in a relaxed saunter, blissfully whistling to himself as his head bobbed back and forth in a less than alert manner. Diana began to feel the tension in the situation despite the fact the guard seemed completely unaware of the two infiltrators. She was about to simply stand up and surrender when Rider motioned for her to fan out in one direction while he traveled in the opposite. Clearly the man's experience had allowed him to form a plan and she could do nothing else but trust he would keep her safe.

Rider quickly darted between cars, making his way towards the office with as much stealth as he could afford. He could only hope that the guards were as dimwitted as they appeared to be. As he slipped through the parked cars he quickly slammed his fist into the back tail light of one of them, making a large clatter as the plastic chips fell to the ground. The distraction did its job, catching the attention of the guard. As security slowly approached the position Rider had just passed by, the servant swiftly and silently made his way to the office, timing his jump to the roof with the guard bending down to inspect the newly damaged vehicle. With the guard sufficiently confused and Diana now searching frantically for the car at the other end of the lot, Rider tore off the grate to the ventilation system for the building and more or less slipped inside.

Crawling through the ventilation shaft was slow and difficult. A warrior of his size wasn't particularly adept at fitting into tight places and he was constantly struggling to gain traction. If it weren't for his super human strength, the task would have been impossible. So as he snaked his way stealthfully through the air shafts, the vents became banged and stretched from the constant movement Rider was making within them. The metal stretch of square tube was sagging from its supports, in some places smashed right through the plaster of the ceiling below. After two other grates in the system, he finally foudn the one above the key room. Several guards had gathered below the now exposed ventilation shaft, gawking at it with utter confusion. Focusing his mind, Rider did away with his normal casual wear and instead donned a fully tailored charcoal suit, a purple tie with a pattern of tiny squares, an off-white blue shirt and black wingtips. With his dress now more appropriate to that of the super spies he was mimicking, the hulking man curled up into the best ball he could manage just above the grate and kicked it down with the force of a mac truck.

The grate shot down into the group of guards, smashing into the face of one of the unfortunate souls. As the poor man crumpled to the ground, Rider fell into the crowd below, kicking the unconscious guard as he landed for good measure. The gaggle of men were paralyzed with both shock and fear, giving the servant enough time to straighten out his suit in preparation. As the moment of tension came to an end the guard swarmed towards Rider, all trying to attack him at once. The exchange was a flurry of blows, punches and open palm strikes flying between the two sides. It was clearly a one-sided fist fight, however, with the Heroic Spirit proving to be the superior combatant by far. With one last thunderous punch, Rider smirked and watched as the grounded man crashed into unconsciousness.

Dusting himself off gingerly, Rider took in his surroundings. The room was abuzz with security monitors and surveillance equipment to keep the impound lot safe from anyone foolish enough to break in. The giant scoffed at their futile attempts to keep someone such as himself out of the compound before turning to the other end of the room. A large glass wall was between himself and the keys to his mount, teasing the servant by clearly displaying his prize in front of him. Getting to work quickly he kneeled in front of the wall and carefully traced a large circle on the glass with his fingernail. With his herculean strength he engraved the shape into the wall with one pass. Standing back up, the servant took a single step back and then kicked the circle he had made with all the force he could muster. The entire wall reverberated violently before shattering into a million tiny crystals, showering down onto the now befuddled behemoth. With a nonchalant shrug the spirit quickly rooted through the drawers and pegs holding keys before finding the set he had been tasked to retrieve and hurriedly ran through the unlocked door to the now open concept key storage room. Before he could leave the security room, however, he was confronted with a familiar face that was agape with awe and terror at what had transpired. The guard form outside must have entered the building when the commotion had started to get help with his supposed phantom infiltrator outside. Rider simply stared down the man who was shaking so violently he might as well have been inching towards the servant.

"What did you see, little man?" the spirit questioned. "Who caused this chaos?"

"No-no-nobody, sir..." the meek man replied.

"Exactly."

Rider slowly slipped on his pair of aviators and straightened out the cuffs to his shirt before moving past the still stunned guard. Key in hand, he briskly made his way back outside to the impound lot, a satisfied smirk on his face. His view of the lot was perfect now, easily spotting his precious beauty out within the field of commoner vehicles. She was sitting inside his other precious beauty, looking incredibly nervous and looking about her surrounding for anyone who might spot her. As their eyes met the world seemed to slow as Diana bore witness to Rider walking away from the office as a massive crashing sound roared from the building, plaster dust bursting forth from every open window, doorway and the vent on the roof. Time returned to normal as the servant hopped into the car, turned the key in the ignition and revved the car into life once more. With Diana scrambling to fasten her seat belt, Rider backed out of the lot with the precision of an expert driver and began to slowly make his way to the entrance to pick up Maria.

Inside the office, Maria and and the desk clerk were over come in a coughing fit from the dust that had been kicked up. One moment the two had been exchanging money to pay for the fees of having an illegally parked car, the next there was a massive cloud washing over them after what sounded like the ventilation system becoming unhinged and crashing to the ground. As the young woman began to come to her senses, she noticed that her two compatriots had conveniently gone missing from the waiting room. Her eyes narrowed as she put two and two together, her hands clenched so tight they were shaking with anger. After her brief aside, she heard the familiar honk of the Aston Martin coming from outside and looked out the glass doors to see Rider and Diana waving from the car. Quickly gathering her wits about her, she faced the desk clerk who was still having a coughing fit.

"I'm so sorry," Maria said, a tone of sincere apology reflecting in her words. "Maybe now's not the best time to be picking up the car. I'll leave you to fix the problems out back and come back tomorrow."

She hastily bowed and ran off outside as the clerk nodded and waved her away. The young woman's disposition went from that of apologetic to sheer fury as she came up to the car. The two idiots were grinning to themselves, thinking they had done a good job. Maria sighed, the tension spilling out in that breath, simply glad that they had one less objective to accomplish before their nearing deadline for tea. Climbing into the back of the car and fastening her own seat belt, Maria waved for Rider to get going and the three sped off into the Miyama district.

* * *

"I like that orange one," Diana said with a hint of deliberation, "he seems cute."

Both she and Rider were on their haunches, their faces pressed to the side of a glass container they were looking into. Before them lay a massive ball of fur of an assortment of colours, the amalgamation of dozens of sleeping kittens all huddled together. After acquiring a set of three smart phones at their previous stop, Rider had insisted they purchase his long awaited feline companion before they matched wits with Einzburn. They would need as much luck as they could garner before that encounter.

"I am not searching for a quality such as 'cute'," Rider explained, shifting his eyes to look at Diana, "I search for a ferocious beast, a warrior that will stand at my side and assist me in battling the forces of this war."

"And you're looking at kittens?" Diana countered with a tone flat with disbelief.

"Cats are lucky," the servant attempted to explain, "or so my research has concluded. My luck is unfortunately not as exceptional as it should be. If Clay is able to perform a ritual that can bolster my magical defenses, perhaps a familiar could improve my other parameters."

Diana was looking at the servant skeptically as she turned back towards the glass container. "Of course, Rider, this has absolutely nothing to do with how cute these little guys are."

Rider could feel his cheeks beginning to flush as he quickly looked back towards the cat. He had to admit they weren't as terrifying as he had imagined, but in the end he simply wanted something that would improve his own potential. Whether it was the most intimidating beast or the most small and frail of birds it was the effect was the advantages it would provide to his own prowess that was important in this transaction. The fact that the kittens were heart-achingly adorable was only a bonus, in his mind.

Unfortunately the pair was simply wasting time with this litter as the servant was still looking for something that had the spirit of a warrior and all these kittens wished to do was sleep. Rider motioned for Diana to get up, doing so himself. His new personal electronic pageboy - or as he was abbreviating it, his e-pageboy - informed him that they were already late for the assigned meeting with Lancer and Einzburn. With some reluctance Diana began to follow Rider out, the two walking in tandem before something caught the warrior's attention. An attendant had passed them on the way out with a wily ball of black and white fur struggling in her arms. As the employee reached the glass cage the two cat shoppers had just been inspecting the kitten nearly flew from the woman's arms as it jumped back into its home. Immediately it ran for the massive pile of residents and playfully attacked them. The resident ball stirred but none of the kittens reciprocated the urge to run about, more content with lazily drifting back to sleep. Rider spun around with renewed vigour in his search, clasping his partner's hand and dragging her back to the glass box. Within the few steps it took to reach it, the temperamental animal had already begun batting around a small plastic cage ball with a bell inside.

"I demand to have that one," Rider exclaimed, looking over at Diana as he pointed towards the rambunctious cat.

"So that's a warrior's spirit? Looks more like A.D.D. to me..." Diana commented.

"You peasants would not understand the boundless amounts of passion and energy a warrior must contain within himself," Rider explained, accompanied with extravagant hand gestures. "This is why a true warrior must train, both to improve his skill and relieve him of that energy before it sits and sours into thoughts of vengeance and war. The true warrior will have the sensibility to direct that energy towards positive ends: keeping the peasantry safe, patrolling a fortress or practicing their craft." Rider's brow then furrowed as he focused his attention back onto the wild spirited kitten. "There is also something familiar about this one; something I cannot quite place."

The energetic cat must have noticed he was being watched because as the Heroic Spirit finished his justification the cat began to stare back up at him. Their eyes locked in a battle of wills, neither moving an inch and neither willing to blink. Though her magecraft was that of a neophyte's she could still feel the energy that radiated from the two competitors. She never would have thought it so, but both Rider and the kitten were flexing their fighting spirits, clashing in a manner she could only dream of comprehending. After what seemed like an exhausting length of time the kitten finally turned his head away, Rider smirking to himself as he knew he had won that test.

With the kitten having lost the stare down, Rider dared make his next. His hands slowly inched towards the animal, calm and steady with direct eye contact. There was no trace of fear, no hint of doubt in the warrior's mind as his hands approached the cat in his confident manner. The feline wouldn't be taken so easily, however, swiping at the giant's hands with an uncanny quickness, even for a cat. Its claws dug into Rider's hands but he didn't seem to notice, his will focused on taming the unruly demon before him. Finding his attack futile, the cat tried to weasel away but found himself already backed into the wall of the pen. Sensing his foe was trapped the servant made his move and shot his hands out, gently cupping the cat's front legs between his thumbs and forefingers. 'No where to hide now...' he thought as a confident smile flashed across his face.

The cat wormed around in Rider grasp, wriggling to try and free itself in a last effort to prove itself superior to the trained soldier. There was no purchase in the vice like grip around the helpless animal regardless of how much it struggled. As the feline captive finally gave up its struggle against the far superior spirit, Rider lifted the cat to be face to face with him, staring directly into saucer green eyes once more. It was so close their noses were almost touching. As he stared into those green pools Rider smirked to himself, finally understanding why this felt so familiar. 'By the Heavens, it is you...'

"Do you swear fealty to your lord and commander, to obey his every order without question and to battle with honour until your dying breath?"

The kitten tilted its head to the side slightly before licking Rider's nose and purring loudly. The spirit's rough demeanor melted away at the sheer cuteness the animal could muster, snuggling it close to his face with a rare satisfaction. Diana could only giggle after watching the entire scene unfold, finding it all incredibly silly. At last, Rider had found the cat he had been looking for and what was more he had found a general in him. The two quickly made their way to the cash and paid for their newest member, the owner gladly accepting the three solid gold coins the servant had produced from a small velvet sack he called a coin purse. Diana eyed them with shimmering eyes, wondering how old they must have been but before she could get a closer look, the owner had scooped them up and the proud owner of a new Japanese bobtail was leaving the store.

"So, what are you gonna name him?" Diana queried a couple minutes later after she had called herself a cab.

"Hou," Rider stated plainly. Hou scrambled out of the giant's hands and stretched out comfortably across his broad shoulders to take a quick nap.

"Sort of an odd name. Does it mean anything?"

"It does."

Diana stopped for a moment, noticing the warrior had become very distant and lost in thought at her questioning. She recognized that look almost immediately, feeling the same emotion tug at her chest. In a meaningless gesture to stop her own emptiness at spreading she held her hands over her breast as if trying to keep the hole as small as possible.

"I can't imagine what it must feel like. I can barely stand the thoughts of my brother fighting in this war. I hardly see him anymore. And maybe..." she couldn't finish her thought, choking up at the mere suggestion that Clay might be lost to her. "Breakfast was nice, wasn't it?" She managed to choke the words out between holding back tears. "It was the first time in a long time that I can remember the family was together."

"I suppose it would have been, yes." Rider once again responded with a flat tone.

"Silly," Diana said, wiping the small droplets of water that had formed in the corners of her eyes, "you were there too. Why don't you tell me?"

"You do not spend any time with your family. It is always war with you. What will become of your daughter if her father is never there?"

Rider quickly looked over at the woman next to him, puzzled and shocked by what she had just insinuated. He never would have guessed in such a short time anyone would have grown attached to the thought of him being around. The girl simply smiled at him, her cheer beaming at him as infectiously as ever. He couldn't help but return the smile. As the moment passed, however, Diana's smile turned to a thoughtful expression, filled with worry and apprehension.

"You'll protect him, won't you? I mean, that's your job, right?"

"I just want what is best for you! I am your friend! I would never betray you!"

Rider faced the horizon once more, looking far beyond it again. "I promised myself that I would not fail again. I have lost too much once before..." His voice cracked into silence, as if he were going to cry, but only his soul weeped beneath the stoic expression of a warrior's face.

Diana couldn't help but smile a little as she bashfully tried to hide her face. She knew it was rude but knowing Rider would keep her brother out of harms way was comforting. "Do you promise?"

Rider looked at her, his expression as serious as his face could be. She smiled back at him, as if playing a game and raised her hand for him to take it. Rider kneeled down, keeping his gaze towards the ground with one arm resting on his knee. He took her hand with his other, his grip reassuring but gentile.

"Would you forget this war and stay here, my love? For your daughter? ...For me...?"

'...Yan...'

"I would do anything you asked of me..."

Diana giggled, oblivious to the severity in Rider's voice. "Excellent. Now rise my warrior, for you have other matters to attend to this day."

Rider stood back to his full height in an instant, looking the woman straight in the eye. He couldn't help but bite his lip as if deliberating on something. His mind was racing, unsure of what to believe anymore. He was right and he could feel it in his very soul, but she didn't and it was slowly eating away at him. How would he ever tell her? How would he ever explain it to her? Before he could get caught up in his own indecision, the cab Diana had called earlier finally rolled up and parked at the curb. Diana moved in front of Rider, looking him up and down slowly as the servant;s wits slowly returned to him.

"You know, I'm happy the legends were wrong; you're nothing like them," she said, reaching up to put her arms around the titan's neck. "I had a really fun time today. Make sure sister doesn't get into too much trouble at tea today." She then gave him a peck on his cheek, unraveling the sleeping Hou around his neck at the same time to cradle the cat in her arms. "I'll keep the general safe until you get home."

Rider's cheeks flushed and he could do nothing but stand stock still as Diana got into the cab's back seat and rolled down the window. "Of-of-of course!" he managed to stammer out. Before he knew it, the cab was already gone, the young woman waving goodbye as it sped away down the street.

Rider couldn't help feel the elation of the embrace slowly bleed away into utter dread at the words Diana had spoken to him. What had she meant that he was different from his legends? He knew he was a fierce warrior but even great soldiers had souls of passion and romance. He had always thought himself to have followed the righteous path of the warrior, being the perfect man in all respects. He knew his arrogance was never viewed as a positive trait and the Marks certainly were having quite a difficult period adjusting to it but otherwise he was an amiable person. Right?

His troubled thoughts followed him as he rounded the corner to where the car was parked. Maria had decided to report back to Clay instead of joining the two in the pet store, having insisted they enjoy themselves while she attended to more adult matters. As the servant slipped back into the driver's seat Maria took absolutely no notice to her companion's dazed state. She was far too focused on the fact that their plans were beginning to unravel and her brother would be terribly disappointed if they went awry.

"We're late," the woman pointed out in an aggravated tone. "Hurry up and get going."

Rider nodded solemnly, turning the ignition and listening to the thrum of the engine come to life. He was moving without thought, like an automaton following its programming. His mind was too fixated on that one phrase to be bothered with responding to Maria's insults. The nagging feeling wouldn't go away until he figured out what she meant by it.

The ride to the restaurant was the quietest time they had experienced since Rider's arrival.

* * *

At half past one, master and servant arrived at their intended destination. They were both well dressed, Maria in a business jacket, blouse and form fitting skirt, while Rider had kept the suit he had opted to change into earlier. It was as though two executives were out to lunch, a perfect cover for their little meeting with Einzburn. Maria subconsciously tugged at her sleeve, trying to hide her newly granted seals from the public as they neared the entrance to the shop. Rider looked at her briefly before taking out his phone and dialing the number he had been given from Diana. The phone rang several times before he heard the familiar voice of his true master on the other end. Turning the volume down to mute, the servant slid the phone into the breast pocket of his jacket knowing the material would be thick enough to hide any glow from the back lit screen but open enough for his master to hear the conversation. With their plan in motion, Maria shifted her eyes to look at her brutish compatriot with an utter lack of confidence in his abilities.

"Let's at least pretend to enjoy eachother's presence," Maria mentioned with a hint of irritation still in her voice.

Rider simply looked at her, using his forefinger to slide his sunglasses down the bridge of his nose to look at the woman directly. "I never said I did not enjoy your company."

The statement came as a shock to Maria, catching her completely off guard. She fumbled for but a moment before regaining her perfectly poised composure. "Very well, I'll try and pretend I enjoy your company and you keep playing the fool."

As the two entered the restaurant it was apparent that the hopes of avoiding the lunch rush were dashed completely. The place was packed tighter than a tin of sardines, people gossiping and enjoying the atmosphere of the bustling cafe. Before either could attempt to understand what was required of them, one of the servers came up to them with as cheery a disposition as the youngest Marks herself could muster.

"Welcome to the Tenjikubotan!" the server said with poise, bowing gracefully afterwards in what could have been taken as an attempt to rival Maria. "Will it be just the two of you dining this afternoon?"

"No," Maria answered, "the rest of our party should already be here. Our booth should be reserved under Einzburn."

"Ah, yes, of course. Right this way..."

The couple were expertly led through the commotion of the cafe towards a booth near the back of the restaurant. Obviously Ilene had picked the location carefully, as it seemed very cut-off form the rest of the establishment. They were in the booth closest to the counter but no one had dared sit anywhere near the two people currently sitting within the booth; a very petite woman and a wiry man. It seemed as though Ilene and Lancer had made it there on time, or at least sooner than they had arrived. Rider offered Maria the chance to sit on the inside of the booth and she thanked him graciously, as was only appropriate. As Rider took his seat there was a long stretch of silence that marked their first meeting, the pair sizing up their counter parts at the other side of the table.

If this continued, it was going to be one long lunch...


Saber left and followed the two women outside as they left the cafe, still in his Spirit Body. The two had shared a moment and although he barely understood what they had said, he understood emotions behind it and had caught sight of a servant, Berserker, judging from that certain look all of the Mad Class had in their eyes, a lithe man who moved not quite unlike a serpent, though unimportant until later. His opponent tonight if Dirk had his way. Finding an alley linking two streets together very close-by, he rematerialized and walked out in his suit and gloves, scratching his head in the same fashion he had seen other tourists, but allowed a delighted smile to come to his face as he "discovered" the cafe Dirk was in. He hurried across the road, paying no heed to the three as he passed by, intent on entering the front door and looking around the place before sitting across from Dirk, very stiff and businesslike.

If either of the two had seen him last night, and he believed only one of the two could have, he was a very different sight today, with his beard and hair cut and dyed, the only thing the same being the suit constructed from his mana, and even that was different seeing as it was no longer blood-stained or torn.

He ordered a tea and sipped it casually, as if this was nothing more than a meeting between a Master and a rival's Servant.

"Tonight should be an intriguing challenge, wouldn't you agree?"

"I think,"He said as he took a sip,"That you are being needlessly foolish."

"You are assuming that there is not one greater at deception than you, that you yourself are the better planner. Following them outside,I believe that their alliance is strong for the time being, and I would advise against you taking that young woman up on her offer to fight. She may be the Master of Berserker, but who is to say that the other is not the Master of Caster or Archer? Both are known for their underhanded tactics, and you believe they will not target you while I fight the other? You cannot even the field if that should happen, no matter what modern weaponry you yourself employ.

"There is only so much either of us can do to protect you, and I intend on winning this, failure in this quest means failure to the throne,"He allowed a moment for Dirk to contemplate his words before continuing on,"You cannot predict the behavior of Magi, they are not the same as your playthings from your school, each is just as smart, and many much more talented than yourself, I would be surprised if there weren't at least two of your opponents that weren't born to fight this war, who have lived and breathed the life of a Magus, whereas you have only a handful of years even knowing about magic."

He finished the tea and crossed his hand into an arch, before settling his chin upon them, looking right into Dirk's eyes as he spoke,"It would be better if we did not show up to the appointed time and place. It pains me to be saying this to a duel, but what you think you know is not what is. You cannot take both right now. And make no mistake, they will be together in some form tonight. There is no shame in refusing a fight that God himself has not made equal."

Saber sat back, his hands no longer clasped in front of him, but now holding the empty teacup, his eyes far away, but his voice still very much in the present.

"Tea...is a funny thing....depending on where you are in the world, it's a whole different affair. England, sugar and cream, plain, but classic. France, similar, but honey a luxury, just different enough to the English that they either hated or appreciated the change. Spain preferred their own ghastly blend I swore I'd never touch again, and then, in Arabia, goat's milk and fresh cane you can pluck twenty paces from your bed....,"The knight stopped a moment more before raising the teacup to eye level,"And here, you receive tea that is green in color, and although looks positively awful, tastes quite nice."

He set the cup down once again, noticing the blemish on the side, an indent just wide enough to be in line with the counters in this place, and smiled before looking Dirk in the eyes again,"The point I make is that each is unique to their own,but all stem from the same family of leaves, just as the Magi are, each only with the slightest difference. You are not special among them, and not knowing your limits is what will get you killed. And your limit is two determined Masters, each with their own Servant."

Dirk took a moment to think. The smells of the cafe were especially pleasant today. Saber's tea wafted its fumes his way, and the intoxicatingly oversweet coffee that he himself enjoyed was in no short supply. He hunched over it, using a little straw to stir in a fresh lump of sugar. For the first time since he'd entered, he removed his sunglasses. He folded them neatly; daintily, even, and tucked them out of sight, in the folds of his scarf. He folded his hands, gesturing forward to his Servant as he responded to his request.

"You remember what I asked you yesterday, Saber? When I asked you your limits. I told you I intended to cheat." There was a glare in the boy's eyes unlike what his Servant had seen before, when they looked into his own. A blend of several emotions. He could see hurt, the feeling that his capabilities were being called into question. He could see a devious anger, already shaking its fist at the thought of turning down the challenge. But more than the others, something like satisfaction was there. More than anything, Dirk very clearly was quite glad with how things had gone.

"I still intend to cheat. Consider that alliance, Saber."

Dirk held his hand up, as if aloft was some blueprint only he and his partner could see. The lights in the boy's eyes danced with excitement as a million possibilities teased him.

"Two Masters and two Servants will always be two Masters and two Servants. If we avoid them now, they will merely continue unabated, and will remain a threat. But tonight, we know precisely where they shall be. If we strike now, and kill them before their teamwork can solidify, or they gain any more valuable information, we will have a distinct advantage. More importantly, you brought up that the second Servant might be a Caster."

Dirk held up a finger, to put emphasis on his point. "Caster knows where we live. If we kill him, our best safehouse remains hidden."

All around them, people seemed to be bustling. The streets outside were alive with fluttering folk, moving from errand to errand with a cavalcade of emotions painted on their faces. Pudgy-faced children dances between the legs of tired, but happy fathers. Garishly-dressed young woman flocked about in packs, earning whistles from the boys lounging on the sidewalks, who in turn received glares for the effort. Dirk watched them all. Saber could see disappointment etching itself on the boy's face.

"But most of all..." His shoulders shrugged, as if unsure, for once, of how to say what came next. "I want to fight them both. Sir Knight, if you will excuse me, you were not born great. You worked and sweat for your achievements, and met great challenges on every step of your journey."

"...I never had that," he noted, with a strangely higher pitch. "I've gone into everything I've ever done, fully aware of the fact that I would win. Nothing challenges me. Nothing's fun, everything's boring."

He turned back to the table, shifting his position. His left leg came up, sitting on the booth's seat as he slumped a bit to the right, sipping his coffee. He took a large gulp of the steaming beverage, and exhaled. The steam lilted from between his barely-open lips, lazily drifting into the air and melding with the atmosphere until it was out of sight. His half-lidded eyes focused on the shimmering brown liquid. "I can't even make friends. Not correctly, anyway. You ever try relating to a prodigy? Or seen a prodigy try to relate to someone who they can never see as an equal, someone who'll always resent them?"

He set the cup back down. "But now I'm in a whole new world, where you say I can find people like me? People who can match me, and show me the challenge I've been waiting my entire life to experience? To have that opportunity placed before me, only to walk away?..."

He fixed his eyes on Saber one more time, a resolution firmly grounded in his psyche. "Saber, you must understand. That's something I absolutely cannot do. I'm not saying we won't play it smart. We'll level the playing field, in more ways than you could know. But all the same, you must understand. You have your honor..."

He flexed his left arm in, slapping an open palm against his chest. His face did not flinch, remaining grim and certain. "This is mine."

"Very well,"The knight said after a moment of thought,"But know that I promised your family I would do everything in my power to bring you home alive. But we cannot continue to use your family's establishment for a hideaway, for exactly the reasons you just stated, Caster knows where it is, at least for the time being. That means we must win the Grail. Anything less in our quest is complete and utter failure."

This boy is too much like him, I can only hope he sees the danger and does what he must to avoid it, lest he be struck down with the same flame that burns within them both. God and the Lady help him.

13:05 - Shinto

Ilene took a long, deep breath, filling her lungs with the pleasantly chilled air as she marched down the streets of Shinto. Ah, today was going to be a fantastic day, now wasn't it? She would finally be granted the conflict that had been so crudely stolen from her last night, finally have the opportunity to meet one of her more challenging foes face to face, finally be given the chance to work her magic to its fullest potential! Today would undoubtedly resort in some form of success or another for herself and her allies; her plans would see to that.

Turning her gaze backwards for a bit, the young woman offered a cheeky grin to the two men trailing her. Lancer, finally free of the shower's siren song and smelling slightly of strawberry shampoo, strode along on her right with a slight smile on his face, his eyes flickering back and forth as they lazily examined the scenery. Dressed in the pinstripe suit he had apparently become enamored with, the tall man didn't appear that out of place, although his pony-tail and glorious mustache still turned the odd head. Actually, the thing that stood out the most about him was the way his head slowly swiveled back and forth, not unlike a tourist's. Though the Grail would have imparted knowledge of the modern era into his mind, the Servant must still be taken aback by the sights of Fuyuki's architecture and layout. He may have been quite well off in his time and country, but surely he had never seen anything like this city before.

Micheal, on the other hand, was giving off a more alert, cautious air. Like both Ilene and Lancer, the butler marched along at a brisk pace, the tip of his umbrella clacking against the ground with every other step. His eyes swept across the group's surroundings quickly and diligently, not looking for interesting sights or shops but for threats to his mistress' safety. Though the odds were unlikely that another Master would be bold enough to launch a surprise attack in the middle of the day, he would not be fulfilling his duty if he dropped his guard for even an instant!

The girl couldn't help but chuckle at the differences between her companions. Lancer's carefree posture and serene expression were in sharp contrast to Micheal's rigid stance and hardened features. Heh, if Micheal would only shave away the last graying hairs that clung to his scalp and dressed in something other than his typical suit, the two would practically be polar opposites! Ilene wasn't exactly sure why the childish though amused her, but there was nothing wrong with amusement. She could afford a few laughs every now and then.

"So, Micheal," she began as she turned her gaze back to the crowded sidewalk in front of her. "You were able to get reservations, correct?"

"Yes, Miss Ilene," came the quick reply. "They said they'd have a corner booth waiting for us at thirteen hundred on the dot, just as you requested."

"Very good."

The short conversation was over as soon as it had begun, and the group lapsed once more into silence. Surprisingly, it was Lancer who broke the quiet a few seconds later, his tone slightly confused. "So... This place we're going to. The Tenjiwhatever. It serves... sushi?"

If Ilene's sudden frown was anything to go by, then this question had already been asked, and presumably answered, quite a few times. "Yes Lancer," she muttered, pinching her nose between her fingers, "it serves sushi. That's what it's best known for, anyway; I'm sure you can order something else if that isn't to your liking."

"No no, it's not that," the man corrected, waving his hand back and forth as though he wished to wipe the conversation from the air. "I'm more than willing to try sushi, if that's what they serve, but... It's raw fish? Uncooked? I just don't see how that's-"

An exasperated sigh from Ilene cut Lancer off. "Yes! It's fish! It's raw! I don't know why the Japanese decided that that would be a good way to prepare their food, but apparently it's pretty popular! I never bothered to learn trivia about various dishes; sorry that I can't answer your questions!"

Her shoulders bent forward in an aggravated stance, the young Master stomped forward a few paces, forcing her companions to increase their own pace if they wanted to keep up with her. Behind her back, Micheal shot Lancer an irate grimace, to which the Servant could only muster a halfhearted, apologetic grin. Their wordless conversation was quite obvious, even to those who didn't know either of the men. "You just had to go and ask again, didn't you?" "Well I was just curious! How was I supposed to know that she'd react like that?" "Maybe because that's how she always acts when someone asks the exact same question over and over and over again?" "Hey, I just met her last week. It's not like I've known her entire-"

Their back and forth was interrupted, however, when bother Lancer and Micheal nearly bowled over a now still Ilene. The girl had come to a sudden and complete stop midstride, her head hanging forward and her left hand clutching at her right. "Ms. Ilene," Micheal said urgently, rushing forward to make sure that his mistress wasn't hurt. "Are you alright? What's wrong?"

"Lancer..." The Master didn't have any words for Micheal, it seemed. "Do you feel that?"

The Servant seemed confused for an instant, before he spread his senses outwards. In a matter of seconds, his expression changed from bemused to astonished, to eager, to apprehensive, to ready. "Yes, yes I do," he replied, the ghost of a smile dancing around his lips. "I do believe we're running into more than just Rider and his Master today, yes?"


13:10 - The Tenjikubotan

The sound of the doorbell jerked Dirk and Saber from their respective thoughts. As they looked toward the restaurant's entrance, they spotted a trio making their way into the Tenjikubotan. At their head was a face that both of them recognized immediately: One Ilene Einzbern.

Even from halfway across the restaurant, it was easy to make out the sneer that slowly stretched across Ilene's visage as see jerked her head in their direction. Toothy and sinister, it was the same smile that one might expect to see on a predator that had just spotted its latest meal. Just because this latest encounter had been unplanned didn't mean it couldn't be put to good use.

A hostess was trying to tell the girl something, but Ilene ignored her, quickly stepping towards the boy and large man sitting in isolated the corner. A bemused Lancer followed in her wake, leaving Micheal to apologize to the hostess. As the old man babbled some excuse or another, the young Master stepped up to Dirk's table, looking far, far too happy to see him. "Well well well, what do we have here?"

"Two people, trying to enjoy their drinks quietly," Dirk jabbed back, not even bothering to look up and observe the voice. He'd seen her walk in when Maria and Sophie were reaching the pitch of their little outburst. But he had enough problems to deal with at the moment. She could wait. But what else could he have expected from an Einzbern?

You entitled fools would never wait.

"That is, before we were interrupted."

Dirk finally deigned to look upon Ilene, which he did with the most thoroughly bored eyes he could muster. "What brings the illustrious Lady Einzbern to our little slice of comfort? Care to join us for a moment?"

He lifted his wallet from his pocket, shaking it enticingly in the air.

"I'm buying."

Though she neglected to sit down, Ilene offered a mock-curtsey in response. "My," she began, her tone dripping with faked affection, "how nice it is to run into someone informed enough to recognize me. Hmmph, and I had almost started to think that this entire city was populated by nothing but oblivious dunderheads.

"But you seem to have me at a disadvantage," she continued, her smirk never lessening by a single iota. "You know my name, but I do not know yours. Do tell me, to who do I have the honor of speaking?"

The sickly sweet tone she had adopted made it unclear if Ilene's question was serious or not. Still, it was out there now, waiting for any type of response.

Dirk watched her warily, though his eyes gave no such concern away. His gaze was cool and reserved, while he judged her affable manner.

Giving her my name is unwise. She could look me up easily. Hmm... I've always been told I could pass for Caucasian...

"The name would be Dirk Pace," he told her, allowing a small grin to creep onto his face. "A pleasure."

He patted the open seat to his right, and gestured for Saber to move further into the booth as well. "Please," he said with as friendly a tone as we could muster. "Sit. It's rude to keep a lady standing."

That last comment earned a raised eyebrow in response. "It is also rude to force a lady to sit when she desires to keep standing," Ilene cooly stated. "Though it's even ruder to offer a fake name when you introduce yourself."

As she took a deep breath, the girl closed her eyes for a second. As she exhaled, the crimson orbs opened once more, staring at Dirk as though he was an insect behind a display case. "I would advise that you and your Servant," she said, her gaze shifting to Saber for a moment, "finish your drinks somewhere else. The real Masters are about to begin their business; why don't you go play somewhere until nightfall?"

In response to the cold, dismissive words of Ilene, Dirk only smiled warmly. He raised his drink up in her direction, as if to toast. "Very well, miss, stand if you wish," he said before downing another sip of his favored brew. "But I'm afraid I'm rather fond of this spot. I think I'll stay."

He raised his hand, flagging down his waitress. The young woman scurried up quickly, bowing so far down she nearly smashed her head open on the table. Her smile was bright and unflappable. "Yes, Dirk? Did you need something?"

"Chizuru," he said formally, though with a notably more genuine ounce of warmth than had been in his words to the Einzbern. "Please put this young lady's bill on my tab."

He gestured to Ilene, to ensure there was no confusion. "I've decided to treat her and her friends."

The young miss named Chizuru smiled graciously at her customer. "My, you're being generous today, aren't you? I'll take care of that right away."

As she left, Dirk, folded his leg over his knee, looking back at his verbal sparring partner with a hint of satisfaction. Even with his eyes lidded and lips uncurled, his lidded eyes said everything that needed to be said.

Master's business. My, you're certainly open with your plans, aren't you?

"So, tell me, who were you planning on meeting here?" he asked casually. He was practically admiring his nails, he seemed so nonchalant. "Would it happen to be a Mr... Marks, by any chance?"

Ilene's response was just as flippiant as Dirk's. "No, actually. With a Mr. Orihara, as luck would have it."

Turning around, the girl offered a smile to her Servant. "Do you hear that, Lancer? All you can eat; order the entire menu if you'd like."

"Hooray..." came Lancer's less than enthusiastic response. The man looked oddly disappointed for someone who'd just been promised an endless supply of food.

Apparently ignoring her Servant's lack of happiness, Ilene turned back to Dirk, a sly grin marking her visage. "Thank you for the generous offer, Mr. Pace. I certainly hope that you won't come to regret it. Come, Lancer." With that, the two walked over to the opposite corner of the resturant, where Micheal was apparently standing in front of their booth.

Dirk leaned back, chewing his bottom lip lightly as he watched the woman and her Servant return to their seats. His brow wrinkled slightly, and his lips tugged in a curious half-frown.

Nearly a minute passed in silence before he finally looked away from the Einzbern booth, looking back at Saber with that same perplexed glare he'd had since the conversation ended.

It immediately relaxed into his neutral expression, and his eyebrows lifted a bit, impressed. "I like her."


13:30 - The Tenjikubotan

Ilene poked listlessly at the roll of seaweed, rice, and salmon on the plate before her. Her chopsticks nudged the morsel around the plate, sending it sliding back and forth along the glassy surface, but made no attempts at actually picking it up; the girl had had more than enough to sate her appetite for the time being. No, now she was hungry for something else... A different type of morsel, one might say. At least, one would if one were sadistic enough to refer to a another Master and Servant as mere food.

She sat between Lancer and Micheal, in the middle of one of the booth's seats. The service here had proved amiable enough, and had quickly taken and delivered all of their orders. The reviews hadn't been lying; the sushi here was quite good. Even Lancer felt as such, if him asking for a third portion was any indication. But Ilene had long since stopped caring about the food or drinks; now she was just waiting for Marks and Rider to make their appearance, impatiently tapping one of her fingers against the table.

Then, she felt it. A slight twinge from the back of her right hand, from her Command Spells. A momentary pause on Lancer's part indicated that he too felt the disturbance, before he dove back into his food.

A smirk crossed Ilene's face as she reclined into the cushioned sheet, her crimson eyes sliding shut as she savored the sensation. Heh, it was about time the young man had shown up; she was this close to thinking that he had stood her up.

A few minutes passed before the restaurant's door clinged open again. Ilene could here strains of conversation coming from the entrance, likely between the hostess and the new arrivals, followed by a series of footsteps coming over towards her. When she heard someone slide into the seat opposite her, she finally leaned forward, opening her eyes as she began to speak. "Well, I was wondering when you were going to show up, Mr. Mar-"

The young Master found herself unable to finish her sentence, her mouth hanging open as she stared, bewildered, at the young woman sitting opposite her. "...Just who the hell are you then?!"

"...Just who the hell are you then?!"

"Rider's Master, of course. Were you expecting otherwise?" Maria didn't bother concealing the satisfaction she felt at catching Einzbern off-guard. Clay had sent her to push buttons, and it seemed she was off to an excellent start.

It was easy to tell from Ilene's facial contortions that the girl didn't quite know what to make of the situation. Her expression shifted from confused, to disbelieving, to angry, and back to confused in a matter of seconds. What was going on here? This newcomer was clearly carrying Command Spells, and there was no doubting that the large man sitting next to her was indeed Rider. But where was Clay in all of this?!

A look of recognition slowly began to dawn upon the young Master. "He... There's no way he could have been that foolish."

"Oh, you expected Clay? Sorry to disappoint. He didn't feel like playing your silly little game, and asked if I could run this droll errand." She sighed, looking to the side with a look of exaggerated boredom on her face. "Truth be told, I can't imagine why he'd bother at all. I don't see why he'd classify YOU as a threat."

The girl looked as though she'd been slapped across the face. Apparently unable to speak, she bent her head forward, resting it in her left palm while one of her fingers tapped incessantly against the counter-top. He had... He had given away at least one of his Command Spells?

"...Heh. Hahaha."

Though it started out slowly, Ilene's laughter swiftly grew into something quite unpleasant. It wasn't the friendly chuckling that one might give after hearing a funny joke, but rather the sick, twisted laugh of a school yard bully standing over the latest of his victims.

"You really don't understand what you're getting yourself into here, do you, you foolish, ignorant girl?"

Maria simply chuckled in response, like somebody had just told her an amusing story. "Oh, I know well enough. I think a better question would be..." She turned to Einzbern, leveling her eyes to meet her counter's. "Do you?"

Ilene found herself far too amused to answer the Marks girl's question. "I've heard some fairly entertaining stories over the years, but this has to be in a class all its own! The broken child, the worthless heir, trying to play pretend and act like she's a Master?! Oh, if it weren't so funny I just might feel sorry for you, you poor, poor thing."

Lifting her gaze upward, Ilene matched Maria's stare. "As it is, I'm afraid I'm going to have to break you even further."

"Hm. So, you think paying thugs to rummage through my family's rubbish for clues makes you informed?" She kept her gaze firm, unflinching in her resolve. "It's sad, really, that you think to have any hope of winning. I wonder how much effort your family put into raising you. Lots, I would think. It's too bad, then, that it's all going to waste... that 'break' you mention, by the way? I wouldn't insult it. I think you'll find it... rather vexing. God knows my family does."

The young woman didn't deign to give a response, choosing instead to loose herself to the laughter once again. Gods, she hadn't expected this little excursion to be so entertaining. Turning to the tall man next to her, she spoke, paying no attention to the ones on the other side of the table. "Lancer, get up. We're leaving."

The Servant considered asking for more time to finish his meal, but decided against it. He'd seen this look in his Master's eyes before; arguing wasn't going to get him anywhere at this stage.

"Leaving already? And here I thought we were just getting to know each other." Maria hadn't bothered to respond to any of Einzbern's antics until now, and she saw no reason to stop. She remained in her seat, coolly stating her response.

"I don't bother to get to know those who live in the trash heap," Ilene replied coldly.

"Trash? My my, Einzbern. Such self-deprication does a lady no good."

"Hmph. Play with words all you want, little Miss Marks. Nothing you say or do will change the fact that you're useless as a Mage, useless as a Master, useless as a human being, and useless to your brother. Oh, and do tell him that the next time I see a member of your ill-mannered brood, rest assured that I'll forgo any pleasantries." Rising to her feet, Ilene began to walk away, her final words tossed back as an afterthought. "Oh, and feel free to order whatever you'd like. Our friend there in the corner," she gestured in Dirk's direction, "is paying for everyone's meal."

Maria chuckled in response, shaking her head as she did so. "I see. This is the first time you've been told no, isn't it?" Maria turned to face the departing Einzbern, amusement still plain on her face. "My brother refuses to play into your little plot, and you go and flip the board. I'm certain that levelheadedness and maturity will win the Grail."

She leveled her eyes in a dark glare, the smirk not leaving her face. She put up a bold front, to be sure, but it was time to see how brave this child truly was... "Tell me this, before you leave. Have you ever killed a man, Einzbern? Really killed one, I mean. Looked right in their eyes, and watched as the light left them..."

Ilene came to a stop, forcing her party to halt as well. "My, such a curious playmate we have today," she muttered as she turned around, eying Maria with a mixture of disdain and annoyance.

"To answer your question: No, I have not killed. However, a word of warning. If you or your brother dare to think, for even a second, that that makes me weak..." The girl trailed off mid sentence, but her eyes said everything her words didn't.

Maria rolled her eyes. Swing and a miss, Einzbern. "Clay has, you know. In a rather brutal fashion, too. I hear they needed dental records to identify the poor sods..." Maria turned away from Einzbern, leaning back into her seat. It was finally time to strike her where it really hurt - her massive, overinflated ego. Mocking her martial prowess, perhaps? "I'm curious, to be honest. I wonder how long you'd last in a proper duel with him... I'm sure if you worked at it, a few seconds. You might even break ten, if you're lucky."

Maria's tone dropped its playfulness, becoming cold and serious."Prepare yourself, girl. When you face my little brother tonight, he has far more than cutting barbs in his arsenal."

For a moment, Ilene was silent. Then, slowly, she extended her right hand, her fingers spread apart, towards Maria.

"Twenty two words," she said, her words a thousand times colder than the wind outside. "Twenty two words is all I need to rewrite you. To take every memory you've ever cherished or cried over and smash them to pieces. To rebuild them into something I choose, to remake you into a toy that would serve me to its last breath or kill itself for my amusement.

"Tch." She dropped her arm, and resumed her exit. "Somebody like you, whose only talent is 'cutting barbs' isn't worth my time. Goodbye, little girl."

Maria watched as she stormed out of the restaurant, a smirk still evident on her face. 'Well, that was productive. Amusing, too. I rather think Clay will be very happy with what he's learned here.'

"Rider, order whatever you wish. It'd be rude to refuse such a generous offer."

"I like her."
"...Just who the hell are you then?!"

"She is still an Einzbern,"Saber said, gesturing to his cup, which Shizuru, he believed that was how her name was pronounced, took it and returned with a fresh cup and a pot, setting it down, spout facing the wall,"Rarely have they been able to be trusted, though taken seriously all the same. She seems hysterical, to say the least."

He poured himself another cup, sipping the tea, enjoying every nuanced flavor it had to offer from within its depths, while he also eavesdropped on the conversation between Ilene and Maria, one that showed yet another web forming, and the potential unraveling of another. Though could it truly be called eavesdropping as heatedly as they were speaking to one another?

"Rider, order whatever you wish. It'd be rude to refuse such a generous offer."

Saber gave a small nod of acknowledgement to the Einzebern as her group left, admiring her for her forthrightness, if nothing else. He then spoke to the Master across the table from him, the man idly playing with his phone and routinely giving his sunglasses another spin, keeping them going round and round on the tabletop. He spoke nonchalantly, as one would speak of the weather or over a simple game of chess on a winter night such as this one.

"My, my, how far the famed hospitality of the English has fallen, though not entirely unexpected, they have never been comfortable in surroundings they did not either conquer or build themselves after all. Though I do believe there was a time when they were tolerable, unfortunately it was for but a lifetime. A true tragedy that the simple act of being polite to an enemy has been forgotten by a people with such a rich..."He stopped a moment, savoring both his words and the tea"....history."

He sipped at his tea, again surprised by every mouthful he took, as they all contained something new to his palate. And this brought a surprising refreshment, he exhaled slowly after swallowing, allowing the last dredges of the taste to waft back onto his tongue and mix with the air of the cafe.

"A shame that a people half a world away have continued the art, yet the foundations of a culture once so intriguing, to say it nicely, seems to have been destroyed by men and women of the Marks lineage. Would you agree, Lord Dirk?"

His face really told nothing of substance, whether he was being sincere, or simply painting the Marks as rude was uncertain. However, one thing was quite clear, he truly enjoyed the tea this country had to offer, seeing as he tried pouring himself yet another cup within such a short time, only for it to dribble out the last dregs of the brew.

"And yet another shame, that this tea was unable to make the journey to my home whilst I still shopped regularly." It was now that his face showed something that could very easily be attributed to disappointment, his lips pressed together, more tightly on one side than the other, and a sadness one could compare to that of a child losing their favorite toy to the town well.

Dirk listened patiently to his Servant as the man seemed to delve deeper and deeper into the mysteries of brews distilled from leaves. The unmistakable fresh scent of honey flowed around his nose. It certainly didn't look like Dirk was listening, though; his face was buried into his phone, flipping through various pages on Wikipedia. Saber could only catch glimpses, with the screen beneath the table, but in bold, the designation M84 flashed in and out of sight. His jaw flapped open and shut in a muttering tone, clearly not able to care any less about what the knight was saying about tea.

"You really shouldn't insult guests to our country, Saber," he said quietly, and with no lack of irony. "With the Einzbern behaving... predictably, I suppose it falls to us as to serve as a proper welcoming committee."

"If you'll excuse me," he whispered as he stood up from the booth, bringing his coffee with. "I think I'm going to try and make some friends."

Orihara walked briskly through the bustling floor of the diner, deftly dodging dancing maitre d's, diligent deliverers of decadent dishes, and dismal dishwashers alike, determined on his dubious destination. With Ilene and company dismissed, a booth across from Maria and her Servant possessed a dearth of occupants, save Dirk, who sat himself down as casually as one might climb into their own bed. Adjusting his scarf so as not to sit atop it, he settled into a relaxed, but formal pose. His hands were folded around his coffee, sat on the table in front of him. His eyes coolly scanned the woman across from him; he had already gotten a decent look at Rider the night before. He wondered, briefly, if Rider recognized him as well.

He nodded politely. "Hello, Maria," he stated as if addressing an old business partner. He turned and gave the same gesture to her companion. "Rider. Have you had a chance to enjoy the food, yet?"

Mordecai decided to get some sleep and wait for assassin, rather than pace the room like a psychopath. That comes later. His pillow was uncomfortably soft, and the sheets were stiff, but it would work for now. Not like magi keep a regular sleep schedule. He smiled remembering all the sleepless nights trying to perfect his healing spell use. All the days spent drained of prana weren't nice either... He slowly drifted off to sleep.

Mordecai stood in a room, sure enough his childhood room. It was nice, his parents were wealthy enough. They always were wealthy, his step-father being an important something or other for an accounting office, his mother a fairly successful actress. Though this was during the down time, and her adamant support of the IRA had made her career difficult. Young Mordecai, or Mord as his friends called him, was reading something by Tolkien. The Hobbit. Lovely. The grown ujp knew this was the day he would be taken to a firing range, and taught how to fire a gun. Mordecai sighed, hardly child-hood destroying. He took a moment to wonder why his subconscious brought him here, to a barely lit room of an adolescent. The room was painted white, and furnished well. A couch, bed, bookcase, etc. A cough made him turn around, quickly. He stared at the man, not recognizing him. The man tapped his foot before finally just telling Mordecai.
"Your dad! Jesus, you're REALLY bad at this. Had an open casket and everything." Mordecai winced, noticing the lack of color, though he noticed a few similarities, like the large nose, and the 'jawline strong enough to bench press a car' as Hayley once put it.
"Do... You need anything in particular?"
"A bigger room, IE for you to have a bigger brain. I guess not ALL mages-"
"Magi." The elder stared at his son for a moment.
"-.... James raised an asshole." Mordecai raised an eyebrow, and his father sighed.
"Have you really not figured this out? Gun training, advanced knowledge of the human body, the ability to lie from your mum, have you really not figured out you're a families last hope at not being forgotten? Bred for this? If you dropped the whole innocence shtick, you'd be frigging perfect at this. Hell, I had to take direct control when that officer showed up, using a crappy little knife instead of water magic. My sweat could literally turn into bullets, and you chose to heal people. Unbelievable."
"So, what, you're a ghost or something, living in my skull? Care to give me a prana upgrade?"
"Or I'm your minds weak attempt at rationalizing your behavior. The thought's ran through your head at least once, right? Especially since I gave the wrong name for your step dad."
"I choose to believe you're my ghost dad."
"Of course you do. You know what would be a dick move?"
"What?"

A knock at the door, some maid saying something about house keeping. Mordecai felt the need to punch a wall, but restrained himself, putting on a shirt and opening the door for her.
"Take as long as needed, I'm heading out anyways." Mordecai pocketed the door key, heading to Shinto again.

Einzburn had left the pair of master and servant to contemplate her words as she stormed out of the restaurant. Maria seemed fairly amused by the entire exchange, Rider less so. The girl's words required little consideration to the warrior, his mind already set when Ilene had dared to threaten Maria. His eyes shifted over to his charge, looking her up and down once before looking down at the table. His eyes fixated on the delicate cup in his hand as his fingers slowly moved to spin the cup. Before he knew it, his grip tightened on the dishware, crushing it easily within his grasp. He could feel the shards dig into his hand, blood trickling into his palm, yet still he ground the ceramics with his hand. By the time he was finished the cup was a fine powder.

"I will end her..." Rider grumbled, letting the powder slowly sift out of his hand as his cuts healed almost instantly from a surge of mana.

Maria looked over at the massive man with a raised eyebrow. She had yet to see the warrior in as foul a mood as now. She couldn't imagine why he was so perturbed by the encounter.

"You needn't get so worked up over a few words, Rider. You should save your ire for-"

"Hello, Maria, Rider. Have you had a chance to enjoy the food, yet?"

Maria cast a wary eye to the man taking a seat opposite her. He was a Master, her Command Seals told her that much. But his motivations were still unclear... seeing as she was only sent to rile Einzbern, Maria saw little reason to antagonize her opposition any further. "I don't believe we've had the pleasure of meeting, Mr...?"

"Orihara," he replied coolly. "Dirk, if you're not the formal type."

He held up his finger for a moment as a waitress scurried their way, holding a wooden platter. She placed it down in front of Dirk, mentioning, "I hadn't realized you moved!"

He thanked her, admiring the food he'd been sent. Oshizushi, made of rice, mackerel, and all manner of toppings pressed into a dozen squares. He broke apart a pair of chopsticks and began digging in. "You know," he began with a full mouth, eyes deliberately on the food as opposed to his "guests", "the sushi around here is exquisite. Comes in dozens of varieties. Probably a lot more than you get in England, right?"

"In England, it's typically not wise to eat the food raw. For that matter, don't eat any fish prepared by an English chef." She chuckled at her joke, leaning further into her seat. It seemed not all Masters were incapable of the most basic of manners.

"I've heard as much," the boy replied, flexing his eyebrows to emote. After a few more bites he leaned back, readjusting himself as he took another sip of the piping hot coffee. The Marks girl seemed to be fairly personable. At least, in comparison to the Einzbern. All right, he thought. He could try the friendly route for a while, see how far he could take it.

"Though the shops around here are pretty good about hiring people who wash their hands."

He paused for a beat. "At least, I hope so. There must be some justification for why I'm spending so much money, for so little food."

The air settled in a dodgy silence, Orihara weighing his odds at pursuing a more relevant topic. He pursed his lips for a moment, kicking the idea around before it rolled into a favorable corner of his head.

"So the Einzbern," he said, flat. "I take it you weren't who she was expecting. And, unless the feeling I'm getting is mistaken, I take it your brother did something... drastic."

"Not so much drastic as unconventional. Einzbern only threw a fit because she didn't get what she wanted." Maria took up the cup in front of her, taking a brief sip. "Speaking of, Mr... Orihara, was it? I'm curious to know what you want."

"Not much," he told her. "I suppose I'm curious too. Curious why you're here."

He stooped a bit to blow some steam from his coffee, taking another sip.

"Dangerous business, a war. Lots of risk, little reward. Dangerous foes, untold expenses. Air fare, lodging, food. Life and limb, own sisters on the line... for what?"

He took a deep breath, and punctuated, "Why take the plunge?"

"Little reward? You do know what's at stake, don't you?" Maria seemed taken aback at his statement. She wasn't sure whether or not he was playing dumb, but it was an odd subject on which to feign ignorance.

"I know exactly what's at stake." Dirk shimmied his shoulders down into a more comfortable arrangement, folding his hands in front of his mouth, letting his fingers rub against the bottom of his nose. "Lives. Six, precisely, to power the Grail. Twelve, if you're feeling ruthless. Potentially more, if not careful. Many... moral quandaries are abound."

He raised an eyebrow, as if innocently questioning her own questions. "All that, to produce one wish. One. I know the stakes. I'm not certain you do."

"Hm." Maria took another sip of her tea, settling into a position to mirror Dirk's. "You knew my name, Mr. Orihara, so I assume you know why the Marks family bothers with this war." She gingerly placed the teacup back on the table, leveling her gaze to meet his. "We know what's at stake, better than anyone. I wouldn't expect you to understand." She shrugged, her expression nonchalant, as though she where describing the weather. "Who would?"

"Who, indeed."

Dirk exhaled, a hint of amusement within. "So you would fight for a benevolent cause... but still fight." Orihara's eyes lit up, scanning every inch of Maria's face, down to its smallest details. It only took a second, before they settled back to meet her own gaze, as if they'd never left. "Foolish. You won't accomplish much, playing the rules that the system wrote. A very dangerous game."

He lowered his hands just enough to reveal a cocky smirk he'd been hiding. "Do you believe you have what it takes?"

"My my, somebody feels confident in their abilities." Maria returned Dirk's cocky attiude with a chuckle, shaking her head in similar amusement. "But confidence only gets you so far. At some point, you need to act." She folded her hands in front of her, leaning forward, her eyes narrowing. "Are you willing to do whatever it takes?"

The boy's grin dissipated, and for a single moment his face was deathly cold. "Absolutely. Without a moment's hesitation, I'd slit your throat right here. All that's stopping me is your companion." He paused to nod Rider's way. He flicked his left wrist, and out of his sleeve popped his pocket knife. He flicked the blade open, twirling the weapon around his hand, placing it into his palm before letting it slide back down the sleeve.

"Though I'll give you, I bet you'd put up a tougher fight than the last girl I sat with."

Rider finally made his move. He had had enough with the attitudes of these commoners playing pretend. His hand shot out in a blur, grabbing Dirk's wrist before another twirl of the blade could be made. The pressure was so precise, crushing the wrist of the boy just before the breaking point of his bones. All the while, Dirk could only see his own face reflected back at him in the sunglasses Rider wore, his face the solemn mask of an aged warrior.

"And what would make a peasant believe he could challenge the Gods themselves?" It wasn't so much a question, but a demand to know. "What could drive him so?"

"A good many things," spoke a smooth voice. A gloved hand rested itself on the Rider's shoulder, and the familiar cold sting of steel was up against his throat. Saber stood behind him in his suit, a peaceful smile on his face even as he pressed a blade to a man, ready to kill him if necessary.

"They might be motivated by hubris. Or boredom. Or rage. Or even hope."

The blade encroached a little further. "All these are valid, dangerous though they may be. Now if you would, release the young Lord. We wouldn't want to cause a scene, would we?"

Rider was perfectly still when he felt the cold edge of a blade press against his skin. He could sense a smile tugging at his lips. What did the fool believe he could accomplish? The ancient warrior knew he held the cards in this exchange.

"How rude..." Rider spat, his voice beginning to show a little emotion. "That you believe such a tactic puts you at an advantage. Kill me and I simply disappear. However, it would only take one blow for one such as myself to fell this boy. With him goes you and both of your chances at the prize you seek, while my master remains, ready to claim his right. If I were seeking a confrontation I would have simply ended it when I had the chance. Now stay your blade..." Rider then squeezed just a fraction tighter, feeling the bones in Dirk's wrist beginning to shift, "...and answer my question."

Dirk felt his bones ready to splay. With even a fraction more effort, he'd lose a wrist. Not the end of the world, but certainly not a disadvantage he needed with a fight coming tonight. He glanced Saber's way, the look in his eyes warning him away. Though the Servant released his blade, the look of displeasure was damning.

Orihara focused back on Rider. Even as the pain grew ready to overflow, his face did not twitch. If anything, he felt excited.

"I fight," he began in a dread whisper. "to find the worth of a good battle. A challenge of the body and mind worthy of my time. Commoners have proven unworthy... that leaves you. The gods."

That should satisfy him, but, no need to take chances. I recall your behavior at the bridge. Let's see if you're as bloodthirsty as I think, Servant...

Dirk snorted in amusement. "Besides that. We both know you wouldn't risk killing me. Not yet. If I were to die, Saber would disappear. And what worth, Rider, is a victory in battle, if you took the coward's route to defeat your strongest foe?"

Dirk paused, staring down the man in his opaque shades. "Are you satisfied... Lord?"

"You were lecturing not a breath ago about the importance of... what was it? 'Not playing by the rules it wrote?' I suppose that only applies when your life isn't the one being threatened." Maria's stare hardened, cutting straight through Dirk. There was not an ounce of mercy, kindness, or compassion.

"It seems you aren't as brave as you think, boy."

Dirk's eyes shifted to look Maria's way, disappointment in his eyes. "Hmm. Thought you were one of the smarter ones. What I said is irrelevant, here. If I wanted to redeem my family, impose order on the chaos of magi, or something 'noble' as you'd call it... then yes. I'd be a fool, a coward, and a hypocrite."

His eyes clouded again, and were once more cold. "But that isn't what I want. I want a challenge. I want to meet someone interesting. An opponent who doesn't bore me."

He looked back to Rider. "I think that's something you can appreciate. Is it not?"

The smile that swept across Rider's face was horrifying, to say the very least. It was that of a soldier, a killer and a murderer. The servant removed his glasses to stare directly into Dirk's eyes, a few errant pieces of hair falling across his face as his mad grimace only grew. He knew the look in the boy's eyes. It amused him to no end to see it in the most unlikely of places. There was no mistaking that nativity, that cocksure attitude that nothing in the world could bring him to his knees - it was himself.

As the thought settled in his mind a laugh began to tickle at his throat. The servant let it escape, chuckling in a blood chilling manner. As the laugh grew louder, so did its vile power. Before he knew it, Rider had caught the attention of the entire cafe for the briefest of moments, a veil of dread settling over the restaurant. The maniacal sound rang through the heart and minds of everyone around, twisting and souring the soul in disturbing ways. Even one so poised as Maria Marks found herself shivering with disgust, the cackling chilling to the bone. It was the sound of nightmares and she abhorred it at her very core. As the laugh subsided the cafe began to slowly move once more, though with a distinct air of unnerving tension.

"You foolish boy," he said, his voice a low rumble of power. "You cannot imagine what lies ahead. You say the rhetoric you have practiced a thousand times at your reflection, mimic the motions you believe to be true a thousand more and keep the tone you imagine is that of what you wish to become, however you still do not know the truth..."

The hand Rider had tightly gripped around Dirk's hand just as quickly released it. Instead it found a new home around the pocket knife the peasant before him had dared to brandish at his new master. With a quickness and fluidity of a master of war, he twirled the knife within his fingers nimbly until the blade faced downward. He stab down at Dirk's hand without a second thought, the blade expertly parting the boy's fingers with but a unperceivable tiny flick of the servant's wrist and drove the knife deep into the table. If it weren't for the crowd's low roar of conversation around them the thud of the weapon lodging itself into the surface of the table would have been deafening.

"You are no warrior, peasant. Death will be your only release and I shall see to it that you find it quickly and uncomfortably."

The servant then sat back, slipping his aviators back onto his face and looking as disinterested as ever.

"Now leave. I tire of your games. You are a stupid and crass player and I only accept those who can play to a beautiful end."

Dirk was silent for a moment. The hustle and bustle of the cafe in the final peak of its lunch rush drowned out the noiselessness that would have otherwise prevailed. Slowly, deliberately, he reached into a fold of his scarf and retrieved his own shades, placing them back onto his face. He then smiled at Rider, warmly and genuinely. That only made it more chilling.

He took his knife by the grip, and with a single tug and flick pulled it from its embedded point. He placed it back in hiding with a swift motion.

"The game only ends when this knife plunges into your throat."

He stood, stretching out his muscles before giving a final nod to Maria.

"Give your brother my regards. And tell him I find his 'noble' cause... interesting. Moreso, considering the company he keeps. Enjoy the food."

Orihara turned, walking away quietly. With a wave, Saber was summoned to his side. The Servant gave a single, contemptuous glare at the pair still at the booth, before joining him. They left the cafe and took to the city streets, heading eastward. The taller man of the pair shook his head in disgust at the impetuous boy.

"That was reckless, confronting them like that. He could have killed you in an instant."

"Yes, that's true..." Dirk admitted, eyes squarely in front. "But then again, he didn't, did he?"

"You take that as a sign, then?"

"Of course. Even if he wouldn't kill me, nothing stopped him from snapping my wrist. It would have been as simple as bending a straw to him. Whether he wants to admit it or not..."

"Your words affected him."

"Precisely." Orihara stepped up the pace. "Hurry, Saber. We wasted too much time toying with our foes. We'll need to move quickly, and prepare for dusk."

The Servant furrowed his brow, only his code preventing him from smacking a little sense into the upstart. "After all that, back against the wall, you still believe that you held the upper hand? You still believe you played them?"

"...Like a fiddle."

Back inside the restaurant Rider was already going to work. He took the cellphone out from his breast pocket and began to raise the volume so he could hear the response from Clay on the other side. His face was pure concentration as he slipped from out of the booth, taking Maria's hand and urging her to get up.

"We just encountered Saber's master," Rider explained as Maria scrambled to her feet. "You are correct, boy. He must be eliminated as soon as possible. I shall follow him to avoid any unwelcome surprises when we attack him tonight. You will meet me as soon as possible so that your sister may find refuge before the coming battle."

The servant then handed the phone over to the sister of his master, more focused on keeping an eye on Dirk and Saber as they left the cafe. Maria fumbled with the phone before almost screaming into it as she was being dragged around by the giant man.

"Clay, I can't stop him!" she hastily said, her voice panicked from the situation. "What do I do? This wasn't apart of the plan!"

"You follow him, Maria." Clay answered as if it were nothing. "You keep with him and he'll keep you alive. I'll be there momentarily."

"Clay, I-I-I-..." she stammered, not sure what to say. Everything was happening so quickly and the last person she wanted to be beside was the monster who was leading her around town. "Alright. Fine." She finally regained her composure, knowing her brother was correct. She had the seals and if worse came to worse she could always control Rider with a simple command.

So she let Rider lead her, the warrior keeping his attention squarely focused on his targets. He wasn't concerned with hiding - he couldn't have cared less if they knew he was following them. All he was concerned with was keeping them in sight until nightfall. Then he would show Dirk what it truly meant to battle against a God of the battlefield.

pat pat pat pat

The plodding footfalls were the only sound Orihara could focus on as he and his Servant wound through the streets. A cornucopia of pedestrians flowed around them like water. He was heading east, to meet with his contact. Had about three, four hours to prepare for the coming battle. But as he glanced his Servant's way, he could already tell the day wouldn't be that simple. Saber seemed on edge, occasionally shifting his eyes to try and catch a glimpse behind them, without drawing too much suspicion to himself.

"Speak," Dirk commanded.

"I see a familiar shadow trailing us."

"Rider is following us, then."

"Correct." Saber failed to sound enthused about it. "It seems you've made a friend, young Lord. A very clingy one." He raised an eyebrow and posited, "You knew?"

"I can still feel that girl, Maria. She must be trailing us as well." Dirk hummed lightly to himself, shutting out the bustling noises of a city in its daily throes. His eyes closed, and imagined somewhere more peaceful. A meadow, green as an emerald and dappled with white daisies. A perfect place to think. His eyes opened once more. "I think we can lose them."

"Do you, now?" Saber questioned. His master hadn't had, in his opinion, the best track record with these plans. Orihara aimed to prove him wrong.

Dirk scoffed at his companion's doubt. "Watch and learn."

He stepped up his pace, catching up to a tall man a few feet ahead of him. He reached up, tapping his shoulder to grab his attention. "Excuse me, sir. Have you seen a young lady around here? White hair, likely accompanied by two older men?"

The man scratched his chin, wracking his brain for the image. "Er, sorry kid, no. But head a block up, look for the guy with a plaid cap. He knows everybody around these parts, maybe he saw her."

"Thanks." Dirk let the man move on with his day, slowed down and let Saber catch up. The Servant only narrowed his eyes.

"You were lucky, this once. Don't count on luck for everything."

Dirk stopped at a crosswalk, waving his companion along as they darted across the way. "There's no such thing as luck."

* * *

"White hair, white hair... and ya say she was young?" asked the man. Dressed in a plaid cap, a blue polo, and khaki shorts that were far too small on him, the man was no younger than eighty. He relaxed on the street corner in a fold-out chair, watching people pass by with a margarita in hand. Today's was lime green. Presently, Dirk and Saber reclined against the gray wall behind him, tapping their feet as he tried to narrow down their search.

"Yes, young adult," Dirk clarified. The man nodded, sloshing around the liquid half of his drink.

"Hrm, yes, I see... two older men..." He snapped his fingers. "One of 'em look like an old butler-type fella?"

"Yes," Dirk replied with a hint of excitement. He leaned forward from the wall, eager to hear the old man's answer.

"...Ain't seen 'em!"

THUD

Dirk bashed his skull against the wall. Sweet pain to dull the sting of stupid. Saber could only bow his head. "Well, this was pointless..."

"Now hold on, I ain't done yet!" the old man insisted. "I ain't seem 'em today, but sounds like yer talkin' about that fancy rich girl that comes 'round these parts!"

The geezer lifted up a crinkly finger and pointed down the street to the left of him. "More often than not, you can find her 'round those shops down there."

A wave of relief passed through the pair both. Dirk tossed the man twenty yen as they peeled themselves from the wall. A brisk pace carried them off, eager not to lose any more time. Saber gave another wary glare at his Master. "Luck."

"Hardly."

Between a bickering married couple, children attached to their legs. Around a street performer, bashing on some old paint cans to strike out a beat. Straight on through a roving herd of cosplayers, the pair moved, eyes scanning for the white hair to indicate their target. At last, they caught a glimpse of their prize on the street corner. White hair, flanked by a pair of men. Dirk breathed a quiet sigh of relief.

"Good, she hasn't gone home. Lucky us."

"What happened to 'no such thing'?!"

Dirk kept an even pace. Charging headlong down the street was likely to put her on edge. As far as she knew, this meeting was a coincidence. He stopped in his tracks as they came face to face on the street corner, and nodded his head. "Einzbern. Small world."

If Ilene was surprised by the meeting, she failed to show it. And judging by the expectant looks on Lancer and her butler's face, they weren't exactly shocked either. "Mr. Pace, was it? Can't say I expected to see you again."

"Well, the reunion isn't over just yet. I'd suggest we not stay still; we have an... admirer on our tail, as I'm sure Lancer is aware."

"'Our' tail? The last time I checked, my companions and I weren't being followed. At least, we weren't until you tried to head us off."

"So hostile," the boy quietly noted. "Well, whether you like it or not, I'm afraid this has become an 'us'. I think that will work to your advantage, though."

He gestured across the street. "If you'll follow us, I'd like to talk business. Business on how you might acquire some... valuable assets."

Ilene raised an eyebrow, but didn't walk away. "I'm listening. For now."

"Well, let me ask you a question, and let you reason it out. Rider's hounding me quite well at the moment. If he's chasing me across Fuyuki, high and low... who's guarding Clay's sister?"

Ilene stood silent for a moment, before a devious, dangerous grin nearly split her face in two. "I see your point, Mr. Pace. If that's your offer, then I might be able to loan you a little bit in ways of assistance."

"I'm glad you see it my way," Dirk remarked. "I'm going to be leading Rider on a little... chase in a moment. If you double back the way I came, I imagine you'll either find her trying to follow Rider, or still sitting at the diner. And if she is following, she won't be able to keep up for long, at the speeds we'll be going."

He laxly pointed a finger at her, and instructed, "All you need do is cut her off, once Rider's too far to double back. It's minimal effort on your part. Sound like a deal?"

Though she brushed aside the offending digit with an air of annoyance, the girl's words were certainly agreeable enough. "It strikes me as satisfactory, yes. And didn't your mother ever teach you that it's rude to point at strangers?"

"She taught me not to complain when a stranger put a gift in my lap," he teased. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have a Servant to bait."

Dirk crossed the street, Saber by his side, and set his eyes on the alleyway between a drab apartment block and a steel-and-glass office. An old route he'd frequented in his past. As a crowd passed, covering them from onlookers, they slunk into the dark solitude.

Ilene and her entourage went in the opposite direction, looking around for any sign of Maria and Rider.

Back in the alley, Saber groaned in disbelief as he followed his Master. Dirk broke into a run, moving through the narrow passageways. The pair crashed through several trash cans and ducked around a corner. "This is your daring escape plan? We can't outrun Rider like this. Or at all, for that matter."

Dirk just gave a dry chuckle. "Let it play out, Saber. This alley leads us north, into the thickest parts of Shinto. A thousand places to hide there. And if not, we've always got our passage back to the hotel. But I'm not counting on those yet."

The two were in a fairly spacious gap between several brick buildings. The ground was wet, and muddy from melted snow; slush clung to their boots from the recent snowfall. In the corner, a black cat hid itself away in soggy cardboard boxes, tossed to the wayside. Dirk looked in each direction, a smile on his lips. He remembered this place, from when he was a boy. The smell of fresh hot dogs, grilled on the streets on a blistering summer day tantalized his memory. He pointed to a thin slit of an alley to their left. "This way." He led the way, shunting himself through and dashing down the enclosed space. As they shimmied their way through, he explained.

"Rider has two options. Tail us, or protect Maria. If he does the former, one of his Masters will be meeting an unfortunate fate. The latter, and we lose him."

"What if he simply brings Maria with?" Saber asked. Dirk shrugged, dismissive of the thought.

"Doubtful. He doesn't seem the type to burden himself in a fight."

Saber grunted in exasperation. "It's time you stopped underestimating your foes, young Lord," he warned. "I ask once more: what if he does it?"

Dirk paused in his speech, knitting his brow into a frown. "...If he does, I know this city like the back of my hand. I have a few more tricks up my sleeve. I'd rather not waste the resources I'd be wasting, but if he does, I have a foolproof plan."

"I hope so, for your sake..."

They spoke no more, exiting the stifling alleyway and finding themselves at the entrance to a parking garage. Dirk signaled forward. "We'll move through the bottom level."

He held up a hand as Saber prepared to move. "Wait. Kneel."

Saber eyed his Master curiously. But, he did as was requested. Dirk moved behind him and clambered onto his shoulders, wrapping his legs around his waist. Saber's face reddened, and he vainly tried to twist his neck far enough 'round to glare at the boy who would use him for a horse.

"This will be faster," Dirk explained, ignorant to his audacious demands. "Now pick up the pace."

Saber hesitated, but relented. What this war has lowered me to. A glorified steed. He dashed through the parking lot, ducking between cars faster than any human could have ever hoped to run.

13:30 - Marks Manor Basement

Diana took up one of the only clean rags she had left, wiping the sweat off her brow. The forge she stoked roared and crackled, its flames white hot. So hot, in fact, that normal steel could not withstand its fury - the runes adorning the furnace exterior shone with an unearthly red light, straining to keep the metal from warping. Even with the suppression spell she had set up, the heat radiating into the room was getting truly intense. She'd spent the last hour since Maria left stoking and feeding the fire, getting it as hot as her talents would allow.

And it still wasn-t enough. Not even close, as a matter of fact.

But she was a Marks, and a Marks doesn-t give up until their job is done. She still had one trick up her sleeve, and if it didn't work...

'No. It WILL work.' She bit down on her lip, a sense of unease creeping into the pit of her stomach. This would likely be the last chance she would have at making this project a success - or, at least, in time for it to be useful to Clay. Reaching into the bag at her side, she removed a small pouch, the alchemical symbol for fire inscribed on its side. Donning a thick set of blacksmith's gloves, she unzipped the bag and poured its ashen contents into the forge. It gave a terrifying roar in response, the red-white flames turning a deep blue.

'Looks like somebody at Clocktower didn't fudge their results to get published, for once.' The flames now at an acceptable temperature, she reached once more into her satchel and gingerly removed a single stone. It was an ugly black thing, looking akin to half-spent coal, but you wouldn't think so with the delicate way Diana handled it. Holding it in a heavy pair of tempered steel tongs, she took in a deep breath, steadying her nerves. Seven years of research rested on this moment.

Letting her breath go, she carefully placed the stone in the belly of the forge. The tongs in her hand grew red hot in an instant, causing them to smoke against her gloves. She jerked back and dropped them, her eyes still fixated on the furnace.

Five minutes passed. The flames still roared, seemingly unchanged.

Ten minutes.

Twenty.

Finally, after thirty minutes had passed, the furnace went dark, the flames starved for fuel. Diana let out a dejected sigh. 'Another sodding failure.' She turned to leave the soot-caked room with a dejected swagger. 'I guess Dad was right. I really am useless...'

As she opened the door to leave, however, she heard a hiss from the opposite side of the room. It sounded distinctly like pop one hears when a sudden fire starts, except it didn't let up. As though a fire was starting and extinguishing itself over and over. She stood frozen as the hiss subsided... and was replaced by the gentle cracking of a fire.

Dashing to pick up her tongs, she bolted to the furnace, and her breath caught when she peered within. Inside the furnace, amongst the spent coal ash, lay the stone - but burning with a blood red flame. She quickly scooped the stone up in her tongs. The tips of the tool burst into flame on contact, starting to warp and contort. Diana tossed the stone into the ash bed at her side, throwing the tongs into the furnace.

Removing a hammer and chisel from her bag, she positioned it above the smoldering stone and struck off a piece no larger than a small coin. It smoldered with a dark red flame, and the chisel, same as the tongs, burst into flames upon contact. This, too, she discarded into the furnace, her breath coming short and her demeanor giddy. "This is it! I did it!" She silently squealed in celebration. There was only one thing left to do - place it in the lantern.

It sat on the table to her right. To the untrained eye, it appeared to be an ordinary iron and glass lantern, specially hooded to let air in and out in a controlled manner. But at its center stood a small cauldron made of a silvery metal, inscribed with runes not unlike the ones adorning the furnace. As carefully as she could, she used tweezers of magically tempered steel to place the sliver of burning stone into the cauldron. The tool grew red hot at the stone's touch, causing them to hiss against Diana's gloves. The stone placed, she stood back to admire her work, using a rag to wipe soot from her grinning face.

It was finished. Seven years of tireless work, come to fruition. All that was left was present it to the one man alive that could use it best.

*******

Clay hung up the phone and slid it into his pocket. There was no time to waste - he had to get to Shinto immediately. Slinging on his trenchcoat, he dashed to the door.

"Clay! WAIT!"

He stopped at the landing when he heard his younger sister calling. Turning with a puzzled look on his face, he saw her approach wearing a set of thick gloves and a sooty labcoat. "Diana? Wha..." His expression souring, he turned back to leave, annoyance rising in his voice. "I don't have time to help you with your experiments, Diana."

"But... I'm done! And I have something really important to show you!" The urgency in her voice overpowered his better judgment and he stopped, turning back with a sigh. "Very well. What is it you..." His breath caught as he saw Diana produce a lantern from her satchel. It wasn't ornate and it certainly wasn't intimidating, but that wasn't what caught his attention. No, it was the blood red flame glowing in the lamp's center, smoldering with a powerful energy he could feel in his very bones.

Diana walked to his front and presented the lantern, beaming him an excited grin. "And you said it would take decades!"

"Is that what I think it is?" Clay looked at the lantern with awe, his hands trembling as they moved to accept his sister's gift. Diana answered with a self-satisfied nod, not bothering to hide the smugness she felt at accomplishing this task.

As he held the lantern in his hands, Clay could feel his heart beat wildly through his chest. The flame burning at the lantern's center reacted to his touch, growing from a gentle flicker to an intense burn as it traded hands from sister to brother. "This... I can't believe you did it. Diana..." He raised to meet her eyes with a wolfish grin. "You've just forged the most dangerous weapon in all Japan."

He turned to leave, strapping the lantern to his coat, his spirits high. "I rather think I'm going to have fun tonight."

18:00 - Fuyuki City

18:00 - Miyamachou Park

A lone star watched anxiously from the sky. Bitter, agonizing wind drifted between the trees, warning away any with no business. This was not a good night to be in the park. On that night, only one man seemed to disagree. Dirk rested against a thick tree trunk, rubbing his hands together. He let out a hot breath between his palms, watching the misty air quickly blend with the colder atmosphere. He tugged on the ends of his scarf, pulling it just a little tighter. He was beginning to wonder if maybe he'd been the one duped. He certainly hoped not, though then again he sincerely doubted he had been. He'd remembered the look in that Master's eyes as she'd laid down the challenge. Very earnest, very determined.

Very gullible...

He patted up and down the sides of his torso. His long shirt was complemented now by a very long, maroon greatcoat. His hands felt various lumps, assuring him that everything was still in place. On his left index and middle fingers, the light pressure of strings tied to them served as constant reminders. This would have to be done perfectly. And if it wasn't? Well...

He glanced off into the woods surrounding the little clearing he'd found. If things went wrong, he always had the backup plan.


13:40 - Miyama, Wonder Carnival

Hidden in the center of urban district of the eastern half of Fuyuki, Wonder Carnival was not the most comfortable-looking store. A squat, square building with a frontside painted the same blue as the sky, with a gaudy clown face looming over the store's sign. In the windows, miniature cities full of toy citizens going about their strange toy lives could be seen, set up perfectly to lure in entertainment-starved children. And hopefully, parents with plenty of money to burn, and an intense desire to shut up the little brats they were following around.

Dirk glared at the unwelcoming place. After eluding their pursuers, he'd directed Saber to bring them straight here. But now that he was actually here, a pit in his gut told hi not to go in. Not for any fear of safety, but for his dignity. His eyes met the gaze of the clown's. The comical creature's black coal pits burned a tunnel into Dirk's very soul.

"I hate clowns."

Dirk led the way, pushing open the screen glass door. A little bell chimed, alerting any who dared haunt this place of his arrival. It was exactly what an independently-owned toy store would be expected to look like. Literally the exact place that a respectable adult would steer their children away from. Hopeless, dreary gray floors were stained in all manner of snot, spilled juice, and tears from the hundreds of children to step through its entryway. Five depressingly short aisles ran down to the other end of the store, where the cash register waited. A clever trap. To buy anything, you must get so deep into their clutches, you've already lost all chance of escape.

Today, there were no customers. Orihara felt a chill run down his spine. Why did that make this place feel even more detestable? He marched into the middle aisle, confronted by a thousand grummy toys that were old when he was a child. Transformers, Gamera, Kamen Rider... wait, was that Captain Marvelous?

Dirk's advance came to a screeching halt, and his neck craned as he backed up a step to get a second look at the toy he'd just passed. Yes. Yes, that was definitely Gokai Red. Captain Marvelous in all his... marvelousness. Dirk stared for a moment, face blank. The box was immaculate, and possessed a luster like metal. Inside, the plastic figure stoically watched. A silent challenge.

Dirk's hand twitched, slowly raising toward the box...

He shook his head, and his hand shot back down to his side.

I'm here on business.

He turned back and continued walking toward the cash register.

Besides, I don't have any room to carry it around.

The cash register sat on a stark white counter top, behind which sat an unwelcoming metal door to god-knows-where. Said door opened, through which stepped a skinny little shrimp of a man, with a tuft of black hair atop his head and a pencil-like, bent and crooked mustache leaping from his lip. Dressed in a sweater vest and khaki pants, he looked just about right for the type of strange little man to run this store. He nearly jumped from his skin seeing the pair of men before him, and bowed so far only an inch or so separated his forehead and the counter.

"W-welcome to Wonder Carnival, sirs! How may I help you today?"

Dirk shook his head, and smacked a hand on the counter. That got the man's attention, and he jerked back up.

"No games, Sharkey. We want a look at your real stock."

The sniveling little man narrowed his eyes. "Real stock? You're looking at it! I don't know what you're suggesting, but--"

Orihara's hands clenched tightly against the man's shirt and pulled him closer. Their foreheads smacked together, giving Sharkey a very close and personal look at the cold in Dirk's eyes. He whispered, "I said no games. Weapons. explosives. Everything you've got."

"T-this is a toy store!" Sharkey exclaimed. "What kind of twisted freak would tell you I've got weapons in an innocent little toyshop?!"

"Sanosuke Orihara."

A deathly silence swept up the room and its occupants. Sharkey's arms slumped, and his crooked little mouth drooped. Several long moments passed, long enough for deep breaths on both sides.

"...You're the guy then. You're... younger-lookin' than I thought you'd be."

Dirk released him, using just enough force to knock the smaller man off-balance when he stepped back. "Just show me what you have."

"Yeah, yeah. Sure, sure, follow me." Sharkey lifted up a flap on the counter, allowing both Dirk and Saber to pass to his side. He opened the metal door, and led them back into the room behind the store. A gray, dreary place with only a single bluish-white bulb to illuminate its shady dealings. A grimy round poker table sat in the center of the room, with five fold-out chairs situated around it. On the walls, various unmarked boxes sat on rusty metal shelves. Poker cards laid flat on the floor, fused to it by the binding agents of spilled soda, long coagulated. Dirk could feel his boots sticking to the floor and ripping away with each step. Disgusting. Sharkey beckoned to the table, allowing Dirk and Saber to take their seats while he ducked into a corner, pulling up a gunmetal gray lockbox. He was muttering little snippets of complaints as he brought it up to bear.

"...don't know WHERE the old boss expected me to find assassination gear on such short notice, but, did the best I could. Come, come, take a look at this."

He flipped the lockbox open, and gestured with an inviting hand as he brandished its contents for Dirk and Saber. On the left of the case, one dozen cylindrical devices. "M80 Flashbangs," Sharkey helpfully noted. "Set this off in someone's face, and they'll be blind, deaf, and squirming like an infant beneath your boot's heel."

Dirk arched an eyebrow, but remained silent. More ruthless than you look, Sharkey...

He then gestured to a pair of black and yellow boxes attached to pistol grips. "X3 Tasers, top of the line," Sharkey insisted. "Strong enough electrical charge to incapacitate even the biggest, ugliest fuckers you'll ever meet."

"That remains to be seen."

Sharkey was undaunted by Dirk's skepticism, and kept his salesman's grin. "The proof's in the pudding, or whatever that phrase is. You get three shots each before you've gotta reset it. That takes a while, so in a scuffle you should be projecting that you get six shots, max. Make 'em count."

The last part of this care package, as it might be called, was something else. A pair of black devices, that looked like they were meant to have the fingers fed through the four holes at the top, with a grip beneath for the palm. "This," Sharkey said, "is my special gift. These things are shit, retail. I found you the good shit, as a special gift. Only the best for the nephew of One-Stroke Orihara. Try 'em on."

Dirk hesitated for a brief moment, before reaching out and grabbing one of the devices. He slipped it on, feeling a small trigger. Warily, he pressed down on the trigger.

An impressed breath escaped his mouth as a clicking nose, and a bright blue light filled the room.


14:14 - Shinto, Department Store, Men's Clothing Section

"So, thoughts?" Dirk asked rhetorically, spinning on his feet as he examined his choice of clothes in the mirror. "Does my butt look big in this?"

Saber dryly responded, "You look fine. Remind me why you need a new coat?"

The coat in particular was a greatcoat, the only one of its kind in the store. Maroon trimmed a brighter red body, giving a rather bloody look to its wearer. While it fit his body well, it was large and somewhat concealing by its very design. Orihara gave a satisfied nod after one more go-around in the mirror. "Because," he explained. "we won't be making any progress trying to lug around a smorgasbord of weapons by hand. I need something to keep it concealed. This works." He patted the sides of the coat, indicating multiple pockets on both the inside and out. "Do you have the case?"

Saber hefted up the briefcase for his Master to see. Dirk took it from him, and selected several shirts and pairs of pants off the racks before moving into the dressing room. At the moment, all the rooms were vacant. He chose the one at the far end, to minimize the chances of someone walking by and getting nosy when they see a metal lockbox on the floor. He slipped into the room, pulling the door shut behind him. The quiet click announced, to him at least, that the game was afoot. His eyes slyly slipped to the top corner of the dressing room. A benign camera watched for any signs of trouble. Dirk acknowledged its presence with a little smile. An interesting dilemma. How to conceal his actions...

He slipped the coat off, setting it on the bench, then ripped the scarf from his neck, tossing it casually over his shoulder. It draped over the camera, smothering its view. He removed his shirt next, tossing it back and watching out of the corner of his eye as it jumbled up alongside his scarf. Fully shielded from prying eyes, he set to work. He took one of the shirts he'd grabbed and pulled it on. A button-up, long sleeved deal that was primarily white with pink stripes. A little gaudy. But gaudy was nice now and then. He put on the coat next, setting the hefty thing over his frame. I'll need to do this quick. Security will be down shortly to alert me of my "mistake", I imagine...

He set the box up on the bench provided, opening it up and taking one last look over his cargo. He took the knuckles first. Those would be important. He slipped those into the pockets that rested about thigh level. One moment he could be idling, keeping his hands warm, and the next he could be ready for combat with his secret weapons, to boot. Perfect. He took the tasers next, setting them in a pair of discreet locations. Ready to quick-draw. But he wasn't finished yet. The flashbangs went everywhere he could possibly hide them. He could only begin to imagine his misfortune, should something set those grenades off before he'd deployed them properly. That would certainly be nasty. Once he was finished, he closed the lockbox back up. As if on cue, a knock came on the door.

"Sir? Sir, please open up."

Dirk moved to the little door, undoing the latch and opening it up. A hefty man with a toothbrush mustache and an extra chin, wearing a security guard's uniform was standing before him. "Sir, I'm not sure if you've noticed... but you're kind blocking our security camera."

Dirk's eyes followed the meaty, pointing finger of the guard to look at his scarf and shirt completely enveloping the little device in the top corner. His face reddened a little, and he made no delay in snatching his clothes from the spot and bowing before the guard. "T-terribly sorry, sir! I promise, it won't happen again!"

The guard scoffed, smiling at the submissive kid with his eyes fixed firmly on the ground. "Well, ya don't need to get all bleary-eyed on me, just don't do it again!"

"Yes sir!" Dirk accentuated his words by raising up slightly, only to bow even further down this time. The guard gave a quick goodbye and went on about his business, leaving Dirk to collect his things and meet Saber out by the register. The Servant didn't need to mention that this all could have been avoided if he'd done the changing in an alley after they'd left the store. Dirk was likely fully aware of that, and simply didn't care.


15:07 - Shinto, Hardware Store

The entire store seemed to smell of sawdust and linoleum. At least, it did to Dirk. The high ceilings seemed to lend a grandiose atmosphere to the place, even though it really didn't seem to need it. The aisles were long and intimidating, and the shelves massive, going thirty feet up into the air. Lights, fans, lumber, grilling supplies, furniture, rugs, appliances. If anything was needed for your home, you came to this store. At the moment, he was about fifteen aisles down from the entrance, near about the middle of the store, where the aisles broke off for a middle clearing, home to all sorts of model rooms to show off the latest products. A worker far too happy with his job was standing beside him, listing off various features of the model he held in his hand. An electric drill, cordless, and very compact.

"I want to make this clear," Orihara stressed. "The work I'm doing is very heavy duty. You're sure the bit will hold?"

"Oh, absolutely, mister!" The young employee was practically shaking with exuberance. Dirk felt a little sick. It was like he'd found a second Koji, but this Koji had in turn found caffeine. "That bit's the stuff of the gods. Won't find a sturdier set on the market!"

Dirk stared at the device for a moment longer. He nodded, and gestured to the shelf behind him, where several boxes of the thing could be found. "I'll take it. Let's hope this drill is as good as your pitch. Now then. About that aerosol..."


16:20 - Miyama, Satou Convenience Store

A young woman peered behind her vaguely rectangular eyeglasses at Orihara. Her medium-length, blue hair and immaculate uniform gave an image of seriousness. Something that Dirk hardly expected to find in the employee of a convenience store. The mischievous, accusing glare she gave said everything words could have, and more. Dirk, for his part, leered back at her similarly. "I'm eighteen," he bluntly stated. The girl clearly wasn't buying it. He sighed in frustration, defeated, and pulled out his wallet. He flipped through a few cards before removing his ID and handing it to the young woman. "Here."

She looked it over once, then once more, and then just once more, to be sure. Scrutiny was certainly a virtue of this girl. She nodded astutely, handing the ID back, along with his purchase: a pack of cigarettes, some obscenely dark shades, and two lighters. Dirk nodded, more politely than even he would have expected from himself. Though he was a few yen shorter than he'd have liked, the need to improve was weighing heavily on him. He'd need to pull out all the stops if he was to claim a victory tonight. The thought of backing out toyed with him, but he shunted it away.

I've come to far to back out now. This opportunity won't arise again. I'm taking it.

"Have a nice day, sir~!" called the other employee, some bouncy chubby girl with pink hair. Dirk threw up a hand as a parting gesture, walking out the door to find Saber waiting for him. He nodded, and the two of them began strolling down the sidewalk heading west. At the first trash can they passed, Dirk pulled out his carton of cigarettes, removing one and placing it into his pocket. The rest, he tossed.

"Did you get what we need?" he asked of his Servant. Saber produced the required goods. Half a dozen spools of taut, strong wire. Precisely what was asked, precisely what was needed. Dirk felt a little confidence building back up. He'd worried that the Marks girl and her Servant had eaten up too much of their time. But luck seemed to favor the bold today. He had everything he needed now. All the pair had to do was set up. It was a quiet stroll to Miyamachou Park. The cold was beginning to settle in for the long night, and anyone with a little intelligence was hiding out in the coziest, warmest place they could find. This left the park eerily quiet as the sun readied for the final descent. Dirk led Saber out into the park, finding a little clearing that suited their purposes. Isolated enough to stay out of sight, but easy enough to find once somebody started coming their way.

"You're expected to be the fringe guard," Dirk told his companion. "Stay out of sight, and come in once our trap's been sprung. But if at all possible... try and keep an eye on the perimeter before that happens. I can only track the Masters, and if you're right about one being Archer or Caster, they'll likely be further off, trying to get a sneak attack in. I'll be relying on you to make sure that doesn't happen, all right?"

In a sudden motion, Dirk produced a pair of spades. "But that's neither here nor there. For now, help me dig and set all of this up."


18:00

It had been an eventful day, to say the least. Dirk felt a severe craving for another white mocha.

Maybe I'll treat myself after this. I suppose I should force a little down Sir Knight's throat too. How does one live drinking so much tea, and nothing sweet?

He leaned back against the tree, content. His hands slowly felt their way around a pair of little devices in his pocket, waiting for the moment to put them on. He waited for his guests to arrive. "Come on, then, girl. Lady. Show me what you've got."

Mordecai was happy to get out of his apartment, and taste the fresh-ish air of the city. His crossing into Shinto was also easy, or at least less clogged than his trip into Miyama. Mordecai didn't even sense any masters, which was nice. In fairness, he had yet to really sense one up close, and he had no idea if he would even know if he felt the tingle of an approaching enemy, ordering some famous dead spirit to bear down on him with a sword the size of a car. Mordecai thought for a minute, outside a grocery store.
"Are we necromancers?"

"No, just lucky." Mordecai practically jumped, but found he recognized the voice, barely. It seemed less angry than the last time.

"Aidan, or something, right?" The man chuckled, before speaking again.

"Aidan Fraga, at your service... Warren." Aidan bowed deeply, smiling knowingly. Mordecai shook his head, slowly.

"Congratulations, you managed to see through the obviously fake name of your brother. Your new ferrari is behind door number one." Mordecai walked past him, into the store, but Aidan persisted.

"That really was no way to speak to your family, do you really want to leave on that note?"

"More than you know." Regardless, his brother strolled next to him, though you could hardly tell their relationship. Beyond the accent, and the eyes were similar. Aidan wore a higher class suit, without the tie and the first 4 buttons remained unbuttoned. He wore a white dress glove over his left hand, covering a few rune tattoos that improved his strength to herculean levels.

"I've not the faintest why you got all dads neat toys, and I got left out in the cold."

"It's probably because you were an insufferable kiss ass, who thinks following people during their chores is a great way to endear ones self. It isn't, its actually quite creepy." Mordecai took a quick turn, trying to throw the younger off. It didn't work, and Aidan grabbed Mordecai as softly as super strength allowed, which was pretty damn roughly.

"I'm going to just cut to the chase, do you think your E-Bay bought servant can win you a war? The answer is no, so why not have me along for the ride? I already know a few families have their hats thrown into the ring."

"How do you know this, have you been in fuyuki city this whole time?" Aidan shook his head, tutting.

"No, we in the mages Association just have our ways of finding things out." Mordecai sighed, and just walked off to continue buying literally any food that wasn't pizza. His brother continued to try and strike up conversation, but Mordecai ignored him for the most part. His brother grabbed him again when Mordecai was finished, and started waling back to home base.

"Look, going to invite me to help you, or stick with only one ally?" Mordecai gave a few minutes to think.

"Sure, and you can start by proving your worth, I want you to check, and find out where these other big name masters are, and how screwed I'd be in a one on one fight with them." Aidan grinned, in smug victory mostly but also relief, and started walking off, intent on doing this mission.

Aidan went to check out the obvious first, hopping into his car, a nondescript white rental car, he went on his way to check out the mansions, as checking those out for activity was actually possible without a seal. First up, Einzbern.

A decrepit, burned out husk in the middle of the woods. Lovely. The woods around the manor looked to have crept away from the land, leaving a crater around the sad land. The only sign of inhabitants was a soft snoring, from inside the house. A squatter, or was this simply a piss poor illusion? Aidan stepped further towards the house, softly and almost completely without noise. Looking over a charred, semi collapsed wall through what might have once been a window, he looked in.

A sleeping bear? Aidan frowned, hopping over the chest high obstacle, and pulling off his glove. The runes on his knuckles glowed, before he let down a quick punch to the bears skull. A loud CRACK echoed through the woods. Aidan looked around, nobody around. Too bad, was the only place where he could use his identity. Aidan sighed, from here on out it was stealth rather than guile. Aidan went back to his car, popping the trunk and grabbing a suitcase out of it. He went back to the house, opening the suitcase and grabbing his gear. He began taking off his suit.

His gear numbered a black hooded tight jumpsuit, with the left sleeve ripped off, to reveal his runed bandages that covered his arm, though it covered every part but his head. He also had steel toed boots, with padded soles to decrease noise. The whole ensemble was completed with a Guy Fawkes mask, though his feathered hair fell over it slightly on the right side. He smiled, getting back into his car. Next stop was the Marks manor, as it was closest.

This house looked actually alive, which was immediately promising. He viewed it from a distance however, noting it would probably be booby trapped somewhat. Or a lot, depending on how psychotic the master of the house was. He was a damn limey, from what Aidan could remember, so fairly so. Aidan smiled underneath his mask as he got to work.

His job was to see if they were competing, the best way to find out? Draw them out, and see if they had a servant or two lying around. Aidan knew he couldn't fight one head to head for long, but running should be easy enough. Unless it was a rider. then it would be complicated. And fun.

As this was going through his mind, he leaped towards the building at a dizzying speed. 3 bounds was what it took to get to the premises, and another two to jump up to the second story window, and then the roof. Once there, it was as simple as activate the second knuckle rune, and bringing his fist down hard enough to rattle the house. Not enough to break through though. and he punched the ceiling a second time.
"Last one." Aidan muttered, activating his personal favorite. His fist lit ablaze, and he brought his fist down with as much strength as he could, opening a large hole in the roof. And setting it on fire. Lovely!

"Good evening, Gentlemen." Aidan shouted from the top of his lungs, hoping to alert as many people as possible before continuing on his rampage. His smile was wolfish as he kicked another hole in the floor beneath him, dropping him another level.

Aidan dusted himself off as he stood up, standing in a hallway directly underneath the attic. He couldn't help but grin to himself - breaking into the manor was much easier than he thought it would be! The limey jackass in charge hadn't even bothered to trap the manor properly.

Or so it would seem.

It started when he heard a gentle hiss in the background, like a teapot starting to boil. Then came the distinct smell of sulfur, saturating the air around him. His heart started to race - he knew what was coming next. But before he could command his feet to move, the trap sprang, sending a jet of blue flame up from underneath his feet. He braced himself with his protective runes, hoping to hold off the worst the flames could offer...

And... succeeded?

His arms braced in front of his face, he stood on one knee, his face contorted in concentration. His runes strained against the force of the spell but held fast, the hungry flames enveloping his body. 'Well, that wasn't too bad. A decent trap, Marks, but you'll have to do better than that.' He slowly rose to his feet and made a motion to leave the flames.

And then the clatter of chains broke out.

Still distracted by maintaining his runes against the onslaught of magical fire, Aidan was caught completely off-guard. Seeming to arrive from the air itself, they wrapped around his arms and legs and anchored themselves against the wall. As they finished, they tightened their grip and started to give an electric hum. A powerful current shot through his body, winding Aidan and knocking him off his feet.

'Shit. SHIT.' The chains were clearly magical in nature, glowing with a pale blue light and crackling with electricity. They had him completely grappled, locking him inside the still-roaring flames. If he tried to use his runes to escape their grasp, the fire at his feet would no doubt consume him. It seemed Marks had anticipated people would try to shield themselves against traps in a break-in - The chains forced the poor bastard to choose between trying to escape and not being cooked alive.

'Clever bastard, I'll give him that.'

---------------------------------------

Clay continued along the road down towards Shinto. He withdrew a cigarette from his coat pocket and lit it with a snap of his fingers, drawing in a deep breath and savoring the taste. He didn't normally smoke all that much, but he was in a particularly good mood at the moment - Diana's breakthrough couldn't have come at a better time. A celebratory smoke seemed to be in order.

As he took a second draft, however, he felt a ringing in the back of his mind. He froze in place - he knew exactly what that sensation meant, though he hoped he'd never need to put it to use. The manor's prana detectors had gone off, meaning a magus not of the Marks lineage had used a spell near the premises. He promptly turned around and broke into a sprint in the opposite direction, back towards the Marks manor. Reaching into his coat pocket as he did so, he quickly dialed Rider's number and pressed the phone to his ear. "Rider, drop whatever you're doing and return to the manor IMMEDIATELY. An intruder has breached the premises."

Aidan barely had time to note the change in situation from free to getting set on fire. His fire fist rune went offline, overcharged to quickly by the jet of flames, his hand quickly melting away in the additional fire, as it crept its' way up his legs, burning the bandages the runes were on, the ink simply bubbling up, glowing slightly as they evaporated.

It hurt more than anything else he'd felt in his life, though he felt almost nothing before passing out from smoke inhalation. No last quippy thoughts, like he thought he might get, simply blind, unimaginable pain from all directions, followed by melted nerve endings and passing out.

The flames died down and disappeared before going away completely, the chains disappearing after sensing no more prana use, leaving a burned husk, barely alive, breathing haggardly in the corner of the room.

16:00

Assassin was bored. Good god was he bored. This "job" as it was called was terrible. He wandered from house to house delivering pizza he wasn't even allowed to eat! The once robed figure, now in a pizza uniform with a blue hat used a quarter he found on the floor of the store to activate a pay phone. Before the whole competition had started, Mordecai had given him his phone number, now was as good a time as any to call. "Hey, anything going on? Your brother Aiden is what? Yeah...yeah alright...you want me to follow-okay."

From what he had gathered, Aiden was headed toward the bridge right now from the hotel. This gave Assassin plenty of time as walking distance from his current hotel to the bridge would take at least an hour. Considering what Aiden seemed to be doing, it might take him even longer if the boy was avoiding people. Either way, if Aiden did something stupid, Assassin needed a way to make the best of the situation.

Construction workers in Fyuki don't use dynamite. That old explosive was outdated and everyone now used gel explosives. Harmless until gasoline was added, after that, they become sensitive to heat and impact. Assassin was going to rely on this.

Thanks to the wonderful acting of Saber and his master, a construction company was now destroying what remained of the now critical bridge to replace it with something more modern. Assassin rushed over to the bridge at his maximum speed and activated his guise. There wasn't time to change.

When he arrived, the construction area was busy as can be. People were moving things left and right and back left again. Rubble was being broken into smaller pieces and moved out, that was the main reason for the explosives. They had crates of the stuff just laying out in the open and quite honestly, Assassin was disappointed by the lack of challenge. He quietly took two crates of the explosive gel packets and lept off, nobody even noticed that they were gone.

With that, the masked killer rushed to his car. He had about a half hour now before Aiden would reach one of the off bridges. He put the explosives in the truck and ran over to the nearest gas station. Normally, Assassin had small amounts of cash on him, enough to gather rudimentary materials, but gas was pretty expensive now and he needed a lot of it. He gathered a few cans and filled them up. "Sorry Mord, gotta use your card again." He quickly swiped it and rushed out. Fifteen minutes.

Moving through Fyuuki traffic was horrible. Miyamocha was filled with nothing but bystanders and people trying to go through one person bridges into Shinto. He almost let Aiden escape, but allowed his car to slip into the crowd as he followed his master's brother.

18:00

Aiden had made a move over to the Marks's manor. At least, that was what Assassin figured considering his movement patterns. Indeed, the house had reportedly upped security. Assassin was able to confirm this when he made his own screening of the area, learning the location of all the traps Aiden would probably go near. It would be stupid to go in directly from the front, but the back certainly had more traps. None impressed Assassin, they were all low to mid level with a few guarding some doors that could pose a challenge to someone who wasn't Assassin.

This place had to go. Assassin planned to use the explosives as a distraction in case Aiden got in trouble, but now it seemed they would serve their original purpose. He smiled and quickly phased out.

On a nearby hill, Assassin set up his explosives, priming them with gasoline and he carefully moved them to where he needed them. Another crate primed was stuffed in the trunk, it had a small receptor put on it. The crates had like twenty of these, only one was going to be used. Just as expected, Aiden showed up, wrapped up like a mummy in runes.

"Amature." Assassin said, having recently gone through the entire manor's back end scouting out every single trap. "He is going to so get caught." Assassin knew a secret though, Aiden's death wouldn't matter. He then saw it, the bastard had got himself caught in the chain trap. "Why do they always get caught by that one?" He shrugged and figured that whoever owns this place would be home soon.

Assassin smiled and grabbed the first gel pack, he was tempted to play with it a bit but the risk simply wasn't worth it. He threw the bag as hard as he could at the manor, then without thinking he ran to the next bag and did the same until all twenty had been tossed. It was a graceful ordeal, he jumped and landed directly where he needed to, throwing without looking. Aiden would probably be dead soon, but it didn't matter. After thirty seconds, Assassin tossed the last explosive and began moving to a hill.

In a dark, quiet corner of Shinto, one house laid nearly dormant. From the outside, only a faint orange warmth emanating from a second story window hinted that anyone was inside. Following through the window led o the study, a stifling and confined space surrounded by books. Every inch of wall but the door's frame was taken by mahogany shelves, stocked with tomes dating back decades, centuries, millenia. The floor was plush, shaggy green carpeting providing a warm contrast to the stark nature of the knowledge resting upon its long tufts. A single table, made of unpolished oak sat in the center of the room. It was a squat, ugly thing that could bear no scrutiny. Warped and crooked from years of abuse, the thing had no business even standing intact. Yet it was sturdier than even the finest work a master carpenter could create. A stubborn old thing that refused to die.

Half a dozen tomes were laid bare on the table, their pages crinkled and glowing with an orange hue in the candlelight. A single man sat at the crude table, feverishly poring over the books. Shinosuke's eyes darted from page to page, a trembling hand darting to a page every few moments to turn it. He muttered as he read, a deathly whisper carrying the words of old magecraft through the air. His eyes were beginning to blur, strained in the low light, but there was nothing to be done for it. To stop, even for a moment, even to seek a manner of improving his progress? Unthinkable.

"No, too risky. Flashy, attracts bystanders. Not that either. Don't have access to a forge. Need something simple. Basics, fundamentals, building blocks."

A gentle rapping at the door went unanswered. A single louder knock made the door shudder, but Shinosuke still failed to respond. The knob turned, and the door creaked open. Its noise was muffled by the shag carpet. Mira peered in at the disturbing scene, cupping a candlestick of her own in her hands, and cradling a bowl of soup in her arm. She shuffled in, scooting the door closed with her foot and walked behind her husband. She leaned over him, Shinosuke only becoming aware of her presence when a lock of her hair swept in front of his face. His frantic pace chugged down to nothing. He reached up, brushing her hair away and looking up at her. Only a dull surprise registered.

"Hey, bookworm." Her face stretched into a dimpled grin as she set the soup down in Shino's lap. "Don't think you're going a little overboard?"

"No such thing as overboard," he told her, just a tinge of embarrassment at her teasing. "not now anyway."

Mira shuffled down to her knees. The left knee in particular sent waves of pain up her leg. The pain was new, partially. It had been there for years, but not quite so intense. She wasn't quite sure whether to blame it on the weather or age, but silently prayed for the former. She turned her attention to the books sprawled out on the gonk-table, picking up the one closest and flipping through it. "Magecraft. Old magecraft. Any particular reason?"

"Fundamentals," Shinosuke explained. "I haven't fought another magus in... god, I'm not sure I even want to remember." He shook his head, tenderly massaging the right temple with three fingers. "I have my expertise, but it's not exactly combat. If I want to be of any use, I'm going to need to brush up on the basics. Understand the core concepts of magecraft, and understanding its branching pathways becomes that much easier."

"Smart," Mira noted proudly. "But what good will that do when you're too zonked to count your own fingers?"

Her husband grumbled aimlessly, shaking a flopping arm at her. "Not sleepy. Just frustrated. Old magi were a bunch of cryptic old bastards, you know that? Half of these are written in code. The others are just plain-old vague."

"And you think you can crack them?"

Shino scoffed, and his dry lips flashed the smile she became infatuated with all those years ago. "Gimme a little credit, dear. There's not a lock I can't crack... metaphorical or otherwise."

Mira sighed in mock defeat, tutting as she pulled herself up to her feet. "Well, I suppose you've earned a little benefit of the doubt. Still, like hell I'm leaving you to your own insomniac devices. Wait here while I grab some coffee for us, I'll help--wait."

Her eyes zeroed in on an anomaly. Under the flipped cover of a book, trying its best to look inconspicuous on the table, was a simple box. Chocolate-brown wood gilded in silver with a leaf pattern, and a single keyhole on its top. Not to mention the hundred other enchantments and traps, significantly less visible to the naked eye. Her eyebrow rose, and a confused smirk stretched her lips. "You never take that box out. Sudden case of nostalgia?"

Shinosuke bowed his head, shame and intense apology written on his worried features. "I'm sorry, I was going to wait until you were asleep... I've been thinking, and I've decided that if I'm going to be of any use, I need to learn everything there is to know about Dirk's opponents. And..."

Mira's face changed, becoming a little sullen. "And you think the best way to find out, is to go to the Association."

"...Yes."

"Are you sure that's the right thing to do?" Mira asked. There was no judgment in her voice, only concern. "After what they did, I don't think anyone can blame you for holding a grudge."

"It's not about grudges anymore, Mira. My own petty feuds are what got Dirk into this mess. But this way..." He picked up the little lockbox, holding it in his hands, hefting the surprisingly large weight. His fingers caressed the groves and recesses of the aging wood, and traced along the outlines of the little silver leaves. Cold to the touch, but deceptively inviting. "I've got a bargaining chip. I can pay them back, for dragging my son into this feud. I can turn it into a boon, instead of another thing to run from."

He rose, and wrapped his arms tightly around his wife. He drew her close, holding her for a moment, a single illusion of strength. He was taller than his boy, and better built, but even he couldn't match up to Mira's astounding physique. His forehead was just high enough to rest against her shoulder as she wove her fingers through Shino's hair. He was grateful for these little moments. Reflecting on his life, he'd made a lot of mistakes. A lot of bad calls that came back to bite him or his family down the line. But not this one. He couldn't have dreamed of a better wife.

"Still want that coffee?" she cooed. Playful, but still a calculated reminder of what he needed to do next. She wasn't much like Dirk, Shinosuke reckoned, but by god, she wasn't stupid.

"Heh. Yeah, yeah... I think I'll need it after this."


Click

"Mr. Orihara. I can't say this was... expected."

The voice at the end was flanged, disguised. But Shinosuke knew who it was by a lifetime of experience. The distortion was a mocking formality. Orihara was crouched on the roof of his home, knees pulled close to his torso. A cup of white chocolate mocha was clutched in his hand as he watched the stars--rather, what few could be seen this close to Shinto. His free hand idly held a cell phone close to his face.

"You know me and my surprises," he said dryly. "Have to keep you on your toes."

"Even so, I doubt you're calling this line to exchange pleasantries. You do know I could have this line easily traced, correct?"

Shinosuke smiled. "You seem to assume that I care."

"You don't? Certainly a marked change."

"It's not that surprising. There's just nothing left for you to take from me..."

"But?" asked the voice on the other line. They seemed apprehensive. Shinosuke liked that. He was in control.

"But there's something you can still give me."

"What, pray tell, would we possibly give you, Mr. Orihara?"

Shino listed off demands, numbering them on his fingers purely for his own benefit. "I want everything the Association has on the participants of this Holy Grail War. Full dossiers: names, histories, psych profiles, known associates and family. Everything."

The other voice was silent, likely seething over the demands. Shino knew they would do something like that. He hadn't played his trump card yet. Best to sit on it a little while longer, work them up a bit. They were most impressionable at their emotional peaks.

"Certainly an audacious list of demands, Mr. Orihara. Considering your past history with the Association, it's a little... let's call it 'ludicrous' to think we would supply you with such sensitive information. Even our highest agents are only privy to pieces of the knowledge."

A pause. Shinosuke waited. They were deducing the trick underneath his boast. Best to let them figure it out without input from him.

"But you're not one to make demands until you feel you've earned them... are you, Mr. Orihara? What exactly do you have, that could potentially make us reconsider your offer?"

"Oh, that's easy." Shinosuke hefted the precious little box in his hand. "I'd like you to think back a decade or two. Back to the winter of 1983. The city of Debrecen."

A cleverly disguised intake of breath came through from the other end of the line. But Shino caught it all the same.

"You don't mean... the Lazarus Incident was--"

"All me."

Shino felt a light chuckle puff through his chest. He'd never told anyone but Mira the full extent of what happened that bitter winter in Hungary. Crawling through dark, freezing catacombs. Desolate crypts unwelcome towards any but the dead. But the prize, in the end, had been worth it. It wasn't worth much to the average man, but to the Association, the sole remaining key to one of the strongest spirits to ever serve the once and future king was worth quite a lot. It felt invigorating to put it out into the open, to the one person who would most want him dead for it. To the one person who couldn't do a damned thing but kowtow to him now. Strained silence was all Shinosuke got from the other end, but it was over now. He just had to twist the knife a little further.

"Give me what I've demanded, and the Association can have it back."

"And what if we take it back by force?"

"Then I'll be dead. And if you believe there's a mage who can break my seals, you're welcome to put them to the test."

Don't be a blowhard, old pal. No one of the sort exists, and you know it.

"...We'll have someone out to you by tomorrow evening, with the dossiers. You'll be expected to make the switch at the location he designates for you."

"We do it in my home, or no deal."

"..."

"Fine then. No d--"

"Stop. We accept your terms, Mr. Orihara. We... look forward to doing business with you."

The person on the other end hung up. Shinosuke flipped his phone shut, an eager grin on his face. "Oh hell yeah, you do."

He stood up, basking in the chilly night air. The moon smiled down at him from above. Tonight was a night in his favor. He could feel it.

15:53

Sophie pushed herself up from her kneeling position in order to get a better look at her handy work. It had been a long time since she had last drawn a magic circle on a bathroom floor with lipstick, but that really meant she had to be more careful to make sure it was right. On the other hand, it did make clean up a magnitude easier afterward.

"[It really is convenient isn't it?]" She asked idly in German, "[A hotel that you pay for by the hour? I don't even know why they would have such a thing, but I guess I shouldn't complain.]" Sophie finished her inspection and nodded, content that the form was just as needed.

Berserker though did not seem so pleased. He stood outside the door with his arms crossed. "But why did you leave the other woman?" He asked bluntly, ignoring Sophie's focus.

The question made Sophie suddenly go very quiet, her face slightly down turned. "[It seemed like she was still busy shopping. I didn't want to interrupt.]" Her voice was suddenly flat, as though she didn't want to think too much about it.

Berserker shook his head at the obvious lie. "[We ready to fight. And she would probably have fought alongside us. Why leave her behind?]"

Sophie was silent for a long time. She traced the shape of the magic circle with her finger as though checking it again for any error. It was several minutes before she spoke again. "[I'm the one that made the challenge. I have to prove that I can do this on my own. If it doesn't work then I don't want to drag Maria down with me.]" Sophia's voice grew stronger as she spoke. "[If I'm really going to find another way, a better way, of doing this then I can't just throw it on someone else's shoulders. Do you understand? I have to start it. I have to.]"

Sophie's small speech caused him to smile down on her. For the first time since the war had begun the master was beginning to act like a real warrior, if not in action yet at least in spirit. "[I understand.]" He responded wryly "[It is your plan. So of course you go first.]"

"[Yes.]" Sophie said clenching a fist in anticipation. "[And first is that punk from earlier.]"

"[Indeed. This is to do with him then?]" Berseker indicated to the mystic circle.

"[Right.]" Sophie nodded. "[You can see it in his eyes, right? He thinks he's soooo smart.]" Sophie spat the words with a little more venom then she had intended. "[He tried to pull a fast one today, and I think he'll try it again. Well, forewarned is for-warded they say.]" With that Sophie dug into her pocket and pulled a fist sized chunk of dirt out of a surprisingly spacious jacket pocket. Sticking up from the dirt was a slightly battered, but still recognizable flower, it's peddles fallen away due to the winter chill. Sophie took a moment to breath in the scent of the dirt before she carefully set it in the center of the circle. Then reaching into other pockets she extracted other things carefully acquired from the park earlier in the day; a shaving of tree bark, a small chunk of masonry, a bottle of water from a fountain, a scrap of a long forgotten kite. Each of these also were placed in clearly prepared places around the circle.

Now with the settings prepared Sophie settled into a comfortable kneeling posture by the circle and began to breath in a deep rhythmic pattern. "[As above, so gos below.]" She began to chant in a measured way. "[By that gathered here, articles of elsewhere; elements of the whole and void within my self. Gaze upon these here and form the old bond of what they once were. Let this bond be a bridge that my eyes might travel and my mind understand. See the origin of these by my own sight."

With the chant completed Sophie felt the prana she had been building up flow out into the circle and take hold. She closed here eyes for a second and when she opened them again... Sophie wobbled slightly on her knees for a moment; the spell was always a little disorienting when it first took hold. Though Sophie's actual eyes just seemed a little unfocused as she seemed to stare at the bathroom wall, what she actually saw was the entirety of Miyamachou Park layed out before her as though she were a hawk watching over it. Then, with a thought she was instead soaring along one of the footpaths, taking a moment to watch a pair of lovers strolling by. Slowly, casually even, Sophie allowed her consciousness to coast over the park as she looked around it. Of course she wasn't expecting her opponent to be there just yet, but she had to be ready.

...

Sophie was beginning to develop a serious cramp in her legs as she continued to watch over the park in spirit. Most of the normal people had left and for a moment Sophie wondered if her opponent would show up at all. It was a possibility she had considered. It was then that she saw him! It was almost surprisingly easy to spot the boy from the cafe; not too many locals had that sandy shade of hair. Sophie watched as he and another man; almost assuredly the servant; went about their business, evidently without suspicion. "[Hmmm... interesting.]" She muttered "[How like a snake to dig holes.]"

After some time Sophie felt quite satisfied. Releasing the magic she blinked again and once again was staring at the off white walls of the hotel bathroom.

"[All right then. Time to go.]" She said and began to get up. However, she didn't get very far before her legs burned in protest and she fell over onto her side. "[My legs fell asleep.]" She offered sheepishly as Berseker gave her a hand up and held her hand as she massaged some feeling back into her legs. "[That... can happen sometimes.]"

Later, having explained to Berserker what to expect and removing the improvised circle, Sophie paid for the room (getting the strangest look from the attendant) and set out immediately for the showdown.


18:06

Sophie strolled through the park towards where she knew the boy would be; though not without a touch of wandering, it would be bad if she let on what she knew. Berserker walked just behind her and to the left, his eyes scanning every place for his opponent. While Sophie's jacket was closed against the cold night air Berserker had done no such thing, leaving his chest completely bare as his bells rung out with every step.

After a bit Berserker stopped suddenly and brought his focus to bare. Sophie also did so seeing the young man from earlier that day though he now wore an incredibly suspicious long coat. Sophie smirked internally as she crossed her arms and called out.

"Since we never introduced ourselves before, I am Sophie Topfer, master of Berserker." She called in passable, if formal and amateurish Japanese. "Want to name yourself before I kick your but?"

"Want to name yourself before I kick your butt?"

Dirk watched quietly as Sophie and her Servant approached. The belled behemoth was a little shorter than he had expected, but her words confirmed what he'd already suspected. So you're the Master of Berserker, are you Miss Topfer? How fortunate. Didn't think I'd eliminate someone as dangerous as you on the second night.

His left leg, braced against the tree, kicked his body off. He took a step forward, lazily righting himself into an upright stance. His eyes were inscrutable behind his shades; they seemed nearly opaque.

"The name's Dirk Orihara, master of your fate." He grinned, just a little on the malicious side as he observed them. "And you, Miss Topfer, are even more childish than I'd imagined. 'Kick my butt'?"

He tried not to laugh too hard. His free hand came out from his pocket, and he jammed a finger into his ear, wiggling it around about before removing it. "I see you took my advice though," he noted. "Smart move ditching the hag. You were only living on borrowed time with her behind your back."

He leaned back against the tree, letting his head rest against the perfect little indent of bark that he'd found. It was freezing, but it held a little comfort in the chilly night. Like a pillow. A hard, wooden, chilly pillow. He examined his fingers lazily, checking the nails as he rambled. "Then again... maybe it wasn't so smart. You're at a marked disadvantage... not even sure you'd put up a fight, the way the deck's stacked. I prepared for two Masters and their Servants, not a child and her pet."

He pointed her way, glaring at her intently. The piercing gaze could be felt even through his opaque glasses.

"So I'm giving you one chance. Turn around and leave. If you do, I deign to let you live. You stay... and I can't make that promise."

Caster hated bondage. The old man was tied down by some unnamed, unknown, and terribly uncomfortable force to the sofa in the small living room of the apartment. He couldn't speak and he couldn't do a thing. To be more precise, he didn't want to do a thing. The situation was rather tense, but the old man wanted to see what the new figure had to offer.

Maria returned after spending some hours with the distraught Sophie, hoping she could bring her on her side. She opened the apartment door, oblivious to what awaited her inside.

"You're late". A voice greeted Maria as she came in.

Her surroundings started to shift into something foreign. A strange combination of sulfur, ash and salt assaulted her nostrils. The apartment started to shake, and suddenly the floor disappeared from under her feet, forcing her to fall down. The vertigo was too much for her to handle.

"You stole his remains". The voice continued. "You acted selfishly on your own and fled here with a servant, and you thought we wouldn't know?".

Maria felt as if she was about to throw up the lunch she ate together with Sophie. He head was spinning and she could barely keep up with what the figure was saying.

"Pass him onto me, let me represent the family. You could still leave this death match alive".
Caster eyed the two from his position on the sofa. Maria was down on her hands and knees, struggling to breath.

"WHO IS IT?", she managed to speak, and her voice echoed through the apartment.

"Hansen".

Maria gasped for air before she threw up on the floor of the apartment. She tried to stop herself from hyper-ventilating. "No", she answered as calmly as she could.

"I will make it worse for you, Maria". The figure snapped its fingers and heavy banging sounds at the most uncomfortable dissonance bombarded Maria's ears. She tried to keep herself over the puke covered floor with all of her remaining strength.

"Never".

Hansen frowned. He had to get the master's permission to take custody of Caster, or kill her. He couldn't bring himself to kill his own sister.

"The family want to have you killed. You can't win this Maria". He tried to convince her, but she couldn't hear him talk. Instead she heard unbearable screeching and ear-puncturing noises.

"Oh, shit", he mumbled before he snapped his fingers again and removed the noises from the illusion he forced upon Maria. "Just give me your servant and I will win this for us and the clan. Marcus dying was a surprise, but before the elders picked a replacement you were already off with a servant".

"Stop it Hans!". She pleaded her brother. The shadow couldn't bear watching his sister like that, but it had to be done. If he hadn't volunteered to go after her, they would have sent an assassin.

"Please let go, Sis". Hansen slowly decreased the intensity of the illusions as he was watching his sister squirm on the floor. "You have nothing to find here, just come back home. I will carry the burden for you and the family".

"Home?". Maria asked him curiously. "What's this home? A castle in the middle of nowhere, sleeping with dead bodies and decrepit magical servants? You all threw me to the dogs!". She shouted at her brother in agony.

"You can stay with us! The family won't mind. You can go and meet your nephews, and...".

"Where were you when he threw me out?". She screamed at him.

"Let me play for the clan, you can get hurt doing this-".

"I never played for the clan!", Maria exclaimed. She lost her balance and fell to her right. Hansen removed all of the illusions from Maria and rushed to help her up. He bent down on his knees and offered to help her. She pushed him away before forcing down another dose of vomit.

"I play for me ". She tried to catch her breath as her mind returned to the real world. "They betrayed me. I want my life back. I want my youth back. I decide my own fate, not the family and definitely not you!".

"Please, Maria, I can't go back empty handed."

"Why are you afraid of going back empty handed, Hansen? Are you afraid they will exile you to a castle? Afraid they will snatch you away from your wife and children and punish you? ".

"This is better than the TV". Caster commented as he watched the two siblings toss verbal insults at each other.

"I begged them to send me out and not someone else. They... they wanted to kill you."

"If I lose I will have nothing to live for. I will die either way". Maria's body was shaking from the experience earlier. She held on to the end of the sofa and pulled herself up to her feet.

"I... I'm sorry".

"Shut up and help me get the taste of vomit out of my mouth".


Caster was wearing an apron and rubber gloves when he was doing his best in cleaning the mess Maria and Hansen left behind. They retired to Maria's room and left Caster to himself.

I don't want to know what that was... still, I wonder if I will get a new master . Caster wondered while cleaning the puke from the floor.

Hansen threw off his shadows and confronted Maria with his own appearance. He was younger than her by ten years. A small man in stature, but his frame was large and wide.

"What do you mean you want me to help you?". He asked Maria worryingly.

"I can't do this on my own, and I can't let you go". She pleaded for his help.

"They told me to take control of your servant and win this for the clan, not help you. I talked them out of killing you Maria, what am I supposed to do now?". Hansen was clearly upset. He couldn't press more against Maria without seriously hurting her, and he couldn't return empty handed.

"Help me with this. I still want to live, I still want to start a family".

"I... I don't know, Maria".

"Remember the river, Hansen. I am collecting your debt".

Her younger brother was speechless. He couldn't refuse his sister.

"Will you help me?". She asked him.

"Always".


Plans have already been set into motion. Sophie would challenge the boy master in the park, and Maria had it all prepared. Several demons-spawn were already summoned and handed bags of deceit, then placed around the park in various locations. They looked like ordinary people, though they often had to keep their mouths shut. Then there were a few who received bags of prana, for when the time comes.

The dead were buried in the city. There were so many of them from a devastation years ago. They started gathering under the park under the orders of Caster, ready to snap up and return to the earth once more. At least, that was the impression given from the ready wave of summoned creatures gathered just beneath the surface of the park. To win... is to deceive.

Hansen wore his shadows to the show. He too became someone else, hiding in the background and waiting for the showdown to begin. Both Caster and Maria were together, overlooking the incident through the eyes of a demon who climbed up to the tallest building near the park. Maria was nervously smoking a cigarette when Caster approached her.

"The two masters meet. Should we engage?".

"Not yet. I want to see how the two move".

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