Ch. 85 - Decision

The atmosphere in Chaldea was quiet. Robots whirred by in the hallways as people attended to their own tasks or wishes once more. Exhaustion had been a frequent companion of late as the staff had to monitor the ground team's progress as well as continuing with repairs and maintenance throughout the facility, made worse by the constant battles the ground team had been undergoing. Any periods of respite were greatly welcomed, but none of them had any illusions it would be anything but brief.

After all, with such a motley collection of Masters and Servants, that was only to be expected.

Shuffling through the hallways, Roman yawned as he flipped through the papers on his clipboard, blinking his eyes blearily. It had been a very long evening. Even after he was kicked off his workstation after the siege of Massilia had ended, he still had other work to do as he drafted up plans and reports in the director's office (technically it was his office now but he never felt comfortable calling it that). It was also clear that caffeine simply wasn't enough – there was only so much chemical stimulation could do to keep someone awake without risking serious health issues.

Wiping sleep from his eyes, he focused on the report he had written down. The whole situation had been a lot messier than all of them had been expecting, and there was all one very large reason for it: Loki. Ren had reported that they would deal with the Avenger, but he requested the presence of certain people to assist him in handling the matter. Da Vinci and him were to be expected, but the last person wasn't all too surprising either. He just needed to find her was all.

He sighed to himself. The PA system was one of the systems that had been heavily damaged by the bombing and given Chaldea's other methods of intranet communication as well as the smaller number of staff, its priority for repairs was incredibly low. Roman mentally noted to bump up the priority a bit when he next had the opportunity. Searching for people like this would quickly get annoying, after all.

The cafeteria was the first stop. If she wasn't there, then perhaps the library or the simulation room. Stepping in, he glanced around – and to his pleasant surprise, quickly found who he was searching for. Navigating through rows of tables, he eventually came to a stop next to Artoria and Jeanne, both of whom were focused on a game of chess.

"I didn't expect you guys to be playing here," he commented quietly to not unduly disturb them. "Thought you'd be playing in the library."

"We had considered that," Artoria answered without looking up from the board. "However, it seems we are both more accustomed to more… socially open environments than somewhere so quiet and secluded. Especially if there is need for our attention." So saying, she picked up a rook and moved it to capture a pawn, pinning Jeanne's knight unless she wished to lose her queen.

Jeanne bit her lip in consternation as she considered her move before smiling up at the doctor. "It seems we're more accustomed to more open environments like this," she agreed. "It feels like being back among our comrades back in camps." With that, she looked back down, hesitantly picked up her queen to move it out of the way – and huffed in frustration as her vulnerable knight was taken by the king's rook in turn.

The doctor nodded in understanding. "Unfortunately, I don't really want to interrupt your game," Roman interjected. "But, uh, Ren's calling for you, Artoria. It's a serious issue."

The Saber's eyes narrowed. "I see," she mused. She turned to Jeanne who had been watching them curiously. "Forgive me, Jeanne," she apologized. "But we shall have to continue some other time."

Jeanne blinked and shook her head. "No, not at all!" she quickly reassured her with a smile. "Duty calls, after all. It was an enjoyable time, however – we shall have to play again sometime! Though perhaps after I've studied the game a bit more."

Artoria smiled and nodded. "I look forward to it," she replied as she stood up. They left the cafeteria as Jeanne started packing up the pieces and the board, walking down the silent hallways together.

"I didn't know you played chess," Roman eventually commented to break the silence.

"It is a reasonable past time," she replied. "There were other games during my reign, but chess had not been one of them. It is a good way to keep one's mind sharp. But I don't believe that is relevant to the situation on hand, doctor." The Saber glanced over at Roman, her eyes sharp. "What is happening with the expeditionary force?"

Roman blinked, then handed over his clipboard with a serious expression, with the report front and center. "Loki did something in the last battle," he explained as Artoria scanned it. "According to Ren, whatever they did killed off Waver Velvet and completely destabilized Alexander as well as his army. He didn't explain what it was, but he promised he would explain it once he had Loki in custody."

"Which I presume he already has and wishes for my judgement," the Saber concluded with a frown. At this point, she presumed if Ren was keeping things a secret, it was for good reason. Much of the knowledge he had shared with them would be devastating if it became publicly known. And considering it dealt with Loki, who was apparently a pseudo-Servant utilizing the body of Ren's… associate, for lack of a better word, then she could surmise the matter was even further complicated.

She flipped through the clipboard to see if there was more to the report – and blinked with surprise at the documents she saw: Psychological profiles of Ren, Ritsuka, Morgana, and Mash, filled to the brim with notes, observations, and musings. "And what is all this?" she asked in surprise.

Roman glanced over in question and squawked in horror. "Oh crap, I mixed up my work!" he lamented before shooting the papers a rueful look. "Er, it's no big deal. It's just… I was thinking of having some therapy sessions once they come back. With everything they've reported and with what we've seen so far, it probably couldn't hurt. It's a good way to track their state, their progress and… well, bluntly speaking, to make sure they're alright. It's probably only going to get harder as time goes on."

Artoria stared hard at Roman before sighing. "A wise decision," she agreed, taking one last glance at the documents before handing the clipboard back to Roman. "It would not do if something were to adversely affect our Masters or young Mash mentally at such a crucial juncture. However, I must ask if this task isn't too harrowing for you? I believe you are under no small amount of burden as is."

As she asked, she observed the doctor. The man was pale, with bloodshot eyes with heavy bags under them. And with his heavily drooping eyelids, she wouldn't be surprised if he fell asleep then and there. While she had been told that Romani was lazy and a slacker, she found sparse evidence that indicated such traits. Rather, the man always seemed buried in work and had to squirrel in what little rest and relaxation he could.

Roman chuckled ruefully. "A bit," he admitted. "But it's still part of my job description – well, original job, anyway. It'll be fine. I'll be sure to pace myself and give them the best sessions possible. Hopefully it'll help them out."

"I'm sure it will," Artoria replied solemnly. For a brief moment, she wondered how her rule would have gone if she had a similar doctor – or rather, psychiatrist – to help with her knights. She could only sigh to herself as she rid herself of those thoughts. It was pointless to dwell on them. She did what she could with the resources and knowledge she had on hand, no more, and certainly no less. The situation was no different here.

"What about the other staff?" Artoria asked out of curiosity as they rounded a corner. "Are you able to offer similar services?"

The doctor paused, his face growing even paler as he considered the increased workload. "Er, well, I would see what I can do about it," he mumbled. "The Masters and Mash will have priority as they're the field team, but the others can set up sessions on request. Just… have to see when I can work them in…" He trailed off as he contemplated how to deal with other consultations. He couldn't show favoritism by limiting it only to the four, but working as a therapist on top of his duties as acting director and a doctor was asking a lot.

Once more, the bombing revealed yet more staffing issues. He was the only trained medical professional that had survived the bombing, and it was both coincidence and luck that he had also trained to handle mental health as well. Before, Chaldea had hired and trained a great number of medical personnel to handle all sorts of injuries and maladies – considering the nature of their work, their healthcare was almost borderline at the level of a hospital. While even then, priority would be given to the ground teams, medication or medical visits were easily accessible to any of the staff.

But now, it was just him. Even with the reduced staffing, keeping up with everyone's needs and the demands of being the acting director was harrowing, to put it mildly. Mash had shown some interest in medical training but even then, there would only be enough time to train her to be a field medic.

"Your burdens are many, doctor," the Saber noted gravely. "We shall do our utmost to make sure this mission is a success, though I apologize we cannot do more."

Roman blinked in surprise and shook his head fervently. "Oh, not at all!" he quickly replied. "You guys are doing plenty when and where you can already! Honestly, I feel bad asking you guys to do any more." Marie manning the console at times had been a surprising reprieve that allowed him to get more rest than he expected (albeit still not enough) and Artoria researching battle plans and observing the environment with other Servants such as Jeanne and Siegfried had been a major relief off his mind. Not to mention, Martha had been holding regular kickboxing lessons for self-defense, both as exercise and stress relief.

Frankly, summoning so many Servants was breaking no small number of protocols, with the following paperwork and inquiry already giving him a massive headache just thinking about it. But already, they were all indispensable, both for the mission of the Grand Order and for the facility to function properly. So long as they didn't exploit them or treat them poorly, they should be fine.

That being said, he did have to speak to the more conservative magi staff about the matter as well as about Ren and Morgana. Those had been difficult discussions, to put it mildly. At least they were behaving for now.

As they stepped back into the command center, they found Da Vinci there as well, staring at the monitors of Roman's workstation. She looked up as they approached. "Glad you could make it on such short notice, Da Vinci," Roman greeted her with a tired grin.

"A true genius always makes time for affairs that are important," the Uomo Universale proclaimed with a smirk. However, it faded as she took a closer look at the doctor. "Have you been properly resting, Romani?" she asked. "I would ask if you have been spending too much time on your beloved streamer, but I have barely even seen a hint of her these days. How far have you been pushing yourself?"

The doctor blinked, then smiled wearily once more. "There's a lot to do," he admitted. "I can't even watch my beloved Magi Mari much these days. Ah, I miss her, but I can't exactly put off work, right? I'm sure she more than understands."

As he chuckled halfheartedly at the joke, Da Vinci and Artoria shared a worried glance. "Be that as it may, Romani, once we are done here, you must rest," the former insisted. "I will make do for your duties as necessary, but you will get some proper sleep and nutrition. If you make it necessary, I will ensure both measures personally."

"Do it anyway," came a shout from one of the staff in the command center. "I'm sure the doctor would love that!"

The doctor could only splutter as the others all laughed at the sheer audacity of the comment. Despite the seriousness of the situation, even Da Vinci and Artoria both smiled in amusement. "I will be sure to spoil you all you like after this, Romani," the inventor purred to even louder laughter and Roman's incredulous expression. "But perhaps we should focus on the matter at hand."

Roman could only look around him in shock before giving a resigned sigh. It really wasn't his day.

After the gathering, everyone had gotten back to work. While the occasion would've been marked with a celebration and a feast if Nero had her way, there simply wasn't enough time or supplies to do so. Instead, everyone would get extra rations and an extra rest period. It wasn't much, but it was enough to get the exhausted soldiers cheering the emperor's name. Motivated thus, the soldiers and officers returned to their duties, saluting and congratulating the Masters as they passed by. No one questioned them as they walked off to another part of the city, now having more than full confidence in their allies.

And so, no one kept track of them as they gathered in a secluded building well away from the Roman army. A two-story house, it was rather similar to the one Ren had stayed in as his quarters for a time: Fully furnished yet left deserted as their occupants had fled. The upstairs floor had two beds and a table in the middle, most likely for dining or whatever work they had.

At the table was its sole occupant: Loki. Positioned around them was Archer, who occasionally glanced out the window, Medusa standing silently behind them and Tamamo as she checked on the talismans that lined the room to prevent interference from within and without. Meanwhile, Ren had placed his communicator on the table and had set it to hologram mode. Morgana stood on the table as he watched his friend work while Ritsu stood off to the side, grim yet confused as to what was going on. Mash once more stood near her, making sure she was between Ritsu and Loki.

"Well, I must admit, I don't have much of a fondness for parties," Loki drawled as they leaned back in their chair with a smirk. "My… former companions always made them far too loud for my liking. But this is positively dour even for me, especially when I'm the guest of honor. Can't you spare even a bit of consideration here?"

"Be silent, Avenger," Tamamo growled as she shot a glare at Loki, her tail waving in an irritated manner. "You are well aware of what you are here for. At least you did not make our Masters waste a command seal to summon you by force, but do not make this any more difficult for yourself."

Loki scoffed. "Like they would," they waved off. "They're not the type to force someone to do anything – especially with something as absolute as a command seal." They smirked over at Ren. "Isn't that right, Master? Did you even tell them why everyone's here in the first place? How lovely that you can have everyone immediately obey your bidding without questioning it."

Ren sighed, letting the Avenger's barbs pass him by. "Yeah, I'd rather I didn't have to use it," he muttered. "But that doesn't change the fact that this needs to be dealt with. And I gathered everyone here so they can all hear it at once and have the full context of what's going on." As he spoke, he turned on the communicator to a bunch of static. Soon, however, the picture cleared up, showing Artoria sitting front and center. Flanking her on either side were Roman and Da Vinci. "Thanks for showing up on such short notice, guys," Ren said with a smile.

Artoria nodded. "It is to be expected of us," she replied readily. "But if you are turning to me for council about Loki, then the situation must be dire."

"That's one way to put it," Ren grumbled. He looked over at Loki. "Don't suppose you want to tell the whole story?" he asked the trickster god with an exasperated tone.

"I made sure we won," Loki replied simply with a shrug. "Nice, clean, and simple."

"Yeah, if that was the case, we wouldn't be here in the first place," Ritsu growled. "Since Loki prefers getting punched in the face again than actually saying anything, Ren, mind telling us what they did?"

Ren for a moment said nothing, staring down Loki as the Avenger simply stared back, their expression betraying surprisingly nothing: No scorn, amusement, curiosity, or fear. The ball was solely in Ren's court. With a sigh, the Phantom Thief straightened up and looked around the room. "Do you guys remember what I told you about mental shutdowns and psychotic breakdowns?" he asked.

While Medusa made no movement, Archer, Tamamo, and Artoria's eyes narrowed while Roman's, Da Vinci's, Mash's, and Ritsu's eyes widened. "Wait," Ritsu stammered. "You don't mean-"

"I do," Ren answered grimly. With that, he launched into his account of his scuffle with Alexander, particularly as the Rider described what happened to Waver. "From my experience, those are all signs of a shadow being tampered with," he explained. "The fact that Waver still had functionality and turned against Alexander like that meant that it was most likely a psychotic breakdown as opposed to a mental shutdown. And before you guys ask, neither me nor Morgana have the capability to drive shadows berserk like that. No, that capability only belonged to one person."

He turned to Loki who stared up at him impassively. "Goro Akechi," Ren finished.

Artoria frowned as she turned her gaze towards Loki, her eyes sharpening. "Avenger, answer us clearly," she said. "Did you induce a psychotic breakdown on Waver Velvet?"

Loki scoffed as they reclined in their seat and rolled their eyes. "Really, I fail to see what the issue is about the matter when it secured us the victory," they drawled. "After all, the situation was impossible, with both Alexander and Waver opposing us with all their resources at their disposal. I'm surprised we haven't moved on from that, especially after our esteemed Masters have been promoted for this and their other victories."

"Answer the question, Loki," Archer growled, turning briefly to glare at the trickster god before turning back to keep watch.

"And I recall telling you that you need to lighten up," the trickster god huffed. "It's quite easy to exploit a person who is this temperamental and wound up. I should know quite well – I've done so quite often. But I expect you all know that."

"Oh for-!" Ritsu bit back a curse as she raised her arm, her command seals beginning to glow to the shock of Ren, Morgana, and Mash. "Last chance, Loki," she snarled. "Answer the question: Did you induce a psychotic breakdown on Waver. Yes or no?"

With an exasperated sigh, Loki shot a glare at Ritsu, looking very unimpressed with her threat. "Do you really actually need me to spell it out for all of you?" they snapped. "If you're here asking, then you already know the answer. Why are you wasting time with such pointless matters then?"

"Because we want to know for sure, Loki," Ren finally spoke up. His expression was completely unreadable - no signs of anger, sadness, denial, grief, or any emotion. While his face was visible, he might as well have been wearing a mask. "While we have Alexander's word of mouth as well as the accounts of the URE officers, we want confirmation whether it was you or not. I don't want to force it out of you. Please just tell us, Loki, what exactly you did."

Despite his calmness, Ren was doing everything he could to suppress his panic. Every time he blinked, he was back in the interrogation room. His Servants were replaced by the cruel SIU agents who thought nothing more of treating a human life as expendable so long as they got what they needed. And where Loki sat, he could still see himself – handcuffed, bruised and battered, barely able to think straight with the bout of truth serum or whatever chemical cocktail they injected into his veins.

Then he blinked again, and he was back in the house. Loki was sitting there, hale and whole, and even looked dismissive about the whole ordeal. The Servants around him were keeping their focus on the Avenger and not on him. And with him was Morgana, standing at the table with his paws crossed, and right behind him were both Ritsu and Mash, all of whom would have his back at any second.

As he homed in on those thoughts, he steadied himself. What happened before wasn't relevant right now. What needed to be dealt with was Loki. He needed to focus.

Loki stared at Ren, their expression matching his. After a brief standoff, they sighed and raised their hands in resignation. "Fine, you win," they drawled. "Yes, I did induce a psychotic breakdown on their strategist, Waver Velvet. And I also poisoned a number of their officers by mixing belladonna berries into their food. Their ends weren't quick or easy – enough to demoralize the other officers that I didn't get to. All in all, I say it went pretty well – they ended up acting like absolute idiots and lost a battle they should've won. Done and dusted, I say."

"I believe we have greatly different definitions of 'done and dusted'," Archer interjected as his steel-grey eyes focused on Loki. "Even a quick glance shows no small amount of collateral damage to the city and to the Roman forces. Much of the supplies have been used or destroyed, and because they threw everything at us, we weren't even able to salvage anything worthwhile from the URE forces."

"Not even decent officers," Morgana snapped. "They're terrified of us now, and especially of you! They'd sooner choose execution than fight with us!"

"All the better," Loki casually stated, looking at their nails. "You can't trust a traitor, not easily. They betray you once, they'll betray you again. You just need to know what buttons to hit for them."

The atmosphere in the room suddenly got even tenser as everyone glared even more harshly at the seemingly uncaring trickster god. It was clear that that statement hit a sensitive spot for the Servants present. Even Morgana bristled at it, made even worse that Loki was speaking with a female Goro Akechi's body. Ren remained impassive as he did before as Ritsu and Mash both observed the situation, the former coolly and the latter with increasing alarm.

"Enough," Artoria boomed. "We are getting distracted. We shall address your attitude later, Loki. For now, there are other matters at hand."

And just like that, the atmosphere cooled off slightly, though even at a glance, it was clear Archer, Medusa, and Tamamo were irritated. "Now, if I have read these reports and surveyed the situation correctly," the Saber summarized. "This siege was a dire situation. While I know of Waver Velvet, any knowledge I have is irrelevant at this point. It seems, if he is a pseudo-Servant, he was bonded with a rather adept strategist. Thus, as repugnant as it may seem, there is no denying that you are the one who secured the victory. That cannot be mistaken."

Ren glanced over at Artoria but didn't comment. Loki in turn smirked in self-satisfaction. Even with how irritated everyone was, none of them argued that point. It was true – if Loki hadn't done what they did, then they all would've lost completely and utterly. Thus, as ugly and brutal as it was, they did owe Loki for this victory at the very least. And judging from that smirk, Loki knew it.

"However," the king continued, once more seizing everyone's attention. "There are certain points that need to be addressed. First off, you drove Waver into a psychotic breakdown and had him attack Alexander, correct? If that is the case, why was Alexander not killed? Even if Waver had failed in his madness, you could've easily stepped in and eliminated him when he was weary and emotionally compromised."

That caused everyone to look at Loki. The Avenger sighed in exasperation. "Okay, fine, I'll admit, I got sloppy there," they drawled. "I should've checked if he managed to actually kill Alexander then and there. It was my fault for not following it up properly. We all make mistakes, right?"

The Phantom Thief frowned. "That's not all it is, is there?" he asked quietly before anyone could retort, his eyes boring into Loki as the latter froze. "What's the real reason you didn't finish off Alexander, Loki?"

Loki didn't say anything, their expression once more impassive. Then they heaved a long sigh. "They believed it was alright to attack you directly, Master," they murmured. "The plot to assassinate you may have come from those Roman officers, but it was Alexander and Waver who put the thought in their minds. Do you believe I could let them get away with a quick and easy fate? No. I thought some suffering on their part would be considerable recompense on their part."

That drew a shocked silence from everyone – though in the case of the Servants, it was also tinged with exasperation. Ren wasn't sure what to make of it. Loki had done what they did as a form of… revenge? On his behalf? This wasn't the first time someone stepped up and fought on his behalf, but to take revenge and in such a heinous manner? Frankly, he would have preferred it if it hadn't happened at all.

"And what of the officers?" Archer added as he glanced over once more. "Jing Ke was prevented from dealing with them because of Waver's defenses. If he was killed by Alexander, it would've been a simple matter to join up with her and clean up. As capable as the boy conqueror was, even he would not be able to effectively command almost twenty thousand mindless automatons by himself."

The trickster god opened their mouth, closed it, then sighed. "Okay, that one honestly slipped my mind," they bluntly admitted. "I was busy with everything else and admiring my good work afterward – can you honestly blame me for losing track?"

"Wha- yes! Yes, we can!" Roman spluttered as he came closer to the monitor while Artoria leaned away from him with a raised eyebrow. "You don't just-just 'forget' something so important or have it 'slip your mind'! The Roman forces and Ren nearly got into a hell of a lot of trouble because of it! We could've easily lost horribly with all the loose ends you've left! What the hell were you thinking, Loki?!"

"Fine, fine, that one I apologize for,"Loki replied, holding their hands up in surrender. "I'll be careful not to be so sloppy about that in the future. And plus, I was the one who ultimately dealt with Alexander and helped in dealing with the officers on my end during the battle, so I at least tried to clean up after myself. So, now that that's done, can we consider the matter squared away?"

"We cannot," Artoria sternly replied, shutting down the Avenger's weaseling as Roman backed off to allow her full focus. "Your actions may have resolved the siege in our favor, but it is at best a pyrrhic victory. The casualties and collateral damage have been outstanding, and we have achieved only the minimum in terms of long-term objectives. All of this could've easily been prevented if you had spared an iota of thought for what you have done. Your methods may have been unsavory by themselves but coupled with the sheer sloppiness of your acts and they become utterly reprehensible."

"Not to mention, this ability you have is far too dangerous," Tamamo spoke up, glaring at the Avenger. "A skill that allows you to drive a target to madness that you can use at any time, without repercussions to you and yours, letting you sow discord how and when you see fit? You did not tell us you had this ability, not until now, and you expect us to trust you with it?"

"Oh please, you all have abilities just as dangerous as what I can do, if not more so," Loki growled back as they shot an irritated glare at the Caster. "If that's the case, I could frankly ask you all the same question. But if it puts your paranoid minds at ease, there's drawbacks. First off, I need to be close to the target in question – close enough where they can easily skewer me if they're aware of my position. And second, frankly, I don't like to use it. This was most likely a one-time act. I don't plan on using it again anytime soon."

"And why not?" Archer asked, frowning. "Why should we believe you won't use it again?"

Loki sighed dramatically. "Because it's boring!" they cried, startling everyone. "Driving someone to madness with a snap of one's fingers? Where's the effort, the art, the panache? It's like rushing straight for the climax after skipping the beginning and the buildup! It's asinine! It's only because of circumstances that I decided to use it. Frankly, if I never have to use it again, it would be too soon!"

The trickster god's whining drew exasperated, tired sighs from everyone in the room – except for Ren, who simply stared at the Avenger. He didn't doubt what Loki said was the truth, but that was just it. They told them A truth. He had a feeling there were other reasons why Loki didn't want to use Call of Chaos more often, even though it was obvious they had all the tools needed to utilize it how they wished.

Their eyes met, and Loki's gaze narrowed before turning away. That was clear enough of a signal: They weren't about to tell, and frankly Ren didn't want to rip the knowledge out of them if they didn't want to. So long as they didn't use it again, or at least, not without heavy discussion.

"Regardless, it is clear that bluntly speaking, we do not trust you, Loki," Artoria spoke once more. "And as it stands, you are currently a liability. I am of the opinion that you are to be sent back to Chaldea as soon as possible and another Servant sent in your place. We shall decide what must be done with you once the singularity is resolved."

"Agreed," Archer grunted. "Even the dog would be far more reliable than Avenger."

"As do I," Tamamo added in.

Medusa said nothing, but the fact she said nothing against her fellow Servants announced her own stance quite clearly.

Morgana turned to Ren. "What do you think of all this, Joker?" he asked. "Personally, I'm with them – with everything they've done and can do, who knows that they'll do next? It's simply way too risky."

Ren frowned, pondering their arguments, then turned to Ritsu and Mash. "What about you guys?" he asked quietly.

Ritsu scowled, glaring at Loki. "What Loki needs right now is another sock in the goddamn face," she snarled before taking a deep breath to calm herself. "But honestly… I don't think they should be sent back. At least, not right now."

That caught everyone by surprise. "And why do you believe that, ragazza?" asked Da Vinci as she leaned into the frame, eyeing Ritsu curiously.

The redheaded Master winced slightly as everyone turned their attention to her before regaining her composure. "Loki's abilities are frankly strange even by Servant standards," she explained. "They can utilize many of the same tools both Ren and Morgana have, and in an effective manner. Even Jing Ke couldn't infiltrate Waver's defenses while Loki easily slipped in. We're about to lay siege to the URE capital. Frankly, an infiltrator of Loki's caliber may be what's needed to clinch the win."

She shot another glare at Loki. "Honestly, they're a complete pain in the ass," she concluded. "However, it's clear they've only worked for our benefit. I think at the very least, we can trust that."

Loki said nothing but merely stared at Ritsu with yet another unreadable expression on their face. Was it surprise? Awe? Pity? Ren frankly couldn't figure it out. In the meantime, he glanced at Mash. "And Mash?" he asked. "What about you?"

The shielder blinked in surprise, then frowned slightly in thought. Instead of directly answering him, she slowly walked toward Loki, her purple eyes steadily meeting their now curious auburn ones. "Is what you said correct?" she asked the Avenger. "Did you do this for Chaldea's best interests? Was it because it would help us win? Or…" She hesitated for a second, then she finished.

"Or was it… because you failed to protect Ren-senpai?"

She was immediately answered with an intense glare from Loki, their eyes glittering red with rage: the only greatest sign of expression from the trickster god since they brought them into the house. The shielder started in surprise as Ren immediately moved between her and the Avenger, his arm thrown out protectively, Archer summoned his dual swords, Tamamo prepared her talismans, and Medusa was instantly right behind them, her spikes at their neck.

For a moment, nobody moved or even dared to breathe. Then finally, Loki chuckled, relaxing. "You are certainly filled with peculiar thoughts, Mash Kyrielight," Loki replied, their eyes settling back to their auburn coloration as they settled back into their chair. "Your social conduct needs a touch of work though – presumptuous statements like that could get one killed depending on circumstances. With that being said, I must say you are quite commendable. Bravo to you." They smirked at the shielder, seemingly disregarding they had been only an inch away from getting killed on the spot for their anger.

The Phantom Thief glanced back at Mash. "Are you alright?" he asked concernedly.

Mash blinked in surprise, then nodded. "I'm alright, Ren-senpai, thank you," she replied. "And… I don't think we should send Loki back either, senpai."

Ren blinked. "And why's that?" he asked, mirroring the surprise of everyone else.

The shielder hesitated. "I... I think Loki deserves another chance," she replied. "They were doing what they could, and they can make up for any mistakes they may have made." Loki scoffed loudly in the back, causing Mash to wince slightly. "But if we send them back, then they won't be able to make up for it and can only ruminate. I don't think that will be very productive for them, senpai."

Considering, Ren turned back to the others. They were all looking at him to make the final call. After all, he had been the one to bring Loki into the singularity. It was his word. And it would be his word that would decide what would happen to Loki here. He weighed out the words of his Servants and his peers, quietly considering. Then finally, he spoke.

"Loki screwed up," Ren said calmly. "They went rampant and left way too many holes that can be excused. Honestly, the whole battle could have been avoided if they had been thorough with their work."

Loki rolled his eyes, but Ren wasn't finished. "However, it wasn't just Loki's fault," he continued. "I should've kept a closer eye on them and their capabilities. Their skills and abilities are supposed to be known to me, and I still let them get away with as much as they did. This is as much my responsibility as it is theirs."

"I agree with both Ritsu and Mash, however," he noted, nodding at the two of them. "Their capabilities are too useful to pass up with a siege coming up on our end as the attackers, and Loki deserves a chance to make up for their mistakes. Because of that, Loki will remain on the ground team here. However, there will be conditions."

He held up two fingers. "The first is that Loki will not enter the Metaverse under any circumstance without my, Morgana's, or Ritsuka's permission," he declared. "If they try to do so, either me or Morgana will know about it. If they do have to enter the Metaverse, they will notify us for how long, what they're doing, and where they will reappear. That way, we can coordinate and work with them as necessary and so we're not all caught by surprise."

"The second is that Loki remains in sight of us at all times," he continued. "Or at absolute minimum at a range where we can mentally contact you and can see you within seconds of being told your location. Roman, Da Vinci, can you guys set a specific tracker on Loki?"

"Already done, ragazzo," Da Vinci chirped. "I had a feeling this was going to happen after this fiasco, so I quickly whipped up a tracker. Now Chaldea will be able to track their movements no matter what. And if they happen to vanish-"

"It means they dipped into the Metaverse," Morgana finished for her. "Nice going, Da Vinci!"

"Only to be expected of a genius," Da Vinci purred.

"This is all well and good," Loki scoffed. "But precisely what makes you think I'll follow anything you say? You didn't even use a single command seal for your orders. I can easily just vanish right now and you wouldn't be able to do anything about it."

Ren nodded in agreement. "You're right," he replied. "But you won't. Because you don't want to be sent back to Chaldea."

Loki cocked his head to the side in curiosity and challenge. "And how do you figure that?" they inquired.

Ren smirked. "Because you're already here," he pointed out. "You've already participated in so many battles, and even pulled out your trump cards for this siege. Like you said, you don't want to be bored. I can't think of anything worse for you than sitting in Chaldea on your thumbs while we come up to the climactic conclusion of this singularity, where all our efforts, yours and mine, coalesce into a single point. And I'm sure that thought agonizes you."

The Phantom Thief's words had a profound effect as the smirk from the trickster god dropped into a frown of consternation. "Oh, you are a bastard, aren't you," they hissed. "Taking away the main reason for my summoning. Clever, Ren Amamiya. Very clever. And dangerous"

"Your host body was of the same opinion with most of what I did," Ren agreed. "So what do you think, Loki? Do we have an agreement?"

Frowning, the Avenger considered. Then they reared up and laughed uproariously. "Fine, fine!" they cried. "I know when I'm beat! At the very least I'd rather not miss out on the stunning conclusion this singularity is building up to! I'll agree to your conditions, Ren Amamiya. You have my word on that."

"Your word is not worth much, Avenger," Artoria growled.

"Perhaps not," Loki agreed. "But my desire for entertainment is. So long as that is sated, I see no reason to disobey. I believe we have a deal, Ren Amamiya."

Ren nodded. The matter now settled, he felt a huge weight leave his shoulders. "Alright," he concluded. "We should all get some rest. It's been a very long day, and we've only got longer ones ahead. Great work, guys. Artoria, thanks so much for the help."

"Of course, Master," the Saber replied. "I will not deny I have my misgivings about this, but I will trust your judgment. May fortune favor you in the path to come."

The Phantom Thief chuckled. "Thanks," he replied. "I'll need it." With that, the communication cut off as Ren picked back up the communicator and secured it to his wrist.

"Ugh, I don't know about you guys, but I'm famished," Ritsu grumbled. "Let's get some dinner, Mash. Ren."

"Y-yes, Ritsu-senpai!" Mash replied and followed Ritsu as she stumbled out. Ren gave one last look at Loki, who merely smirked and flashed him a wave – to the annoyance of the other Servants who hadn't moved from their spots despite everything – before following the girls.

The shadows grew long as the sun set in Massilia.